The Sky is Falling In
Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
Perhaps you remember the fairy tale of Henny Penny the hen who thought the sky was falling in. It seems that many in our society have a similar belief. A quick glance at popular culture today shows us that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are all the rage right now. Such scenarios generally depict a future time of catastrophe that results in the end of the world as we know it. It is certainly possible to link such popular cultural trends to various events – the end of the Mayan calendar, catastrophic economic conditions, defining events like September 11th. Yet it may still surprise, even shock you, that in a poll taken in 2012, twenty-two percent of Americans said that they believed that the world would end during their lifetime. At the same time, you may be asking yourself, “What motivates end of time thinking?”
It seems it has always been around. Think back to the response of society as we approached the millenium. There were worries about computer crashes that would cause financial ruin. People were fascinated with what it might mean in terms of the end of time. It lead to interpretation of wars and persecution, of natural disasters and environmental changes, of almost any phenomenon you might like to name.
The focus of the readings as we approach the end of the Church Year is often from the apocalyptic material that is found in Scripture. And so we find it in today’s readings. In the passage from Daniel, the time of the end promises to bring deliverance from distress, injustice and untimely death through resurrection. The Book of Daniel comes from a time when the practice of Judaism was criminalized by a foreign emperor. The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, its leadership taken over, and a situation emerged in which important and once-cherished institutions ceased to function in ways that were meaningful to the population. Along with their loss of religion came threats to their very existence. Judaism is not just a religion; it is tied to nationalism. It caused great confusion. How does one discern God’s presence and power in the face of such loss? How does one know what the path of faithfulness might be? How do you resist that kind of evil?
This passage uses rich symbols to imagine the end of human history. When seen from that endpoint, chaotic events no longer seem so chaotic but instead may be seen as part of a larger discernible pattern. If you are going to suffer terribly, but then rise again to a new and better existence, it makes it all worthwhile.
It is there once again in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple in Jerusalem. One of the disciples, moved by its awesome size and beauty, remarks to Jesus, "What large stones and what large buildings."
"Wake up!" Jesus responds. "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
'Wake up' is the message to the Church on these Sundays leading up to Advent. The so-called 'Little Apocalypse' of our Gospel reading is the wake up call the Church uses.
These were difficult times for Jesus and his disciples. In the three short years of his ministry, Jesus had managed to anger, not only the temple authorities—the scribes and Pharisees about whom we hear so much—but also the all-powerful Roman authorities. They were under attack from all sides. Jesus knew that it was only a matter of time until something happened.
When a religious leader knew that he was going to die, he summoned his family and disciples and delivered what amounts to his last will and testament. It could include a survey of the past and its lessons. It usually spoke about the possibility of danger or suffering in the future. It exhorted the followers to remain faithful and steadfast through it all. This passage of Scripture certainly does all of those things. With its dire warnings of things to come, it is little wonder that it has been viewed throughout the Christian era as an ominous warning of apocalypse and final judgement.
The early church to which Mark was writing certainly viewed it that way. They understood only too well what it meant to be persecuted. They were struggling not only to survive, but also to interpret the confusing current events that were overwhelming them and to put such events into context with their new found Christian faith. Jerusalem was under the merciless onslaught of Titus and the Roman army. In fact the entire city including the massive, beautiful temple, was destroyed in 70 CE. Not only that! Peter and Paul—the two mainstays of the early church--had both been put to death. To hear such words as these on the lips of their Saviour, "When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come," must have been reassuring to that faithful remnant.
They have served as words of comfort, not only to the early Christians, but also to persecuted and suffering people throughout every era. Such times have always brought with them prophets of doom. Such prophets have found it convenient to interpret apocalyptic passages in the light of their present situation. Throughout history we read of dire warnings predicting the imminent end of the world. Or of groups of people waiting on mountaintops for the final judgement day. Cultic events such as 'Jonestown' where there was a mass suicide are the ultimate societal responses to apocalyptic thinking.
However, I suspect that most of us in this church this morning don’t spend much time thinking in terms of apocalypse. We dismiss readings about the end of times as unfulfilled or irrelevant. After more than two thousand years it seems useless to even try to update them to maintain a vision of what they were about. And yet there is so much terror to be experienced in our world.
I have never seen the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City, but I can certainly imagine that they were awesome structures. Two graceful buildings of steel and glass rising one hundred and ten stories into the air! Many tourists must have stood in the street looking up at them in amazement.
And then on 9/11 we all watched in horror as the towers were reduced to rubble. Could this be the end of time? Isn’t that what was on people’s minds? Whenever there are wars or rumours of wars speculations arise. Some of the speculations even lead to people deciding that it is a good time to “get right with God”. Our churches filled up for a time as people gathered to pray for an end to war and violence.
And certainly such events give rise to renewed apocalyptic speculations. There are people in California right now who are experiencing an event of apocalyptic proportions. At any given time there are all sorts of horrible disasters that could lead to speculation that the end of time is approaching. At times the list feels quite overwhelming.
On a personal level, life can be overwhelming to people. Along with sickness and heartache can come despair. The many losses of life can make one feel as if the end is surely coming.
And I must say that I do not know exactly what to make of readings like these. I struggle with them. I continue to ponder about them. Wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and famines have always been part of human existence. They are the things that make the headlines. And yet it seems that Jesus is no closer to returning than when I first began to think about it. So perhaps part of what we as Christians are called to receive from readings like these is the promise and certainty that God is still active in the world.
Through it all, the Church surely is called to be the voice of reason, the voice that says as Jesus said to his disciples, ‘there is no cause for alarm’. The voice that says ‘it is all part of God’s plan for us’. The voice that says ‘put your faith in God and in the future despite every appearance to the contrary’. The voice that says ‘I don’t know when the end will come. That is for God alone to know.’
Perhaps too we are called to be open and curious and to put our faith in God and in the future despite every appearance to the contrary. For our God is a God of hope. And our call is to bear that message of hope to a world in desperate need of hearing it. Amen.
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