A few years ago, a parishioner came up and looked at me with an intently knowing stare. “There sure have been a lot of earthquakes lately,” he said. “Wars, too.” He paused, waiting for me to fill in the blanks, but, after a few seconds of my looking back at him blankly, he gave up and continued, “Do you think the end is coming soon?”
I hope I didn’t laugh at him. I wonder how many people have thought that things around them have gotten so bad that the end must be coming soon. As Alabamians, that parishioner and I live fairly isolated from the earthquakes and wars and other calamities that dominate the headlines. It never occurred to me that the end might be coming soon, and I don’t know what it was that triggered that line of thought in his mind, but it got me wondering: how bad must things get before we start expecting Jesus to come back?
This week’s lessons are particularly tricky. I tweeted to that effect, and a friend of mine replied, “Gotta love some apocalyptic preaching the week of Thanksgiving.” Yes, there’s nothing like fire and brimstone to put everyone in the thankful spirit. But, as I sort through them and let my focus fall to the gospel lesson (Mark 13:1-8), I hear that parishioner and I wonder how many other religions offer hope on the other side of chaos.
Chicken Little runs around screaming that the sky is falling. What do we do? If the sky falls it’s all over. That would be the end. But not for a Christian—not for Jesus. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come…This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Jesus says that things are going to get bad—really, really bad. I think he’s exaggerating a little bit here but only to drive the point home. From time to time, life will get so miserable that you’ll think it can’t go on. But, Jesus says, that is only the beginning. Those are the birthpangs. It is out of strife and grief and torment that life is born.
I feel the earth shake beneath me, and I start imagining my own demise. My parishioner-friend reads about earthquakes and wars and starts dreaming that Jesus is coming back. He’s closer to the truth. No, it doesn’t mean that when things seem to get bad that we should expect Jesus to put on his super-hero costume and fly in to save the day. It means that, unlike anyone else in the world, Christians should see such calamity as a sign of hope. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Rejoice!” That might be an exaggeration—Jesus isn’t ignoring the difficulties, but he is asking us to see them as the beginning of something bigger. Maybe that is something to be thankful for this week.