If the World Were to End

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow? If you’re thinking about preaching on the gospel reading this week, that’s not a bad question to ask. Jesus, at this point in the story, seems to be warning his disciples about the end of time, and it’s not a pretty picture. Doom, gloom, falling stars, shaking heavens, and all the rest. It’s pretty vivid, to say the least; the stuff of fantasy novels or Hollywood films. And that’s the problem. What are we to do with this kind of passage? It may have had some pull with early generations of Christians who expected Jesus to return at any moment, or perhaps during certain panic-ridden times of the middle ages, but do we really think it still makes sense, let alone attracts notice, today.

In some circles, of course, it most certainly does. Witness the tremendous attention and preparation given after Harold Camping predicted — and heavily promoted! — that Jesus would return on May 21st, and then when that failed, on Oct. 21st of this past year. A generation ago it was Hal Lindsey; not all that long ago it was Y2K; and next year we’ll worry about Dec. 21, 2012, the predicted end of the world according to the ancient Mayan calendar. Speculation about the end of the world still seems rampant. And that’s part of the problem, too. So many have predicted the end of the world and Jesus’ return to great fanfare and failure that they are almost a laughingstock.

And yet they’re right. No, not right about the timing, or even the effort to make predictions. But they are right that one of the promises of Scripture is that Christ will return, that God will bring the creation God fashioned to a good end, and that everything we tend to think of as permanent is more fragile, more vulnerable, than we typically like to imagine. Deep down I suspect we know this. Whether it’s the falling leaves of autumn, the death of a dear friend, an illness that took longer to recover from, or reports of global warming, there are moments when awareness of the fragility and impermanence of our world and of our lives penetrates the cocoon of denial we’ve carefully woven.

So what would you do if the world were going to end tomorrow? Would you reconcile with a long lost friend or family member? Would you finish a project you started years ago? Would you tell your children, or maybe your parents, that you love them one last time? Would you wrap your beloved in one long, tender embrace? What would you do?

Asking and answering this question has a way of clarifying our values and sharpening our priorities, and it’s not a bad question to ask as we move — or is it careen — from the festivities of Thanksgiving to the headlong dash toward Christmas. Why? Because it’s easy to get so caught up in the cultural pressure to have the perfect Christmas that we can lose a sense not only of what Christmas is supposed to mean but actually of ourselves.

Is this the beginning of another well-intentioned rant about the true meaning of Christmas, you may be wondering? Actually, no. I’m not interested in scolding our people for getting too caught up in secular celebration of the season, particularly as I have a hard enough time avoiding that myself. Rather, amid all the planning and preparing, amid all the parties and shopping, amid the all cards and cooking — amid, that is, all the festive craziness that most of us, truth be told, simultaneously love and dread — I’d like to offer our folks some space, some Advent space, to be still, to experience just a bit of quiet, and to be reminded of who they are: God’s beloved children.

And here’s where Mark’s otherwise confusing and alarming passage has something to say. Because after all the predictions about the end, Jesus says that no one will know the day or the hour and so we have to keep close watch. He goes a little further, actually, and compares our situation to that of servants who do not know when their master will return and yet are expected to be prepared for it. One way to read this mini-parable is as a call to constant vigilance. And I think there’s something to that. We are indeed called always be on the look out for our Lord — whether at the end of time or, as we noticed last week, in the face of our neighbors’ need.

But I think there’s something else going on here as well. In fact, I find the parabolic details of Jesus’ warning telling. We do not know, he says, whether the master will come in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. Now notice where these ruminations on the end come — just prior to the story of his passion. And now note the way in which Mark divides the scenes leading up to the crucifixion: 1) Last Supper, beginning, “When it was evening, he came with the twelve…” (14:17). 2) Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (14:40). Why so tired? Because it was the middle of the night. 3) Jesus’ trial and Peter’s denial: “But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ At that moment the cock crowed for the second time” (14:71-72a). Trial before Pilate: “As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate” (15:1).

Do you see what I mean? Another way to read this injunction to watchfulness is to hear Jesus declaring that his return — when the heavens shake and the sun is darkened — is precisely the moment when he is nailed to the cross and we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world. Whatever, whenever, and however the end of the world may come, that is, that end is both prefigured and realized right here, in the form of a man who goes to the cross out of love for us and all the world. For this reason have theologians across the ages declared Jesus’ cross as the pivot point of history, for at that moment one age ended and another begun.

Once asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have responded, “I would plant a tree today.” We also, confident of God’s love and sure of God’s promises about the future, can also invest in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around us. For we have God’s promise in the cross and resurrection of Christ that in time God will indeed draw all of God’s creation not just to an end, but to a good end.

So remember how you answered that question about what you would do if the world were to end tomorrow? Well, guess what? You don’t need to wait. You can do those things now! Love the ones you want to love; finish the work you started; be reconciled to those who need you; be faithful to the people and tasks around you; undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavor. Why not? For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, all in the name of love. And we — God’s beloved children for whom Christ died and for whom Christ now lives — along with all of God’s blessed creation are those from whom Christ is coming!

Blessed Advent to you, Working Preacher. May you also find some Advent space to hear and contemplate and believe once again that you, also, are a beloved child of God who knows that because God has promised to take care of the future the present is eternally open and full of possibility.

Yours in Christ,

PS: For some reason, this week I haven’t been able to get the first few lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding V out of my head. They didn’t fit in the column, but I thought I’d put them here as a postscript.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.