Hard Talk About the End
Advent I; December 2, 2018
I don't know how much you folks are into popular Christianity, what connections these words of Jesus make for you. Fans of the "Left Behind" series of books and movies will have a preconception of what this is about. The makers of the (in my opinion) really awful movie This is the End (2013) about Los Angeles being destroyed and demons devouring things and people being raptured understood popular Christianity very well. I suspect that you folks take talk about rising seas and killer waves to have more to do with climate change than with the Apocalypse.
My original plan was to contrast this popular view of Jesus' talk about the end with a more traditional Christian point of view, what is more true among Presbyterians and most other Christians. But the reading took me in a different direction, away from talk about the end to talking about our daily reality. In the course of my original purpose, I found on Wikipedia a wonderful list of dates for people's predictions of the end, beginning with Simon bar Jonah in 66.
The big question for me is Jesus' purpose in saying these things in Luke 21. The main takeaway is that when Jesus talks about the end his goal is not to get you and me to stop paying our bills, go sit on a hilltop and wait for the Rapture; his goal is to keep us focused on what matters. In other words, it's another reminder that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
Okay, three pegs to hang your hat on. The first: a couple of times Jesus says that all the scary apocalyptic signs indicate that something good is "near." When you see the distress in the skies and the seas and people are falling apart over it, "your redemption is drawing near." When you see these things taking place, "the kingdom of God is near." I take that to mean that you and I should always look for signs of hope.
If a shadow falls across your path, you can choose to be afraid or you can choose to hope that it's the shadow of Jesus; that's what I plan to do with his statement that all the scary things are signs that our redemption is drawing near. It may sound a little woo-woo to you, but we are often reminded that how we feel about our lives depends a lot on our attitude. For example, research suggests that happiness is the result of three factors: our heredity, our circumstances, and our attitude. Heredity is said to account for fifty percent; if we are generally happy, about half of the reason is we were born with a happy disposition. Circumstances such as money and work and where we live account for about ten percent. So there's sixty percent that you and I can't really do much about. But the other forty percent? That's the result of attitude. How do you choose to view things? When faced with two or more choices of how to respond to a situation, what do you and I choose? I hear Jesus in these words telling us that when it feels as though the world is falling apart, he urges us to find signs of hope, to see that the kingdom of God is near, that our redemption is near.
Lew Pinch told me a story this week he gave me permission to use in this sermon. They were protesting at 72nd & Dodge – that is the street corner for protests – on behalf of justice for Palestinians. It was a gloomy, somewhat rainy day. At one point, clouds parted a bit and some sunshine peaked through, which made a hazy rainbow in the sky. Lew saw that rainbow and he said that he took it as a sign of hope. So I say: choose hope.
The second peg: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." We know that everything about life, including life itself, is temporary. Things come and go. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." I'll bet all of you agree that Jesus is telling the truth, but how much of your day is spent focused on the things that are passing away and how much is spent focused on the words of Jesus?
One of the great insights of Buddhism is that everything about life is temporary. Life itself is temporary, but all the trappings of life are also temporary. So, the Buddhists say, the key to happiness is not to get attached to things that are temporary. I've learned a different take on that; let me pass it on to you and you can use it if you want to. Reject it if you prefer. The year 2010 was significant for me: two things that were deeply important came to an end. The second one was a theater experience: I played Jesus in the musical Godspell. That was amazing: it was an acting challenge, and it was a spiritual challenge. The community of players was one of deep meaning and sharing. We all wanted it never to be over. But after six performances, it was.
Earlier that year the best dog who ever lived died. I'm glad that some of you who are dog-lovers are disagreeing with me: your dog is the best one who ever lived. Anyway, we had been together for twelve years and with her part of my soul died. With both of those events I had a choice. I could be depressed that something good was over or I could be grateful that something good had happened. I chose to be grateful. To become grateful meant letting go of what was temporary. Now, neither of these is exactly what Jesus is talking about, but I think they point in the right direction. Don't try to hold onto what is temporary; let go and be grateful it was there. And we who love and follow Jesus need to go even deeper: hold onto what is eternal; his words.
When a nation's power passes away, the words of Jesus to "love one another as I have loved you" do not pass away. When your friend or significant other passes away, the words of Jesus to "remember the lilies of the field" do not pass away. When you retire, when a church goes through change, when the political situation is heated, whenever something you counted on has passed away, the words of Jesus "This is my blood of the covenant, shed for you" do not pass away.
So, choose hope; remember that everything else is temporary, but the words of Jesus are eternal. And the third peg is this: Jesus says that in the face of the end of everything we should pray that we will be able to stand before him. However you are thinking about the end today, if you are thinking apocalyptic thoughts about the world as we know it, or you are facing the end of something important to you, it seems that for Jesus the critical thing is for you and me to be strong enough to be able to stand before him.
Whatever does that mean? Here's what I think: for me to live my days so that when Jesus comes for me I will not be so ashamed that I need to hide from him. Whether you and I see the end of everything, or whether the end comes for us as it does eventually for everyone, how will we face Jesus? I don't think Jesus is going to check how much money we had or whether our lawn or living room were perfect, but Jesus tells us that he is going to check whether we responded to hunger with food and to imprisonment with kindness. "I told you to love your enemies; did you?" Did you focus on your life in God as much as you focused on your golf game or excelling at Fortnite?
Today is the beginning of Advent. Jesus said to lift our heads and look; we have seen the Baby in the manger, but now we are looking for the coming of the Son of Man. Choose hope. Remember what is eternal. And pray that when Christ comes, you will be able to stand before him.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 A number of stories cite Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside in a 2013 paper.