Today, we start a new Church Year, Year B in our three-year cycle. In Year B, most of the Gospel Readings come from the Gospel According to Mark. As usual, on the first Sunday of a new year we don’t start at the beginning of the story. We start at the End.
By ‘the End’, theologians may mean the ‘Last Things’, the Last Judgement and beyond. But really, more often they are talking about the ultimate things: the end as the ultimate purpose of the world God has made. That is, they are talking about the new world God is bringing into being, the kingdom of God.
When we look at the hope of a new world, the kingdom of God, and when we look at the present reality—Ebola, seemingly perpetual war in the Middle East, climate change, children in indefinite detention—it’s easy to say it’s all too hard, we don’t want to think about it, it’s got nothing to do with my life today. Let me just do my job, enjoy my family, get a nice house and veg in front of the TV. Let the government work it out.
But sometimes, it all gets too much for us. The world is in such a mess that we may cry out with Isaiah in frustration to God:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…!
But nothing happens. Our cries die in our throats. The heavens stay closed. God remains hidden. The world goes on as it always did. The rich still build bigger barns, the poor still sit on the ground outside the rich man’s gates.
So we shrug our shoulders, we go back to the little bit of life that we know, and try to forget about the rest.
Some people take yet another option. They become fixated on the ‘End Times’, trying to second-guess the time of the end.
You might remember Harold Camping a few years ago, who made several predictions of the date of Christ’s return. He was wrong, and how do we know? Because we’re still here, that’s why.
Perhaps you weren’t swayed by Mr Camping. Or by Hal Lindsay back in the 1970s with his best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth. Hal Lindsay turned 85 during the week. He didn’t see that coming forty years ago! Perhaps you weren’t even swayed by that truly execrable series of books, Left Behind.
But you know, predicting the end is a game anyone can play, it’s not just for crazies and crackpots. Back in the 1500s, Martin Luther thought the end was near, and that it would come in a war with the Turks. Even John Wesley was caught up in it; he believed the end would come in 1836.
And what’s wrong with that? Well, for a start the scriptures strongly discourage us from predicting the end. Jesus himself didn’t go in for that kind of speculation:
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Don’t worry about the date of the end, says Jesus; rather, he says ‘Keep alert’. Live now as though the end has come. How do we do that? What does that kind of life look like? Should we call God to tear open the heavens, like Isaiah did:
O that you would tear open the heavens
and come down,
so that the mountains would quake
at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble
at your presence!
We can understand Isaiah’s frustration, his impatience, his anger. But you know, God has come down. God came down at the first Christmas. We have seen God in the face of Jesus Christ. God came down to save us. So how do we keep alert? We live the Jesus way now, living the justice of God, which is to show mercy to others.
Let me take you back to last week’s Gospel Reading. Remember, the nations are gathered before the Judge at the Last Judgement. What does the Judge say to the righteous?
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
‘Come…inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’
That has got exactly nothing to do with ‘predestination’, and who’s ‘in’ or ‘out’. It does have everything to do with the purpose at the heart of God’s good creation.
The kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world is for all those who feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, welcome the strangers who come to our shores—even if they’ve come by boat—for all those who clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison.
Let me put it this way: God’s world is built on a firm foundation, a foundation of deeds of kindness and compassion. Those who do such things are already part of God’s kingdom, whoever they are. The Spirit of God energises them, Jesus is coming to them—now!—even if they don’t quite realise it yet.
Do you want to prepare well for Jesus as he comes this Christmas? Open your hearts to the brothers and sisters of Jesus who are ‘the least of these’. That’s how we keep alert. It’s also how we recognise Jesus Christ as he comes to us today. Amen.