Carlos Wilton, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C. Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11 “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
– Philippians 1:6
OK, so you got a speeding ticket…. you got a C-minus on that exam…. you burned the lasagna in the oven… BUT IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD!
Funny, how we use that phrase to comfort one another: “It’s not the end of the world.” It’s a way of saying, “Sure, it was bad. But it could have been a whole lot worse!”
How easily that phrase falls from our lips — a phrase that ought to evoke absolute terror and revulsion, a phrase you’d think ought to be banned, by popular consent, from being used so casually! Just imagine what the reaction would be if someone said, “Sure, it was bad. But it’s not the Holocaust!” Or, “Sure, it was bad. But it’s not like you’re dying of AIDS!” Or, “Sure, it was bad. But it’s not like the Ku Klux Klan came along and lynched you!”
Each of those examples sounds highly inappropriate, doesn’t it? Pull an example like one of those out of thin air, and somebody’s bound to feel you’re being insensitive to the real human suffering involved. There’s almost a sacredness to those examples: a general consensus that suffering such as this deserves to be talked about in hushed and solemn tones, not casually bandied about as a figure of speech.
You’d think the end of the world would be even more of a taboo topic, in that sense. After all, the amount of human suffering involved in, say, a giant asteroid slamming into the earth, or an all-out nuclear war, or a deadly virus carrying off the entire human race is — when you really think about it — many times more horrifying than the millions who died in Nazi gas chambers, or from AIDS, or at the hands of racist bigots. At least, in those examples, there were some survivors.
Maybe it’s because there have been so many prophecies of the end of world, over the years, they’ve sort of lost their punch. We can all picture the wild-eyed prophet with long, flowing hair and beard, walking down a city street carrying a sign: “The End is Near!” It’s so familiar an image, it’s become a cliché. A person like that has become, for most of us, an object of amusement (if not ridicule) — the perennial subject of New Yorker cartoons, or a screwball comedy sketch on some TV show.
Yet, what should we make of the fact that the Bible contains a number of prophecies of the end of the world: like that passage from Malachi about the messiah coming as a refining fire, burning a stubbornly unfaithful humanity into white-hot purity; or, even those words of Paul’s from the letter to the Philippians, wishing that the Lord who began a good work among them would bring it to completion on the day of Christ. The day of Christ, presumably, is a day of awful judgment — in every sense of that world awe-ful, as in a level of “shock and awe” unlike anything the Air Force can deliver with smart bombs and Predator drones. As Malachi puts it, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
This year, we’ve got another prophecy of doom that’s captured the popular imagination. Last year, it was Harold Camping. This year, it’s the ancient Mayan calendar. Some claim that calendar predicts the end of the world in a couple of weeks from now, on December 21st. The news media’s been abuzz with gleeful anticipation for months — and you can count on them to go into Mayan-obsessive hyperdrive just about any minute now.
There are even Mayan jokes going around. One of them’s a cartoon that depicts an ancient Mayan, holding a stone calendar disk, saying to another Mayan: “I only had enough room to go up to 2012.” His friend replies: “Ha! That will freak somebody out someday.”
One standup comic on Comedy Central had this to say:
“Why would they know the end of the world? They didn’t have any pants. Did you know that? They didn’t have the invention of pants. You think you can crack the secrets of the universe but not the secret of pockets?” [Kurt Metzger, http://www.comedycentral.com/jokes/7w00ya/stand-up-kurt-metzger–kurt-metzger–mayan-calendar-and-2012 ]
Somebody else was suggesting an asteroid’s going to collide with the earth on the 21st of December (even though there’s none in sight, according to the astronomers). After all the military people and scientists go over to investigate, they’ll find it’s not an asteroid at all, but a massive stone calendar with a note attached. The note will say: “Dear valued customer, we hope you enjoyed last year’s complimentary calendar, here’s another” — signed, the Mayans.
Then, there’s the cartoon making the rounds on Facebook that has a guy in a party hat sitting next to a woman, also wearing a party hat. The guy’s saying: “Dick Clark has died. We can no longer ring in the New Year. Well played, Mayans, well played.”
I’m not sure if this one’s a joke or not, but here’s a little message people have been sending around on the Internet. It says: “Warning: I’m about to burst your doomsday bubble for all you doomsayers out there — There have been about 514 Leap Years since Caesar created it in 45 BC. Without the extra day every four years, today would be July 28, 2013. Also, the Mayan Calendar did not account for Leap Year…. So technically the world should have ended seven months ago.”
I’ll leave it to the astronomers to comment on whether or not that’s accurate — but whether it is or whether it isn’t, there’s one thing I can say with confidence about the fact that the Mayan calendar apparently ends on December 21st: “It’s NOT the end of the world!”
At least, it’s no more likely to be the end of the world than any other day. If Jesus Christ has it in mind to return on December 21st, it’s going to happen, regardless of what some ancient Meso-American stonecutter says.
There’s a dark side to all of this, though. Certain people are taking it way too seriously. David Morrison is a senior NASA scientist who works at a government agency called the Astrobiology Institute. He told a reporter from ABC News that he gets one or two questions a month from teenagers who are thinking about committing suicide because they believe the doomsday predictions.
Morrison also said he’d received a letter from somebody claiming to be a middle school teacher from California. The teacher told of hearing the parents of a student saying how they were planning to kill their children and themselves before the 2012 apocalypse. [Asawin Suebsaeng, “How NASA Used Social Media to Tell America the World Is Not Ending in 2012,” Mother Jones News, December 5, 2012.]
