Endings and Beginnings

Mark 13:32-37 (NLT)

“However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert!

“The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!”

By Chuck Griffin

Here at the end of another year, today’s gospel reading from the daily lectionary gives us words from Jesus about the end of creation as we know it. I sometimes feel I want to avoid such texts.

The subject is complicated for a 20-minute sermon, and more so for a devotion that might run 700 words. When I have a group of people who really want to study what theologians call “eschatology,” I prefer the reading time and lessons to stretch over several weeks in a small group or Sunday school setting.

The concept also has been muddied to the extreme, particularly in American religion, by people with some strange ideas about how to read the Bible. The most troubling of these authors and preachers fail to heed Christ’s words that begin our reading today.

A lot of these charlatans not only want to predict the timing of the end and tell us exactly what must happen on earth before Christ returns, they also want to sell us books explaining their theories. If they are sure the end is near, why don’t they live their convictions, going deep in debt to print their books and give them away? Why do they feel they need the money?

But the end of our Christian story is important, so let’s consider the matter, at least a little. If you want to consider it more deeply in a different setting, I’m always glad to help.

Are we living in the end times? Yes, we are. We have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit arrived to guide the church.

Jesus warned us that all sorts of terrible things would be happening around us: “wars and rumors of wars,” natural disasters, famines, pandemics and so on. Such events were happening even as he spoke.

From a global perspective, they have continued to happen nonstop, but they do not represent the end; as Jesus said, they are merely the “birth pangs” of what is to come. Evil was defeated by the cross, but evil will continue to snap and bite, to try to take as many of us down with it as possible, until Christ destroys evil forever.

Many of the earliest hearers of Jesus’ words lived long enough to think the world was coming to an end. In the year 70, the Romans burned and razed everything on top of the Temple Mount in response to a Jewish rebellion. The historian Josephus claimed that 1.1 million people were killed in this destruction.

There have been other times people have been convinced the end must be near. In fact, I would assert there has been no definable period in history where someone didn’t think, “This must be the end of everything.”

Just imagine being in the midst of the Black Death, when plague killed anywhere from one-third to one-half of Europe’s population in the 14th century.

Or think of the 20th century, when two world wars left people with the sense that everything was crumbling around them. Those wars gave us nuclear bombs and were followed by a Cold War during which it seemed most of us might die at the push of a few buttons.

It’s depressing stuff to think about. And maybe that’s why I want to be careful when talking about the end times. We don’t want to get so lost in the sad and scary stuff that we miss the true message Christ is trying to give us. His return is good news; it is the end of suffering, with ungodliness and death destroyed forever.

I want all of us to live with a sense of joyful immediacy. Let’s live as if we are going to see Christ with our next breath! When we live this way, evil cannot really touch us, not even if it takes our lives. Even if we are killed, we are sheltered with Christ, destined to return with him on that great day.

In Christ, what we call the end is merely a new beginning.

Lord, help us to live with a sense of your immediate presence. Amen.

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