In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Emma and I have had nieces now for several years. One of the instructive and delightful things about watching young children grow is that I become increasingly aware of the sort of experience my parents might have had as I grew up. Our oldest niece is now at the stage of “are we nearly there yet?” During car journeys and similar periods of travelling from one place to another. I can imagine myself in the backseat of my parents’ car asking the same question on long journeys to Pembrokeshire or indeed down to Dorset which were our accustomed family journeys while I was that age.
We find ourselves now in the dying weeks of an old Christian year. Fed up to the back teeth with numbering the Sundays after Trinity, you will notice that the compilers of the calendar adopt a different plan of attack now, designating this as the Third Sunday before Advent. Are we nearly there yet? We’re counting down to the beginning of the New Year.
And as we do that, we begin to hear bits of Scripture which have an “are we nearly there yet” tone about them. We begin to hear the church thinking about the end. November, traditionally, in the church, is the time for thinking about life and death, heaven and hell. Actually we used to think about these things in Advent itself, but there isn’t really room in Advent for that now what with all the tinsel and donkeys and what not, and so it’s in these closing weeks of an old year, in between the feast of all Saints, all souls, Remembrance Sunday, and Christ the King that we find an opportunity to consider our end. To think about what will happen when the world finishes. To muse upon our mortality, and to be inspired by the promise of eternity.
Now of course if you gather six Christians in one room, you will have at least seven different opinions about the reality or otherwise of heaven, hell, judgement and the end of the world. Don’t worry about that, that is the Anglican way. A preacher once said that if you been part of the church for more than about six weeks and you haven’t disagreed strongly with another member of the church leave it immediately because you’re part of a cult!
We tend to read from the letters to the church in Thessalonica in his final weeks of the year, not least because when we hear these words we are hearing very very early words of the Christian church indeed. Certainly the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is generally considered to be the earliest Christian writing that we have in our possession. There’s a little bit more dispute over the authorship and date of the second letter, from which we heard today, but it is certainly very early. We are talking about words written within 20 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are talking therefore about words written to the very earliest Christian communities. When we look at them, if you open your orders of service and look at the beginning of that passage that was read to us a few moments ago, what’s going on is that they are worrying about the end of the world. They are worrying about what beardie academics referred to as eschatology. And eschatology means the things of the end. In other words what’s going to happen when Jesus comes? Think about the final verse of ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’ which we will sing, accompanied by that spine tinglingly beautiful descant at the end of the Advent Procession in three weeks time: ‘Saviour, take the power and glory, claim the kingdom for thine own. Alleluia! Thou shalt reign, and thou alone’. Or the earlier lines in that same hymn which are not quite so nice where it talks about “those who set at naught and sold thee, pierced and nailed thee to the tree deeply wailing shall the true Messiah see.”
What’s going to happen at the end? And when will the end come? Are we nearly there yet?
You see there was disagreement amongst the early Christians, just as there is now, about how much we’ve already been changed and transformed by Jesus’s resurrection, and how much we have to wait until he returns, until he comes back to the world, as the Bible seems to suggest that he will, to bring in his kingdom. And so early Christians were not quite sure how to behave. And the bit of 2 Thessalonians that we’ve heard this morning is Paul, or whoever wrote the letter if it wasn’t Paul, making his case really for the fact that the end has not yet come. So he begins by saying “as to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and to our being gathered together to him “do not be quickly shaken to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way for that day will not come unless…” He goes on to lay out this rather scary scenario of the coming of the “lawless one” or the “one destined for destruction”. Some people interpret this as reference to the devil, as a reference to Satan. Others at the time and now think this is a reference to some sort of political or military figure who will bring the world into a state of crisis. And the Bible is full of references to the end of the world, and what might happen at that point.
You know there have been too many times over the past year when I’ve woken up and listened to the Today programme, (other early morning news and current affairs programmes are available), and heard another report of appalling destruction and carnage and inhumanity, and it will be so tempting to spot every political or military crisis as a harbinger of the end of the world. Indeed prophets and fortune-tellers have made an absolute mint over the years doing exactly that. A link on my Facebook wall earlier this week led me to the site of an extreme evangelical in the USA who laid out precisely the claim that one of the presidential candidates is this very “lawless one” whom the Scriptures foretell. I won’t tell you which candidate they were referring to…
I think there are at least three things to take away this morning and chew on as we think about this really quite complicated and not very nice idea of the end of the world. Firstly there is really no way of predicting when this will happen. And indeed elsewhere in the Bible Jesus explicitly tells his disciples not to worry about that. The end of the world, he says, will come “like a thief in the night”. Be ready for it he says but don’t obsess about it. The second thing is that in the letter to the Thessalonians which we heard today, the advice is actually all about remaining calm, and being consistent to our Christian calling. Keep praying, keep alert, keep faithful, “do not be alarmed” stand firm, hold fast, comfort your hearts, and above all and perhaps most encouragingly “because God chose you.” We are, brothers and sisters, chosen by God. Every one of us who was confirmed heard those words spoken to us by the Bishop, or the older words from the prayer book, “God has called you by name and made his own.”
The Christian tradition is certainly that this world is not where things end. Regardless of how you read it, the promise actually of the resurrection is that there is a bigger world for us to live in, and that at some point there will be a reckoning, whether we want to call it the Last Day, judgement, the eschaton, or whatever.
The interesting thing of course is that when Jesus is asked the question about heaven by the Sadducees in our gospel reading he is pretty quick to stamp on the whole idea of trying to rationalise heaven and the next world in human terms. The Sadducees of course are trying to trap Jesus, and he gives them fairly short shrift really. Actually in this version he’s quite polite, but in Mark’s account of this story he says “you know neither the Scripture nor the power of God: you are quite wrong.”
It would seem it’s pointless scouring the Scriptures to try to find out exactly what’s going to happen at the end of the world. What would profit us far more is to note the broader themes. One of the themes is destruction, disorder, lawlessness, persecution. These are certainly indicators of the dying of the old world and the imperfection of creation. We see there is all around us. We see them politically, we see them militarily, we see them ethnically. They are to be stood against. They are to be resisted.
But they are to be resisted and stood against not with panic and conjecture about whether or not this is the moment, but rather with steadfastness, with hope, with grace, with words of comfort, and in the knowledge that, as broken and violated and deficient as this dying world is, it is nonetheless a world, filled with the people whom God has chosen.