The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver preached the following sermon at St. Edmunds Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2001.
Two questions about the world have always fascinated people. One, how did the world begin and when? And two, how and when will it end? It is the second one that we will think about now.
The Biblical literature that makes references as to how the world will end is called apocalyptic. The word apocalypse means an unveiling or disclosure or revelation. Its subject matter is one or more visions disclosing or unveiling either the future or the heavenly world or both. Commonly, the present age is seen to be under the rule of evil powers who will soon be overthrown and destroyed by God, ushering in an age of blessedness for the faithful. Intense suffering and cosmic catastrophes typically mark the coming of the new age. For example, the gospel of Mark was written around 70 AD, the year that Jerusalem and the temple were re-conquered and destroyed by the Roman Empire as the Jewish war of revolt led to its virtually inevitable climax. That event casts its shadow on the gospel, either because it had recently happened or because it was soon to happen; in fact, Mark has aptly been referred to as a wartime gospel.
We see the impact of the war and its climax especially in the thirteenth chapter of Mark, called the little apocalypse. The big apocalypse is, of course, the book of Revelation.
The October 17, 2001 edition of Christian Century magazine features an article written by Paul Wink titled, Threats to Survival: Apocalypse Now? The first paragraph states, For those trapped in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, that fiery hell must have seemed apocalyptic. In the fleeting moments before they leaped from windows or were crushed under melting I-beams, what passed through their minds? For those who watched in horror, on the streets or on television in their homes and offices, it must have looked as if a mini end-of-the-world Apocalypse had descended.
The November 19, 2001 edition of Time magazines cover page features a photograph of a pumpkin pie with an American flag placed in it accompanied by the statement, Next week American families will set their tables, count their blessings and discover how their lives have changedand how they havent. Commenting on the current mood, the articles states, People decide to get in shape in case they have to run down 50 flights of stairs, while others abandon their diets because fudge is a great antidepressant, and if the world ends tomorrow, they dont want their last meal to be a celery stick.
According the a U.S. News and World Report poll, six in ten Americans believe the world will end or be destroyed, and a third of those think it will happen within a few years or decades. During the last thirty years, books by Hal Lindsey, beginning with The Late Great Planet Earth, have sold over forty million copies. During the decade of the 1970s, Lindsey was the best-selling nonfiction author in the English-speaking world. In the last several years, a series of novels on the rapture by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have been on the best-seller lists. A millennialist reading of Revelation is a frequent theme of television and radio evangelists and prophecy conferences throughout the world. Recently, as I surfed through my viewing options on TV, I saw one of the best-known televisi on evangelists standing in front of a chalkboard displaying biblical signs of the end and suggesting that 2007 may be the year of the second coming. Speaking in the context of a fund-raising drive, he sent the message: You dont want to be burdened when Jesus comes again.
Christians, especially in the old days and even now, turn to the Bible when they speak of the ending of the world, and when they do they are likely to be puzzled. They are not quite sure what to think or what the Bible really means, how seriously to take it, and how to reconcile not only the differences they find within it, but also the difference between what it says and their own conscience.
Lets try to clear the ground by saying three things. First, it is undeniable that the write rs of the New Testament thought that the end of their world was near. Without quoting chapter and verse, we can say quite simply that if you look through your New Testament you can verify that statement. It runs through the whole New Testament. The assumption is that the present order is about finished. They all have the feeling that the world was short of breath and that its days were numbered, that human society, as they knew it, was beyond repair. And they believed that Jesus was both the end of the old order and the beginning of a new one. In other words, they were living between two worlds; one was dying and the other had already been born!
Secondly, what about Jesus himself? What did he think? It is not easy to say. In the Gospels he speaks about the end of the world as though it were coming soon. This generation will not pass away before these things happen he is reported to have said; that is, in less than twenty-five years it will be over and done with. And he was right, in one sense. Within forty years Jerusalem had been destroyed. It was in dust and ashes and the Jewish people had lost all their national identity.
