The End of the World As We Know It

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28B (Ordinary 33B), Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, for Christmas, I got a book called Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual for the End of the World.  It’s a funny book, but very informative and readable.  The longest part of the book—almost fifty pages—contains short summaries of the major apocalyptic predictions from 2000 BC through 2004 AD, when the book was published.  The end of the world is a very popular subject—people have been thinking about it for a long time.  And it seems like people are thinking about the end of the world even more these days.  The Left Behind series are all international bestsellers.  Action-adventure movies like The Day After Tomorrow make Hollywood lots of money showing the world’s destruction with jaw-dropping special effects.  Whether for religious, political, environmental, or economic reasons, we seem obsessed with the idea that the world is going to end, and end soon.

And so there are a lot of people who, very sincerely, predict dates they believe the world will end.  If we know, they think, we can prepare.  We can say the right prayers, if that’s what’s needed, or stock up on canned goods and bottled water, or whatever it is we need to get through the end of the world.  We can control our fate, even if the world is going to hell in a handbasket around us.  The next prediction coming up that I know of is December 21, when the Mayan calendar runs out.  The last big one was Harold Camping’s prediction that Rapture would come on May 21, 2012.  At a paragraph each, the dates predicted for the world’s end over the past couple thousand years take up almost 50 pages in my handbook.  The last two decades or so have averaged one major apocalypse prediction per year.

When times are tough, when the world seems uncertain, there is a comfort in knowing what will happen.  There is comfort in being able to say that no matter what may happen now—despite all the bad things that are happening to good people and good things happening to bad people—our problems won’t last forever.  For people of faith, there is the added consolation of knowing that there will be a reward for our faithfulness no matter how grim things look.  Throughout history all kinds of religious literature about the end times has been written to reassure people—and sometimes to scare them into behaving.  In the Hebrew tradition, which Jesus inherited, Daniel was the major prophet of the apocalypse.  Hebrew apocalyptic literature is full of dreams and visions, intended for spiritual comfort during times of trial.  Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic writings are not intended to be roadmaps or calendars.  Instead, they are highly symbolic reassurances that God will be with us no matter what.  Even as bad things happen, God is with us, and the bad things won’t last forever.  In the end, evil will be vanquished and God’s will will be done.

Reassurance is all well and good, but people still want to know exactly what’s coming, and they want to know when.  Modern people who read the Left Behind books or listen to the Harold Campings of the world want to know.  The disciples wanted to know, too.  So when they’re admiring the architecture of the Temple and Jesus points out that those monumental pieces of architecture won’t last forever, four of them take him aside to ask when.  What date do they need to have everything done by?  What should they do to prepare?  Do they need to buy swords to drive out the Roman invaders?  Stock up on sacrifices at the Temple to absolve them of their sins before it’s too late?  Stand out on a hilltop on the appointed day wearing their best robes?  When do they need to be ready?  That’s what people today still want to know, isn’t it?  That’s what those fifty pages of dates in the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse are about, right?  When does the world end?  How long do we have?

Jesus doesn’t answer their question.  He doesn’t give them any kind of time frame for when the world will end.  Instead of giving them a straight answer, he simply tells them to pay attention.  Stay vigilant, don’t get complacent.  Over the centuries, people have used his words and other apocalyptic texts in the Bible, from Daniel to the book of Revelation, to produce timelines and predict the date the world will end.  So far, they have all been wrong.

But I know the answer.  I know the date Jesus was talking about.  I know when his prediction became reality.

It happened in the year 70 AD.

Yes, that’s right, 70 AD, just forty or so years after the time of Jesus’ death.  But wait, you say, it’s 2,000 years later and we’re all still here!  The world couldn’t have ended in the year 70!

The world as a whole may still be here, but the world of the disciples ended in 70 AD.  You see, that was the year Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jewish Christian community with it.  The Jews were ruled by Romans, and they hated it.  They expected God to send them a messiah in the form of a military leader who would throw off the yoke of their oppressor and restore the Jewish state.  In 66 AD, they launched a great rebellion that lasted for almost a decade.  They lost.  As part of their campaign, the Roman Army destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple that had been the center of Jewish life.  If you go to Jerusalem today, you can see those great stones the disciples marveled at, fallen down just as Jesus said.  Only one wall remains of the magnificent Temple the Disciples admired.  We call it the Wailing Wall, where observant Jews still go to pray and mourn what was lost.  And it wasn’t just the buildings.  The surviving rebels—and the Romans considered anyone within Jerusalem a rebel—were sold into slavery, never to return.  Throughout that war and its aftermath, many Jews were killed or sent into exile.

The disciples—all the first Christians—were Jewish.  They went to the synagogues and the Temple, they kept Jewish dietary laws and purity rituals, they celebrated Jewish festivals, and they spoke Hebrew and Aramaic.  They looked for new converts within the Jewish fold.  When Paul began preaching to gentiles, there was great debate as to whether or not one could become a Christian without becoming Jewish first.  As the message of Jesus spread to the gentiles, the center of the faith remained in Jerusalem.  They were poor in worldly goods, but they were rich in spirit and rich in the Gospel.  And when Jerusalem was destroyed, so were they.

We don’t know what happened to them.  They disappeared into the mists of history.  Some were probably killed by the Romans or sold into slavery.  Others may have abandoned their Christian faith and melted back into the ordinary Jewish world.  Still others were probably absorbed into the Gentile-Christian community.  The Christian faith survived and flourished, but it was carried by the Greek-speaking Gentiles.  God’s word survived, but the Good News was spoken in Greek, not Hebrew.  The message of Jesus remained and spread, but it was carried by people who spoke a different language, ate different foods, were not circumcised, wore different clothes, told different stories, followed different laws, had different names, sang different songs, and celebrated different festivals.  The church the Jewish Christians had nurtured was gone.  In its place was something different.  But that new church still heard God’s word and preached the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Nobody knows what happened to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.  But I can tell you this: God was with them.  No matter what happened to them, I guarantee you that Jesus Christ was with them, comforting them in their grief and supporting them as they faced hardships and suffering.  And when Christ comes again, whenever that may be, they will be among those who shine like the stars.

In the two millennia since Jesus taught, we are no closer to being able to predict the end of the world than the first disciples were, either the end of the whole world or just our little corner of it.  We can’t put the apocalypse on our calendars or know what it will look like.  We are blessed that we don’t face a threat as dire as the Roman army, which was more powerful and deadly to their way of life than anything we face today.  But our world is changing rapidly, and while some of the changes are good, some are not.  North Dakota, especially, faces a lot of changes brought by the mineral wealth of the area, with money and people both flocking to the state.  Like the disciples, Jesus calls us to be watchful.  As in their day, there are people from all across the political, religious, and economic spectrum, who use the name of God to further their own agenda.  There are some changes we need to adapt to, and others we should not.  We don’t know what the future will look like, and we don’t know what challenges we’ll face along the way.  But this we do know: God is with us, and God will be with us no matter what.  As we face the storms of life, the earthquakes that shake our world, we know that we have a strong foundation in Jesus Christ.  We know that God’s Word will endure forever.  And we know that Christ will come again.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

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