November 18, 2012 – 25 Pentecost, Proper 28
Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
My parents are from Hendersonville, North Carolina, up in the mountains, and as I was growing up, we would drive up every so often from South Carolina through those mountains to visit family. The only way up the mountain was on one of those winding mountain roads, Highway 176 I think, full of hairpin turns, and it was always exciting to watch my dad weave our Pontiac station wagon through one turn after another. As my sister would battle carsickness, which made the drive even more exciting, I would anticipate what might be around the next turn. One trip, as I was learning to read, I began to notice, not just the sharp turns and how my father zipped that big old station wagon around the curves but the various signs that were strategically placed on those sharp turns. Somehow hung on the rock wall of the mountain, or nailed to a tree right beside the big drop off where I could stick my head out the window and see way down below and wonder what it might be like for the car to go rolling off the mountain, were these little signs, one right after another: THE END IS NEAR! THE END IS NEAR!
At first I thought those signs had to do with how much further it was to Aunt Sue and Uncle Johnny’s house but soon I began to realize they were making a bigger statement. THE END IS NEAR had nothing to do with how much further our trip was. It had to do with the end of the world, capitalizing on the obvious danger of the road and encouraging the readers to get things right while we still had time. So, trip after trip, I would see the signs: THE END IS NEAR, THE END IS NEAR. For a while the signs scared me and made me think of what it might be like to crash and die but after a few years I just kind of stopped paying them much attention because obviously the end wasn’t so near after all. Some years later, I came to dismiss the signs even further, imagining them made by a bunch of uneducated hillbillies trying to scare people into believing something that just wasn’t true.
But today I want to tell you that those signs were right: THE END IS NEAR!
When a preacher says THE END IS NEAR what images cross your mind? Maybe you picture some warlike scenes with good guys and bad guys trying to kill each other. Maybe you think of earthquakes and natural disasters. Maybe you equate that with God punishing the unfaithful, sweeping up into heaven those who have done well and condemning for all time the lazy-good-for-nothings. Those four words THE END IS NEAR for many of us are frightening words, ones that bring about distress and confusion. Why would God do such horrific things? What’s the purpose of that kind of havoc-wreaking? Some folks approach the end times with the thought that God will beam up certain ones of us to an eternal glory and leave the rest to suffer horrible sorts of existence. THE END IS NEAR is unsettling and, maybe when we hear words like that, we react like the disciples do today: When is that going to happen? How can I know what to do and when to do it so that I don’t get left out? Maybe we get a little panicky and defensive.
Or maybe when we hear those words THE END IS NEAR we just stop listening. Maybe we’re so sick of the hardline evangelists who seem so cocksure about who is in and who is out and what it takes to get in that we just shake our heads and walk away. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve deleted all the religious channels from your remote control for your television so that you don’t have to deal with those religious zealots.
Part of our proclamation as Christians is that we are living in the end times. What does that mean? How do we process that? The Church has been saying it for 2000 years. Is it even true? Are we just trying to scare people? Have we made a big mistake?
Today we read from a portion of Mark’s gospel called the Little Apocalypse. It’s the part of Mark’s gospel which deals with the end times and basically what Jesus says is that the end is coming, that we cannot precisely know when that will occur, and we should live with a sense of expectancy that the end is near. We can’t know the future but we have the present in which to be faithful. Jesus talks about being hopeful in the end times.
The two books in our Holy Scriptures which are most closely associated with the Apocalypse are the Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel which we read from earlier. Most of us would probably prefer it if neither of the books were in the bible so we wouldn’t have to deal with them. The Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation were written in tumultuous times in the history of the nation of Israel. Daniel is written after the time of the Babylonian captivity during a time of Greek rule. Alexander the Great has divided the area and allowed Antiochus Epiphanes to rule Jerusalem. The temple is desecrated and all things held dear by Israel are threatened. A revolt is led by the Jewish leader Judas Maccabeus which results in a period of independence for Israel. Daniel is written during a difficult time of oppression and violence.
The Book of Revelation is written some 300 years later during a time of oppression at the hands of the Romans. The Emperor Domitian has demanded worship as a god and those unwilling to go along are persecuted or martyred. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, has himself been exiled to an island for not recanting his beliefs. He writes to seven churches in Asia Minor whose members are being martyred for their faith and refusal to worship a human emperor.
Jesus, here in Mark’s Gospel, is speaking during a time of persecution. He is very close to being crucified by the authorities. There is no turning back for him at this point in his ministry. He speaks as one being oppressed to a people being oppressed.
Apocalyptic literature has that in common. It is a voice of those being persecuted, oppressed, martyred for their beliefs. The times are violent and frightening but what a different meaning those words THE END IS NEAR would have under those circumstances. We hear THE END IS NEAR and we think of losing all that is dear to us, being left out or punished. If, however, you were in a horrible situation and I said to you THE END IS NEAR you would feel relief. You mean I won’t have to suffer like this much longer? You mean there is some hope for me? You mean that all this is going to get straightened out? Those things that are overwhelming me don’t have as much power as I thought they did? Apocalyptic literature is always hopeful and encouraging to those whose lives are miserable, those who have suffered injustices, those who are being tortured by life. Very soon God is going to bring healing. God is bigger than any horror you face. God is bringing about salvation. God is transforming all that is evil. God has already won the victory and soon, very soon, we will experience that great new life that God promises. That’s what THE END IS NEAR means.
And what does it mean if we’re not being oppressed? What does THE END IS NEAR mean if we like our lives just the way they are? What does it mean if we’re overly attached to what we have? What does it mean when we don’t want the end to come, when we really are scared about how all that might come about? What does it mean when we think this world and what we have and do here is the only thing that really matters?
The message is still the same though it’s more challenging to hear. The message is that there is something far better in store for us, that all of this is temporary and merely a cloudy vision of what God has purposed for us, that God is healing and transforming all of life, that he will draw us into his kingdom where his will and our wills are aligned, where we will want what God wants for us.
The gospel message certainly has to do with us having to give up what we have but the gospel message ultimately has to do with the temporary being replaced by the eternal, the encouragement that, as we surrender our lives, God gives deeper life.
THE END IS NEAR is about true justice and the invitation to participate in true justice. If all you care about is how much you can get in this life, then everything is going to be wrenched out of your grasp. Do you want to wait until it all gets torn from you or would you like to learn how to surrender it more peacefully? Jesus comes into the world to remind us that THE END IS NEAR and to invite us to participate in that joyfully.
How might you give your life to God more fully this day? How might you change your perspective so as to appreciate that God is transforming all things, not taking things away from you? All of this is temporary and that is very good news, if you’ll let it be good news. Trust and know that God is leading us, that Christ Jesus is our hope and salvation. What we have and what we do is important but really only in so far as it prepares us for what God