Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Sermon: This Is the Way the World Ends

Sunday, January 31, 2010                                                                 Sacramento, California

Hymns “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Come Sing a Song with Me,” “Wonders Still the World Shall Witness.”

Readings

 

Christian New Testament, The Revelation to John, 21:1-8

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” . .  To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.  Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.  But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake of fire that burns with fire and sulfur.”

{See Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation in The Message]

“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, an American poet who lived from 1874-1963.

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Shared Offering

Today is not the last day of the world, but it is the last day of January.  Every Sunday this month we have been sharing half of our offering with Sacramento Loaves and Fishes (www.sacloaves.org).  This local organization helps the poor, hungry and homeless in our area with food, shelter and services, offering hope as well as help to children and adults, affirming human dignity while meeting human needs. Our help can make a difference.  In support of this community partner as well as the ministries of this congregation, this morning’s offering will now be given and received.

Sermon “This Is the Way the World Ends”

A few years ago a friend gave me a refrigerator magnet.  It says:  “Jesus is coming—look busy!”  Some of you may have seen it on a bumper sticker.   This joke is a reference to Second Coming of Christ.  Of course, to those who feel certain they know that Christ is coming soon, the joke’s on the rest of us.  When the world ends, we won’t be laughing.

Some Protestant Christian churches organize themselves around the expectation of the Second Coming, but not all do. Preaching about the end of the world is a particular favorite of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and many Evangelicals.  Much of their preaching cites the last book of the New Testament, which is called the Revelation to John, or the Book of the Revelation.  Every group of churches and scholars has  their own take on what this book reveals and for whom.[i]

The Book of Revelation overflows with numerical symbolism, colorful images, fantastic figures, and dramatic violence.  One New Testament scholar calls it “psychedelic.”  The Revelation depicts political tyranny, social immorality, religious waywardness, and the persecution of the innocent by the powerful.  There is a battle between Christ and the Devil.  Christ imprisons the Devil and rules on an earthly throne for 1,000 years, after which he flings the Devil into the lake of fire to burn forever.  Then the Almighty creates a new heaven and a new earth.  He rewards the faithful, and throws the wicked into the lake of fire.

This book has given vibrant images to poets and artists.  It has given hope to the downtrodden.  It has given tools for manipulation to demagogues and religious predators.

It has given marketing material to conservative churches.  Several years ago I saw a large newspaper ad that read:  “Eight Compelling Reasons Why Christ Is Coming Very Soon!  How To Be Prepared For History’s Greatest Event.”  The ad listed the signs of the last days.  Nowadays, of course, you can find the signs by Googling for them.  Web sites abound with names like “Escape the USA Now.” They cite a decline in moral behavior, an increase in participation in religious cults and in the appeal of the occult, and trends of growth among Christian true believers and among believers of so-called false doctrines.  The signs also include earthquakes, famine, pestilence.  Web sites assert that every negative event or trend is predicted in the Bible, and thus “prove, without a doubt” that Jesus’ return is near.  Of course, thousands of earthquakes happen every year, and no era has been without pestilence and famine in the world.  There is a web site for Christian pet owners concerned for the fate of their dogs and cats after the Rapture comes and takes the true believers to God.  For $110, your pet will be matched with a pre-approved atheist who has signed on to adopt it.  The nonbeliever (who otherwise has been screened for good morals) will care for the animal, at least until Armageddon takes care of the remaining nonbelievers.   So far as I can tell, this is not a parody or a joke.  So far as I can tell.

Another important sign of the end-times is the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.  Fundamentalist Christians predict that the cosmic battle of Armageddon will happen in Israel, since the Revelation refers to the holy city as the site of battle.  According to this prediction, the Jews must restore their temple in Jerusalem–the temple the Roman Empire tore down in the first century.  This restoration is necessary so Christ can sit on the throne of David and rule on earth for 1,000 years.  This is why Fundamentalists are friends of the State of Israel and supporters of military assistance to that nation.  A Jew might say, with friends like these, who needs enemies?  This is because, after Christ returns, Jews will have a final opportunity to accept him as their Lord and Savior—or else.

