We Are Winding Down..., Proper 28 (B) - 2003

November 16, 2003

We are winding down the church year. Next Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, is the last Sunday in our liturgical year. After that, we begin again with Advent. As is usual for this time of year, the readings for this Sunday are about the end-times. All three of the readings for today use apocalyptic language, the language of the end-times: Daniel's vision, Jesus' and Paul's warnings. Apocalyptic language is marked by symbolic images, the expectation of the end of the world and, as the Merriam Webster Dictionary says, an "immanent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil."

It can be difficult and confusing for us to read these passages, and to try to figure out what they mean and how they apply to our own times. It's important to remember that, from his words, Jesus appears to have believed that the end of the world was at hand. Paul, and others in the early church after Jesus' death, also really believed that the end was immanent. They expected that the Kingdom of God would come at any time-hence Paul's writings about not marrying and not being concerned about the things of this world. They truly believed there was no time to be worried about or distracted by the normal things that people are involved in, because it was all about to be wiped away.

Throughout the ages, there have always been times when people were afraid and wondered if life on the planet, as they knew it, would survive. In Jesus' time, the people of Israel (and many other countries) were under the domination of the Roman Empire and things were difficult for those non-Romans under Roman rule. When the Empire fell, people also wondered if that was a signal that the world would end, as hordes of "barbarian" armies swept through Europe. Wars, plagues, and famines have affected people everywhere throughout the centuries, and those people also wondered if and how they would survive, and if these things were God's judgment.

In our own time there are memories of the great world wars, the Holocaust, the bomb, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. There is the AIDS epidemic, economic struggle, and the continuing violence of our society. We fear for the safety of our children, and wonder what the future holds for them. We are once again engaged in a war, one many of us are none too certain about. We worry about terrorism, about "smart bombs" and "dirty bombs." We wonder where God is in all of this.

It got more difficult, of course, for the followers of Jesus and the early church as time went on and the end did not come. What, then, were they to think of these writings? How were they to understand them?

For many people, the events of our own times suggest to them that the end of the world will soon be at hand. They believe that the apocalyptic writings of the Bible -- especially the book of Revelation -- are a road map for the end of the world. They spend a lot of time trying to match current events with the images and prophecies contained in those writings.

The problem with that approach is that people have been trying it for centuries, and it hasn't proven out yet. Prophecy in those times did not mean foretelling the future, but providing a commentary on the present. We can certainly sympathize with those who look for hard and fast answers, because it can feel like things are so out of control, so awful, that no other resolution is possible but the end of the world as we know it. These feelings come out of our fear and grief over some of the realities of our lives, much as some people feel they can no longer go on when a loved one dies. We feel stuck and hopeless, and we can see no way out; no way to fix the problem.

However, the one thing about the apocalyptic writings, and the writings of the Old Testament prophets, is that there is always hope. The end of the world may come, the old way may be destroyed, but those who obey God's commandments will be rewarded. The faithful remnant will be saved.

Hope and faithfulness can seem like fleeting things, like foolishness, when our lives and our world are in turmoil. How can we be hopeful in the face of tragedy and loss? How can we remain faithful when things seem hopeless, and we are wondering where God is in the midst of our despair?

Vaclav Havel says, "Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good." [1]

Both Jesus and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews encourage us to endure, for the sake of the kingdom. We are called to work for something that is good, to work for the Kingdom of God. When we are in our darkest moments, when it all seems overwhelming, sometimes the best we can do is know that somehow God will use our suffering and turn it to good. We may not experience it, we may not recognize it, but for someone our experiences may become icons of God's kingdom.

As Jesus told the disciples, we do not know when the Kingdom of God will arrive, neither the day nor the hour. We don't experience the same urgency that Jesus and his followers, or the members of the early church, did. But as the church year winds down, as we move into the darkest time of the year, we also turn once again to the anticipation of the season of Advent and all it foretells. We turn once again to hope in the Light of the World, the hope of our redemption, and the promise of God's kingdom.

Those of you who are fans of The Lord of the Rings series may remember Aragorn's words in The Two Towers, when he is speaking to a boy who has suddenly found himself outfitted as a soldier for the coming battle of Helms Deep. The boy tells Aragorn that the other soldiers are saying there is no hope of success in this battle. Aragorn turns to the boy and replies, "There is always hope."

There is always hope. Amen.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema