The End is Near

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, by Christopher L. Webber on December 2, 2012.

A priest I know has just published his first book.  Years ago he was rector of a parish in the New Haven area and he learned that a former Rector, in the nineteenth century, had been very controversial and so he began to do some research to learn more about this man’s life and year after year he continued to do that research as he had time with the idea that someday he might write the man’s biography and finally, this year, he did it. He told me, “I realized that I was ninety years old and if I didn’t do it soon, I might never have the chance.”

Yes.  Time is limited. The human life span is limited. There’s a psalm that says, “The days of our age are three score years and ten.”  Obviously some get a good many more years than that and some get a whole lot less and none of us knows what our own allotment will be but there is a limit.

I read a story in the paper last month about a parade in Texas to honor veterans in connection with Veterans’ Day. Some of them were riding on a float that was pulled across a railroad track just as a freight train came down the track and a dozen veterans who had survived Iraq and Afghanistan died very suddenly on a Texas highway.  As they say in the ads for the lottery, “Hey, you never know.”

The Committal service in the Prayer Book used to begin this way: “Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death . . .”  But that’s not very cheerful, is it, and so it was changed in 1979 and now it begins: “Everyone the Father gives to me will come to me; . . . He who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will also give new life to our mortal bodies . . .”  So 40 years ago the emphasis was on the shortness of life and now it’s all about resurrection which is certainly more cheerful.  But I don’t think the facts have changed. “In the midst of life we are in death . . .”  Life here is not eternal.

And yet in a way, perhaps, the facts have changed.  When the English Prayer Book was written life expectancy was well under 70 – closer to fifty even when you took out infant mortality – and now it’s closer to eighty. That’s quite a difference and I wonder whether that change has made it harder for us to take death seriously. On average, at least, we have another thirty years or so, so why worry? Now, what I wonder is this: is that why church attendance everywhere is going down and why even those who go to church are less likely to hear about death? It’s almost as if religion has relied on death to get people’s attention and it doesn’t work any more. It’s as if a somewhat longer life span gives us such a feeling of security that we don’t worry any more, as if somehow a fifty year average life span gets our attention and eighty doesn’t.

And yet in any larger perspective it hardly makes a difference at all. Thirty years is the blink of an eye in terms of eternity.  It’s like, if I can put it this way, Warren Buffett or Donald Trump worrying about the changing price of gas at the pump. You and I might worry because our funds are limited but there are others out there who have no such concern. So can we imagine that medieval people worried about death because they had only an average 50 years to work with and that we’ve stopped worrying because now we have 80?  If we now had a million years, or even a thousand, it might make sense, but 80? I can tell you from experience, that 80 goes by pretty fast. The child we baptize today will be eighty before you know it – and eternity is still as long as ever.

So why do we seem less concerned about the “shortness and uncertainty” of human life? Maybe it’s not the increasing life span that reduces our anxiety. Maybe it’s because we have television to entertain us. Medieval people had long dark evenings in which to worry but we have The Big Bang Theory and Dancing with the Stars to keep us happy and make us forget our mortality. Is that what’s happening?

I say all this because it’s Advent Sunday, and while the culture wants us to rush to the stores and begins its annual assault on our ears with so many Christmas songs and carols that we’re sick of Christmas before we ever get there, the church, more out of synch with the culture than ever, asks us to think not about Black Friday and bargains on cell phones and talking dolls but about the end of the world.  You come to church in early December in a Christmas mood and the Gospel is all about judgment, the Gospel this morning tells us,

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Luke 21:25-26

I wonder whether that echoes recent weather events closely enough to make us pay attention?
I went home last Sunday to read the paper and the New York Times Sunday Review had this headline: “Is This the End?” It’s one thing for fundamentalists to obsess about the end times but when the New York Times asks the question, it may be time to take the Bible seriously.