Another alleged sign that these are the last days is the growth of a new world order.  End-times Christians do not trust the United Nations, the European  Union, or other organizations that promote international cooperation.  To them, the centralization of political or financial power across national boundaries is a prelude to the takeover of the world by the Anti-Christ, the emissary of the Devil.  Hence, to work for world community is to do the Devil’s work.  I have not read if end-of-the world Christians oppose the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, but if they did they would be linking arms with environmentalists, union workers, and progressive activists everywhere.

End-of-the-world thinking can be used by the right or the left.  For example, passages in the Revelation condemn the rich and well-connected for oppressing the poor.  However, the most popular version of last-days thinking right now is right wing:  it advocates government repression in the service of a rigid sexual morality; it condemns intellectual inquiry; it promotes militarism over international diplomacy; it labels immoral things that many of us would call signs of life in a free society.

A series of novels with the name “Left Behind” made big splashes on the best-seller lists in the prior decade.  The title refers to those who are left behind on earth for the great battle after the saved are taken in the Rapture.  A dozen Left Behind books have sold more than 70 million copies.  Now there are two sequel series, one intended for children.  The co-author Tim LaHaye and his wife Beverly have a long history of reactionary social and political activism, particularly against gay people.

The liberal Christians I know and the Christian writers I read do not believe in these end-times predictions or the Christian militarism that comes from such thinking.  They reject a literal reading of the Revelation and reject it as a prection of our own future.   Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor most ordinary Catholics accept this thinking, either.  As a matter of fact, many of the last-days scenarios depict the Catholic Church as doing the Devil’s work.  Some preachers accuse the Pope of being the Anti-Christ.  They assert that followers of the Pope will be on the losing side of the final cosmic battle.  While many moderate Christians  do believe that Jesus Christ will return, they see it as arrogant to think you can figure out when this will happen.

Public-opinion surveys reveal that over half the people in the United States think the Book of Revelation will come true.  In 2002 a Time magazine poll showed that “Almost a quarter believe the Bible predicted the attacks of September 11, 2001.”[ii] It is easy for me to make fun of such beliefs.  But it’s easy for me to be frightened by them as well.  What is not so easy is to understand why such ideas are so appealing.

Let’s consider a scientific view of the end of the world.  A New York Times article about astrophysics research states:  “In about two billion years Earth will become uninhabitable as a gradually warming Sun produces a runaway greenhouse effect. In five billion years the Sun will swell up and die, burning the Earth to a crisp in the process.”[iii]

According to the article, scientists now believe the universe is expanding at a faster and faster rate.  As other galaxies move farther from ours, they eventually will go beyond the view of our scientists.  What this means is that we will not be able to see as much as we can now.  We will become more ignorant of the universe as we can see less of it.  And then, in five billion years, we’re toast.

Why doesn’t this idea of the end of the world catch the attention of more Americans than those predictions I would politely call non-scientific?  Certainly there’s drama in an expanding universe.  There’s color and violence in an exploding Sun.  I find it appealing, even comforting, that the Sun will last a few billion years after me.  But what the scientific story doesn’t give us is a sense of meaning.  It is a story that offers no purpose and structure for human life.  The Book of Revelation does give such a story.  It is a story of winners and losers.  The good guys get rewarded, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.  The story gives hope to some people.  In particular, stories like that in the Book of Revelation give hope to those who suffer.  They give hope to those who are persecuted or  to those who are made to think they are being persecuted.

The Book of Revelation was written for truly persecuted people.  It was written to them–back then–not to us now.  It was written when Roman rulers were persecuting Jews and Christians.  The first major persecution of Christians by the Romans began in the year 64, about 30 years after the death of Jesus.  The symbols in the Revelation relate to events of that persecution.  For example, the Revelation depicts seven kings—this is a symbol of seven Roman emperors—real ones.  Revelation speaks of the Beast, the Four Horsemen, and the Whore of Babylon, among other fantastic creations.  The Whore of Babylon is a reference to Rome, the seat of the empire—not a prediction of Rome as the center of the Roman Catholic Church.

