Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, instead of angels bringing tidings of great joy to all the people, the lectionary asks us to consider the end of the world. Now, to be honest, that's a topic most preachers from my tradition would rather save for a Sunday in the middle of July, when the crowds are light, the service is shorter, and we just happen to be on vacation in the mountains of Colorado with no internet or cell service for a month. But, alas, there's no hiding from it today. The end of the world will be our focus.
So, what do you believe about the end of the world? How do you believe it will happen? Who will it claim? When will it be?
Last year, while leading a pilgrimage group to Israel, I stood with our large band of travelers on the very spot where Armageddon, the cataclysmic end of the world, is supposed to take place, according to the biblical book of Revelation. The place is called Megiddo, the word from which the biblical word "Armageddon" is derived. At Megiddo, we are told, a cosmic battle between good and evil will end it all.
Megiddo is a fascinating archeological site, as well as a haunting and mysterious place, especially given the biblical prophecy assigned to it. But I have to admit that I found it somewhat comforting to note that there was a McDonald's restaurant just around the corner from Megiddo. And furthermore, that particular McDonald's restaurant was being expanded to accommodate a new drive-in window. Which said to me, that at least for now, there is definitely a healthy future anticipated for Megiddo. For after all, can a business that has sold over 99 billion hamburgers be wrong?
Truth is, there have been many who have made predictions about the end of the world, and they've been wrong. In 1665, as the plague ravaged London, a man named Solomon Eccles was jailed for disturbing the peace by striding through Smithfield Market stark naked, carrying a pan of blazing coals on his head, prophesying doom and destruction for the world.[i] But the world did not end in 1665.
Around 1830, Reverend William Miller began predicting that between 1843 and 1844 Christ would return to earth and purify it by fire. Many of his followers gave away all their possessions in anticipation of the end, but 1844 came and went without incident. In succeeding decades, Miller's followers would go on to form the Seventh Day Adventists movement, but the world did not end.[ii]
In 1970, American evangelist, Hal Lindsey, wrote his first book, the best-seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, a book in which he attempted to correlate certain world events with biblical prophecies in order to predict Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. In a later book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, he stated that "the decade of the 1980's could very well be the last decade of history as we know it."[iii] The 1980's have come and gone, and the world did not end.
Between 1995 and 2007, authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins authored sixteen widely popular novels about the apocalypse, garnering support and praise from some Christians and criticism from others.[iv] In fact, HBO has filmed a series called The Leftovers, that follows events on earth after two percent of the population simultaneously and mysteriously disappears in what may or may not have been a rapture event prefiguring the end of time.[v]
The end of time - yes, theologians and historians have predicted it. Countless songs have explored its themes. Hieronymus Bosch painted it. T. S. Eliot poetically declared it would come not with a bang, but a whimper.[vi] Yes, there have been so many visions of the end.
Because it seems that across the centuries we humans have urgently wanted to get a look at the "last page," to know when and how the last scene of this whole human adventure will take place.
The followers of Jesus were no different. They, too, wanted to know when the end of the world would come, when time would be no more. Wanting to know, not out of some gloomy, death-seeking fatalism, but because they anticipated that the end of the world would bring God's judgement and mercy, and usher in the reign of God's peace.
But as we hear in this text, Jesus steadfastly resists giving any kind of timetable for that hoped-for end. Which, I think, may be why the lectionary has directed us to this text on the first Sunday of Advent. After all, Advent is about waiting and hoping for something we could not precisely predict, but which we know God eventually brought about in the birth of Christ. Surely then, God may also be relied upon to bring about a conclusion of history in a manner and timing we may trust.
So, what particulars does Jesus have to offer his disciples about the end of the world? Well, if you notice, he offers none of the fearsome specifics some modern authors and preachers have provided us. Instead, Jesus simply offers us a few assurances. First, he says, "...about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:32 NRSV) Or, to put it another way, Jesus says the future is definitely not ours to know.
Yes, we can calculate. We can try, I guess, to correlate current day events with prophecies and predictions. But for all that, the truth is, we are no wiser or closer to the truth, because no one knows but God what our future holds.
I think recent history should be proof of that. The pace of change seems to grow faster and faster and faster. Think about it, there are generations alive today who remember the first automobiles, and yet have lived to see a man walk on the moon, which they watched on a television, and can now see reported through a computer, or on a cell phone, or any other of their mobile devices.
So, who really knows what tomorrow will bring? Perhaps something beyond our wildest dreams. We don't know. And yet, far from being a discouraging aspect of life, our inability to know the future should be an encouragement to us, I think. How should it be an encouragement?
Not knowing what lies ahead shields us now from some of the hardships we might one day have to face.
Not knowing the future actually encourages us to invest ourselves, our gifts, our talents, our resources to influence the momentum of history.
So, no, we cannot know where the sweep of history is pushing, nor when it will reach its end point. Only God knows the future. Therefore, Jesus says, making his second point about the end of the world, "Keep alert." "Keep awake," (Mark 13:33, 35 NRSV) for the master of the house is coming.
In other words, though Jesus resists giving specifics on when the end will arrive, he never refutes that an end will ultimately come. God, the master, will return to complete God's work and fulfill God's dream for our world, bringing a reign of justice and peace. So, in anticipation of this hoped-for arrival, Jesus says, stay alert, get ready, the master will come. And, you know, I happen to think that, chaotic though the events of our world appear to be, unpredictable as the future has proven to be, Jesus' assurances that time is taking us resolutely to the hoped-for reign of God's peace doesn't have to be taken as simple speculation. In fact, perhaps, faithful eyes can see the patterns taking us there.
