Notes on the End of the World
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Isaiah 64: 1-4; Mark 13: 24-26, 32-37
December 3, 2023
What I offer today will take the form of a series of notes, fragments that I hope will form something of a mosaic by the time I’m through. Each fragment, each note, is like a chipped stone, placed against the others to create a larger, a wider, effect that may only be seen from a distance. It’s a form that seeks to imitate the wider truth of Advent, waiting for something, though we know not what, hoping for something, though we can, as yet discern no shape. In Advent, we see through a glass but darkly, as the Apostle Paul says. Here, then, are my attempts to discern a form.
When I was a freshman in high school, a couple of other students I knew shared that, according to calculations that someone had made, Jesus was going to return on a Monday in October. It was a few weeks into the new school year, and I dreaded having to enter the school doors every day. Our family was still new in town, I hadn’t found a group of friends I trusted, and I was terrified that I would say or do something that would draw the laughter of others. One day, that’s what happened: I was walking up a wide set of stairs in the high school lobby between classes and I tripped. I spilled my books and papers everywhere. No one was mean, but no one was especially kind either. I picked my things up, mortified, and wished I could melt into the floor.
So when I heard the kids from a fundamentalist church say that Jesus would come back on a Monday, I thought, well good. Though it wouldn’t last long, I too had retreated into a kind of fundamentalist shell, one that felt protective and manageable. It was like having a secret place in my being, where all the outer anxiety I felt could somehow be assuaged, and where a larger being, the largest of all, reassured me that I was more than just the awkward and anonymous high school boy that I was. A part of the story that I retreated into in that brief period was that someday, the sky would darken and the moon would cease to give off light, and that the Son of Man, Jesus, would return in the clouds.
On the Monday in question, I was wise enough to be a little incredulous of that claim – after all, know one knows the day or hour, I had read in the Bible. But that day I walked around the school wondering, what if it happened? What if Jesus did come back, and the world as we knew it did cease to exist? What if the sky split open, and Jesus gathered those he loved, and who loved him in return, into his company?
Of course, you know how the story ends. Jesus didn’t come back, and the next morning I got up and went back to school, which, you’ll be glad to know, got way better as the months progressed. In time, I came to think that if Jesus was real at all, he wouldn’t show it by appearing in the clouds, but by giving me, and presumably everyone, the power to navigate whatever terrain we might be walking through, whatever greater or smaller tremors of the spirit we might face.
I quickly outgrew that theology, and I admit that I am now quite impatient whenever I have to confront it. One of the reasons I like being a Congregationalist is that I rarely have to! But sometimes, when I let myself, I can recall what it was like to feel deeply unsure of myself, to feel lost and alone, and to find such a belief system comforting. When I recall what that was like, I begin to feel something closer to compassion than impatience when dealing with those belief systems now.
I don’t often pay attention to the lectionary. It’s a device that has unified Christian churches over the years, so that on any given Sunday, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and all the rest, might consider the same Scripture passage. I often find the lectionary too confining, but because Advent has begun, I decided to use it this week. Curiously, the selected passages for the week have nothing to do with the Christmas narrative. In fact, the selection from Mark’s Gospel comes from an episode at the end of Jesus’s life, just before he dies. Not only that, it’s a passage in which Jesus seems to be speaking about the end of the world. Which means that at some point in history, a committee of learned and careful thinkers decided that this passage, where Jesus speaks about the end of the world, should be what starts our journey toward Bethlehem, and toward Christmas. In other words, we’re asked to consider the kind of text that fueled my adolescent imagination during my brief foray into conservative fundamentalism. I wonder why. It seems to fall at the opposite end of the spectrum of everything that Christmas is about. Where Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, we’re suddenly asked to consider the end of his life. Where Christmas is gentle, this passage from Mark is strange, and kind of frightening. Where most of Advent seems to be about human people we recognize – Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah and John the Baptist – this passage is about a cosmic rupture. Are we to think that, somehow, the birth of Jesus brings about the end of a certain world, even while another struggles to come into being?
The passage itself, from Mark 13, is far more complex than the fundamentalists would have us think. At its most basic level, that of an unfolding story, it simply foreshadows what will befall Jesus and his disciples in a few short chapters. When Jesus is executed, the sun is blotted out. The world is darkened. It is as though all the light has departed from the world. The disciples struggle to stay awake, and they do in fact fall asleep. So at the level of the story, the imagery of Mark 13 points to the shattering event of the crucifixion.
But another set of meanings is also at play in this passage. We know that Mark’s Gospel was written sometime after 70 AD, at least forty years after the events that it recounts. We know that because Mark 13 describes with some accuracy the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans. In the year 66, some radical Jews had seized Jerusalem from the Romans, which, after a bitter four year war, resulted in the Romans leveling the Temple, so that only its western wall remained. That too was a shattering event, not unlike when the Babylonians had destroyed Solomon’s Temple centuries earlier. It was quite literally the end of the world, not in a cosmic sense, but certainly in a sociopolitical sense. Going on in the same way as before was simply impossible.