You may have heard of the “mark of the beast,” the sign of Anti-Christ.  The mark is the number 666.  The numerals 666 represent the Hebrew letters for the name of Nero, one of the Roman emperors.  In a congregation that I served previously, an elderly member–a woman who is a an anti-war social activist and a feisty feminist–had a car license plate with 666 on it.  This was surely a random occurrence. When I told her that some people think the number means the mark of the Anti-Christ, she assured me that it’s not a vanity plate.

Romans soldiers arrested Christians,  tortured them and  forced them to renounce their faith and pray to the graven image of the emperor.  If they did renounce their faith they might be spared.  If not, they would be executed.[iv] The Book of Revelation offered hope for those who were suffering under this oppression.  One of its most touching passages is this:  “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Rev. 21:3b-4).

People been predicting the end of the world for centuries.  Their deadlines come and go.  We’re still here.  The world keeps going.  At the same time, death and mourning and crying and pain keep going. Persecution persists.  Human beings continue to suffer.

There is no meaning or purpose to suffering.  There is no reason for suffering.  Sure, there is a cause for every occasion of suffering and oppression.  In almost any situation, you can explain how suffering or oppression comes about.  But the explanation of a cause is not a reason for it or a justification.  To identify a cause is not to find a source of cosmic meaning.

When I consider our human history of suffering and oppression, it seems to me that the world has ended many times.  It just depends on which part of history you are unlucky enough to belong to.  The world has always been ending.  At the end of his poem “The Hollow Men,” written in 1925, T. S. Eliot writes:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Like many artists and writers active after the First World War, T. S. Eliot evokes the sense of despair and moral emptiness that followed such a cruel exercise in folly.  World War I was a disastrous and pointless war that took out nearly a whole generation of young men in Europe.  For those who died, the world did end, with whimpering, sobbing, and pain.

The world ended for Indians on the North and South American continents as European conquerors invaded and colonizers took over.  Mexican and South American civilizations were destroyed.  North American tribes were decimated.  This is the way the world ended for them.  It ended without reason, without meaning.

This is the way the world ends for too many, age after age.  It ends without reason, without meaning.

In the 1930s and 40s, the world ended for six million Jews and other minorities in camps of extermination.  In World War II, the world ended for thousands of young men on all sides of the war.  The world ended for thousands of civilians in Europe and Asia.  When bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it must have seemed like the end of the world.  And it was, for hundreds of thousands.  This is the way the world ends.

The world ends all the time, all over the world, for children and women and men.  But the world goes on, too. Those of us who survive are not the favored or the righteous.  We are merely the lucky.  We are not special for having survived, but we do have a special responsibility.

People suffer needlessly, people suffer without reason or meaning.  Some will say that some injustice or tragedy was destined to happen, meant to happen, part of a plan.  I don’t believe that.  Tragedy and injustice are not meant to happen.  But they do happen.  Many kinds of tragedy and injustice are preventable.  We just don’t always prevent them.  Let’s consider the pandemic of HIV and AIDS. It is not curable, but it is totally preventable.  Yet it torments and kills millions of people, threatens nations, wipes out entire villages.  This is the way the world ends, for hundreds of thousands of people.

Take the catastrophe in Haiti.  Hundreds of thousands have perished since the major earthquake; many more are suffering, grieving, homeless.  Even before the disaster, Haiti was in bad shape, with a continuing legacy of political corruption and oppression, privilege for a very few and grinding poverty for most everyone else, with disease and hunger their constant companions.*

The United States recently has been in a major economic decline.  Jobs are scarce, we are at war, people have lost their homes and savings, and life is challenging in many ways for so many people.  At the same time, we are relatively well-off compared to many parts of the world, with a high standard of living.  Many if not most of us are safe and comfortable, relatively speaking.  When I think about how privileged we are in America, I find the obsessive talk and about unmistakable signs of the last days to be not just irrational, but selfish and cruel.  When women and children and men face the end of the world every day, it is the height of arrogance for anyone else to claim to see signs of the end of the world.  The world is ending all the time, and the world keeps on going.