“Is this the end?” Are we bringing it down on ourselves? I think the critical question is one of perspective. Jesus said no one knows when the end will be so there’s no point in not getting a 2013 date book.  I’ve got one date for January 2014 already. Years ago there was a Secretary of the Interior who was asked about environmental issues and he said he wasn’t going to worry because Jesus might come first.

Well, yes, Jesus might come next week but I still plan to send out Christmas cards. Until I get better information I still need to plan – but differently, differently, with an eye to the goal, an eye to the purpose.  Keep alert, says the Gospel today; be on guard; don’t let your hearts be “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” It’s about attitude.  It’s about a way of living.

So what is it that shapes our outlook on life, that seems to make this generation less religious? Is it because we live longer?  Is it because science seems to have more answers to our problems than religion? Is it a weariness with war and conflict that makes us satisfied with entertainment to forget our troubles? I’ve seen lots of polls lately that tell us church attendance is down, belief in God is down, but I haven’t seen a poll that tells us why.  And what I’ve been trying to do this morning is guess at the reasons, but none of the answers I come up with make very much sense. A life span lengthened by twenty or thirty years isn’t a blink of the eye in terms of eternity. The best entertainment available may gives us a few laughs but what is that when it comes to judgment? And science has answers for lots of things but not for the questions that matter most eventually: questions like, “Why should I get up in the morning? Is there a reason for acting one way rather than another?  Why am I here?”

The readings today assume several things: they take it for granted that there is a God who has a purpose for human life, that God is at work in history and has created us to work together toward that purpose. And they tell us the time is short. Well, yes, it is short. Think of it this way: human life on this earth in any recognizable form has been around for a mere two hundred thousand years and that means that if you set out to tell the story of creation from the big bang until now in a series of books and if you took 200 books to write that history and fill a bookshelf ten feet long, the whole story of the human race would be written on the last page of the last book and the story of the last 2000 years would be the last few words on the last page. You and I and the baby baptized this morning would all be barely a blip, a hair’s breadth at the end of the page.

Here again science and faith provide very different perspectives. Science tells us about the unimaginably long saga from the Big Bang to the present: the long ages of the dinosaurs that are gone for ever, the billions of stars that form our galaxy, the insignificance of our star in the larger picture of the universe, and all that suggests that we are a meaningless short term speck in an accidental universe. Against that background, we come to church on the first Sunday of Advent and are reminded that, yes, that speck is here for a very brief time but – but there’s one thing more – there’s one thing more that makes all the difference: there is a God who cares for you.

Look at the readings again: it’s not all gloom and doom. Yes, there’s an end to remember but listen to the Bible.  The Epistle is a prayer that we be ready when Jesus comes, that we be “abounding in love” on that day. It talks about joy and holiness.  The Old Testament talks about justice and righteousness in the land, it talks about a time when people in Jerusalem will live in safety.  Finally!  That’s a day to pray for and the Bible tells us it’s coming. So I think there’s a lot of hopefulness in these readings.  Yes, time is short but God is at work toward a purpose, toward a radically transformed world.  If that seems no nearer now than ever we have readings that ask us still to look at a bigger picture than we might find in the media.  So why does our focus seem to be somewhere else?  The Old Testament speaks of a coming time of peace and the Epistle speaks of the joy of serving God and the Gospel speaks about standing at last in Jesus’ presence.  It’s all about meaning and purpose the very things about which science is silent and from which the media would distract us. But it’s a perspective without which it doesn’t much matter who won the election or whether the Congress take us over a fiscal cliff or I drop dead tomorrow.  A cold and meaningless universe will never notice.  It makes no difference. But the Bible has a different outlook.  The Bible asks us to believe that it matters enormously because every human life – your life – is of infinite value and belongs to a Creator who shared this brief human life himself to call us back, to get our attention again, to remind us that we are loved, that we are valued, that we are here for a reason. Advent asks us to remember that and I think we desperately need that reminder.  We may be easily distracted but we are here for a reason and God is here today to give us new strength and joy in working together toward that purpose.

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