For example, do you know the term chaology? Chaology is the study of chaos theories and has spawned many interesting speculations about the randomness of events. Famously, some have suspected that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might set off a cascade of events that result in a tornado in Texas. While that notion is highly unlikely, the "butterfly effect," as it is called, can nevertheless help us to understand the unpredictability of things in general. For example, if millions of little events, all as seemingly insignificant as the trajectory of a butterfly's flight, all offer their slight influence on a system, it's virtually impossible to predict the outcome. Scientist's claim that is why it is so difficult to accurately predict the weather for more than a few days in advance. Because there are just too many variables.[vii]
And yet, according to computer models, there are patterns even to the chaos of all of life. You and I can't discern them any more than a fish can analyze the water in which it swims, but there are patterns - patterns even to chaos. Now, I know that may sound paradoxical - patterns within chaos? But listen to this...
Are you familiar with random number generators? Random number generators are tiny boxes that produce a steady stream of random numbers, limited to zeroes or ones. All the time. Every second. The constant stream of numbers is sent for analysis to a large computer. When a purely random stream of numbers occurs, there is a flat line graph that results. Such random number generators are in research facilities all over the world, which cooperate in their research.
Interestingly, scientists now know that sometimes patterns emerge within the apparent randomness, and wildly fluctuating graphs are made. Such a pattern occurred on September 11, 2001.[viii] For a few hours before the planes hit New York City's Twin Towers, and for a few days afterward, discernable patterns appeared, as tracked by computers in forty-one- countries around the world. The machines went out of sync to the extreme. It was as if the whole cosmos was shuttering in pain together, over what happened that day in New York City.
The same thing happened the day Princess Diana died. The same thing happened the day the tsunami hit in Asia.
So, as people of faith we should not, perhaps, be surprised to find that randomness and chaos are tentative, that patterns and momentum and purpose invariably emerge, because history is not a blind force. For in ways we cannot perfectly understand, and with a timing we can't predict, the Master is always at work. Or, to put it another way, we see God's hand guiding, nudging, enabling the actors on the world stage to move towards God's envisioned end.
Yes, God's power and purpose is at work in the world. It makes for a subtle but discernable pattern. Could we say we see God's power and purpose at work in this world behind the discovery of vaccine that eradicated polio? Could we say we see God's power and purpose at work in this world at the toppling of Hitler's horrific Third Reich? ... the discovery and mapping of the human genome sequence? ... the advancement in cancer research?
Yes, behind the universe is a power that steadily guides, and heals, and leads us toward God's goals that will be reached inevitably, despite the set-backs and hardships that dot history. Jesus advises that we stay awake, watching and waiting for these things. Watching and waiting for how God is working, and how God will next come to us.
Which leads to a third point Jesus seems to be making about the end of the world. God is like a master who goes on a journey and leaves the servants in charge, he says. We're in charge. We're in charge, each with our work to do on the Master's behalf. Worrying about exactly when the master will return could be paralyzing, or at least distracting enough to keep us from offering our best efforts.
And so, it seems we are called simply to go on with our lives, living confidently, as capably and productively as we can, setting our minds and hearts on helping God further the work of his creation, and doing Christ's work in this world.
Yes, Jesus here seems to be teaching us something about time management. Not only is the past over and out of our reach, but the future is as well. The future is not ours to grasp, at least, not yet. Our task then is not to harbor regret, or obsess about the future, but to live in concert with the patterns and powers of God's presence among us right now. For God only knows when the end will actually come.
Now, I know that's not exactly bumper sticker stuff, is it? I mean it's not as good as a bumper sticker that might read, "In case of rapture this car will be empty," or another that might read, "Are you ready for Jesus' return?" But it does have biblical integrity, I think, to simply say, "Keep awake, the time we await will come!"
Yes, Jesus' words here in Mark's gospel on the subject of the world's end; they are not meant to be frightening. They were, I'm convinced, words offered to his followers that were intended to free them from fretting about details they could not know, and taking comfort instead in noting the patterns of God's eternal care for us that will stretch on to eternity. With that firm assurance comes the freedom to live now, fully.
One of my favorite films of all time is the great epic, Ben Hur, perhaps it's because of its epic chariot race. When filming Ben Hur, an enormous set was constructed for this very special race and teams of stunt men were trained to drive four-horse chariots for the race sequence. Charlton Heston, the star of the film, was among the first to arrive for training, and was quick to grasp chariot-driving techniques. Nevertheless, Charlton Heston was concerned - concerned that in the actual filming of the race, he might not be able to pull off a victory. And so, he went to the director and he shared his concerns and the director responded to Charlton Heston, "Charlton, you just stay in the chariot and I'll guarantee you win the race."[ix]
You know, maybe those aren't far from the words that God might wish to say to us during these disconcerting days of terrorism, and wars, and gaping societal wounds - all of which make the world a fearful place and bring us to wonder just what will happen next.
It's not for us to know. Only God, Jesus reminds us, knows the future. But don't worry, if we just stay in the race, God will make sure we win. That is our Advent hope, you see. It is a hope that as followers of Christ, we need not adopt a worldview that presumes eventual destruction, no real possibilities, no possibility of redemption.
No, Jesus grants a very different worldview to his followers in Chapter 13 of Mark's gospel - a few predicated, I have heard it said, on these certainties. Where there is hope in the heart of a person, there is the presence of God. Where there is God, there is love. Where there is love, all shall be well. So, on this first Sunday of Advent, take heart, for our God, the God of love, is in ultimate control. And that, my friends, is a truth you can safely believe. Amen.