It’s Always the End of the World
March 18, 2024

It’s Always the End of the World


Text: Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

🎵It’s the end of the world as we know it.

🎵It’s the end of the world as we know it.

🎵It’s the end of the world as we know.

🎵And I feel fine.

This is the song that’s been in my head basically on repeat over the past week or so. I’m sure many of you know it. It’s by the band REM from the 1987. Aside from the very singable chorus, it’s a rapid-fire confusion of pop-culture and political references. These are  signifiers, I surmise, that the world of 1987 is in decline. And the response the cacophony is the either cynical or genuine, “I feel fine.” (YouTube Video

I see the song as a send up of the indulgent, consumerist and capitalist conservatism of the 80’s. Michael Stipe and REM didn’t really think it was the end of the world, but they certainly felt out of place in the one that was emerging around them. And their song of protest resonated - and still resonates - making people who felt dismal about the state of the world, feel hopeful and connected.

Though they may not have intended it as such, REM were singing in a tradition very much in line with Jesus’ end-of-the-world sermon from Mark 13. Or maybe, more accurately with Mark’s story about Jesus’ end-of the-world sermon.

Mark’s community in Jerusalem somewhere between the years 66 and 70 was under attack or siege, was  engaged in revolt against Rome as an occupying force and Rome was fighting back hard. Perhaps the temple had already fallen, perhaps it was about it fall. Either way, extreme conditions were all around and it felt like the end of the world. Where would they turn for hope and instruction? Mark gave them Jesus.

I have come to understand that what Mark is doing here is more like Jesus fan fiction than historically accurate quotation. That is, like the Jewish tradition of midrash, Mark is taking canonical Jesus stories and sayings, along with contemporary apocalypse traditions like the Essenes, and Biblical stories and tropes like Daniel and Ezekiel, which also speak of the Day of the Lord - or the Coming of the Son of Man of Human One. 

Mark is taking those and writing them into Jesus’ mouth as teaching. Jesus is answering his disciples' questions about when and how they would know that the world is coming to an end. When and how they would know that God is triumphing over the evil and chaos of the world they’re experiencing. The same questions that Mark’s community had. The same questions we had in 1987. The same questions we have now. The world is always ending.

That’s all well and good, you might say. But some of us need a little more than that. If it’s always the end of the world…which means it’s the end of the world now…what should I do? What would you do if it was the end of the world. I thought of that bumper sticker which maybe you’ve seen: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” It’s kind of funny. But it’s also kind of exactly what Jesus says. He tells the parable about the homeowner and his faithful servants and says (so many times) so stay alert and watchful. To do the jobs that he’s given them.

This story is doing a couple of things. One it’s a HUGE foreshadowing of the experience in Gethsemane, when the disciples don’t do the one thing Jesus asks of them, which is to stay awake. It’s also a reminder to his disciples (and us) that Jesus has been teaching his them now for three years what it means to do the work of God’s kingdom. He’s been teaching us for two thousand years. So we should have a pretty good idea of what our role is at the end of the world. 

God has shown you, my people, what is good and what God requires: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Lean into community, be peacemakers, heal and feed and offer care. 

The world is always ending AND God is always near. One of the things our Adult Study class noticed as we reflected on this text together is that yes - it is chaotic and perplexing and disorienting. And also, there were many signs of hope. The suffering of the end are read in some translations as birth pangs, the coming Son of Man will gather up his people from every corner of the earth, the fig tree will sprout and bring forth new leaves.

That image is especially poignant now when we’re seeing new growth all around us. And at the same time it seems like my tulips have been on the verge of blooming for months! I am staying alert for the first open bud!

Jesus is making a prediction - a couple of them in one actually: The cross, his torture and death are going to be an end. Jesus crucifixion is going to bring the world crashing down for his friends and disciples. In a very literal way, within not only their generation but within days, their community will be shattered. And there will be new life. 

And then possibly within their literal generation they’ll experience another world ending with the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. Again and again. The world is always ending in every generation. And God is always near.

In every generation, even in our Anabaptist history this is so. We don’t often tell the histories of the early Anabaptists whose apocalyptic visions were spread as a response to the persecution and anxiety of living in a conflicted time. When I was in seminary I studied the writing of a woman named Ursula Jost who was part of a community of Anabaptists in Switzerland for whom 

Here’s a bit of one which reminded me both of the fig tree in Jesus parable and of the visions of John in Revelation. She writes: 

On the Friday before Palm Sunday in 1525, the glory of the Lord again approached me and unfolded. In it I saw a pretty green tree, which had many thousands of green branches…and then I saw that there came a great host of people who were from the common folk. They drank the drops which ran off the branches, and they were all satisfied. And I saw that they had raised their hands and their heads to God the Eternal Father, and to him gave the highest praise and thanks. (Lois Barrett. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Pioneers. Eds. Snyder and  Hecht. 1996. pp 277-278)

It sounds a bit like a fairy tale. Or like nonsense. But like the vision of Revelation, which was coded language for real oppression and violence and empire and which gave people hope. And like Jesus’ invitation to consider the fig tree, the faithfulness of the Son of Man, the coming of the homeowner. Even like REM’s ‘End of the World’ Ursula’s visions spoke to a people who were persecuted and under duress, alienated because of how they were called to be faithful.

Lois Barrett, who writes about Ursula Jost says this: 

“Ursula's visions helped readers cope with the crises by putting them in the context of God's ultimate plan for the present age. the crises of the period of her visions, 1524 to 1530, we're unmistakable: the burden of the land Ties on the peasants, The Peasants’ War, the overturning of the power of the Roman Catholic Church in many cities, the persecution of religious dissenters. Some of these crises Ursula's visions put in the context of God's judgment and wrath in other cases the visions called for patience and endurance until the time when God would save the chosen people… they asserted that God was in control of history.” (Barret, 284)

In other words: It’s always the end of the world. God is always near. Let us do the work we are called to do as we await God’s kingdom, as we live in God’s kingdom even now. Amen.

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