A couple of weeks ago I was in this pulpit, preaching about the destruction of the temple. And here we are again. In fact it strikes me that about this time last year I was here preaching about the end of the world again. Our rector openly talks about creative preaching scheduling. Maybe the seminarian gets to deal with the apocalypse? Ah yes, end of the world, well Mike, hope you’ve been paying attention in class…
As much fun as it is to accuse Luis of conspiracies, I think there is something else going on here. Namely: Jesus talked about the end of the world. A lot. And it’s not just him. Again and again in the Bible we visit the end of the world. From the Old Testament Prophets, to St. Paul, to John the Baptist, in the book of Revelation, and especially from Jesus himself. The world ends several dozen times in the book.
You might have walked across Lafayette Square park and seen our own local prophets of doom. They stand in front of the White House regularly, with the signs. Consistently they plea for nuclear disarmament to avoid apocalypse. Sometimes they point to a specific Bible verse, some reference to the end. They have become sort of a stock image, grisly bearded guys holding signs that say: “The end is near.”
There was a move in Christian theology to see Jesus like the guys in Lafayette Square park. Toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, it was fashionable to talk about Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Johannes Weiss was the most influential of these scholars, but the influence stretched to Albert Schweitzer and more recently to the Jesus seminar. At times this school of thought even wonders whether Jesus and his followers were disappointed when the end time predicted didn’t come about.
While I agree that Jesus talked about the end of the world, that the Bible as a whole can be pretty apocalyptic, I think this argument misses the point. Yes, Jesus talked about the apocalypse. Yes, Jesus imagined the end times. But for Jesus, the apocalypse wasn’t the end. Jesus central message is not “the end is near.”
Jesus is interested in what happens next.
Jesus has more to say. Jesus describes not just the end, in fact his vision of the end if a footnote. The vision of the end is a footnote to the big vision, the central vision, the “Kingdom of God.” Jesus isn’t a prophet of the end of time, he is THE prophet of the Kingdom of God. He’s not the first to announce it’s coming. Our reading from Isaiah today is an early resonance. The Lion lies now with the lamb, there is no more weeping. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was characterized by radical equality, and radical hospitality. There are no outsiders in God’s kingdom.
Jesus lived in a rough time. The radical inclusion, the radical equality of Jesus’ Kingdom was not reflected in Roman-occupied-Palestine. Jesus didn’t just preach the Kingdom, he lived it. In the face of fiercely enforced social division’s and classes, Jesus’ band included women, tax-collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans. Jesus gathered his riffraff followers regularly for meals that scandalized those around him. And Jesus talked about the end of the world as it was. The end of social division. He promised that the Kingdom of God was breaking in.
He promises The Kingdom is coming. He also says The Kingdom is already here. And our rational minds go, huh?
Our timelines weren’t Jesus’ strong suit. For Jesus the kingdom was coming, it was preceded by visions of the end of the world as it is. Yet Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” Which is partly why I don’t think it works to dismiss Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Jesus isn’t predicting a specific moment of end time. He isn’t prophesying that Thursday the earth will swallow us up. For Jesus, the world as it is. The world of pain, and exclusion, and injustice will end. Indeed it ends regularly.
The world ends regularly.
You all know that the world ends. St. John’s Church has navigated the end of the world together many times. Sometimes the world ends because of the death of a loved one. Sometimes it is because of a diagnosis. Sometimes it is the loss of a job, or a relationship, or a dream. The world as it has been is no more.
Often the world ends in happy ways as well. The new parents here know about that. A baby arrives, and the world as you knew it ENDS. Sometimes it is a new job, a new relationship, a new opportunity. The world as we know it ends regularly.
So yes, Jesus talks like some of his contemporaries about signs and portents. But Jesus doesn’t get fixated on them, and I think we would be mistaken to get stuck there. Where Jesus does stick is on this business of what happens next. How do we live when our world ends?
How do we live when our world ends.
Jesus is interested in what happens next.
Living in what is next, living in the Kingdom of God, takes work. Thich Nhat Hanh, is Buddhist monk who was good friends with Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, and writes beautiful Christian theology. Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not present to us, it is that we are not present to the kingdom.” For the Buddhist monk and the Christian monk and even all of us everyday Christians the answer is the same: practice.
It takes practice to live in what happens next.
The practice is about prayer. It is about spending moments in quiet, being still and knowing God. It is about spending moments prayerfully recognizing God in the world around us. Listening for God’s voice in a friend’s words, or written in one of those stunning autumn sunsets we have seen lately.
The practice is also economic. Practicing for the Kingdom of God demands our attention to what we do with our time, talent, and treasure. God has an economic policy. Now in fairness, we are in our season of Stewardship here at St. John’s. We hope you will consider giving some of what you give back to your Church. But stewardship is about more than keeping the lights on here. It is practice. It is investing in “what’s next” in the Kingdom of God through the work through non-profits, and development agencies, and charities, and churches to try to help our world to live a bit more like the Kingdom.
Practicing for the Kingdom of God happens every week at St. John’s. Every week we gather, like Jesus’ followers gathered, a motley crew. One of the things that I love about St. John’s is how artfully we disagree. There are more differences of opinion in this congregation, more ways of being in the world, more different backgrounds and stories than probably in any other room this size in the city. Yet we come together here, to break bread, to remember our rabble rousing Jesus.
Each week we practice what comes next.
We practice the kingdom of God.
That we might go out from here, not to proclaim doom and destruction, but to proclaim with our lips and our lives the coming of what is next, the Good news that God loves us all.