The World Begins Again – December 3, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Let us Pray.
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

In 1949, the then-Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb. The United States, which, just four years earlier, had used nuclear technology to unleash immense death and destruction, now knew for certain that it could suffer from the same weapon it had detonated so boldly not too long before. The initial post-War euphoria quickly transitioned into Cold War fear. How long could peace last? Would Americans finally experience violence here at home? Would the world survive the threat of complete obliteration?

A man named Lee V. McCullom responded to this anxiety by writing a song. His song was promptly recorded by country musician Lowell Blanchard and the country duo Johnnie and Jack, and would later be covered by a variety of artists, including the Blind Boys of Alabama and the men’s classical group Chanticleer. The song explicitly referenced the Soviets’ procurement of nuclear weapons and told listeners to surrender their worries and simply trust in “King Jesus,” who would provide “peace and happiness, joy divine.” It began and ended with this refrain:

Everybody’s worried about that atom bomb;

well, no one seems worried about the day my Lord shall come;

you better set your house in order, for he may be coming soon,

and he’ll hit like an atom bomb, when he comes, when he comes.

Fast forward sixty-eight years, and U.S.-Russian relations are again notably strained, while fears of a nuclear attack on the United States are more pronounced than they have been in decades; on Friday, in fact, Hawaii activated its nuclear attack warning system for the first time since the 1980s. In the midst of our own anxieties, McCullom’s comparison of the atom bomb to the second coming of Jesus might seem callous and foolish, a reckless and careless dismissal of an exceptionally frightening real-world threat. Surely McCullom should be advocating that people worry more about the atom bomb, not less; how else could we work to minimize or even eliminate the threat of nuclear violence and keep our children safe?

I don’t think, though, that McCullom intended to disregard the threat of the atomic bomb entirely. McCullom knew that Americans were already fixated on the risk the atomic bomb could pose, and he never told his listeners to fully ignore that risk. McCullom’s song aimed not to deny the danger of an atomic bomb altogether but to help listeners calm their fears and put them in perspective. In re-directing listeners’ attention from the atom bomb to Jesus, the song reminded listeners that there was something more important than the geopolitical struggles of the day—however terrible those struggles were—and gave them strength to keep on living.

Teachings about the end of the world have a stronger connection to optimism and contentment than one might initially assume. When we enlightened, modern people read about the sun becoming darkened and the heavens being torn down, many of us react with fear and revulsion. Material like this smacks of the negative and judgmental religion so many of us have been hurt by and go out of our way to escape.  But the people to whom Jesus’ words were originally directed likely would have heard them as comforting and reassuring. Theorizing about the end of the world was actually quite common in Jesus’ day, and, since Jews regularly experienced persecution and violence from an oppressive occupying force, any declarations that Jesus made about the end of the world were probably received enthusiastically. A cataclysmic change is something you desire and welcome if there seems to be little hope for you in the present reality.

This morning’s reading from the thirteenth chapter of Mark was written down either directly before or directly after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by an invading army. The temple was not just the center of Jewish religion but also the place where Jews believed God dwelled, the holiest place on earth. It was a massive, seemingly invincible structure. If the temple could be destroyed, Jesus’ followers might have thought, what would be able to stop the whole world from falling apart?

Jesus’ apocalyptic lens imposed order and meaning on a chaotic and meaningless situation. Jesus’ hearers and Mark’s original readers lived in a context in which political instability was the norm and violence was always a possibility. The destruction of the temple, the terror of continued war, the prospect of ongoing persecution, and all of the other trials and uncertainties they faced would have been incredibly confusing and utterly paralyzing to them. When Jesus told them that heaven and earth would pass away, he was giving them a way to understand and process what was happening around them, just as Lee McCullom’s song helped mid-twentieth century Americans understand and process the horrifying danger posed by an atomic bomb. By presenting his audience with a timeline for the future, Jesus was showing them a way forward.

Jesus’ admonitions to beware and to keep alert and to keep awake are encouragements to stay focused on what ultimately matters and to avoid being overcome by obsessions with the scariest, most dramatic threats. Fear can drive people to do truly awful things, including causing harm to others and giving up on themselves. Jesus’ talk about the end of the world is an invitation away from fear, not towards it. It’s an acknowledgement that a glorious future is possible, if only we are willing to persist.

Scientists currently believe that in about five billion years the sun will expand enough to envelop and consume the earth. The good news is that, if the earth is somehow able to survive comets and climate change and nuclear war, the earth has about five billion years to go. The bad news is that the earth has an expiration date, just as we all have expiration dates ourselves. Jesus does not promise that there will never be endings, but he does suggest that, even after the most final of endings, another future awaits. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Even after the end of the world—even after the end of heaven—there is still more to come; there is still something left.

The poet and pastor Jan Richardson offers a “Blessing When the World is Ending.” We will use it in next Saturday’s Light in the Darkness service, but I want to share it with you now because it speaks to how common endings are, as well as the marvelous ambivalence inherent in them—to the sadness and anxiety they cause, as well as to the new beginnings they create.

Look, the world
is always ending

the sun has come
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

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

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

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

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

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