Every age has had its people carrying placards proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh. Every now and then there is the latest prediction that the world will end on Tuesday at midday. There was a time when the news reported cults gathering on mountain tops – not quite sure what they expected to happen up there, since if it’s the end of the world you’re pretty much guaranteed to see it wherever you are and then promptly not care any more! And having lived through so many, we now don’t really expect it to happen in such a cataclysmic manner. That said, back in April an asteroid as big as a warehouse was spotted just hours before it whizzed passed planet earth – it was a near miss that, if not earth ending, would have disrupted a few things. An asteroid the size of a bus comes close about once a week. Add to that the need to take climate change seriously and we might not need to wait for the big one to hit.
So the disciples asking when calamity will come is not so odd after all (Mark 13:1-8). They lived in times with heightened apocalyptic expectation. Paul in his letters displays an assumption that the end will come soon. And it didn’t. One of the reasons behind writing the gospels may well be that the end didn’t come. So there was a need, as the original witnesses died, to ensure that the record was not lost. And the writers set to work to order things in the ways they did to capture the inner picture, the central story of the faith. God was among us in a unique and decisive way in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection made a profound difference to the universe on an even bigger scale than an asteroid hitting the planet. And that significance is even more important than the planet itself, let alone the buildings and structures we treasure and invest so much in.
That gospel passage (Mark 13:1-8) comes at the end of a string of teaching, going back to Chapter 11, set in and around the Temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of the Hebrew faith, their hopes and aspirations. The central theme in this is that status alone is not enough. Jesus’ authority is questioned and, in response, we have the parable of the wicked tenants who are thrown out of the vineyard and lose their special status. The first commandment is to love God; scribes are denounced for pomp and being puffed up. A widow giving, as the poor so often do, far more in proportion to what she has than those with great wealth who make great show of what to them is not much. Jesus then foretells the destruction of the Temple and the disciples think the moment has come, getting a little brain drunk on this heady mix.
Stones are impressive, but for Jesus they are just vehicles, a means through which hearts can be signposted to the real deal. And it is the real deal that counts most. God is what counts most. Everything else could be seen as just passing the time in comparison. And yet that raises some very perplexing questions about the purpose and point of life, if it is just transitory and passing.
Recently, in the Cathedral, we hosted a talk by Professor David Wilkinson, head of St John’s College in Durham. He is a scientist and a theologian – with PhDs is astrophysics and theology. He was invited to speak about the connections that can be made between science and faith, and how they are far more compatible than is so often thought. As he spoke about the time scale of the universe, in terms of 13 billion years, and human beings appearing in just the last few hundred thousand years, and our mortality which makes us so futile in the grand scheme of things, the puzzle is that God bothers with us. As the Psalmist wondered so many millennia ago, when you consider all that there is, the planets and stars in their obit, the wonder of creation, what are human beings that God should be mindful of them? (Psalm 8) And so it seems that there is something deeply holy and spiritual about the very matter that makes us, that we consist of. We may be made of dust, atoms and the same fabric as the rest of the universe, but it is very special dust and for some deeply mystical reason it is honoured and valued by God, its maker. This makes matter, existence, this temporal and fragile life, creation not just some kind of passing fancy and distraction to pass the time. For God time is a blink of the eye and vastly longer than anything we can imagine, so there is no need for God to make something to relieve boredom.
Jesus takes the disciples’ natural fascination with end times and reminds them to pause a moment and not jump to the end of the story. They are here and now, and this is where their attention is to be, to stick with it and ponder more deeply. How are they living, how are they longing and hoping? Does their looking to the end affect how they are now? If not, they are not really thinking about it. Following Jesus, being a disciple, is not merely a status but a call and invitation to be. The scribes and others were criticized for not taking what this means any where near seriously enough.
When I listen to scientists like David Wilkinson I get a glimpse of what that phrase in the creed about the ‘resurrection of the body’ could come to mean for us. This is way beyond anything the authors of that statement could have had any inkling of in their pre-scientific age. For them it meant that the dead were reanimated, got up and walked about. They knew that bodies decay and cease to exist, but they didn’t know about the movement of atoms and matter, how decomposition becomes re-composition of something else as energy is neither created nor destroyed, but moves from one form to another, as stated by the first law of thermodynamics. If matter has some role in the purposes of God and is in itself an expression of the deep character of God, then redemption will touch it too. And even though we cannot know what this will mean in practice, it becomes an enticing image and notion that the stuff of being is itself caught in the redemptive purposes of God. As with the most complex areas of science here we enter the world of metaphor and model.
This also means that end times are linked with present times. We live now as we hope for then. We seek to bring into the here and now the values and aspirations of all that we mean by the term the kingdom of God. So when Jesus says ‘Beware no one leads you astray… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs’ (Mark 13:5, 8b), he is pressing them to dig deeper and not get sidetracked. God is God. As creator, God made everything that there is and he had a purpose in doing so. This all matters and so as we look to the kingdom to come, we are to reflect it in the kingdom of now: the glory to come is also to be anticipated now – in Christ it has been realized. We are to live it.
Creation has a purpose and that purpose lies with God. Put another way, in the very familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that the Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, that it will come to be realized now and each of us can play a part by being a space, a created space, where that is welcomed. So don’t fuss about what is to come, there’s enough to concentrate on now. We are to live in the light of the kingdom of God, of the purpose at the core of all things. In this we make Temples and ourselves as temples into places where God’s reign and redemption is anticipated and let loose.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, 2nd Sunday Before Advent, 18th November 2018