Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 3); November 28, 2021

The End of the World as We Know It

It is the first Sunday in Advent. We start another church year. And every year it’s the same blessed thing.

Cosmic catastrophe.

            Political upheaval.

                        Oceanic upsets.

It is the end of the world as we know it. Or at least that’s how it seems.

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Life is a “dual process” reality. For every step “forward” (whatever that directional metaphor actually means), there is likely at some point a step “backward” (ditto). In the grieving process, for example, there are no “stages” (even Elizabeth Kubler-Ross critiqued the use of her work as some sort of diagnostic checklist). When we are bereaved, at some points we are “recovering.” At other points, we are struggling. Both are true at the same time.

History, as a reflection of life, is a “dual process” reality. In the struggle against personal and systemic racism in the United States, the dual process reality is also true. As Ibram X. Kendi points out in How to Be an Antiracist, “History duels: the undeniable history of antiracist progress, the undeniable history of racist progress” (page 33).

The Reconstruction amendments and laws in the decade following the American Civil War were met with judicial rejections, Jim Crow legislation, and a century and a half of vigilante violence. Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act have been followed by seventy years of White legislative and violent backlash. At some points, American society is growing more just. At other points, American society is becoming more totalitarian. Both are true at the same time.

Everything is falling apart. Something new is being born. We Western Europeans have been dealing with the defects of philosophical dualism for at least twenty-five hundred years. We want everything to be one thing or another. We prefer our Reality digital rather than analogue – on or off, good or evil, forward or backward, true or false, winning or losing. It’s easier to put “either/or” in a flow chart, harder to factor in “both/and.”

The Good News of Jesus Christ comes to us from the Author of Reality. Therefore, it is also a dual process phenomenon. Theologians often capture that notion in a paradox of time – “now and not yet.” Our digitized demand for dualism can’t accommodate this paradox (or any other paradox, for that matter).

So, on the one hand (another excellent dualistic metaphor) we have the end-times fanatics who assure us that the crisis “NOW!” Never mind that “now” has come and gone hundreds of times over the centuries. On the other hand, we have the end-times deniers who suggest that “not yet” is a relatively permanent thing (although the Second Law of Thermodynamics would beg to differ).

But Reality is another story. Everything is falling apart. And something new is being born.

Pray,” Jesus urges us. “Pray that you have the strength to escape these things.” Easy for Jesus to say. He’s not the one who had to read this doom and gloom report and then cheerfully conclude, “The Gospel of the Lord.”

And yet, Jesus says, it is gospel—good news. “Now when these things begin to take place,” Jesus continues, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Somehow, the cosmic catastrophe, the political upheaval, the oceanic upset—somehow these are signposts on the path to salvation. Perhaps we need to become better sign-readers. Otherwise, we may get carried away on the wild winds of our imagination.

In 2007, I traveled to northern Tanzania with ten parishioners. Our first night in-country, we stayed at the Uhuru Lutheran Hostel outside of Moshi. We were staying in the safest place in the most stable democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. It was a warm night, so we left open the windows.

At about 2 a.m., I woke out of a sound sleep to the sound of trumpets blaring in the distance—dozens of them. Then I heard whistles blowing and men shouting. I heard vehicles starting and weapons loading. My imagination shifted into overdrive. “It’s the revolution!” I thought to myself. “I have brought ten innocent people eight time zones only to land them in the middle of some African civil war!”

I thought it was the end of the world as I knew it. I waited the rest of the night in a cold sweat for the knock on our door. Of course, it never came.

In the morning, I learned the truth. On the other side of the hill was a regional police training center. The instructors often rousted out the recruits in the middle of the night for exercises. That was the source of the noise and the cause of my panic.

Everyone else thought it was wonderfully amusing.

This is the end of the world as we know it, Jesus says. And that’s the good news!When you see these things taking place,” he tells us, “you know the kingdom of God is near.”

We must not misuse Jesus’ words here. He is not describing our current world crisis, no matter how similar it might sound. Using Scripture to make predictions and utter threats is to abuse Scripture. That sort of thing verges on blasphemy.

Instead, Jesus says that the mighty Jerusalem temple will soon be destroyed. That destruction happened less than forty years later. The Bible shall not be used to peddle pet projections or to amplify anxieties.

Advent is the time for testimony, not terror.

This is the end of the world as we know it. And that is the good news!

Something has happened that changes everything. The something is not a terrorist attack. The something is not our changing climate. The something is not the latest electronic toy or the newest car. The something is not a drug or a war or an idea or an invention.

Something has happened that changes everything. It’s a baby—but not just any baby. The Maker of all things, the Lord of the Universe, the Author of life—God has come to us, and become one of us. There is no army. There are no guns. There are no bombs.

There is just this baby—poor, helpless, persecuted. There is just this baby—the God who is with us, and for us and among us always.

This is the end of the world as we know it. And that is the good news!

No matter what anyone says, the world’s message is crystal clear. Nothing ever changes. So when trouble comes—and it always does—you should be afraid, be very afraid. Duck and cover, the world says, and wait for the dust to settle. The cast may be different, but it’s the same old script.

So don’t bother with something as foolish as hope. It’ll just break your heart.

But what if things really could change? That is the Advent question. If things could really change, then there would be reason to hope.

This is the end of the world as we know it. And that is the good news!

We know that things can change because we know that things have changed. We know how the story ends. We know this baby grows to be a man. We know the manger morphs into a cross. We know he dies by violence so that violence itself will die. We know he lives to give God’s life back to the world.

So what is this good news?

If the world can change, then so can I. I am not bound by my past or my pain. I can be different. As a church family, we can abound in love for one another and for all those around us. We can leave behind our doubts about God, about ourselves and about our neighbors. We are not stuck here. And that is the good news!

If this is the ending that marks the beginning, then I can resist the power of fear. Perhaps on Thanksgiving you heard me say that worry cannot come from God. Neither can fear. “There is no fear in love,” we read in First John, “because perfect love casts out fear.” Think of the freedom we can enjoy when we refuse to be controlled by fear. And that is the good news!

If this is the end of the world as we know it, then we can begin to live in God’s new world right now. The Righteous Branch of David is here to execute justice and righteousness in the land. We are the people of the Righteous Branch. We have the power to live as his people. We have the power to be partners in the Holy Spirit’s life-giving work. And that is the good news.

So we begin with the ending. This is the end of the world as we know it. And that is the good news!

References and Resources

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.