This chapter of Mark’s gospel is known as “the little apocalypse.” The question that the disciples ask – how they will know when the end times are upon them – is one that has resonated through the centuries. You have heard tell that in the earliest churches, the Second Coming of the Christ was expected imminently. The followers of Jesus expected to see the end of his story in their lifetime.
And then, you have heard, the churches had to begin to take account of the generation that was dying, and to understand that this story was longer than they realized, that this was indeed only the beginnings of the birth pangs, and that they, and we, would be in this for the long haul.
[See the letters to the Thessalonians; the first, dealing with worries over those who have died already while waiting for the Day of the Lord; the second, worrying over false prophets declaring that the Day has been and gone, and we missed it.]
Most of us in this room do not believe that we can predict the end of the world, although some still do. I have lost count of the number of times even since I moved to America, that the world has been supposed to come to an end on a specific day. We still struggle with wars and rumours of wars, wondering how to read the signs of the times.
I think that part of the modern problem is that we confuse and conflate the biblical apocalypses, the prophesies of the Second Coming, of God’s consummation of creation, and the new creation, with the end of the world as we know it.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that our modern perceptions of apocalypse are out of step with the ancient and traditional expectations and prophecies, because,
“Earlier, people expected the end to come from God, and hoped that from God the new beginning would come. But today we have to do with self-made apocalypses, for which human beings have to take responsibility, not God.”
Like nuclear Armageddon, or the threatened cataclysms of climate change, the human-made apocalypse that is imagined as the modern end of the world undermines the expectation of a gracious act of God, a new creation.
More immediately, those human apocalypses, these human ends are what came roaring through a Parisian café, blasting through the speakers at a music venue; which changed a friendly football match into a field of war.
Too many people, in Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad saw the end of the world this week. But these are no birth pangs, but death rattles.
“The meaning of terrorism is – terror. The meaning of murder is death. After that nothing more is to follow. No Jewish or Christian apocalyptist believed that such a destruction of other people and oneself would be followed by a new beginning, a reconstruction, or even a redemption.”
No faithful, God-fearing apocalyptist, of any religion in fact: Jewish, Christian, Muslim; no religion expects God to set us against one another in order to realize the peace that passes understanding, God’s perfect creation.
The ends to which we as humans subject one another, especially these acts of terror; these ends come out of no religious feeling, no devotion to the divine. These terrorists pervert the prayers of the people, and they stain them with tears.
They will not defeat the will of God, which is not destruction, but creation; not devastation, but resurrection. They are not the ending to the Jesus story.
When Luke reports Jesus’ speech about the End Times that we heard from Mark’s gospel today, Luke hears Jesus say,
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)
Stand up and raise your heads. Take courage and take the kingdom of God in your hands, because redemption is near. God is not far from us in times of danger, nor in the valley of the shadow of death. Those are the very times and places that God draws us closer, drawing the Hebrews out of the waters of the Red Sea after their oppression by Egypt; lifting Daniel from the lions’ den; raising up Jesus after the Romans’ act of terror and torture against the Son of God.
Since the days of the stories of the Flood, our scriptures have taught us that that God has promised never again to let God’s sorrow over our wickedness overcome God’s love for what God has created; that no matter the wickedness and violence of the world, God will bear with us, bear for us the suffering born of sin; overcome for us the chaos; bring us out of death into life. The biblical apocalypse is not the work of the evil and indolence of humanity at its worst, but of the long-suffering goodness of God at its best; God’s labour towards a new creation. The apocalyptic promise is a promise to upend terror, and restore justice. It blasts evil. It roars mercy. It redeems grace.
That, for Christians, is the only end in sight; the new creation of God. We will not accept any false starts, false prophets, false prayers, false alarms. Jesus has told us, “Do not be alarmed.” Daniel promises us the protection of archangels.
God labours on, and we will labour too, and push for the upending of terror, the astonishment of peace, the cry of justice that will herald God’s kingdom come.
On Friday, the news was breaking as we gathered at the Cathedral for Convention. Dean Lind was texting with her friend, Dean Laird, of the Episcopal Cathedral in Paris. By the time we gathered to process into the church, the count was up to sixty dead, and the borders were closed. Then we went in to worship God, because that is what we do.
When we got home that night, we learned the rest, such was available to learn, and when we came together in the morning, we began with prayers for the terrorized, and then we got on with the business of the church, because that is what we do. It wasn’t all budget approvals and electing Cyrus to the Commission on Ministry; we talked about racial reconciliation and cross-cultural understanding. We heard stories of the saints among us, and took inspiration from them. We got on with the business of organizing as followers of Jesus, the body of Christ, whose story has not ended, whose labour is not over.
We wonder, in the face of the end of the world as we know it, when the stones are thrown down and the earth is cast upon the casket; we wonder what we should do. I would suggest that we remember that we do not write the ending to God’s story; that the End Times are always upon us, and God remains faithful throughout. Our response, then, is to remain faithful to God, and to continue to follow God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, whose new creation we await with eager patience.
How do we do that? Pierre Whalon, the Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, who lives in Paris, who lives in Paris, urges his people, his flock, to continue to pray, faithful to Jesus’ commandment; to pray for our enemies, and for ourselves.
This is our labour; and God labours with us, as we push on to pray with the people of Beirut, of Baghdad; with the staff of the Dollar Bank at 228th Street; with the people of Paris:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Jürgen Moltmann, In the end – the beginning: the life of hope (Fortress Press, 2004)