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The thirteenth chapter of Mark–our Gospel reading for today–is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse”–“little” because it’s short; “apocalypse” because it alludes to the doom and gloom we often think will occur when the world comes to an end. The word Mark uses for this doom and gloom is “suffering,” as in “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Lots of people have tried, unsuccessfully, to predict the end of the world. Remember the guy who thought the world would end on May 21, 2011? Jesus tells us, though, in this “little apocalypse,” that we can’t know the timing of it, which means that the world could be ending now just as much as it could come to an end at either some carefully predicted date or some unknown date altogether in the near or distant future.

In fact, if you look out at the world these days, and you’re sensitive to the suffering of the world–like the extreme suffering of the Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar, anti-Muslim propaganda, gun violence, or the number of women who are finally finding the courage to speak out following their sexual abuse (and this to only name a few), and it seems like the world is coming to end, you may not be that far off. In fact, when Mark’s Gospel was written, his community did feel as if the world was ending. The center of their lives–the temple where they worshiped God–had just been destroyed by the Romans.

Well, what if the world were ending now?

The people who make very specific predictions about the end of the world–May 21, 2017–want to scare you into thinking that you’d better get with the program–or else. And then there’s the advice of a recent Facebook post to “take a break from the apocalypse and watch the 1980 world disco finals”? Certainly the 1980 world disco finals would bring some levity to the situation. In fact, I encourage you to watch them, if not for the dancing, then certainly for the wardrobes.

However, though I hate to disappoint both the doomsday predictors and all you disco lovers, that’s not exactly what Jesus has in mind here. Instead, Jesus tells us to keep alert and awake. No, this doesn’t mean that you can’t go to bed at night or take a much-needed nap, or even day dream for a while. Instead, though, I think what Jesus implies is to anticipate not only for the end of the world now as much as ever, but for its new beginning now as much as ever as well.

The promise, after all, is there–not only the promise of suffering, but the promise of the fig tree, a tree that Jesus cursed a few chapters earlier in Mark, but whose branches now put forth leaves of new life. It was the promise of the Messiah, who came into the world as a tiny baby. It’s the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, when suffering was transformed into life.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that that is no easy task, anticipating the suffering of this world to end and be transformed, believing that now is as good a time as ever. I get discouraged. I sometimes doubt that pain and suffering will ever come to an end and so it becomes difficult to live with the kind of anticipation I think Jesus is talking about here.

It’s partly why Advent–these four weeks leading up to Christmas–is my favorite season in the church, though “favorite” is perhaps a misnomer. “Most meaningful” is perhaps a better phrase. Advent is the “most meaningful” for me because it takes the suffering of the world and the desperate need for a Savior most seriously. One of the best spiritual disciplines I’ve ever used involved lighting a candle every evening during Advent and praying for all the suffering of the world. The suffering of this world is real; and I’m always thankful that Advent allows us to lament its presence among us. But the reality of suffering can make the promise of the end of that suffering difficult to trust.

But here’s how I think it happens.

It’s no secret that my dear husband starts listening to Christmas music on November 1. That means today, he’s over a month into his “holiday favorites.” I’m one of those not-until-after-Thanksgiving people, typically not allowing him to play any “Song that Shall not be Named” in my presence. I avoid going to stores that decorate for Christmas at Halloween or turn the other way when I see them. These things have a time and a place, and that time is never before Thanksgiving.

And so here’s the way December usually goes. I avoid thinking about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, at the earliest, because if I keep putting it off intentionally.I tell myself that I have a full month left before Christmas–that’s a full month to bake cookies, send Christmas cards, buy gifts, go to a few parties, etc. The problem, though, is that the “I have full month before Christmas” mentality never changes, even though the days progress, one at a time, toward December 25. The result is that I arrive at the week before Christmas stressed out and exhausted.

This year, however, was different. I’m not sure if Ian was more forceful or if I was more tolerant, but the sounds of the season crept their way into my life a little earlier this year.The result was interesting. I completed my shopping earlier. I thought about preparations earlier. I am, overall, less stressed than I usually am when I try so carefully to control the timing of things.

Christmas feels already even it is not yet.

And that’s kind of what it means both to lament the suffering of the world and to anticipate the end of such suffering. Hope sneaks in, breaks through. It heals, it liberates, it transforms.

Because we don’t know the time, we can trust that things happen in God’s time.And if things happen in God’s time, then who are we to say that the world is not both ending and being saved this very minute?

If you need something like the 1980 world disco final to remind you of that, then by all means watch it. It’s on YouTube. If you need a little Christmas music during these days of Advent, well then come to the “Soup, Cider, and Songs” event tonight, where we’ll sing every Christmas carol imaginable until we lose our voices. If it feels scandalous to those of us who want things done according to our timing, it’s because Jesus is scandalous, and so is the hope that he brings.

Finally, here’s another way this happens, in a poem titled Blessing When the World is Ending,* by Jan Richardson:

Look, the world
is always ending
Somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.

 

Amen.

*Richardson, Jan. “Blessing When the World is Ending.” Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015.