Mark’s Gospel finds Jesus predicting those events, foretelling them, decades before any of it came to pass. Which means that Mark’s Gospel was written to those struggling to cope after the world had fallen apart. It wasn’t only the physical destruction produced by the Romans – it was a crisis of faith as well. The dwelling place of God had been destroyed, which would have implied either that God had let it happen, or that God was powerless to stop it from happening. Worse yet was the possibility that there was no God at all, that the entire Temple edifice and its ritual system concealed an absence at the center of the universe, a kind of screen behind which was…nothing at all.
The writer of Mark imagines Jesus speaking into that situation, helping readers and listeners to understand that even in the wreckage, God had not abandoned them. It suggests that God does indeed draw near, though not in the ways humans, then or now, conventionally think about God. God is usually imagined as a kind of cosmic center of power, but Jesus is a person of flesh. God is traditionally conceived as a strong authority, grounding all other authority, but Jesus doesn’t possess that kind of authority at all – he is a peasant preacher who doesn’t seem especially interested in authority. God is thought to be the prime mover of the universe, but Jesus appears first as a tiny baby, born to poor people at the outermost edges of an empire, and then as a suffering man.
Perhaps the writer of Mark’s Gospel is saying: God has not abandoned you. God will never abandon you. It’s just that God is something other than what you thought. From the wreckage around you, the writer seems to say, God is struggling to come into the world anew.
We often don’t recognize when something is happening for the final time. There’s the last day at school or the last day on a job, but most endings slip by unnoticed. I think about it all the time with my kids. I couldn’t tell you when, but there was a last time that I gave each of them a bath. But I can’t remember when that was. There was a last time I helped them to eat, or sang them songs at bedtime, or read them stories. I never knew it was the last anything. It just happened. But it’s true across all of our lives – blessedly, thankfully, we don’t always know it, but there is a last conversation with a friend, a last visit to a special place, a last drive along a particular street, a last meal shared with someone we love. And then one reality that we have known dissolves, while another, sometimes better, occasionally worse, comes into being.
This Advent season, I’m acutely aware that it shall be the last one in which all of our children are living at home, and if I think about it too long, I might fall apart. One part of our world is coming to an end. But another one, one that I trust shall be good, is waiting to be born.
We navigate endings all the time. Certain versions of the world are ending in every moment. The mistake is to believe that any of it is permanent. Is it that structure of ending that we confront in Advent…one dispensation of our lives comes to a close, in order that another might come to life?
Over the past several years, I have heard people give voice to an uneasy premonition. “What if we’re living through the end of the world,” I have heard it asked. They don’t mean it in a cosmic sense, not the way I imagined it as a high school freshman. Instead, the question arises as a reflection of the war being waged in Ukraine, and the utter savagery now being visited upon Gaza. It arises from summers when smoke blankets the continent, when hurricanes become steroidal, when fires scorch whole towns, when cities bake under a relentless sun. Faced with such realities, who could blame anyone from wondering if the world is coming to an end?
Maybe we could put it this way. Certain stories do seem to have run their course. The story of endless economic growth. The story of cheap limitless energy. The story of commodities bought cheap, and then quickly disposed of. The very story of consumer capitalism, at least as it has been imagined so far.
Add to that the way other stories seem to have run their course as well. Ethnic nationalism in the case of Russia; religious nationalism in the case of Israel; white saviorism across the globe; patriarchy in all of its manifestations.
Now add to that the way religion itself, the very narratives and structures that have lent meaning and support to so many people over the years is in steep decline, in no small part because of the sheer mendacity of the institutions bearing the name of religion.
Old stories are crumbling, even if it’s also true that those still in thrall to the old ways are far from relinquishing their power. Is that what it is to arrive at the end of something – a desperate clinging, like Herod in the Advent narrative, to an order that is already on the verge of collapse?
What might it mean to relinquish our fear, and to trust, in faith, with Mark’s Gospel as our guide, that something new, and healing, that something life affirming, is struggling to be born from the wreckage?
I return, finally, to the lonely adolescent I once was, sitting in a study hall, hoping that Jesus might come back. I return as well to all of those who, from whatever mixture of fear or disappointment, dread or alienation, attach themselves to the belief that Jesus will come again in the clouds. In some part of my being, I understand them, for I have been them.
If I could speak to my 14 year old self, here is what I would say: Jesus is coming back. He is always coming back. Just not in the way you imagine. Jesus is the name that we give to the assurance that even when things seem to be falling apart, it might better be understood as the labor pains of a new world being born. Jesus is the name that we give to the hope that from whatever wreckage the world is navigating, there is a mysterious force at play that makes a way out of no way, and that brings new life from death. I would tell my younger self that Jesus is the name that we give to the promise that even in our lost and loneliest moments, when it feels like something is ending, there exists a guiding and sheltering presence, walking with us through the dark valley, until at last there is light. I would tell my younger self that Jesus will come into the world over and over again, as he has ever since that day in Bethlehem.
There are gaps, blanks, absences in my mosaic, spaces in need of other tiles. Only time will tell how those gaps are filled. And yet a picture can be seen, a pattern discerned. Advent is indeed about the end of the world. It’s about having the courage to let all those old worlds go, whatever they might be. And it’s about trusting that even as certain eras, as certain narratives, are coming to a close, something worthy and good, something of God, is struggling to be born into the world. Into our families. Into our inner lives. Into our economic and political arrangements. Into our very hearts. Something is waiting to be born.