As we near the end of the Church Year, our lectionary turns to texts about the end of the world. Three years ago, when this text came up, we had only just begun posting video recordings of sermons…the world has ended many times since then. It happens every day…but back then we had no idea what lay before us..and yet…here we go again…
It was one of those marvellous sunny days on the West Coast, when you can see the mountains rising in the distance, their snow-caps reaching up to the sky. Joan was delighted that the weather had chosen to co-operate. It had been a long hard week and a day on the beach was just what the doctor ordered. Her boys were even co-operating. Chatting away in the back seat, arguing over which one of them was going to build the biggest sandcastle. Jimmy, her eldest, considered himself quite the little builder. He approached the construction of a sand-castle with the kind of vigour that made his engineering father proud. Just six-years old and already Jimmy knew the importance of careful preparation. He was explaining to his little brother David that you have to pick just the right spot for your sandcastle. You have to make sure that you build your castle close enough to the water so that you can make the sand all mushy, but not too close, or else once the tide begins to come in, your castle will be flooded too quickly.
Joan smiled to herself. She was delighted that now that David had finally made it through the terrible twos, he and Jimmy seemed to be getting along much better. She had absolutely no idea that every word of their childish conversation would be etched into her memory for the rest of her life. She didn’t see the car that hit them. To this day, Joan has no memory of how it happened. All she can remember is Jimmy’s last agonizing cry. Little Jimmy, who in his six short years, grabbed onto life with such intensity, was killed instantly. On a beautiful sunny day on the West Coast, Joan’s world ended. Life as she had known it was over. Joan’s world ended when Jimmy died.
Karen and Bill had been working for hours on the new nursery. There wasn’t much time left. The baby was due in just eight weeks and so very much still needed to be done. But at least they had finally finished the painting and papering. They were admiring their handiwork when Karen’s water broke. In the car on the way to the hospital, Karen tried to reassure Bill. Over and over again she told Bill that lots of first babies arrive early. After 20 long hours, Michael was born. The doctors carefully explained that Michael’s spine had not developed properly. They assured Karen and Bill that he would be alright, but unfortunately, he would never be able to walk. On the morning their son was born the life that Karen and Bill had looked forward to was over. Karen and Bill’s world ended when Michael was born.
Mary loved her job. She was a high-powered executive with a company that was expanding at a phenomenal rate. She worked hard to get where she was. She poured all her energy into her work. She barely had time for a personal life, but that didn’t bother Mary. She knew there would be plenty of time for that after she had gotten where she wanted to go. Ten years and she was already playing with the big boys. She was a mover and a shaker. She loved her work and as good as she was at her job, she just didn’t see it coming. She was stunned when the announcement came. Apparently, the company had expanded a little too quickly. Bankruptcy put an end to the life that Mary loved. Mary’s world ended the day she lost her job.
I used to think that the end of the world would come in a blaze of glory. I used to think that when the world ended there would be plenty of warning. I used to think that if you paid enough attention to what was going on around you, you would be able to tell when the world was going to end. But that was before a doctor came into a room and told me that they had found a tumour that needed to be removed immediately. The end of the world came quietly without any fanfare at all. It hit me like a ton of bricks, without any warning what so ever. The world came to an end. It hardly seems fair that the world can come to an end so suddenly. I for one would have liked a little notice.
Today, the media is full of news that heralds the end of the world. There are wars and rumours of wars as explosions end the world for hundreds and thousands of people in faraway places. The world comes to an end every single day. It hardly seems fair that the world can come to an end so suddenly. When I was younger, I always wanted to know how a story ended. As a kid, I would often flip to the last chapter of a wonderful book to see just how things ended. I can still remember watching movies on TV that my father had already seen before and begging him to tell me how it all ends. Sometimes, my Dad would oblige, but more often than not he would tauntingly tell me to just watch and enjoy the movie, because it would all become clear soon enough.
