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Ending It All
Canadian Forum journalist Brian Murphy and his teenage son were idly conversing over breakfast one morning. The father was gently urging his son to do better in school. The son challenged his father by cynically remarking that his grades didn't matter because "after all, we will all be dead soon anyway." His father retorted, "What makes you so important, that after all these eons of time, and billions of people, you get to be one of the special ones to be here at The End of the World? You may be that special, I suppose, but I would develop a plan B if I were you." To this philosophical observation the son simply grinned and replied, "You're weird, Dad."
People have often been preoccupied with and mystified by The End of the World. Especially when times are not easy, social change is rampant, and moral and economic deterioration is apparent, there arises the speculation that things are getting so bad, surely God will soon end it all.
The Scripture lesson this morning is a sampling of what is called apocalyptic literature, passages that reveal the last days, the End of the World. Earlier in chapter 13 of Mark, the disciples asked Jesus that intriguing question, "Tell us, when will it end and what are the signs?" Jesus, reminiscent of Daniel, Joel and Isaiah, talked about earthquakes, wars, darkened sun, falling stars, and the coming of the Son of Man in clouds with great power and glory. Then, Jesus concluded, "But, no one knows when."
However, in spite of Jesus' clear words, people like to speculate. Today there is a widespread interest, even preoccupation, with the end. According to a Princeton Religion Research Center poll conducted just after the beginning of the Gulf War, 15% of Americans believed that the Gulf hostilities signaled the beginning of the end--Armageddon was underway. A full 25% of younger people (ages 18-29) were convinced that the final battle had begun. 25%! Young people today tend to feel very pessimistic about the future.
Richard John Neuhas ran across a monthly newsletter called the"Omega Letter." Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, is often used to symbolize the end. The Omega Letter advertises itself as being "a book on Bible prophecy that automatically updates itself every single month!" Those who are lucky enough to be subscribers to this revelatory mouthpiece are promised "front row seats to those very events that will culminate in the soon return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!" Neuhaus noted with some relief, however, that there is a special reduced rate for three-year subscriptions! Neuhaus suggests none of us get too concerned until the publisher will only take our money one month at a time!
Preoccupation with the end, however, is not limited to right-wing Christians. Doomsday predictions frighten us all into thinking the end is near; at least, the end of life as we know it. A special issue of Time magazine, November 18, is titled, "California, The Endangered Dream." Listen to some of the summaries:
BRAVE NEW WORLD: It is still a promised land--a place of spectacular beauty and kinetic energy. But faced with drought, runaway growth and an ailing economy, can it keep its promise?
ENDANGERED DREAM: Congestion, pollution and social ills threaten to turn an earthly paradise into a hell on earth.
SOCIETY: Millions of immigrants build an ethnic mosaic whose pieces don't quite fit together.
ENVIRONMENT: The relentless sprawl of suburban subdivisions is pushing nature to the wall.
ECONOMY: Silicon Valley slumps into a wrenching mid-life crisis.
Underlying these sobering articles is the assumption: So goes California, so goes the nation.
We have been warned about the ozone threat to the planet, the growing disparity between the haves and have nots which is a breeding ground for revolution, the huge national debt which is bankrupting the nation and which will saddle our children and grandchildren with responsibilities they may not be able to handle. Few of them will own their homes or enjoy our standard of living.
Yes, the future of life as we know it is not bright. Our values and life-style, our society is dying. God may decide to end it all. How do we live in such a world? What is the stance we might take? I see three options.
1) GIVE UP! Be pessimistic. Like the son, why study when the end is near, and we are all going to die anyway. We can throw up our hands and cry, "It's falling apart. There's no hope. It's not working. The economy is failing. Put your money in a pillow and wait for the end."
2) GIVE IN! Adjust. Conform. Take the pollyanna approach, "Everything is wonderful." Put our heads under the pillow, and pretend there are no problems in the world. There are some churches, some of which are large, growing megachurches, that preach the gospel of adjustment, of giving in. Tony Campolo in his book, Wake Up America!, criticizes churches that preach a religion of personal salvation with no call to social change. He writes,
Its preachers are not the prophets who will lead the American people to weep over what they have become. They certainly will not proclaim an alternative vision for the future that might lead Americans to abandon their comfortable life-styles to participate in creating another kind of world. They preach a kind of religion that will enable people to enjoy a happy state of consciousness in a society that is dying...The prophets would claim that such churches only help people to become better adjusted to our consumer-oriented society instead of calling them to reject it...they strive to make people comfortable in a society that has gone mad.
3) CONFRONT! Rather than pessimistically giving up; rather than giving in and conforming to this dying world; the third approach, which is the biblical approach, is: confront and convert the world, sustained and empowered by hope.
"Go and preach," commanded Jesus. Bring people to Christ who will convert, change them. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, seek justice and mercy for everyone. Work for a society in which everyone has a chance, where everyone has food and housing, where lifestyles are simpler, where the environment is protected, where people are protected, educated, and employed. We are called to preach a gospel where, as stated in the mission statement of our church, we reach out and receive people, help each other into a relationship with God, grow as Christian disciples, and go out into the world in mission and ministry to convert that world.
We can do God's work of confrontation and conversion, with the ideal of the kingdom of God as the model, because we are sustained and empowered by hope. The apocalyptic passages in the Bible, one of which we read this morning, were messages of great joy and hope. They were written, not to frighten people with the End of the World, but to give them hope in difficult times. Our hope is in the ultimate, eventual coming of the Son of Man in glory. Jesus is coming again; therefore, we hope, therefore we work. We do not seek conformity to a dying world, we seek to change the dying world, and bring new life, new birth to it.
One of the best documents of hope was written in 1954 for the second assembly of the World Council of Churches. The theme for that assembly was: Christ, The Hope of the World. Listen to a portion of this document as a message to the millions who live today without hope.
Multitudes ask themselves, "What is coming to the world? What is in front of us? What may we look forward to?" The answer to those questions has been given to us in the Gospel. To those who ask, "What is coming to the world?" we answer "His Kingdom is coming." To those who ask, "What is in front us?" we answer, "It is He, the King, who confronts us." To those who ask, "What may we look forward to?" we answer that we face not a trackless waste of unfilled time with an end that none can dare to predict; we face our living Lord, our Judge and Savior, He who was dead and is alive forevermore, He who has come and is coming and will reign for ever and ever. It may be that we face tribulation; indeed we must certainly face it if we would be partakers with Him. But we know His word, His kingly word: "Be comforted, I have overcome the world."
God will ultimately end it all. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God. While we wait, we work. We work for its coming. We can work, we can endure because our hope is not in ourselves; our hope is not in this world, not in institutions; our hope is in the Son of Man who is coming in clouds with great power and glory.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris