Second Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2021
October 22nd, the end of the world. This day would mark the return of Jesus Christ. Believers would be spared and taken to heaven. Everybody else, well, not so much. There was proof, too. It was clear from the holy scriptures that these were the end times, and that Jesus Christ would soon return. World events, distressing world events, were accelerating. The message was so obvious, how could everybody else miss it? All signs pointed to the climax, to the end, on October 22nd, 1844.
Well, here we are. The end was obviously not on October 22nd, 1844. This particular instance of Christians believing that the end was near is called, “the Great Disappointment.” William Miller, a lay Baptist preacher, had done all his scriptural homework and truly believed, truly believed that all signs pointed to the imminent end of the world. He had also been keeping up with world events. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the acrimony in the United States regarding slavery, revolution was in the air around the world – it all seemed to be ratcheting up to a cataclysmic end, October 22nd, 1844. In the immediate aftermath, when that day passed like all the days before it, there were a few different reactions among the Millerites. There was some fancy theological footwork trying to explain what they had missed. Or some did some hasty recalculations of when Jesus would actually return. Of course, many were bitterly disappointed, having sold all their possessions to prepare for the arrival of Jesus Christ. (See Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,” 905 and Justo González, “The Story of Christianity, Volume 2,” 340),
It’s easy to laugh at the Millerites, but something they started still lives with us. There is this widespread belief that we are living in the “end times.” And I get it, world events seem to be accelerating. The holy scriptures and these cryptic phrases seem to portend an impending doom. Even today, Jesus says, “those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). What do we make of all this?
Well, I stand here today and will say clearly – I do not believe any of that. I do not believe that the holy scriptures are talking about “the end of the world” as we mean “the end of the world.” I do not believe that God soon intends to take us all away to heaven and to destroy the rest of the earth. And I do not believe that current world events point to some imminent divinely appointed cataclysm. I ask us to stop thinking magically, and to start thinking theologically.
So what do we believe? What do we make of all these seemingly ominous words in holy scripture? What do we make of seemingly accelerating world events?
Let’s start with the holy scriptures. The ancient Jews and the early Christians had no concept of the end of the space-time universe like we do. What they did have, however, was a radical hope that the Lord God Almighty would become king in this world. And through that kingship, the world would be put right. N.T. Wright says that the holy scriptures use “end-of-the-world language” because those are the only metaphors adequate to express the significance of what will happen within the space-time universe (N.T. Wright, “Jesus and the Victory of God,” 208), not the end of the space-time universe. The authors of the holy scriptures, inspired by God, used over the top language to get their point across to describe how dramatic it would be when God would be revealed to the people. They used the same language you do. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” “This bag weights a ton.” “This is enough food to feed an army.” You learned about hyperbole in high school English class – don’t forget all that when you read the holy scriptures. So that’s our first stop – the holy scriptures are not describing the end of the world. They are describing the great hope that God would become king.
Now, let’s take an honest assessment of world events. As a student of history I can say this without reservation – the world has always been a mess. It’s just that we watch the news so much now that we think there’s more going on. But think about it, in the early 1960s CBS made a dramatic move by starting to broadcast 30 minutes of daily news instead of 15 minutes of daily news (Robert S. McNamara, “In Retrospect,” 61). Can you imagine how much happier you would be if the news was only on for 15 minutes a day? Now that the news is on for 24 hours, people have got to fill that time with something. And I don’t blame the media for this, I blame us for buying the cable subscriptions and flipping on the television sets. They only air all that because we watch all that.
And then, with all that news going on, we get all frenzied and we start vilifying people. How many times do we have to hear that someone is “the antichrist”? That’s an easy trope, but it has no real connection with the holy scriptures. The only place where “the antirchrist” is mentioned is in the First and Second Epistles of John. And in them, “antichrist” only means someone who is preaching that Jesus Christ was not fully human. That’s it. It’s a specific theological term, not a polemical crowbar. The antichrist and the end times, as they are used today, have little to do with Christian theology.
But the real danger of all this end times talk is that it warps our sense of discipleship. When all we’re thinking about is “the end,” then discipleship, following Jesus, is flattened out to become a way to escape. That’s a really hollow vision of Christianity. True discipleship is not about leaving this world it’s about getting more involved in this world, the world that God created and the world that God loves. Our modern world has given in to a type of nihilism or a cynical defeatism. “Well, the whole world is going to end so why should I care anyway?” That’s the true spirit of these apocalyptic movements, that’s the true spirit of this end times notion. But I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to care. The gospel is diametrically opposed to cynicism.
In a sense, the “end times” vision is all too easy because it offers no meaning. Believe in Jesus and you’ll be spared. And you only have to do it for a little bit longer, because you know, “the end is near.” The true Christian vision is much harder; “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
So what do we make of all these sayings of Jesus about “coming again with the holy angels”? Well, in some ways, that cataclysm has already happened. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. In that way, the world has ended. The world of death and sin as we know it has been turned upside down. But that’s not all. Think of it, the fact that there is such a thing as the Church, the Body of Christ, is an unexpected, mind-bending creation of God. We humans were once divided by gender, by ethnicity, by language – but now we are brought together by the Spirit of God. Compared to the rest of human history, that is cataclysmic. Compared to every other movement in society that slices and dices us, the idea that all people can be made into one family is absolutely explosive. It is the end of the world as we knew it.
And not only that, but through the Church of disciples, by the power of God, the world will be put right. The oppressed shall be lifted up. The poor will be made rich. The hungry will be fed. Again, compared to the rest of human history this is the end of the world as we knew it. The Church is the symbol of the end that God has in mind. I want you to hear this as the liberating, life-giving message that it is. In Christ, you are a new creation. In Christ, you have a family that transcends all those old boundaries. In Christ, the wrongs of the world are being put right. There is no expiration date on this work, there is no day on the calendar for this to happen. It is our work, day by day, to pick up the cross and to be that salt of the earth and light of the world.
So our work, as Christians, ought to be signs of the end of the world as we know it. When you bring in a bag of spaghetti and a jar of pasta sauce for a hungry family this Lent, you are saying that in God’s Kingdom there will be no hunger. When you pray for someone’s healing, you are saying that in God’s Kingdom all people will be healed. When you mentor a student, you are saying that in God’s Kingdom all people are counted as worthy. When you worship, you are saying that God is truly king. Make no mistake – we are very much concerned with the end because our discipleship right now is a sign of the end of the world as we know it. And with that end comes a new beginning. God’s reign of peace, and grace, and love.
So do not be disappointed, and do not be attracted by all those easy answers that say that the end of world is near. The end of the world as we know it has already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So pick up the cross and follow.