And a third thing that may help clear the ground is the fact that whatever the writers of the New Testament thought, whatever Jesus thought, the end of the world did not come. The end of their world came, yes. But the end of the world as a whole didnt come. There wasnt a total demolition of the historic process else we wouldnt be here now! There was an ending but it wasnt a dead end because another world began. There was an end and at the same time a new beginning.
We all know something about the end of the world in that sense. We have seen it happen in history not by observing it, not by living through it, but by reading about it. We know that when Rome fell in 476 the Western European world came to an end in a very definite sense. The barbarian darkness settled over it for five or six hundred years, and that world wasnt the same. It had gone!
Sometimes we know it even in a more personal way. Sometimes we meet a man who will say something like this, My wife died last week. My world came to an end. We know what he means. Or he may say, My business has failed. My whole world has come to an end. Or, a woman may say, My health has gone. All my hopes have collapsed, and my world has come to an end. We know ahead of time that there is no promise of permanence written into the constitution of life, nor is there any promise of permanence written into the Gospel. There is no promise that what you have now you will always have. There is no such thing in real life as tenure in academic life. We live from day to day by grace, not by grant, and from one day to the next we cannot be sure exactly what will happen or how long it will last.
Sometimes we know this about the world itself and we see it more clearly when we meet Jesus face to face. We may turn away; many have. We may refuse the conditions. We may prefer to go our own way; to hold on tight to our way of profits, pleasures and special privileges. If we do, that is the end of our world. It begins from then on to crumble, and our world can best be described in the phrase of T.S. Eliot, fear in a handful of dust.
For example, Warren Buffet, a financial investment genius and second-richest man in America, has his doubts about life beyond the grave, and he worries about his world ending at his death. Buffet admits, There is one thing I am scared of. I am afraid to die. His biographer Roger Lowenstein, writes: Warrens exploits were always based on numbers, which he trusted above all else. In contrast, he did not subscribe to his familys religion. Even at a young age, he was too mathematical, and too logical, to make the leap of faith. He adopted his fathers ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity. And thus Warren Buffet, one of the most successful men in the world, is stricken with one terrifying fear, the fear of dying, the fear of ending his world as he knows it. On a lighter note, Buffet once said, What I want people to say when they pass my casket is, Boy, was he old!
We can let the old world go and the new one begin. We may be like the sick in Galilee who loved Jesus because he gave them hope of health; or we may be like the sinners who adored him because he gave them hope for a new life; or we may be simply like the fishermen who followed him because they knew instinctively that he was someone they wanted to follow, that they ought to follow because he was so supremely right. He didnt always make good sense to them, but that didnt stop them. If we do that we will know that Jesus was the end of one world and the beginning of another. We know it instinctively.
We will not try to get out of this world. We will not try to flee from its distress and danger; and we will not waste our energy on weeping wailing over it. We will try to get more deeply into both its suffering and its joys, and we will know that beyond this world there is even something more. There are places in the Gospel where Jesus talks about a second coming, the coming of the kingdom, not as something happening soon but at the end of time. This leads us into deep waters, but we all know that it corresponds to something that we feel, perhaps not always, but at times. We sense that there is something even more beyond time and space, where the wrinkles will all be pressed out, where the imperfections will be set right, and where time will be taken up into eternity. But in the meantime, we who take the road less traveled by, whether we be young or old, learned or ignorant; we who meet Jesus head on for the first time, perhaps, and do not reject him but see in him the possibility of a new life, will not ask, When will the end come, or how will it come? We will ask, Lord, how and where can I help most? How can I best point the way to the new world that has already begun, that I have found, that has found me? Tell me how to do what I know I ought to do and show me how to live in this world now even though I know that it may not go on forever and ever and ever as it is. And if and when it comes to an end and I be left still standing, help me to stand straight, ready for the next chapter, not knowing what it will be like or when it will begin.
Let us pray. Take our thoughts, O Lord, about these mysterious and wondrous things. Use them for what they are worth. Correct them where they are mistaken. Supplement them where they are incomplete, and plant them in our hearts and minds where they may grow and someday perhaps bear fruit. AMEN.
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