Lest you think these are just a few isolated cases, there’s polling data suggesting that 22 percent of Americans believe they will experience some kind of Armageddon in their lifetime. Of that group, 12 percent agreed with the statement: “the Mayan calendar, which some say ‘ends’ in 2012, marks the end of the world.” 12 PERCENT! People are crazy. [ http://news.discovery.com/human/doomsday-2012-poll-120504.html ]
So, what is it about these latter-day doomsday prophecies that makes them so attractive to certain individuals?
There are several factors at work, I think. The first is a certain narcissism – a tendency for doomsday true-believers to think they’re at the center of the universe and everything revolves around them. True narcissists just can’t get over the possibility that something so epoch-making as the end of the world could happen at a time when they’re not around to see it. So, to their way of thinking, the end of the world just has to happen in their lifetime.
The second is a tendency towards fear, that may even go so far as to be called an addiction. Have you ever met people who are chronically afraid? They seem to live their lives going from fear to fear. Years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, FDR told America the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. That’s the opposite of what a chronically fearful person really believes. There’s a certain sense in which chronically fearful individuals actually love being afraid. It distracts their attention from other things they really ought to be thinking about, but don’t want to. Fear provides a certain adrenalin rush. When we’re deeply afraid, our systems snap into survival mode. The enhanced focus that goes along with that struggle can seem pleasurable, at least for a time. It can make the doomsday true-believers feel they’re truly alive.
Another factor is what we could call the “I’ve Got a Secret” phenomenon. (Some of the old-timers around here may remember the TV show of that name.) Everybody loves a secret! Doomsday prophecies are typically presented as a form of esoteric knowledge: secret wisdom only the true initiates can fully understand. A person who latches onto the belief that a centuries-old carved stone calendar from Central America somehow contains the deepest secrets of the universe gains a certain satisfaction from knowing they have this information, while others don’t. It makes them feel valued and special. It sets them apart from the common herd.
Finally, some people may find doomsday prophecies attractive because — strange as this may sound — they give them something to talk about. From now till December 21st, you can count on one thing: the media’s going to be awash in stories about that Mayan stonecarving, and what may or may not happen to the universe because of what’s written on it. It’s taken on a life of its own at this point. The truth or falsehood of what the so-called “experts” are claiming about the Mayan calendar is no longer the point. It’s become a story about a story. It’s no longer about what the ancient Mayans truly believed. It’s about what people today are choosing to believe about what the ancient Mayans believed. Think of it as the ultimate water-cooler conversation topic.
All this is quite a distraction from the true function of prophecy in the Bible. The prophecies in the scriptures about the return of Christ are as much about hopes in the present as anything that may happen in the future.
When Christians say, “Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come,” we’re not so much staking our belief on whether or not the Lord will show up the next day or the next week, as we’re confessing to God our yearning for a world made new. We’re acknowledging the failings and shortcomings of this world, and looking to the fulfilled and perfected life of the world to come.
Now, a big part of looking for the return of Jesus Christ is rolling up our sleeves and getting to work right here in the present. When Jesus came, long ago, his essential proclamation was that the kingdom of God is at hand. By this he means not that we should just sit there, looking up at the sky — as his disciples were caught doing, just after his ascension, until an angel came and yelled at them to get back to work — but that we do our best to live as though God’s kingdom were already established.
The Apostle Paul calls us, the Christian believers, the “firstfruits” of the kingdom that is to come. In that brief passage we read today, we hear him speaking pastorally to the people of Philippi, acknowledging how difficult it can be, at times, to live as citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God.
Naturally, in this life, we as disciples feel pulled in different directions at times. When Paul teaches that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ,” he’s actually taking the pressure off us. Ultimately, the good work we manage to do in this life, as Christ-followers, is God’s work. It’s the Holy Spirit who’s at work in us, bringing to completion, one day, all in this world and in us that’s imperfect or fragmentary. The purpose of the coming of Christ is not destruction, but fulfillment.
As I’ve traveled among you in recent weeks, hearing various stories of the hurricane, I’ve been struck by how often I’ve heard people speak of the experience in apocalyptic terms. I’ve heard more than one of you describe the sensation of sitting in a darkened house, listening to the wind howl and hearing, from time to time, the crash of falling tree limbs (or even whole trees), as calling to mind the end of the world (or, at least, what they imagined the end of the world will look like, or sound like).
We’ve been through some incredible experiences. The power of the storm has shaken many of us deeply. It’s destroyed or heavily damaged the homes and cars of some. It’s led, in some cases, to jobs disappearing. It’s placed before us tasks of recovering and rebuilding that are larger than any of us could possibly do on our own, and that are driving us together, in partnership with others (like the Lend A Hand workers who were here this week) to tackle these tasks in community.
One small saving grace, I think, is that — because of what we’ve all experienced, living through Sandy — this whole Mayan prophecy business seems pretty trivial. Sitting around waiting and watching for the end of the world is an activity that belongs to people who have little else to do, other than worry.
Lots of us are beyond that sort of thing right now. When there’s so much that needs to be done, all around us, who’s got time to speculate about whether some centuries-old artifact truly does hold the key to the meaning of the universe?
The best advice I can give you is advice Jesus himself gave, to disciples who were obsessing about knowing when the messiah would come: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Not even the angels know this — nor even the Son, Jesus himself. Only God knows. And who are we to believe that the Mayans, or anyone else who’s walked this earth, know it any better?
“O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” asks the first stanza of our next hymn. “How welcome you aright?” Do we welcome the Lord best by engaging in endless speculation about calendars and timing? No. As the hymn goes on to plead:
“O kindle, Lord most holy, A lamp within my breast,
To do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.”
I can’t think of a better way to keep Advent than that, can you?
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.