When I lived in California, there was a guy who believed he had figured out the exact date that the world was going to end. I believe the date he settled on was in October of 2012. I remember this because he took out huge billboards all over Oakland and the East Bay warning people to be ready for the day when it all ends. As you may have already guessed, he’s prediction did not pan out. Here we are still alive and breathing on the same Earth in the same universe some 7 years later. This type of certainty about the date of the world’s end is rightly ridiculed as foolishness. In fact in the very same Bible that this man and others use to predict the world’s end- Jesus is frequently telling us not to guess as to when the world will end, because it is not given to us to know. What’s unfortunate about people failing to heed Jesus’ warning here, is that it gives a bad name to eschatology. Eschatology is the fancy word for thoughts about the end of time and creation. Though Jesus did not want us to guess at a date for the world’s end, he was vehement about our need to expect it. Far from being merely the province of wackos and fringe sects and cults, the end time, eschatology is central to the Christian faith.
The 35th Chapter of Isaiah contains a vision of the end, the eschaton. This chapter is written to the Israelites living as exiles in Babylon. It is meant to be a kind of pep talk, a reminder that God has not forgotten the people, that one day their period of exile will end and they will return home to Zion, to Jerusalem. This is the reason for the image of a highway- a road on which God’s children will travel safe from all that would harm them- this is the safe road home of which the exiles dreamed. But Isaiah’s vision goes beyond the immediate desires of the exiles- not only will they return to Zion, they also will experience everlasting joy and gladness, sorrow and sighing will flee away. What’s more, the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the lame will jump like a dear, and the mute shall speak. Waters will spring forth from the desert and it shall bloom abundantly. Isaiah’s vision points beyond the historical situation of the exiles and towards the future fulfillment of God’s kingdom. One day the exiles will return, and one day the world will end by the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.
People often confuse the end time, the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness, with the Armageddon. The Armageddon refers to a final war between the forces of good and evil that is take place before the end. Jesus frequently warns his disciples that wars, and famine, and persecution, and even earthquakes will all occur before the end arrives. His point is that although these events can feel to us like the end of the world, they are not to be confused with God’s kingdom. The end of the world is not a war, it is a banquet. It is eternal celebration of the kingdom of God here upon the earth. Its the time when all tears are wiped away, when wars and killing and sorrow and sighs all cease to be. When the lion lays down with lamb and no one is harmed on all God’s holy mountain. This beatific vision of universal peace, joy, and love is our best effort at understanding the magnificence of God’s kingdom when it finally arrives in fullness on the earth.
A frequent objection to this preaching of God bringing about heaven upon the earth is that it can steal our desire and drive to make the world a better place. If God is going to bring peace on earth, than we perhaps we don’t need to worry ourselves with it. If wars and catastrophes are inevitable then we perhaps we don’t need to object to them. After all, who are we to meddle in God’s plan, God can take care of this alone. Although I follow the logic of this argument, I quite firmly disagree with it. It is my steadfast belief that faith in God’s coming kingdom does not demotivate our struggle to improve the world. I believe instead that this faith is precisely what motivates us to live full lives in which we can struggle for a better world without despair of it ever coming to pass.
Growing up one of my family Christmas Eve traditions is to watch the movie, “Its a Wonderful Life,” as we eat and get ready for the 11 pm service at our church. Each and every time, my father sheds a few tears at the final scene- the scene in which all of George Bailey’s friends show up at his house on Christmas Eve and save he and his beloved Building and Loan from bankruptcy. It's a touching scene illustrating the movie’s line- “No man is poor who has friends.” One might think that having seen the movie enough times to have memorized the final scene, would somehow spoil the rest of the movie. When you know that everything is going to work out in the end much of the suspense is removed from the film. All of the bad things happen to George- and there are many such things, are now viewed from the knowing perspective that none of them will triumph over him. We can watch George fall into the ice water as a child, watch him be hit by the drunken pharmacist, watch his desire to leave Bedford Falls be continually frustrated, watch him attempt to kill himself, and watch Uncle Billy lose his $8,000, and still know that none of these catastrophes will have the last word. In the end, we know that all will work out for George Bailey, not in the way he wished perhaps, but in a more beautiful and divine fashion. Knowing the ending doesn’t take away the power of the movie, we can still feel bad for George’s misfortunes, but we need not worry or despair. We can follow George Bailey to his lowest point, empathize with his depression and hopelessness, and still feel the joy of the final scene because we know that is where this catastrophe is heading.
Happiness is a response to events in our lives. Getting a job, making a friend, having a great meal, all of these are things that can make us happy for a while. Joy, on the other hand, is an inward feeling that comes with confidence in God’s coming kingdom. We can feel joy at times when we are happy, and at times when we are sad. Joy is the comfort and peace that come with trust in God. Even when things are bad, even when George is jumping off the bridge into the icey water below, even then we can still feel joy because we know that God’s kingdom is coming. We know it is to be a marvelous banquet where all our problems and conflicts and sin are washed away.
When John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was the one to come, Jesus replied by paraphrasing Isaiah’s vision. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus claimed that in him, the kingdom of God had come to the earth. It was present in his ministry- his healings, his forgiveness of sin, his love for the poor, all bear witness to the presence of God’s kingdom in his time. Wherever Jesus is, there is the kingdom of God. When he departed this earth he promised to be with us anytime two or three are gathered in his name. And so we trust and experience his continued presence with us today. It is this presence of Christ that we feel in our worship and service here at St. Paul’s. When we celebrate this presence in Holy Communion we have a taste of what the kingdom is like in the here and now. And when we proclaim that Christ will come again, we anticipate the day when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness- when sorrow and sighing shall be no more.
The gift of joy comes to us through faith. Through God, Jesus, the Holy Scriptures, and the Church we come to know and trust that the eschaton, God’s kingdom, is indeed coming. Nourishing this trust in worship, communion, fellowship, song, and prayer is what sustains us through the most difficult of times. The more we come to trust in the coming of the kingdom, the more we will feel its joy in our lives. The more we come to trust in the coming of the kingdom, the more we will desire to spread such joy and faith to others. The more we trust in the coming of the kingdom, the more we are inspired and motivated to better the world no matter how desperate and gloomy it may seem. God has promised that the kingdom will come, and we who share a foretaste of it in communion may continue to resist despair and the powers of death with joy in our hearts for we know that God is bringing about the end of the world by the full appearance of his kingdom- a banquet where all are welcome, where hurt is no more, where sorrow and sadness melt away. May we come to this faith through God and may we face our broken world with the joy of Christ in our hearts. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast