Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Joy of Being Mortal

Text: Mark 13

A stock figure in cartoons and jokes is the fanatic who carries around a sign that says “Repent! the end of the world is at hand.” Like many of you, I grew up Baptist, and when I hear or read this kind of warning about the end of the world, I smile but also feel a tiny twinge of fear. What if the fundamentalists and Pentecostals are right? I wonder. What if this really is the world’s last day or night? What will be God’s judgment on my life? Too little love and too much anger... too little service and too much self-aggrandizement.

The first century like the twenty first is a time of intense apocalyptic expectations. And the NT reflects the intense apocalyptic expectations of its time. In other words, first century Jews and Christians believed that the end of the world really was about to come to a crashing halt and that God would judge between the righteous and the sinful.

Today’s gospel reading reflects the intense apocalypticism of the first century. Jesus borrowed the language of the book of the prophet Daniel and spoke of the “desolating sacrilege” being set up in the Temple. The “desolating sacrilege” was code for the desecration of the Temple by the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV who had a pig slaughtered on the temple’s high altar and offered to the pagan deity Zeus.

What are we to make of the speculation that these might be the so-called “last days.” That we in our own day as Paul in his day, should be alert to the possibility that at any moment God might bring down the curtain on this weary old world.

First, let’s separate the core message of apocalypticism from the symbolism that surrounds it. Apocalypticism is the belief that the world is about to come to an end and that there will be a final battle between good and evil. One feature of apocalyptic literature is that it is highly symbolic. It has to be symbolic because it speaks of realities that none of us have ever experienced. So, Jesus was employing symbolic or metaphorical language when he spoke of the stars falling from the heavens or of the householder who will not even have enough time to rush back in side and collect his or her most valuable possessions,

Will the stars fall from the heavens? Of course not, but that does not affect the central message of apocalypticism, and that message is that this world and everything in it is finite. The world had a beginning and will have an end. Just as surely as you and I were born and will one day die, the same thing is true of the world around us.

A grim thought, you say? Something that will keep us up late or make us toss and turn? Well, it should certainly make us thoughtful, but it need not make us depressed, because the world doesn’t just flicker out like a candle. Rather, the message of apocalypticism is that the God who created the world will also be there at the end bringing creation to its conclusion. In creating the world, God declared it to be very good. What we have done with the world God gave us is anything but good, but surely the God who created the world and declared it to be good will deal graciously with the world.

Fundamentalists seem to believe that the core message of apocalypticism is “Jesus is coming again soon… and boy, is he mad!” But I do not believe that that is the message of the NT. The God who will bring creation to its conclusion not only loved creation and declared it to be good but also revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a God who loved creation and his creatures so much that he entered into creation and became a creature. The God we have come to know in Jesus is a God who loves us even when we fall, who gives us second and third and fourth chances. The God who took human form in Jesus is not a “gotcha” God, who jumps out and yells “Gotcha!” whenever we commit the slightest transgression. The God I have come to know in Christ is a God who is always there to support us, who weeps with us when we acknowledge our failings and gives us strength to try again.

Remember that God does not simply judge the world; God also redeems the world. I believe that the message of apocalypticism is that when the world finally comes to an end, God will lovingly gather the pieces and built a new heaven and a new earth, in which all the sadness and pain of the old creation will have no place.

A second message of Christian apocalypticism is that we need to remain somewhat lightly connected to or invested in the institutions and structures of this world. To be sure, God wants us to be good citizens, to work for the well-being of this world and all that is in it. However, the core message of apocalypticism is not just that the world is finite but that everything in the world is finite. Or as the Book of Revelation puts it, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of God and his Christ.” In other words, no human kingdom will last forever, and that is as true of the United States as it was of the Roman Empire. I do not doubt for a minute that the U.S. a great force for good in the world. The U.S. promotes freedom and human rights among the family of nations, and often does so even when it is not in its best interests to do so. And yet apocalyptic literature warns us not to set up any earthly institution as an object of worship. The New Testament reminds us that God should be the object of our worship.

Finally, apocalypticism urges us to be awake, alert, and ready. Our eyes should always be open to see the hand of God at work in the world. The world will only come to an end once, but there will be other mini-apocalypses. Something we have spent a lifetime building may be destroyed in a second. That’s a kind of apocalypse. The death of a marriage, a career, a loved one… all of these are occasions when God wants to build something new and better out of the ruins of the past, and apocalypticism says that if our eyes and spirits are open, we will be able to see God at work redeeming the past and building a better future.

“Be alert,” Jesus says, “I have already told you everything.” This is not only the message of the Christian faith; it is a central message of all the great faiths. Most of us go through life more than half asleep. God is doing wonderful and amazing things around us all the time, and we never see it. We should go through life wide-eyes with wonder, but instead we stumble along, myopically focused on the driver who cut us off on the interstate or the co-worker who took credit for something we did. We nurse petty angers and resentments when God wants to give us (as the Prayer Book’s baptismal service says) the “gift of joy and wonder.”

A beautiful Buddhist story is a perfect illustration. A man came to the Buddha and asked, “Are you a god?” “No,” the Buddha answered. “I am not a god.” “Are you a spirit, then?” the main asked. “No,” said the Buddha. “I am not a spirit.” “Are you an angel?” “No, I’m not an angel.” “Well, are you a saint, then?” “No, I’m not a saint.” Finally, in exasperation, the main asked the Buddha, “What are you then?” The Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

May God give us all the grace to be awake and aware and give us faith to believe that beyond every ending and every death, God is present, gathering up the pieces and redeeming all that we had thought was lost. Amen.