Dear brothers and sisters – We live in perilous times. Nations are turning against each other. Old alliances are falling apart, new ways of fighting wars threaten fragile peace. Children are killed in their schools by other children. The gap between rich and poor is growing. Minorities are demonised as threats, are profiled and used as scapegoats. Immanent environmental disaster which threatens all life on the planet is recognized by everyone except those with the power to stop it. These are perilous times. Perhaps this is what the end times look like. In the 1960’s, everyone was worried that we would blow ourselves up, but now it looks like we will just slowly suffocate ourselves. T.S. Eliot may have been right – “This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper.”
Then again, at least some people in every generation since Christ have been sure that they were the ones living in the end times. This era looks dire, but what about the 14 th century when war and the black plague wiped out about half the population of Europe? And we don’t need to go back that far – the first half of the 20 th century saw war on a scale unimaginable before then. Dictators directed the deaths of millions of their own citizens. The Spanish flu of 1918 carried off about 50 million worldwide. Throughout human history, when have there not been wars and insurrections? When have there not been plenty of “earthquakes, famines, and plagues?” And every time a comet appears, some sect or other claims that here are “mighty signs… from the sky.” Many other eras have looked like the end of the world.
As Christians, we believe that the end of the world as we know it will coincide with the second coming of Jesus Christ. The prophecies about this time, including Jesus’ own, have the good and the evil separated out, the sheep from the goats, with the evil going to eternal punishment, and the good joining Christ in heaven. Most folks who think that the end time is approaching likely put themselves into the “good” category, among those who will be saved. Malachi the prophet belongs to this type. He warns us that the day of the Lord is coming, with recompense for those who fear God’s name, but with punishment for evildoers. “The day is coming,” he says, “blazing like an oven.” For evildoers, this day will feel like excruciating heat, burning them up, but for the righteous, it will feel like the sun’s “healing rays.” Both are fire, but are felt differently depending on the virtue of the recipient. It is clear that Malachi expected this day of the Lord to be immanent, to come within the lifetime of those listening to his words. He firmly believes that he is living in the last days. We, however, have a different perspective on his prophecy. Malachi is placed last by Christians in the order of the books of the Old Testament because his prophecies are taken to refer to the coming of Christ, and beyond that, to Christ’s second coming. The book of Malachi, then, immediately precedes Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Naturally, therefore, we read Malachi as Advent approaches.
Advent is about preparing for the coming of Jesus into the world, both his first coming as a baby, the son of Mary, and his second coming at the end of all time. It’s understandable that Christians would long, in a way, for the end of the world. For us it means the beginning of the reign of God, the institution of a new heaven and a new earth, in which death will be no more, in which God will wipe away the tear from every eye. But Jesus tells us that we should not try to anticipate when this time will come. By the time the Gospel of Luke was finished, his prediction about the temple being razed to the ground had already come true. But that this was not a sign of the end of the world, Jesus warns, “See that you not be deceived,” since there is always someone who will tell us that the end times are upon us. Instead, he tells us that before that time comes, there will be suffering. This is not surprising. All of us have suffered loss and tragedy in our lives. We may have escaped persecution as Christians, though there are many in the world today who do suffer persecution for their religious beliefs, but we can’t escape the death of loved ones, personal injury or illness, broken-heartedness, or the many disappointments, great and small, that life brings. He tells us not to focus on the end times, but on the trials we will face before then.
I once saw a cartoon which had one of those raggedy prophets, with a beard, in a ragged robe and carrying a sign. These signs usually say something like, “The End is Near!” But in this case it said, “It just goes on and on and on.”
Paul gives us some sound advice on what is important in the time between Jesus’ first and second coming. He advises the Thessalonians to “work quietly and to eat their own food.” This is a far cry from beating one’s breast, or adopting some extreme behaviour in anticipation of the Second Coming. It is particularly good advice for us here at Gethsemani at this time of year. Advent for us is a time of anticipation of Christ’s coming into the world, and a time of reflection on Christ’s next appearance, encouraged by our daily liturgy, but it is also our shipping season, when we are frantically but quietly busy earning our own bread, and earning the right to eat it. Jesus tells us that he will certainly come again, that the day of the Lord is real, but he also tells us not to spend our time fretting about it or predicting it. He tells us that we should focus instead on the present. The virtue he recommends is not prophecy but perseverance. “By your perseverance you will secure your lives,” he tells us. The end times will come, that is certain, but it is extremely unlikely, given the track record, that it will happen within our lifetimes. More than likely we will simply die like every single person before us. But when we die, we will encounter Christ in some way, not perhaps in the full way which will happen in the last days, but in some way. And we will be judged for the way we have spent our lives, the gift of life which God has given us.
This should be our constant preoccupation, to spend our lives well, in service to our brothers and sisters, like St. Paul, in faithfulness and perseverance in the path God has laid out for us, whether that path leads to family or career or into the monastery. And of course we should do all we can to alleviate the evils of our time. We wait in hope for the day of the Lord, but we live in love in the present moment. This is the best preparation we can make for the end times, whether they come in the form of Jesus’ blazing appearance from heaven or in the form of our own small deaths, a life given to God through love of our very real and very present brothers and sisters.