The anonymous writer of the Gospel of According to Mark, is a mystery to us. We don’t know who wrote these stories about Jesus, but scholars have figured out that whoever wrote them down, never met Jesus and wrote this particular Gospel some forty to fifty years after the life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The general scholarly consensus is that this story was written sometime after the end of the world as Jesus and his followers knew it. In the year 70 of the Common Era, the soldiers of the Roman Empire destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. In fact, the Romans sacked the city and drove the Jewish people out into the wilderness that would come to be known as the diaspora. This Roman dispersion of the Jews would last until shortly after the Second World War when a world racked with guilt over the Holocaust consented by a decree of the United Nations to once again establish the nation of Israel. But for the anonymous writer of the Gospel According to Mark, writing in the years following the destruction of the Temple, the world as he and his people knew it, had ended. The anonymous gospel story teller that we call Mark knew exactly how the story ended. Scholars doubt the historicity of this particular story. Most of the credible New Testament scholars in the world agree that Jesus probably never said any of the words that the unknown author of the gospel we call Mark put into Jesus mouth with regard to the destruction of the world. And so, we are left to ask, why did the writer of this Gospel tell this particular story and why did he tell it this way. We can well imagine the turmoil and grief into which the sacking of Jerusalem would have plunged the followers of Jesus in the years following 70 CE. We know that the followers of Jesus had long since been excluded from the synagogues where they once worshipped alongside their Jewish brothers. We know that the Romans, who executed Jesus, began persecuting Christians some twenty to thirty years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.
These were terrible days, for the peace of Rome, Pax Romana, was maintained by conquering enemies both real and imagined and then keeping conquered people under control by means of terrorizing the general population. There are accounts of Roman occupation that detail the terrorizing of entire nations using methods that would send even the bravest insurgents into the wilderness. One such Roman account details the crucifixion of 500 people. That is to say, that over the course of several days, 500 people were nailed to trees and left to die and that when all those left hanging there were tallied up the number exceed 500. Needless to say, word of the Roman’s draconian methods spread far and wide across the Empire and had the desired effect of terrorizing the occupied peoples. The fear that occupied the minds of the early Christians is unimaginable. And it is in this climate of terror that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark told his tale. It is mindful of this terror that we can well understand why the author told this particular tale in this particular way.
The anonymous gospel storyteller paints a picture of Peter, James, John and Andrew sitting down with Jesus on the Mount of Olives and looking across the Kidron Valley at the great walled city of Jerusalem, with the temple towering high above the city. Jesus is portrayed as telling his faithful followers that the whole place will come tumbling down one day soon. But Jesus’ followers wanted him to tell them when. They wanted to know when the centre of their universe was about to fall apart. That’s when the anonymous gospel storyteller has Jesus tell his followers about the dismantling of the sky, how the stars will fall from their constellations like diamonds from a broken necklace, how the sun will be smudged, and the moon snuffed out before they see the Son of Man riding the clouds with great power and glory.
The anonymous gospel storyteller’s Jesus does not say this to scare his followers. He says it to comfort them. The followers of Jesus needed to know that even something as frightening as the end of the world was in God’s good hands. When the cosmos collapsed and every light in the sky was put out, they were to remember what Jesus had told them. They were to remember that God is sovereign over darkness as well as light and they were to watch–watch even in the darkness–for Christ to return.
By the time the gospel of Mark was written down some thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death, it seemed that the end was very near indeed. The stars were still in the sky, but that was about all. The headlines were as bad then as they are today. Jerusalem lay in ruins. The temple was destroyed. Thousands and thousands of corpses hung rotting upon crosses. The emperor’s favourite pastime was thinking up inventive new ways for Christians to die and there was fighting among the followers of Jesus themselves, with whole families being torn apart by their conflicting loyalties. False messiahs were setting themselves up on every street corner, each of them claiming exclusive access to the mind of God. Everything was falling apart, and those who had believed in Jesus must have wondered if they had been fooled. Surely this was not the way things were supposed to turn out. Not this chaos. Not this outrage. Not this darkness.
That’s when the anonymous writer of the gospel according to Mark told them the story, writing it down so they would not forget: how Jesus himself had predicted it all, how he had tried to tell them that they could not have a new world without letting go of the old one, which would have to crash and burn before anything fresh could be born from its ashes. It was and is the good news of the end of the world. A piece of the gospel most of us would just as soon forget, but there it is: when the end comes, the Source of our Being, the MYSTERY that created us, will not be absent. When the end comes the MYSTERY that we call God will be present, having come to us in great power and glory to make all things new.
