The world as we know it is coming to an end!
That was the cry of many people across our region just earlier this month. The news was not altogether unexpected, and some had been reluctantly anticipating a change for years, but it was still hard to comprehend that such an illustrious era was in its final days. When it was officially made public, a mixture of shock and respectful thanksgiving flowed throughout the land, followed by substantial worry about what would lie ahead: Frank Beamer had announced his retirement.
The world as we know it is coming to an end! That, too, is the underlying subtext of the debate we are now treated to every November when the supposed “War on Christmas” heats up. Whether it involves the decorations on coffee cups or the political correctness of seasonal greetings, or the placement of nativity scenes on public property, the discussion about Christmas’s place in current culture is really about mourning the loss of privileged status. For decades the Church held a prominence in American culture that seemed to go uncontested. As people in society become less apt to identify with a particular religion, as many congregations continue decline in membership and vitality, those of Christian faith start to feel as if some kind of world is ending...and so we argue about Christmas. There is substantial worry about what lies ahead, for sure, and an anxiety as we shift and adjust to the demands of a new time.
The world as we know it is coming to an end! There were already plenty of examples in the news about how the world order is creaking and straining under the rise of religious extremism, but sadly at least two more were added (that we heard about) in the last three days. Deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris, carried out by the extremist group ISIS, have left hundreds dead and injured. Hundreds of thousands of refugees who are fleeing similar acts that happen every day in Syria and northern Iraq stand stranded at the borders of Europe and other countries. Millions more across the world, filled with anxiety about issues of security are wondering, if not exactly with these precise words, “Is the world as we know it coming to an end?”
|A reconstructed model of the temple at the time of Jesus|
It is helpful in times like these to pause for a moment and realize that these are not the first times this question has been wondered, and we are far from the first to ask it. Jesus himself gave warning to his disciples as they marveled at the structure and size of the Temple in Jerusalem that they, too, would live through times when it would feel the world was coming to an end. There would be wars and rumors of wars and a type of pandemonium would ensue. Even the Temple in Jerusalem would be torn down.
When Jesus says this to his disciples, they must have thought he was exaggerating. The Temple in Jerusalem was humongous. It was very likely the largest main-made structure his country-bumpkin disciples had ever seen. In fact, Herod’s newly-renovated and expanded masterpiece might well have been considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. And the Temple did not just loom large physically. It was near and dear to the hearts of many. Because the Jewish people understood the Temple to be the place on earth where God actually dwelt, it was revered emotionally and spiritually. Although it had already fallen once, back in the days when the Babylonian army rolled through, to hear Jesus say that it would fall one day was still unimaginable. The stones, themselves, were too large to imagine as crumbled. If it happened, it would mean God would have nowhere left to dwell. And that could only mean that the world as they knew it was ending.
As Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple sink in, the group of disciples walks over to the Mount of Olives and we hear in their questions to Jesus some of the most commons human responses that arise from terror and anxiety and concern that our sense of security is under attack. For example, Peter, James, John and Andrew immediately want to know when it will all occur. Being able to pinpoint an exact time and map out a precise schedule for how events will unfold does a lot to calm fears. Isn’t that true about everything—What’s the semester going to bring? When will I meet my future spouse? When will the doctors know the results of the latest scan? If Jesus himself is suggesting that the times will become turbulent, we can understand the disciples’ desire to have some details.
|The Fall of the Jerusalem Temple (Francesco Hayez)|
The second thing the disciples wonder as they sit back overlooking the Temple is what the specific signs will be. This is crucial, for if you aren’t able to know the specific time that things will change, then the second best is to know what to see in order to anticipate living differently. Or—as in the case of certain military groups that have an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world ideology—if you are privy to the precise signs, you can lead people astray and attempt to manipulate world events and cause terror in order to bring about the signs that supposedly indicate a change in your favor.
It’s all puzzling stuff, and I don’t know what you’ve noticed, but I’ve found, generally-speaking, that peoples and groups that have relative power don’t like to talk about these topics as much. Maybe they consider the “end-of-the-world” scenarios passé or too Hollywood-y. Then again, if the times at hand benefit their well-being, overall, it would stand to reason that they really wouldn’t look for things to change, or they’d pooh-pooh people who clamor for it. Apocalyptic literature generally arises out of communities that are suffering mass oppression, those who look around them and see no hope and realize God is going to have to take charge from outside the system.
What we should really find interesting here, however—at least I do—is that Jesus does not give them direct answers to either of their questions. His concern with the fall of the Temple and the vague mention of conflict is less with when and what precisely will happen and more about how faithful people should live. Because the truth of the matter is that the world as we know it has been coming to an end ever since that first Good Friday, when we saw the depth of God’s love for the world. The truth of the matter is that although the Temple would fall, God has already decided to take up residence elsewhere: in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And again through the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful on earth. Because of the cross of Jesus, we live in God’s new age, and death, as terrifying as it can be, does not have the final word. It is a new age, and evil, as often as it rattles its weapons and straps on its bomb vests, will not ultimately triumph.
The only clear instructions Jesus gives his disciples as they wonder and worry about the new times at hand is this: “Do not be led astray” and “Do not be alarmed.” As God’s people, our focus should not be on attempting to figure out precisely what is going to happen in the years ahead and more with wondering how we can respond to whatever happens in a Christlike way. As followers of Crucified and Risen One, our energies are better spent by serving our neighbor and taking part in the suffering of the world that with interpreting events and signs in order to see if they fit in some broad symbolic pattern or code.
For a few, this call to remain unafraid and to involve ourselves in the world’s struggles will involve high profile acts of courage and even martyrdom. One example people like to remember is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in World War II. He spoke out against the Nazi regime and got involved in a plot to take down Hitler, but was caught and then imprisoned in a concentration camp. You can hear his strong confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s goodness in the words of our Hymn of the Day today, which he wrote just months before he was executed.
For others this calm fearlessness looks like taking part in large demonstrations of peaceful solidarity in support of others, a powerful example of which we saw on Friday night after the attacks in Paris. In spite of their grief, large numbers of crowds poured onto the streets in the dark, holding up simply-worded signs that Jesus himself might have written, each letter illuminating the night: NOT AFRAID.
For most of us, though, I imagine heeding Jesus’ words to not be afraid in world where Jesus’ grace is on the advance will look like small but no less meaningful sacrifices of time and talent that benefit our neighbors. It will look, I believe, like some of our HHOPE pantry and Vacation Bible School volunteers this summer. After learning through their outreach efforts that our congregation is immediately surrounded by several immigrant and underserved families, they developed a plan to invite them and then transport them to Vacation Bible School this past July. They translated our VBS promotional materials into Spanish and distributed them with the food. Then Cecil Baecher and one of our college youth drove the church van and picked up three neighborhood kids every day. At first the young children were apprehensive to join in, but by mid-week they were practically running out of their houses and jumping in the van. That following Saturday, when VBS had ended, one family drove in to pick up food at the pantry. The child in the car was upset that they weren’t coming to Bible School, but when he saw Cecil standing out directing traffic he exclaimed to his mom, “Look! There’s my friend! See? He’s waiting for me to come inside!”
NOT AFRAID…neither driver nor child.
Not afraid to reach out and form new friendships.
Not afraid to live into a new age of hope and promise under the guidance of a Risen Savior.
The writer to the Hebrews offers some direction this morning, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The world as we know it is coming to an end, God dwells even now with God’s people, and will bring everything—ev-er-y-thing—to a glorious conclusion.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.