Mark 13:24-37 / Proper 28B / 25 November 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
What has a beginning also has an ending. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The world as we know it has a beginning. And it also has an ending. As God worked the beginning, so He works the ending.
We’ve come to the end of the church’s calendar. The last Sunday of the church year. Next week a new beginning with Advent. Today a look at the end of all things from the words of Jesus. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s hard to imagine everything coming to an abrupt end. We’re more inclined to think in terms of a slow wasting away, running down like an spent battery on its last charge. We simply can’t fathom the idea of a final day, a day when everything as we know it comes to an appointed end, when everything vanishes in a flash. The apostle Peter talks about the elemental things (he meant earth, air, fire, and water) being destroyed. It doesn’t seem possible, but in fact, it is as possible as in the beginning God creating the heavens and the earth.
Jesus speaks of signs in the heavens – the sun darkened, the moon not giving light, the stars falling from heaven, the powers in the heavens being shaken. Nothing we’ve ever experienced in this life – whether natural or manmade, whether hurricane, tornado, earthquake, atomic bomb – can compare with what Jesus is describing.
The tendency is either doubt or dread. Either we doubt all this end times talk and go about our business as though this world will go on forever. Or we dread the coming end and live in fear, seeking signs, looking for some way to get it on our calendar, somehow tame it and bring it under out control. The world’s tendency is to laugh it off as just another piece of religious superstition that isn’t worth troubling ourselves over as we eat and drink our way through life. But Jesus would have us on the alert and watchful, waiting and watching for the approaching Day not with fear or dread but with hope and longing.
The end of the world as we know it means the coming of the Son of Man with great power and glory. The appearing of Jesus as the Son of Man reminds us that one of us reigns over all things at the right hand of God; that our humanity has been glorified in Christ and raised to the highest level of majesty and glory and honor, and our eternal destiny is not destruction but salvation and life.
The Last Day is a day of gathering, as the angels gather Christ’s elect, His baptized believers, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. It’s a Day of reunion with the saints who have gone before us, a day of gathering the scattered church, a day of making one what now appears to be fragmented and hopelessly scattered. As everything in this world falls apart, the church is brought together.
Jesus gives the sign of life. Just as He called the wars and disasters of this age the “birth pangs,” so He compares these cosmic signs to the budding fig tree of spring. Again life is the theme. The destruction of the heavens and the earth is a sign of life! Who would have guessed it? Who could have known it?
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away, until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. For anyone who thinks the Bible was smoothed over by those in power to make its message marketable, I would hold out this verse. It would have been easier if the early church would have conveniently lost this verse, as it would appear that Jesus was wrong. The world didn’t end in His generation, even though the Christians certainly expected the end to come in their lifetime. Even the apostle Paul expected to be alive at the end.
But this verse remains, and it wasn’t edited away, and it forces us to consider even more deeply what Jesus was saying. In a sense, “these things” actually took place. There was darkness and earthquake and even a resurrection when Jesus died on the cross. That, in a very real sense, was the end of the world as we know it. Jesus embodied the whole world, the cosmos, in his own body, and so when He died, the world, for all intents and purposes ended.
“These things” came to pass some forty years later, when the Roman army overran Jerusalem and tore down the temple until not one stone was left upon another. Many thought the end of the world was about to come even then. And there is always in Christianity a sense of urgency, of end-times-ness. Every generation of believer believes that the end will come in his lifetime. The early church fathers did. Luther did. They all did. And even if they weren’t “correct” in their timing, they were spot on in their vision of what life in the end times is like. We are always living as though this present moment is on the threshold of the last day.
That’s end times living. That’s eschatological living, to use the fancy word. We have been in the “end times” since the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, since He poured out His Spirit upon His church. 1980 years of living in the final chapter of human history. And it’s an amazing final chapter. Think of everything that has happened in the last 1980 years in terms of civilization and government and science and technology and exploration and knowledge. It’s been incredible, really. So incredible that we can be deceived into thinking it will never pass away, and we would be terribly wrong. Heaven and earth will pass away. Everything of this present created order will pass away. But the Word of the Lord will never pass away. When will it happen? When will the end come? You can’t know. The day and the hour are hidden in the mind of the Father. So hidden that Jesus didn’t know when He spoke those words. That means don’t try to find out, and don’t believe anyone who claims to know. No one knows.
Instead, be on guard. Be alert. Be sober, watchful, vigilant. Like a doorkeeper waiting from the master to return. And no matter what time of day or night he comes, the watchman is waiting. Ready. Focused. Awake. That doesn’t mean you don’t go to sleep at night. It doesn’t mean you quit your job and stand around gaping into the skies waiting for Jesus to appear. It means that you go about the work you’ve been given to do, your vocation, with the knowledge and understanding that any day could be the Day of the Master’s return, any day could be the world’s Last Day.
And should you panic and despair, think on this: You’ve been baptized into the death of Jesus. His good Friday has become your last day. You’ve died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Already now. The Last Day brings your baptismal day to its completion and fulfillment. It’s the day of your rising, the day when all the God has promised and given you in Baptism through the death and life of Jesus comes to its completion and you get to see what you know must believer. And that’s worth watching and waiting for, isn’t it?
How then shall we live, knowing that the end of the world as we know it could be any day? Jude lays out a simple plan for us. First, build yourselves up in your most holy faith, the faith once delivered to the saints, the faith that looks to Christ and clings to Him and confesses Him to be Savior and Redeemer who by His blood has made you His own.
Pray in the Holy Spirit. The end times calls for prayer, the peculiar conversation between a child of God and his or her heavenly Father. We are not left on to drift alone, we have the gift of prayer, the invitation to call upon God in every trouble, the promise that He hears our prayers and receives them with joy.
Keep in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, we are waiting for mercy not wrath. And now we receive that mercy in the form of forgiveness, being washed from our sins, being fed by the Body and Blood, being forgiven and set free. To keep in the love of God is to be on the receiving side of God’s love in Christ. That’s what we’re doing here. It’s not about avoiding hell so much as it’s about receiving heaven. A foretaste of the feast to come. A sneak preview of the coming attractions of the Last Day.
Have mercy on those who doubt. We’re here to support one another. Living in the “now and not yet” of the end times can bring doubt to some, temptation to others. We don’t live alone, we don’t believe alone. The church is a body of believers, not an aggregate of individuals. It’s terribly tempting at times to write off the doubting and the wandering. It’s easier to rest with the 99 sheep and forget about the one lost one. But the Lord won’t have it. He died for them all and seeks them all. Jude has a sober warning for those who would reach out to the fringes – “show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” Don’t think for a moment that you are immune from temptation, that you are too strong to fall. It can happen to you too, and if it does, you’ll be grateful for those who took the risk to seek you.
If it rested on us, we’d be doomed. If it rested on our faith and faithfulness and the strength of our believing and our walking the walk, we wouldn’t survive the end of the world as we know it. But thanks be to God, it doesn’t rest on us but on Jesus. That’s where Jude leaves us, and that’s a good place to end at the end of the church year.
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through jesus Christ, our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before every age and now and to all the ages. Amen.”
In the name of Jesus,