It’s the End of the World – Again
Reflections on Mark 13.24-37
RCL Advent 1B
29 November 2020
Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral
New Westminster BC
I entered seminary in the autumn of 1978 during a time of significant upheaval in the US Episcopal Church, the church in which I grew up. Four years earlier three retired bishops ordained eleven women to the priesthood in Philadelphia in defiance to the church’s existing policy. Two years later, in 1976, the church finally approved the ordination of women to the priesthood. That year, both in the US and Canada, women were ordained but not without opposition and protest, forecasts of the church’s imminent demise and accusations that both the US and Canadian churches had abandoned the catholic faith and order.
Eleven years before I entered seminary the church had embarked on a course of liturgical revision. Some welcomed the new rites, while others were critical and reluctant. To this day, some fifty years later, we are a ‘bilingual’ church that uses both traditional and contemporary liturgical rites. Most of the time we do so peacefully and harmoniously, but I do remember the worship wars of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Throughout those times it wouldn’t have been too difficult to hear commentators and partisans of one side or another claiming that all these developments were signs of the end of the world as we then knew it. And they were right. It was the end of the world as we knew it, as I had known it since boyhood. We became churches whose ordained leadership began to resemble more closely the people who were in the pews – women. We became churches which valued our heritage of ‘admirable simplicity’ and eloquent language and discovered that it was possible to maintain that heritage even when employing a contemporary idiom.
It was the end of the world as we knew it. And many of us discovered that we felt just fine, thank you very much.
For Mark’s audience their world really had come to an end, physically, spiritually, culturally, socially. As followers of Jesus many of them had lost the world of family and friends. Some who had lived in the imperial province of Palestine had witnessed Roman legions destroying towns and villages, bringing death and enslavement to thousands of people and obliterating the Temple in Jerusalem, the earthly symbol of God’s presence and sovereignty both to Jews and to Christians.
It was the end of the world as they knew it, but they did not feel fine. Charlatans arose amidst them, the first- and second-century predecessors of the quack faith healers and preachers of the prosperity gospel we know today, who claimed secret knowledge and understanding of ‘the signs of the times’. Christian communities were divided in their loyalties and uncertain of what they should do in such times.
To them Mark the evangelist proclaimed what he promised to proclaim from the very first words of the Gospel that bears his name: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son . . . .” (Mark 1.1 in the Common English Bible)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, Mark writes, “but (Jesus’) words will certainly not pass away” (Mark 13.31b in the Common English Bible). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Jesus “ . . . has put (us) in charge, giving (each one of us) a job to do” (Mark 13.34b in the Common English Bible). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but we’re to keep alert because the new world, the one we’ve been hoping to see for so long is coming. None of us, none of ‘this generation’, will pass away without seeing the signs of this promised world.
It is not always a bad thing when the world as we know it comes to an end. In such times we find ourselves compelled by events but, at the same time, guided by the Holy Spirit. We see the signs of the new world all around us, the world we are hoping for, the world we were meant for. Some of the signs are as subtle as the gradual movement of a tree from the slumber of winter to the awakening and greening of spring. Other signs are as dramatic as an unexpected lunar or solar eclipse or an earthquake. Even though our initial response to the ending of one world and the beginning of another may be fear and apprehension, for the disciples of Jesus, the coming of God’s promised world, so long waited for, so gradual in its advent, is good news.
As we enter once again the season of Advent, the world as we have known it is coming to an end, a world enduring a COVID pandemic, and a new world is drawing near, a world post-COVID but more deeply aware of the inter-connectedness of the whole human family.
Will the passing of the old world and the advent of the new world witness a renewal of humanity’s concern and compassion for one another? Will the experiences of restricted freedoms and the pain of not being able to celebrate the cycles and passages of life deepen our empathy for others? Will the disappointment of seeing Easter and Christmas pass without familiar and life-giving rituals kindle in our hearts a deeper longing for the God whom these festivals hold before us?
It is the end of the world as we have known it. And I feel fine. Fig trees are ripening even as I speak. Jesus’ disciples are still doing the jobs he gave us two thousand years ago. A new world is coming. And that makes me feel even better.