Saturday, December 1, 2012

At the End of the World

Luke 21:24-35
Advent 1
December 2, 2012
William G. Carter

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” 

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Where do you want to be at the end of the world? There is a small town on the western edge of France, near the Pyrenees Mountains. When the end of the world comes, some people are saying you have to be there.

It is the village of Bugarach, a scenic hamlet of 176 residents in the shadow of a large mountain. Villagers joke, “It’s not exactly the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” The conspiracy theorists are much more serious. They believe there are extraterrestrials sleeping in caves deep inside the mountain.

And on December 21 of this year, when the world is supposed to be destroyed according to the ancient Mayan calendar, the extraterrestrials are supposed to wake up, climb into the spaceships that they have stashed in their caves, and rescue the people of Bugarash by taking them to another planet.

I don’t make this stuff up. It comes from a two-year-old article in the New York Times.[1] CNN calls it “the Doomsday Destination.” And I suspect as we get closer to December 21, there may be more waves of anxiety breaking on shore.

You know about December 21, right? The ancient Mayan people had a calendar that stretched into the future, and December 21, 2012 was the last date on their calendar. They were an ingenious and capable people, so some true believers think the Mayans knew the world would run out on December 21. Scientists point out that the Mayan calendar made no adjustments for leap years, so it’s probably a good bit off. Skeptics remind us that, as fortune-telling goes, the Mayans did not predict the demise of their own civilization around the year 1100 AD. But still, the X-Files conspiracy hunters are pretty much convinced: the end of the world is coming.

My wife asked, “Should I bother to wrap your Christmas presents?” I said, “Nah, just give them to me now.” Then I thought better of it and added, “You had better wrap them after all. If the end comes, I won’t have a lot of time to enjoy them. And if doesn’t come, I will enjoy the surprise.” (I think I’m getting sock and underwear.)

Jesus speaks of the end of the world in our Gospel text. That is how the season of Advent always begins: with an end of the world Bible passage. “There will be signs in sun, moon, and stars. The powers of heaven will be shaken,” he says. “On the earth, people will be terrified by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

If you believe, as I do, that terrifying storms can be caused by global warming, this is indeed a scary thing. And if you are somebody who believes the weather patterns are part of some big natural cycle, you still have to concede that we have been putting a lot of junk in the sea, the soil, and the atmosphere for a long time. Our recklessness and overpopulation puts great stress on the planet. Some people think the end of the world will come from an ecological meltdown.

I had lunch with an economist the other day. He thinks the world is heading for a financial meltdown. Forget whatever financial cliff you have been hearing about. He says the amount of global indebtedness is going to drag human civilization down the drain. His prediction is that sometime in the next two years, the American economy is going to fall apart. I was trying to sip some corn chowder while he told me this; I lost my appetite.

Others remind us of what none of us want to remember: that technology has led us to develop weapons that could wipe out billions of people in a few mushroom clouds. That was the quiet fear of my childhood, maybe yours. We sat in the hallway of Washington Gladden Elementary School to duck and cover our heads, just in case the wrong person pushed the wrong button somewhere. The fear kept me awake sometimes. Eleven years ago, that same fear sent our country into two wars. And even though the fear turned out to be based on untruths, we haven’t been able to get out of the war business. 

Where are you going to be when the world comes to an end?

Do you know what Jesus says? You are going to be standing on the ground, lifting up your eyes, and seeing the Son of Man coming with power and great glory. He is teaching that the end of the world is a time of hope. The end of the world is an event for God to make everything right about the world as we know it. The end of the world is a moment of redemption; that’s a grand Biblical word that means “God is going to buy everything back,” that God will pay off the ransom to get his people back. That’s redemption.

What strikes me is that this is such a different view of the same old fear-mongering that we get in every generation. Every generation has earthquakes, massive storms, and wars. According to our text, Jesus is not the least bit surprised at this. The world is a perpetual mess. That is why God sent Jesus into the world, to do something about the mess. That is why Jesus calls us to join him to keep doing something about the mess. And the hope we are given by Christ is that a final day will come when God will say, “enough is enough,” and God will come to buy back all of his people. The word is “Redemption.”

In the ancient world, redemption was paying off a slave owner so the slave could go free. Redemption was cancelling an unwieldy debt so a family was released from it. Watch for this, says Jesus. Don’t get dragged down by the doom and gloom. Turn a deaf ear to the naysayers and the nattering nabobs of negativity. This world belongs to God, the only true God, the God of love and justice. It does not belong to those who traffic in fear or cultivate destruction. It belongs to God. We have to keep that in perspective.

Jean-Pierre DeLord knows that. He is the mayor of the little town of Bugarach. He has been re-elected mayor for thirty-nine years. As he watches all the wide-eyed crazies descend upon his little village and start their final countdown to Apocalypse, he says, “This is the 183rd end-of-the-world prophecy since antiquity.” He sighs and says they will get through this one too.

The best way to be on guard is to keep loving all the people that Jesus loves. To keep teaching the children that perfect love drives out all fear. To keep protecting those who are frightened for they are God’s beloved ones. To feed the hungry, to rebuild the disrupted, to offer a hand-up to those who have been pushed down. We don’t have to live by terror or fear. Oh no.

When the end of the world comes, I want to be right here – at the communion table – offering the bread of Christ’s life and the cup of Christ’s mercy.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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