The end of the world is a theme played out a lot throughout history. In a children’s story from the 1800s, chicken little cries out, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” to its friends, Henny Penny and Goosey Loosey. In the 1980s, the band R.E.M. made a name for themselves by singing the rock hit, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Today we get the same theme in the gospel of Mark for this first week of Advent. It’s about the end of the world, the second coming of Jesus, the apocalypse, and it is not the story we expect or really want to hear, for that matter, in this post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas season that is meant to be filled with joy and laughter, feel-good tales and Christmas Carols.
I am not sure if there is ever really a good time to talk about the end of the world, yet it seems in every generation or every year for that matter the conversation comes up. Just this year, we had May 21st slotted as the end, and when that failed, October 21st became the set date. Next year at this time… I guarantee you there will be much discussion around December 21st, 2012 – the date the Mayan calendar predicts the end. Whenever a date like this comes around, many of us laugh and make jokes the day before, asking the people we know, “Well, last day on earth, what are you going to do?” And then when the end doesn’t come, many of us laugh again, saying, “See, those people are crazy.” But I think that deep down inside all of us, there is a pit in our stomachs when the clock approaches those “predicted times.” I think there is a small voice in side each of our heads that says, “But what if this time, it really is it?” Perhaps we don’t often think about it in such supernatural, doom and gloom ways. But rather, in naturalistic ways, I think we know our planet is in trouble and we can see the signs of destruction. Signs of species dying out, like the recently extinct black rhino. We hear of collapsing glaciers and recent close-call-collisions with a random meteor that could have altered our planet forever and brought an end to the human race.
Even though many of us do think about and even worry a bit about the end of the world, what on earth are we going to do with this text today, on the beginning of Advent, the time we wait for the birth of cute baby Jesus, not the end of the world?
Sometimes, in order to try and understand a piece of scripture that doesn’t seem to make sense or is just plain hard to wrap your head around, we have to know the context. Whenever something is written down, it is always influenced by the context around it. In 1940, the famous author C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Problem of Pain, in which he tried to explain why pain and suffering exist in a world that is claimed to have been created by a good and all-powerful God. Lewis concludes that pain and suffering are God’s megaphone to get our attention and to turn it towards God (The Problem of Pain, p. 91). To many, it is a cold and cruel way of explaining the profound pain that so many endure. But then, in 1960, Lewis’ wife died. And he wrote a follow up book, A Grief Observed. Suddenly for him pain no longer seemed like God’s megaphone, now that he had experienced it up close and personal. Instead, pain was more like God’s muzzle, for God seemed so silent. Our context affects what we write and what we think.
For this reason and in light of this end of the world theme, it is important for us to know the context around the gospel of Mark. It was written sometime around the year 70, about 40 years after Jesus died. Which is the same time of the Jewish-Roman war. The Jewish community led an uprising against the Roman empire, which eventually led to Rome taking over Jerusalem. During this hostile takeover, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and the temple, God’s dwelling place, was destroyed. What does it mean for your faith when so many of your people are killed and the house of God, the place where you believe God to be located, is destroyed? Suddenly, everyone is asking, where is God when God’s house is torn down? Is God lost? It is great and unimaginable suffering. Perhaps it even feels like the world is coming to an end. The author of Mark’s gospel, as he is writing, is living in that time of war and crisis of faith. Now imagine yourself as an original reader of the gospel of Mark, back around the year 70, with smoke and dust from a lost war still lingering in the air, and family members dead and gone. Listen to the words that Jesus spoke, which seem to relate so much to the suffering that you have just experienced. “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” Can you see what the author is trying to say to his people? “These days have been dark,” Jesus says, “the violence has been so thick that it feels as if even the sun cannot penetrate it, the moon does not shine through. It is as if the heavens are shaking and the stars are falling on us. O God, what is happening? Is this the end?…But then out of the clouds all will see the Son of Man coming. He will come with such great power and light that the darkness will be cast out to all corners. Angels will come and they will gather all of you up. This war will not be the end of you and this violence will not be the last word, for God and the angels are coming.”
This is a message of hope that the author is giving to his people who are hopeless. It is a message that says the pain and suffering that you experience will not be the last word.
In 1993, a man named Laramiun was shot and killed in Minneapolis by another man named Oshea. About 6 years ago, 13 years after the shooting, Laramiun’s mother, Mary, went to visit her son’s killer in prison. After that visit, something happened, she said. All that hatred and anger she held for so many years against this man who killed her son just melted away. Now today, 18 years after her son’s death, Mary and Oshea work together for an organization that they founded called From Death to Life, It is an organization that seeks to end violence by bringing about healing and reconciliation between the families of victims and the perpetrators. It’s a story that made national news. Mary, a mother, and Oshea, a murderer, have decided that hatred and violence will not be the last word.
Jesus said, “The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light…but they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory.” This war will not be the end of you and this violence will not be the last word, for God and the angels are coming.
A well-known preacher, Tom Long, tells a story about a congregation in Kentucky. The congregation is in a town that has become littered with violence. It is all over the news, it is worried about among the residents, and joked about by the morning DJ’s. It has become an infection for this town. The pastor of this congregation decided that another word needed to be spoken by the church. One Saturday, on an impulse, he took the processional cross from the church and he went to all of the places where violence had occurred in the past week. He placed the cross in that spot, and he prayed for the victims of violence and for the ones who brought about the violence. Eventually, word trickled out into the community about what this pastor was doing and now every Saturday, a group of community members goes to the places of violence and puts a cross there, as if to say, “Violence and hatred will not be the end of us and it will not have the last word.”
Jesus says, ““But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, …but they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
It is a message of hope, you see – this image of Jesus coming in the clouds. It is a message that says the pain and suffering that you experience will not be the last word. For God and the angels are coming.
During this Advent season, amidst the easy and sickeningly sweet comfort of holiday cheer, deep down we know that the world is a fragile place and that all is not well with it. We know that soldiers across the world face violence each day. We know that many of us struggle to keep our heads above the mountains of debt as we hand over our credit card yet again to the clerk at the store. And we know how our bodies can seem to betray us and give out sooner than they should. There is darkness in the world and it seems to be closing in on us as we go to work in the dark and we come home in the dark.
So then what do we do? In this Advent season, we wait. Not only for the coming birth of Jesus, which we know to have already happened, but we also wait for the coming of the light of God into this world to make everything right again. And as we wait, we light one small little advent candle. And then next week we light another. And then another. And then another…for the Son of Man is coming in the clouds with great power and light, which means darkness and despair will not be the last word. AMEN