In the Name...
A couple of clergy were standing by a road holding signs. One read, "The End is Nigh." The other read, "Turn Back, O Man." A car approached, slowed down, then sped away. A few moments later were heard a squeal of brakes and a splash. Then one minister said to the other, "Maybe we should just say that the bridge fell down"
The image of the man carrying an "End is Nigh" placard has become something of a caricature, but, the number of books and films which focus on some great world-ending cataclysm be it a war, plague, invasion from Mars, or a crashing asteroid, proves the enduring popularity of the theme. And, none more popular than when the Biblical imagery of the End Times is invoked.
Well, today I can tell you, with confidence, that the End is, indeed, nigh. The end, that is, of the liturgical year. In two weeks, we begin a new season with the First Sunday in Advent and, as this year draws to a close, the church draws our attention to, as we heard in the readings, “the great and terrible day of the Lord”, a time marked by wars of nation against nation, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and signs from heaven to boot.
Scary stuff. But, it all rather sounds like last week's headlines, doesn't it? The problem is that it's sounded like that for the past twenty centuries. When has there ever been a time without nations warring, natural disasters, or astronomical portents? When the missionary Augustine arrived to evangelize England in 597, King Ethelbert asked why had he come? Augustine replied, "Because the world is about to end." The king was convinced, but, fourteen hundred years later, we've learned that the world doesn't end when we think it will.
And, this practical reality has led to a spiritual problem for Christians. Are we to discard these predictions as overstated poetry? And, if they're for real, how can we convey any sense of urgency after two millennia of apparently crying "Wolf".
Well, St. Paul gives a helpful insight in his Second letter to the Thessalonians. If you read both of his letters to the Thessalonians, you see that today’s passage is part of a larger context in which he wrote about the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment of the world.
In the first letter, Paul wrote: “I don’t need to write you about the time or date when all this will happen. You surely know that the Lord’s return will be as a thief coming at night. People will think they are safe and secure. But, destruction will suddenly strike them."
Sounds like what you might expect from someone expecting the End, but, by the time of the second letter, it was apparent that some people in Thessalonica had gone overboard. Some, it seems, had quit their jobs and responsibilities and adopted a passive, fatalistic, lifestyle. They had become, as Paul describes them in today’s passage, “mere busybodies” stirring the pot and doing nothing useful. But, that was a far cry from the way Paul said they should behave.
On the contrary, it was exactly because he did expect the world to end that Paul worked as hard as he did for the spread of the Gospel, establishing churches, teaching and preaching at every opportunity. Far from sitting back and giving up, he believed that the best way to prepare for the coming upheaval was to get busy and build up the kingdom of God on earth.
Paul says don't give up on life even when you're not sure about the future. In fact, he asserts, it is this very sense of being unsure that should drive us to embrace life and inspire us to do great things for God. It is uncertainty itself that should give us urgency. Uncertainty should be a motivating power.
And it is those Christians today who live daily in the midst of uncertainty who know this best.
The Diocese of Bethlehem, PA, where I served, has a relationship with a diocese in Sudan. Christians in the Sudan have suffered severe persecution for decades. Two million have died violent deaths. Another two million are refugees, their villages destroyed. Not a day passes without a rise in the toll of suffering. These figures and this lifestyle are unimaginable for us. And, at a clergy day when a young man from there was with us someone asked him, "What is your favourite book in the Bible?" He responded, "The Book of Lamentations".
Now, that's probably not one most of us flip to very often for inspiration. It was in silence, then, that we heard him quote passages which spoke to him. Passages such as, "We have become orphans and widows. We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price. Those who pursue us are at our heels and we find no rest. We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert. It is because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. O Lord you took up my case, you redeemed my life. You came near when I called you and you said, Do not fear."
The Sudanese Christians know more about living in real end-time conditions than we likely ever will. And, somehow, throughout this they continue to preach, teach, baptize, and make disciples. Just among Anglicans, the numbers have grown from 100,000 in 1975 to over a million today. And, how have they done this? The same way the Early Church did. By putting their faith in Jesus Christ and not human institutions or material things.
In the garden of the United Nations Building stands a statue which was given some years ago by the old Soviet Union. It is a representation of St. George slaying the dragon. What is most fascinating about this piece of art is the title inscribed on its pedestal. You might think it would be “Triumph of the Worker” or perhaps “The Great Leap Forward”? No, surprisingly, it's simply “Good Defeats Evil.” Good defeats evil. What an irony, that such a powerful icon of Christian triumph should have been utilized by an atheistic regime which over half of the world’s population today does not even remember existed.
Perhaps we won't experience the apocalyptic end of the global world, but, it's very likely we will experience the end of our personal world through some crisis, some loss, of persons, position, place, possessions. If we live, however, expecting that this will happen to us - and not pretending that it won't - and if we prepare ourselves spiritually for the experience, then we will be able to live like that young man from Sudan and like Christians since the time of the apostles have lived these past 2,000 years, building up the kingdom, preparing for the End.
It may seem that the bridge has fallen down. That ahead of us is a plunge into the abyss. But, in reality, what lies ahead is what has always been there. The Lord Jesus Christ. So, we don't need to be afraid of the end-time. We just need to get on with what he's given us to do in the meantime. Build the bridge to new and better life.
In the Name...