In the meantime, our job is to watch, just as the anonymous gospel storyteller’s Jesus says–not to watch out, but to watch–to stay alert, to pay attention, so that we are not snoozing when Christ comes. For some, watching means looking for the literal end of the world. There are whole books you can buy on the mathematical formulae contained in the book of Revelation, with all sorts of advice about how to be in the right place at the right time. There are TV evangelists who are more than willing to tell us just when and how the end will come. Every year, Hollywood offers up yet another disaster movie in which the end is clearly depicted. Disaster films make millions of dollars as millions of us continue to flock to the theatres to catch a glimpse of impending doom. The only problem with this approach is that it tries to discover what even the gospel story-teller’s Jesus could not discover. In the story Jesus says, “Truly, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” And yet with his next breath Jesus takes it back, saying, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Even this Jesus does not know the mind of God. This Jesus, like us, is left with wars and rumours of wars, waiting and watching for the end which experience has taught us comes again, and again, and again…over and over and over again.
So, as for me, my method of watching comes out of my own belief that there is not just one end to the world any more than there is just one coming of Christ to look forward to. When Jesus died, his disciples believed the world had ended. When Jerusalem fell, and Nero swooped down on the young church like a mad vulture, they believed the world had ended.
The world can and does end any and every day of the week. The world ends over and over again, not just with the sounds of war, but with the death of a child, the loss of a job, a grim diagnosis, or the end of a cherished dream. And when the world ends, as it is want to do, sometimes the only thing that we can do, is watch. Watch for Christ to come again and again and again in power and great glory.
When I was a kid and would beg my dad to tell me how the movie would end. He would warn me to be quiet and to watch, he told me not to worry how it ends but to watch and to enjoy. I soon learned how much better it was to experience the story without knowing how it all ends. And so, I quit reading the final chapters of novels and let myself fully experience the unfolding of the story just as the author intended.
The great theologian Paul Tillich wrote a powerful description of his vision of God, in which he described God as the “ground of our being.” That is to say, that we are all in God and that in God we live, and move, and have our being. If God is the ground of our being, then surely, faith in God, is putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that the ground will be there.
I’d still like to know how it all will end, but nowadays I’m content to stay awake, and putting one foot, in front of the other, trusting that the Ground of Being is that inwhich I live and move and have my being, trusting that in God, I can fully experience all that life has to offer.
I remember wondering just how Joan managed to come to church every Sunday after Jimmy died. Sunday after Sunday she would sit in the back row, holding little David close and softly she would weep. A couple of years after Jimmy’s death she told me that at first, she would just sit there in defiance, daring God to show up. She waited, and she watched. Joan waited, and she watched, until David asked her why he never got to go to Sunday School. Jimmy had loved Sunday school and David wanted to play with the other kids. David called his mother back into the world. Christ came to Joan, through the voice of a child.
Karen and Bill were devastated when Michael was born. Bill was so angry at God, that refused to allow Karen to have Michael baptized. Michael never has walked. David is a beautiful child. Michael was a confirmation student of mine and a few weeks before he was scheduled to be confirmed, we realized that he had never been baptized. I cannot tell you who was happier the day we baptized Michael, him or his dad. They both wore the same beautiful smile.
When she couldn’t get a job as exciting as the one, she lost, Mary went back to school. Today she is a nurse, she works in a small community in northern British Columbia. The last time I heard from her she was expecting her third child.
My world came to an end the day the doctors told me about a tumour that needed to be removed. That was nearly 40 years ago. There’s been a whole lot of living and dying since then. Christ comes to me over and over again in the doctors, nurses, friends and lovers who help me to put one foot in front of the other and the LOVE that we call God has remained the ground of my being.
The world can and does come to an end, every single day, over and over again. Our job is not to lie in bed with pillows over our heads or to shove all the heavy furniture in front of the door for fear of what lies outside in the darkness. Our job is to light a candle and set it in the window. Our job is to watch for the ONE who comes to us over and over again, in the guise of a person, offering healing and to open the door for Christ even before Christ raises a hand to knock.
So, keep watch. You know not when the end will come. But you can trust that when it does, Christ will come again, in the guise of a person, who will help you to put one foot in front of the other, to make all things new again and again, and again.
But keep awake and watch for you do not know the day or the hour when the Christ in you will be called upon to extend the hand of God to a sister or a brother to help them put one foot in front of the other. Christ comes over and over again, and again, and again.
Worlds have ended. People are waiting for Christ to come again. Let us be the Ground of Being for our sisters and brothers who have been left reeling from the shock and horror of the end of their world. Let us provide the LOVE which is the Ground of Being so that they can put one foot in front of the other and live and move and have their being, to make all things new again. Let us be the LOVE that is God in the world.