Folks, we are two Sunday out from Advent, closing in on the end of one year and the birth of a new one, by the Church’s reckoning, and we’re talking about the end of the world. Not nuclear or environmental catastrophe, those mundane human disasters, but the honest-to-God End Times, when all the structures in which we have come to trust will be thrown down, not a stone left upon stone. When humanity will be terrified and confounded by wars and rumors of wars, by messianic pronouncements, by nation rising up against nation, earthquakes, famines – and all of that is just the beginning of the birthpangs, the early contractions before labor REALLY gets underway.
Let me pause here for a vocabulary check. You might say that Jesus is talking about the apocalypse. A word that we use to mean the sudden and catastrophic end of the current age – maybe the end of everything. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “to uncover or reveal.” In its original sense it referred to teachings or writings that do what Jesus is doing here: reveal the signs of the coming end of things. As for the end itself, Biblical scholars would call that the Eschaton: the final, fulfilling event in the divine plan. I’m not going to tell you that you’re using the word apocalypse wrong, because we’ve used it that way for so long that its meaning has shifted. But I am going to use the church’s word for the end of everything, Eschaton, to remind us that we’re talking about God’s fulfillment of history – and that we’re not talking about, say, zombies.
We don’t know a lot about the Eschaton. The texts are complicated and unclear. But our Scriptures and our tradition tell us it’s going to happen. How do we think about that, as Christians? As Episcopalians?
When we get into the End Times, my mind always goes to a couple of literary characters. One comes from the work of James Thurber, the great mid-20th-century humorist. In an essay in his book “My Life and Hard Times,” he recalls a colorful character from his youth in Columbus, Ohio: The Get-Ready Man. Thurber writes, ‘The Get-Ready Man was a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world, “GET READY! GET READ-Y!” he would bellow, “THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!”’ His startling exhortations added a certain note to many civic occasions.
On the other hand, a New Yorker cartoon some years back showed a similarly wild-eyed, gaunt, unkempt elderly man on a street corner, holding up a sign that read, “It’s just going to go on and on…”
I like to think of those gentlemen as marking out two schools of thought about the end of the world: Get Ready, versus On and On.
This is a significant division within contemporary Christianity. Some Christians are deeply concerned and interested in end times, spend a lot of time with Scripture texts that predict or describe, made the Left Behind series into bestsellers, and even promote policies that they believe will help bring on the Eschaton. Get ready!!
Then there are the On and On Christians, including most Episcopalians. Our chosen bestsellers are more likely to be written by Barbara Kingsolver or Bob Woodward. We worry about nuclear and environmental disaster, for sure, but the Eschaton per se is not really on our radar. We acknowledge the Eschaton and the Second Coming of Christ as teachings of the church, but don’t give it a lot of thought. I mean, it’s a weird thing to believe – that Jesus is going to float down from the sky someday and replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness that God intended for us.
The earliest Christians, our ancestors in faith, were mostly in the Get Ready camp. They expected that Jesus would return ANY MINUTE NOW, to usher in God’s new world. They waited and watched, expectant, impatient. Some even quit their jobs and refused to marry.
Their expectation was based on things Jesus had said – in texts like today’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ small-town-born disciples are impressed with the size of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus says, Don’t get too attached. On the brink of the Last Supper, arrest, and death, Jesus tells his friends that big, terrifying changes are in the wind.
As I read the text, with 2000 years’ hindsight, I think that Jesus is talking about two different things at once: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple about forty years later, a genuinely apocalyptic event for Jews and Christians of that time. Jesus predicts that the Temple will be destroyed, as it was; that his followers will be persecuted, as they were; that there will be bitter conflict over the Gospel, as indeed there was and is; that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, as indeed it has been.
But later in the same chapter, he also describes a more cosmic final ending (and beginning) that has yet to occur: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken… They will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from… the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
In a couple of weeks we’ll hear Luke’s Jesus prophesying with similar words: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The emotional tone of these texts, I find, is interestingly ambiguous. There is fear, certainly – even terror. In Mark 13, Jesus tells his friends, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation… until now, no, and never will be.”
These apocalyptic prophesies stir up dread, of course. But there are also hints of a kind of fierce, bitter hope. The world as it was had not been kind to the people who became the first Christians. They had reason to find comfort in the vision of a world turned upside down, a Great Day in which God’s might would sweep over the powers and principalities of this world, leaving rubble and ashes.
It’s fitting that the lectionary pairs Jesus’ apocalyptic words with the song of Hannah, many centuries older. Hannah was one of two wives of a good and loving man, Elkanah. Hannah had no children, while the second wife, Penninah, had many sons and daughters. And Penninah used to mock Hannah cruelly. Hannah prays fervently to God and God gives her a son, Samuel, Israel’s great prophet and kingmaker. When she dedicates Samuel to God’s service, she sings this song – so like the familiar Magnficiat, the Song of Mary, but different too, mostly because Hannah is angrier than Mary.
Hannah sings, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth… The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.”
In context, Hannah’s anger reflects her rival’s cruelty. But I hear a resonance with the combined fear and exaltation in some Christian apocalyptic texts: God’s New Day is coming, and those who made the current age a living hell for many are going to get theirs. And I hear, too, a resonance with the voices of friends and acquaintances today, who look at our brutal society, our polarized politics, our wounded environment, and say, only half kidding: Burn it all down. Even though I’m doing fine, even though my house is warm and my kids are healthy: It’s all too broken to fix. Burn it down and start fresh.
Episcopalians tend, by history, theology, and social status, to be On and On type Christians. We build stone churches and establish endowments. We plan for the long term. But here as a dark season grows darker, as the old year decays and the new year stirs towards birth, I think there are gifts for us in the Get Ready. I find that each year, Advent’s rich brew of hope and trepidation gets more real to me.
Beloveds, we live in an amazing time. The number of people around the globe living in extreme poverty declined sharply between 2000 and 2015. In roughly the same years, the percentage of Americans who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be able to get married rose from 35% to 62%. And I am always mindful that I could not have served this church as a priest anytime earlier than 1976. There is so much possibility in the world, and so much to love. There are so many moments when I just pause and breathe and think, This is good. Thank you.
But there are moments, too, when I’m so hungry for the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. Because things are so broken. Close to 200 dead in Paradise, California, after a wildfire made worse by global climate change. A black security guard apprehends a gunman and is himself shot dead by police. My friend Dave, the priest in Baraboo, had to find words for a letter to his congregation about high school boys doing the Nazi salute in a prom photo.
How long, O Lord? Until this world’s long labor finally births God’s new reality? Get ready!
As we lean towards Advent, as we lean into the darkness of this season, I find that what’s most whole and most true for me is to live in the On and On with some of that spirit of Get Ready. Doing what little I can to leave things better than I found them; while trusting – hoping – fearing that God may upset the whole apple-cart at any time, and replace it with something better.
First-century Christians thought they were living at the end of time – expecting the Eschaton to break through at any moment. It’s easy to look back and think they were wrong,
but they weren’t, really – because what was important is the way their Get Ready mindset, their confidence in God’s transcendent purposes working inexorably towards fulfillment even through our struggle and confusion, made them live in their present as people of God’s future.
I look to those ancestors in faith to teach us how to live in the On and On inflected by the urgent, angry hope of Get Ready: Recognize that everything is provisional. Hold lightly the ways of this age – even the things that are working pretty well for us. Expect loss. Expect grace. Expect change. Jesus says, Keep your eyes open! Stay awake!