Have you ever noticed any of those rather apocalyptic bumper stickers that are showing up on people’s cars? They seem to me to be all the rage these days, or maybe I just notice them because of what I do. In any case, they are not the religious bumper stickers that say things like – “Jesus is Lord,” or “Jesus saves.” Rather they say things like: “Jesus is coming! Are you ready?” or “In case of the rapture this car will be without a driver.” And my all time favorite: “Jesus is coming – Look busy.”
Perhaps there has been an increase in these kinds of stickers since September 11th. People are more afraid now, more on edge. Our world looks much more fragile than it did two months ago. But, being afraid that the world might come to an end is not a new fear. People have worried about the parousia, the eschaton, the end of the world for thousands of years. Jesus proclaimed it over and over again. St. Paul believed in it and counseled his people not to marry or to seek freedom from their servitude because the end was coming and it was coming soon. In our lesson from Thessalonians today, Paul scolds the Christians in Thessolonica because they have gone too far in their expectation of Christ’s return and the world’s end. Some of them have stopped working, stopped producing and they are living off the communal wealth of the church. If the end of the world is immanent, they believed, then why work? If Christ’s return is right around the corner, why struggle? Why not simply sit and wait? Paul has to reproach the faithful for their laziness and remind them that while the end is near, all Christians must do their part during this time of waiting.
Jesus in our Gospel proclaims the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. For the faithful Jew this was virtually the same thing as proclaiming the end of the world, the Temple was the center of Jewish life. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the fall of the Temple could only imply the destruction of the world’s foundation and hence the end of all things. Jesus tells those listening to him that the end will come when they least expect it, but that it is coming.
Judaism and Christianity hold many beliefs in common, not the least of which has been the belief in a definitive beginning and ending of the created order. Christianity, like Judaism, is a linear religion – there is a straight time line from the creation of the world to its final destruction. We live this life once. The world is created and comes to an end only once. In contrast, many other religions tend to be cyclical in nature. Life and death, beginnings and endings are part of a never-ending cycle. There is creation and there is destruction but it does not happen once, rather it can happen over and over again throughout eternity.
The linear nature of Christianity has led many people throughout the two thousands years of the faith to speculate about the end. Prophecies concerning the end of the world are almost too numerous to document. Everyone from Nostradamus and his poetic prophecies in the 16th century to Orson Wells and his broadcast of “War of the Worlds” in 1938 has led many people to believe that the end was near.
On two occasions in the years 1843 and 1844 the Rev. William Miller a Baptist pastor predicted that the world would come to an end. Miller wrote, “When the Earth is cleansed by fire, then Christ and his saints will then take possession of the Earth, and dwell therein forever … I am fully convinced that some time between March 21st, 1843, and March 21st, 1844, Christ will come.” Miller had a large number of followers and when the end of the world did not arrive in 1843, he set back his doomsday clock to 1844. Scores of his followers sold all their possessions in preparation for the event. When October 22, 1844 arrived without incident the event was dubbed, “The Great Disappointment.” And yet, 5.5 million of Miller’s disciples still exist today all around the world, known as the Seventh-day Adventists.
Even in popular literature, books like The Left Behind series fuel our fascination and fear about the end of the world. In these tales, the Rapture comes – Jesus takes the faithful into heaven and leaves behind all the other unlucky believers.
In a similar way, I have no doubt that at least part of the hype around Y2K and the arrival of the year 2000 was based in the ancient fear of the world’s end. In Savannah, I watched in amazement as people stockpiled everything from antibiotics to weapons and gold, sure that the change from 1999 to 2000 would bring about a worldwide apocalypse. And most recently, how many of us wondered silently to ourselves whether or not the events of September 11th heralded the beginning of the end. This past week, even our enemies attempted to be prophetic in their declarations about the end of America. The Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar said in a BBC interview, “The plan is going ahead and, God willing, it is being implemented.” “We are hopeful for God’s help. The real matter is the extinction of America. And, God willing, it will fall to the ground.”
The end of the world will come; Jesus proclaimed it and Paul taught it in virtually all of his correspondence. It is one of the basic beliefs of our faith and there is no getting away from it. Wonderful! Why does our lectionary give us this cheerful reading the week of Thanksgiving? Why do we have to hear this on Sunday morning when what we come looking for is a lift to get us through the week? In our Gospel for today, Jesus does not proclaim the destruction of the temple in order to frighten us or make us paranoid. Rather, he tells us the truth because he wants us to understand the foolishness of placing too much stock in anything other than God. Even the Temple, he says, in all its glory will one day crumble it will be gone. Therefore, don’t place your trust in the things of this world but in the stuff of heaven. Don’t just give thanks for all the things you possess, but give thanks for the God who created all that you possess. Look for your security not in the seen but in the Unseen, not in the visible but in the Invisible. Only God is forever.
On September 11th, we witnessed first hand the fragile nature of life, the vulnerability of our nation, our economic system, our entire way of life. As powerful as we are as a nation, ours is a power that is fleeting, a power that is far from being omnipotent. Why do we need to know that the temple will one day crumble, that the nation will crumble, that the world will come to an end? Because we need to understand that God is the only real permanence we have in this life, the only thing that lasts and the only thing that can ever save us. “Do not fear, or be afraid;” God says in Isaiah 44:8, “have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.” “Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus says, (Mark 5:36) for “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19) Amen.