The end of the world as we know it

A sermon for Advent 1 | Christopher Holmes

“It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” So sings Michael Stipe, the leader singer of the talented and much praised southern indie/alter rock band REM. I don’t know if Michael Stipe penned those lyrics on or near Advent 1, having just heard Luke’s Gospel read. But what I can say is that Stipe is singing about something that people seem to always be preoccupied with—the end. Whether it be the lunacy of the Left Behind series, the brutal apocalyptic realism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the panic and anxiety that surrounded the Y2K panic at the turn of the millennium, we seem, as a society, to be fixated upon the end, especially upon how the world will end. Jesus has a lot to say about the end. Much of it is awfully hard to hear. I must admit I was looking forward to preaching on Advent 1, that is until I read the texts for today. My response was: oh no;  let me preach from anywhere else in the Gospel of Luke but here. Indeed, you might think that it would be good to begin Advent w. perhaps a more “comforting” Gospel reading. But what we are given is anything but.

Our reading finds Jesus in the midst of a long discourse about the end. From vs. 25 onwards of ch. 21, Jesus is not talking about just the end of Jerusalem but the end of the world. The judgment that is to come upon Jerusalem merely presages a judgment of greater dimension and import. The message is simple: the Son of Man—i.e., Jesus—is coming again to judge all people, the world. But how can that be? I cannot explain the how. But what I can say, and here is where we find good news in today’s Gospel, is that God’s end-time judgment will be good for us. It will also be good for the world. God’s judgment is, after all, a judgment that makes things right. But judgment rarely ever sounds like a reassuring word to us. We think of judgment as retribution: the giving to a person of her just desserts. But judgment in the Bible is quite different, however: it is restorative. God’s judgment is always a healing judgment. God’s judgment is like medicine. In his commentary on Luke, the church father Cyril of Alexandria puts it this way: “Christ will not come secretly or obscurely but as God and Lord in glory suitable for duty. He will transform all things for the better. He will renew creation and refashion the nature of people to what it was at the beginning.” That is good news. Jesus will not come again to destroy the earth. He will come again to perfect it. He will purify it once and for all of sin and death. That is our hope. To be sure, he will end the world as we know it: the world of sin and death. But in the place of the old world a new world of justice, abundance, and life will arise.

Jesus tells his disciples to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (vs. 28) Advent is a time of expectation. It is the time in the church year when we wait for our redemption. And our redemption includes judgment.  The Messiah does not come to give us all a great big hug. He comes, rather, to judge and to take away all that keeps us from living as his truly human women and men. In so doing, the Messiah fulfills his promises to his people. Jesus is the long-awaited King in the line of David who will practice justice and righteousness. Following our OT reading from Jeremiah 33: 14-16, Jesus’ rule will be one that pours forth new life. Christ’s Kingship will not be a rule of disappointment, indifference, and exploitation, as was so often the case for Israel’s many kings. This King—King Jesus—will instead bring about a new societal reality, God’s rule of justice and peace for all. So Advent is a time in which we are confronted with the fact that things are not as they should be. God in Christ comes to judge all that is inconsistent with his good will for his world. God’s judgement is an inestimable blessing, then. For God in Christ comes to negate all that keeps us from being and living as God’s people in God’s world.

I have a three year old daughter. Her name is Lillian. Lillian loves Franklin the Turtle books. In our household, it’s “all Franklin all the time.” Franklin and the Thunderstorm; Franklin Goes to School; Franklin Plays Hockey; Franklin’s Bad Day; Franklin Rides a Bike; Franklin’s School Play— “All Franklin all the time.” I do hope my daughter tires of Franklin, and soon. Indeed, I hope she moves onto another children’s author: Margaret Wise Brown. In 1942 Margaret Wise Brown wrote The Runaway Bunny. Now I don’t know whether she wrote her classic children’s book during Advent. But I think it would be fair to suggest that she was deeply conversant with Advent themes.

One afternoon last Spring, while working as a chaplain at the Victoria General Hospital, my supervisor announced that it was movie time. She told us to come and gather in our little room to watch Wit, starring Emma Thompson. Wit is the story of a woman’s—an aristocratic English prof—journey with terminal cancer. Wit is sobering and uncompromisingly realistic. Close to the end of her battle w. cancer, Emma Thompson’s character is visited by her former Professor and thesis supervisor. Emma Thompson’s character wants to talk to her advisor about the great 17th English poet John Donne. Her former supervisor refuses, however. Instead, her former supervisor pulls out The Runaway Bunny. And she reads it to her. Emma Thompson’s character is too weak to refuse, of course. And so her aged Supervisor reads away. “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’ If you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’ ‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.’ ‘If you become a fisherman,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.’ ‘If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.’ And so on. Let me tell you the conclusion. “‘Shucks,’ said the bunny, ‘I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.’ And so he did. ‘Have a carrot,’ said the mother bunny.”

Jesus will not come back to destroy the world. But what he will come back to destroy once and for all is what he destroyed in his cross and resurrection: sin and death. He will come again to reveal unto all people what he accomplished at his first coming. Indeed, Jesus came two millennia ago to make things right. He came to judge our sin and death by his cross and resurrection. And he will come again to transform all things for the better. The book of Revelation speaks of this as a radically renewed heaven and earth. So when you and I hear about the coming of the Son of Man, the Lesson of the fig tree, and Jesus’ exhortation to watch, let us not be afraid. Let us take delight in our Lord who is like the mother of the runaway bunny. He will and indeed does come after us. For we are his children. He does not come after us to scold us. Instead, he comes in order to takes away what causes us to run away in the first place.

My sisters and brothers, we don’t know when he the crucified and glorified Christ is coming back. So Christ tells us in Luke’s Gospel to be watchful. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” (vs. 34) Some of you might be thinking: he’s had long enough. Why do we have to go through yet another advent? Is two thousand+ years not enough? Perhaps you want to shout out to the Lord: “Wake up!” Perhaps you are tempted to embrace not gross sins but seemingly harmless activities, such activities that cloud your awareness of his imminent return and the fast approaching end of the world. Perhaps, you might think, dissipation, intoxication, or excessive solicitude for material things are not all that bad. But like the mother of the runaway bunny, Jesus will not let us have it our own way. He came and is coming again.

The mother of the runaway bunny tells the little bunny, once he finally tires of running away, to “have a carrot.” That act of unceasing kindness and generosity is at the heart of God’s rule, the kingdom that is near. Hear me out, my brothers and sisters. Most of us believe, I suspect, in a God who likes to keep score, who works with a set of scales. But the Gospel gives us a very different God. This present and coming rule of this God certainly shakes things up. To be sure, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” (vs. 25) But God in Christ always shakes things up—judges them—in order to make things well. There will be wailing; but it is only for a time.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it.” You bet, REM. The end of the world as we know it: the end of the world of sin and death. Sin and death have been once and for all reigned in through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But unlike REM, I don’t often feel fine. Instead, I feel want to feel alert. May God grant us grace to be alert to Jesus’ coming, his coming to destroy indifference and exploitation in relation to one another, to the creation, and to God. Let us then be alert this Advent, praying that we would have the strength to watch and anticipate the day when all that shatters human life will be swallowed up by the God whose rule is life.

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