Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Preaching on the End of the World, Pentecost 33B

What follows is a very rough draft of a sermon I'll be preaching at Saint Peter's Jazz Vespers service this Sunday.  It's on the lectionary text for the week, Mark 13: 1 - 8.  Would love to hear some input.

I can specifically remember being a vulnerable, nervous little ten-year-old sitting at my grandma’s house and watching TV after dinner, when a program came on about the predictions of Nostradamus, the upcoming Y2K bug, and thus, the apocalypse described in the Bible… the end of the world. Scared nearly half to death, I quickly ran into the kitchen and offered to do the dishes for my grandmother… since it was 1996 and I only had four years to earn God’s favor and be chosen as one of His elect before the start of the new millennium, I figured I should get to work doing nice things for everyone right away. Luckily, my grandmother could sense I had something more than just being helpful on my mind, so instead of handing me the sponge and dish soap, she stooped down, wrapped me up in a big hug, and asked me what was wrong. Although she had never taken a Bible course on Revelation, Daniel, or the ‘little apocalypse’ that today’s text from Saint Mark is a part of, after finding out what I had been watching, she aptly told me not to worry, and that God, as she knew through Jesus, was a loving God.

While my grandma definitely helped me feel a bit better that night, for the next four years I was never entirely able to shake my fear of God’s impending judgment as the millennium turned. I greatly worried that every subsequent military confrontation… think the Kosovo War and expanding the no-fly zone over Iraq… would spiral into nuclear war. I read Biblical texts like the ‘little apocalypse’ from Mark 13 over and over again. I learned that Jesus gives similar discourses about the destruction of the temple, the coming of false messiahs and nations rising against nations in Saint Matthew and Saint Luke as well and eventually came to think that even if Jesus wasn’t talking about the new millennium in these texts, it sure sounded like God was a vengeful God, and thus that I needed to appease him with good behavior. The dawning of the new millennium came and went of course, and after four years I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

With this background in mind you can imagine both my disappointment and laughter when while watching TV at a friend’s house this past summer, I swear the History Channel had cut out the same old footage of a “Bible expert” talking about the apocalypse that I saw back in 1996 and reused it in a similar program about predictions by Nostradamus, a Mayan calendar and other sources that the world would end not in 2000, but 2012. Of course, a fascination with the end times, as well as the prediction that they’re close at hand, is as old as humanity. We can’t help but question the eventual fate of our loved ones and ourselves… and much of the time we approach these questions with fear. We fear whether we’ll end up on God’s good side, whether heaven exists at all and we especially wonder what the “birth pangs” Jesus mentions in today’s text might look like. Throughout our Christian history, there have of course been many answers to these questions, but they’ve tended to fall into one of three camps.

There’s one view primarily based on what I’d consider an overly simplistic reading of texts like today’s “little apocalypse.” It argues a final day of judgment will be preceded by the removal or rapture of God’s few chosen people from Earth, a time of great chaos and suffering, the reign of an anti-Christ and maybe even an additional thousand year reign of Christ. All or some of these things may happen in a variety of different orders, depending on whom you talk to, and needless to say, this view has some problems. It leads us to believe that since God is just going to destroy the world anyway, we might as well take from and abuse her as much as we want, a belief that leads to things like climate change and thus perhaps the destruction wrought on our region by Hurricane Sandy. It also leads us to wonder whether we’re one of God’s chosen or not and thus we either end up like me as a ten year old, terrified and living in fear of God’s wrath, or instead believing we are the chosen ones and folks different from us are not.

Since it’s more common for fundamentalist groups or silly books like the Left Behind series to put forward this first view about the end of the world, more progressive Christians like me and I imagine many of the people here tonight find it easy to push aside such views aside as unenlightened or pessimistic. A second view however is something folks like us often fall victim to… it essential argues that through our human action we can build the kingdom of God on Earth. Once we collectively earn it and all learn how to live with Christian goodwill for each other, Jesus will come down from heaven, hang out with us, and we’ll all have a big party. It sounds really nice at first, but this view has problems as well. Over a hundred years ago as Christians optimistically joined together to spread the gospel around the globe through missionary activities, they often ended up supporting oppressive colonial empires and destroying indigenous cultures. The Second World War especially put a damper on this idea of a Christian utopia, but nowadays… and I’m often guilty of this… it’s easy to think that if we just focus a little more on social justice as the Church, everything will be fine and all the ills of society will be solved. Although we certainly are called to help our neighbor, critique systems of oppression and improve the lives of everyone, we can’t do it all on our own… You see, when you boil down the first and second views about the end of the world I’ve discussed so far this evening, they both share an even deeper problem… they’re primarily about what we’re doing, rather than the absolutely amazing things God is doing and will do through Christ.

A third view about the end of the world, and I believe the right one, doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s the view held by Augustine, a view held by many of the sixteenth century church reformers and certainly the view held by my grandmother, who told me as terrified boy clinging to her for comfort, exactly what I needed to hear… that God is a loving god. I believe this view of the end times is what Saint Mark puts forward as well. It’s a view that argues while we might not have the details, all that we truly need to know has already been revealed… that through Christ’s death and resurrection, the kindom of God is in-breaking.

Mark, as the earliest of the canonical gospels, was written for a community in the midst of great turmoil. Not just the temple, but in fact much of Jerusalem had recently been leveled by Roman legions. Civil war had broken out during the Year of Four Emperors. People were living under a highly oppressive patriarchal system. No wonder they thought the end of the world was near. But into this community would come the story of the Son of God who not only healed the sick, fed the hungry and cast out demons, but even more amazingly rose again after being crucified by that very same system of violent oppression. At the moment Christ breathes his last, the temple curtain that secludes the dwelling place of God is torn in two… God no longer is in just that space, but is with all of us… the kindom of God, while not fully realized, is in breaking. And through Christ, we already know what that kindom is like, and what it will be. In Christ’s resurrection we know that the forces of sin, of violence and death can never win, that God will be there again and again and again, to comfort us, to wrap us in a warm embrace, and let us know that we are loved.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently a vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.


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