Here’s my sermon for this week.
For thousands of years people have been predicting “The end of the world as we know it”. There have always been people who have had some sense that mysterious and destructive events are the beginning of The End. The death of a beloved national leader, the eruption of a volcano, comets appearing in the sky have – all been seen as heralding the end of the world. And people are so worried about such events that they can easily be persuaded that they are about to happen. And then when they don’t, they are left feeling rather silly. Most people know of the famous broadcast of October 1938 by Orson Welles of the H. G. Wells book “The War of the Worlds”. It was so convincing a broadcast that many people in America thought Martians really had landed and that the end of the world had come. Panic was widespread and many even fled from their homes as they tried to escape from the Martians.
Every three years, when I preach on this passage from Mark’s gospel, I check up on the latest theories of The End. And I discover that at any time there are numerous theories about the end of the world about to come true at any moment. This year is a little different in that there appears to be just one end-of-world theory for 2012 – but it’s a big one. Apparently many believe that the world is going to end on the 21st December this year, for no other reason than that date marks the end of the Mayan calendar cycle. The Mayans flourished in Central America prior to the arrival of Europeans and Mayans are still there today, and they have a calendar cycle that lasts 5,125 years – it so happens that it comes to an end on 21st December. Mayans then, and now, simply believe that at the end of the cycle you start a new one – just like on 1st January, our old calendars having finished, we get out that new one someone gave us for Christmas.
And yet thousands of people believe that the end of this Mayan calendar cycle marks the end of the world and that on 21st December, in just a few weeks, and the favourite theory is that we will be hit by a rogue planet that will destroy the earth. Some have helpfully pointed out that the date is – using the American way of giving a date – 122112, so it’s obvious something’s going to happen. If you use the internet just do a search on the date and you’ll see what I mean. And people are taking this seriously. I came across someone who had said: “I don’t think this is going to happen – but I’m going to take some precautions just in case.” So many are taking this so seriously that NASA have a page on their own website explaining that nothing is going to happen – it’s just the end of one Mayan calendar cycle. And that if there were a stray planet heading this way we’d have seen it by now. Not to be outdone the end of the world theorists say that NASA is engaged in a huge cover-up of the truth as it wants to avoid world-wide panic.
People have always thought the end of the world is nigh. There is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun. As the end of the first millennium approached people predicted the end of the world. There was general fear, panic and foreboding throughout the Christian world – people were convinced that the end of the world was coming, and probably felt rather stupid and rather relieved when January 1st in the year 1000 arrived without any problem.
In A.D 67 the Romans, putting down a revolt of the Jewish people, tore down the Temple. People thought that the destruction of this iconic building, God’s dwelling place among his people, marked the end of the world. Today’s gospel reading was written after that event. A disciple speaks to Jesus about the large stones and building that make up the Temple. And Mark has Jesus replying: Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.
For Americans the experience of the loss of the Twin Towers when they were destroyed by terrorists was a similar experience to that of the Jews when they lost their Temple. It wasn’t just the sheer loss of life in New York – it was the loss of one of New York’s and one of America’s iconic landmarks that proved to be so deeply disturbing to Americans and to many others. For Jews the loss of the Temple marked the end of an era. It was the centre of their religious life and a symbol of God’s presence amongst them. To lose it felt like the end of the world as they knew it. The heart of their religion had been torn out – everything changed. And even today the Temple’s loss is still keenly felt.
In these few weeks between All Saints Day on 1st November and Advent Sunday in two weeks time, the Church turns its attention to what is popularly called ‘The Second Coming’ and to the point where Jesus wraps this world up and ushers in the new age of the kingdom of God. The point at which this world comes to and end and the new heaven and the new earth of God’s eternal kingdom come into being. The readings we have highlight this aspect of our Christian faith – the belief that one day Jesus will return and we will live with him for ever.
The people of Jesus’ time seem to have had a strong sense that they were living near the end of time, that they were on the brink of the coming of the Kingdom of God. And following the resurrection the first Christians were expecting Jesus to return at any moment – and yet he hadn’t come back. Here we are 30-40 years after Jesus had ascended and he still hadn’t returned. And they were starting to ask: When’s he coming, then? They were waiting for the end of the world as we know it, and for Jesus to usher in God’s new kingdom. In this passage Mark is saying to the church community for which he wrote his gospel: Don’t worry about the future – stop being alarmed – the end is not coming yet.
And to do so he tells this story of how, after a visit to the Temple with Jesus and the prediction by Jesus that the Temple will be destroyed the disciples are desperate to know: When will this happen? When will the Temple be destroyed? And in reply Jesus himself talked of false prophets who would tell everyone that the end was nigh (and we have certainly seen a good number of those) and of terrifying wars, earthquakes and famines (and we have seen a good number of those, too, as well as floods and torrential rain and forest fires). And all these things, he says, are but the beginning of the birth pangs.
A problem we have today is that various groups look at the world, and they see all the wars and the natural disasters, all the violence and famine and earthquakes, and they say: Look, here are all the disasters that Jesus predicted – we must be reaching the end of the world. Jesus is about to return. And then they try to work out when it will happen, claim to have some kind of insider knowledge, and are consistently wrong. There just seems to be a lot of news of war and natural disaster and the rest these days because we know about them today, because we can see around the world, and receive reports from around the world, that it’s happening. It always has – we just didn’t know about it in the past. And in any case, if you actually look at what Jesus says, he doesn’t say to his disciples that when they hear of wars and rumours of wars and so on it’s a sign he is going to return. He says: Don’t be alarmed, the end is still to come.
What we find that Jesus says to his followers is: Forget all this worry about the future. Jesus calls upon his followers to concentrate on the here and now; because they, just like him, will be attacked and persecuted, some of them will even be put to death. The vital thing is to witness to the truth of the gospel now. Holding fast to the gospel in present troubles is the real task for his disciples, not worrying about what lies ahead in the future. There’s no point in trying to prepare for it by studying texts or looking for signs. The only preparation is to have a living faith in God, a relationship that will see them through anything that happens. And anything that does happen will provide its own opportunities for testifying to God.
In all their troubles and in all that they suffer for the sake of the gospel, Christians can be confident that Jesus is with them to inspire and guide them. Jesus calls upon us to direct our attention to the present rather than spend our time being over-anxious about the future. For the future is in God’s hands. There really is no point in worrying ourselves about future events. This is his message to the disciples in our reading, and what Mark is communicating to the church community for which he wrote his gospel. We are called to concentrate on the present, the here and now. Appropriate planning for the future is important, but don’t spend your time worrying yourself to death, says Jesus. Do not be led astray, he says, get on with the job of being a Christian and carrying out God’s work and learn to trust in God.
As Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch woman who survived a concentration camp, so correctly observed:
Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.