At the same time, I do fear for the future of this country, the future of humanity, the future of the planet’s ecosystems.  The signs are not hopeful and the science is not comforting. What purpose can we give to human life when suffering keeps on going, when persecution endures, when fear abides?  What hope can we bring?  What meaning can we offer in place of a Fundamentalist drama? We can offer meaning by asserting the value of human kinship and the work of human solidarity.

You know, I do think a useful answer to the question of suffering and injustice appears in the Book of the Revelation.  It offers a tender vision of hope for those who suffer, in this passage.  It says:  “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

This must be God’s work—not to cause suffering, but to be present with those who suffer.   Whatever our position about the existence or nature of God, we can take on this work as our own.  We can make ourselves present with those who suffer.  We can be with them.  We can wipe the tears from their eyes.  If there is a God, then I am sure that this is God’s work, and we are meant to share in it.  If there is no God, then we are the only ones who can do the work.

Again, let’s consider the heartbreak of the Haitian people.  Rather than try to make sense out of a disaster that has no sense, we can find meaning in how we respond to it.  We find meaning and purpose by not turning away.  We can renew our hopes by the stories of unexpected survival, and of countless acts of service, and a worldwide sense of sympathy, caring, and generous help.   Amid this ongoing tragedy and amid so many other ones, there do exist reasons for hope.  We can see signs of the timeless virtue of human kinship and solidarity.

We can reach out to those who are hurting, vulnerable, afraid, and weak.  We can reach out to those who long for justice.  We must reach out.  I think we all have times when we are the ones who feel lonely or afraid or weak, when we are the ones who long for justice.  This is all the more reason to reach out.

Those of us lucky enough to survive must do the work of being present to one another.  We must be present to the suffering and the ugliness of a world that is ending all the time.  We must be present to the beauty and the goodness of a world that keeps on going.

We must be present to the need for more justice and love in our world.  The world is ending all the time, and it keeps on going. May we do what we can to keep it moving toward love and justice.

So may it be.  Blessed be.  Amen.

NOTES:

[i] The word apocalypse means revelation; apocalypse comes from the Greek language and revelation comes from Latin.

[ii] “Some Books Are Better Left Behind,” by Martin E. Marty, Context, November 1, 2002, p. 2.

[iii] “The End of Everything,” by Dennis Overbye, New York Times, ________ 2002, p._.

[iv] The New Testament, by Dennis Duling and Norman Perrin (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1994), p. 453.

[v] “AIDS Menace Bears Down on Asia,” by Sabin Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 200, p. A1.

[vi] “Fear on the Front Line in India,” by Juliette Terzieff, San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 200, p. A20.

[vii] “Women’s Low Status Spreads HIV in India,” by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2002, p. A20.  [An earlier version of this sermon was given on World AIDS Day and the first Sunday in Advent, 2002.]

[viii] “A Deadly Passage to India,” by Geoffrey Cowley, Newsweek, November 25, 2002, p. 40.  See www.globalhealth.org/news/article/2512

*For more about Haiti, see www.theweek.com/article/index/105379/Haiti_A_history_of_hurt

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

> Dear Roger:
>
> I very much enjoyed your sermon re: the continuous ending of the world.
> And then I watched a PBS show that talked about endangered animals (how many
> ends of the world have we there!) It really hit home when they
> interviewed this fellow who has been recording bird songs in a
> certain location for
> many years and he told how the output has decreased over the years by some
> very high amount as a result of loss of habitat and therefore fewer birds.
> These animals simply slip quietly out of existence without the sound of
> violence from war or cataclysmic event from mother nature. Loss is
> cumulative
> and we mourn the least among us as well as ourselves. (I’m sorry I don’t
> have more accurate references but I think it was the Nature program re: the
> Balkans in case you are a PBS fan).
>
> Many thanks for being,
> Marilyn Piazza

Comment by Marilyn Piazza

Thanks to Marilyn for leading our Religious Education youth and children through some folk dances on Sunday, including costumes from various cultures and a map.

Comment by ironicschmoozer




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