As we move towards Advent, when we await the arrival of God among us, we start looking in our scripture readings at the end of the world. Every year, whether the 2012 famous for Mayan millennium angst or any other year, we talk about the end of the world.
It might be, it just might be to remind us that what Advent means (and I know, we’re not there yet, but these last couple of Sundays’ readings are clearly preparing us to get there); what Advent means is not the coming of a cute baby, or a pretty story. It is not a romance. It is an apocalypse, the revealing of something that has been hidden, the inbreaking of the rule of God into the realms and kingdoms of this world, the tearing open of heaven and the cataclysmic reorganization of earth.
That is what God coming into our world means. That is what birthing God in the middle of our society, our so-called civilization, our self-structured organization means.
It is scary stuff.
As they came away from the temple – the biggest building these fishermen from Galilee had ever seen or could probably imagine – they were in awe of what their ancestors had created. No doubt the Romans felt the same way about the Coliseum, the Forum, when they got to go back to their own seat of power and authority on leave.
But Jesus reminded them that all such structures are impermanent, that we rely on them at our peril. Today, the Roman ruins still direct the traffic around themselves in the centre of the city, but they are scarred and fallen and tourists clamber over them with laughter rather than fear and awe. The Temple was razed to the ground by the Romans in 70 AD, while some of Jesus’ followers still remembered his prophecy. The only piece that still stands with any integrity is part of the western wall, which continues to hum and throb, alive with the people’s prayers today. But it is just one small section of wall.
Incidentally, that wall was part of the second temple, built when the Hebrew peoples were permitted to return to their homeland from their exile in Babylon, and rebuild their city, their culture, their country. This had all happened before.
It must have felt like the end of the world, seeing that temple fall, twice, seeing empire after empire fail. The end of the world is always localized; it is the end of the world as we know it. It must have felt like the end of the world, living through that southeast Asian tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and fires. Jesus recently we heard a lot of talk about the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis; fifty years ago, it looked as though it really might be the end of the world as superpowers aimed super weapons of mass destruction at one another. It must have felt like the end of all worlds twenty years before that, in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Sometimes, when our lives are altered by disease or disability, by death or grief, or by economic insecurity, every day seems like it might be the end of the world.
No wonder Jesus’ disciples wanted to know just when the end would in fact come, and how they would see it coming; it is frightening waiting, it is wearying.
But Jesus does something surprising with his answer. He does not give them a Mayan calendar countdown to destruction. He does not present them with complicated mathematical equations which claim to add up the days of creation offered in the Bible and suggest a date for a rapturous event – the date predicted last year, by the way, by one Harold Camping was the date of my graduation from Seminary. Turns out, it was not the end of the world.
Instead of making predictions and dire prophecies, Jesus suggests that in fact what he is describing to them – the destruction of the Temple, of their way of religious life, of their cultural identity, would not be the end of the world, but rather the means to something new. “These are birth pangs,” he tells them; “something new is being born into being, and there is always labour to be done when that happens.”
Just as I was writing that line, yesterday, I looked out of my window and noticed that a tree which attempted to fall over during the storm a couple of weeks ago, which is still caught leaning among some other embracing branches, caught between states of being: alive and dead, upright and felled; that tree was covered in red-headed woodpeckers, which were feasting on the insects that had come to assist the tree on its final journey into the ground. The storm which felled the tree also created a whole new mini ecosystem in its bark; the woodpeckers had never paid it so much attention before its accident.
The new beginnings that follow an end of the world experience are local, too.
Jesus tells his disciples that yes, wars and rumblings of war, and natural disasters and crises – corporate and individual – will test our faith and try our patience; but they are not the end of the world.
There is a telling difference between the fall of Rome, the ruins of the Coliseum, and the fall of the Jerusalem temple, both the first and the second time around.
After Rome fell and failed, no one ever called Caesar “God” again. After Rome fell and failed, the people were left leaderless and bereft.
But the Jewish people knew that God was with them before Solomon’s temple was ever built. God was with them in their exile. God was with them as they built the second temple. And God would not abandon them when it was destroyed. God was not left homeless by the destruction of AD70; God dwelt with God’s people wherever they went. And so the modern Jewish structure of synagogues began, and grew, and the people who put their trust in God instead of great structures and grand buildings have survived the end of the world more than once since then.
Last week, at convention, Bishop Hollingsworth reminded us of some worrying statistics, about declining church attendance, cultural shifts which affect all of the mainstream denominations of Christianity, including ours. He talked about a future which might not look like the past; which might take some labour, some bringing to birth of new opportunities for evangelism, new problems to solve, new ways to think about a living gospel for the world in which we live, which has not ended but sometimes seems to be moving on without us. Existing structures, as strong and impressive as they appear, might need to give way to new and nimbler ways of being, of meeting, of building. The end of an era, the era of automatic church membership and dutiful religious observance may give way to a new movement of the Spirit, speaking in new tongues.
If we built this church today, what would it look like? Would it have the same structure, the same rooms and dimensions, would it give the same message to the people of the community which it serves that it does now?
To quote Jesus, do not be alarmed. I am not suggesting a cataclysmic or apocalyptic, seismic shift in our parish or its expression. But I am suggesting that we think carefully and prayerfully about what it is that we are being called to labour into being, in this time, in this world, with its cycle of endings and beginnings. What has ended, that we should let go of? What is labouring to birth, crying out for our attention and our energy? With God as our constant companion, where are we called to worship in new ways, in new settings, with new people?
I have a few ideas. I can imagine Bible studies in coffee shops or even bars; meals of bread and wine in restaurants; a public witness of worship, not to replace but to extend the prayer that happens here out into our communities, with our neighbours. I’d love to hear your ideas.
Every year, as we move towards Advent, we talk about the end of the world. As the nights grow long, and the shadows longer, we shiver with anticipation as we await the coming of God among us.
But God is already here, moving and shaking and stirring us up, lightening our darkness, leading us into a new Incarnation, a new expression of an old story.
To whom shall we tell the story this year?