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As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a few years identifying with a particular kind of evangelical Christian subculture. My youth group friends and I wore bracelets with the initials WWJD on them, for “What Would Jesus Do?,” and shopped at Christian bookstores for CDs by popular Christian bands with names like Jars of Clay and the Newsboys. None of these references will probably make sense to you unless you happened to come up through the same subculture. But they functioned as markers of identity.
At one point I became aware of a book series some of my friends were into—and you may remember these even if you weren’t an evangelical Christian in the 1990s. It was the Left Behind series, a massive bestseller. It’s spawned movies and spinoffs right up to the present. I read the first one before falling off the bandwagon. It was basically a Tom Clancy-style novel about a group of people who find themselves left behind after all the Christians on earth have been Raptured away. The characters endure various tribulations as the end times progress, with some of them becoming Christians and engaging in all kinds of espionage and covert operations against the gathering forces of the Antichrist, who happens to be a U.N. official. Years later I flipped through one of the later books in the series and was saddened by the level of violence as Jesus reappears and slays nonbelievers left and right in a bloody gorefest. I was saddened, because the Jesus that appeared at the end of the story was very different from the Jesus I’m pretty sure I know.
But the Left Behind series is just one example of a kind of recurring preoccupation we seem to have with wondering about the end of days. A generation before Left Behind, there was another similar bestseller in the 1970s called The Late Great Planet Earth. More recently, in 2012 there was a brief end-of-the-world craze sparked by the end of a cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar. It does seem that people have an irrepressible tendency to speculate about when the end is coming.
And in today’s gospel reading the disciples show the same tendency. “Tell us when will this be?” they say to Jesus. “What will be the signs?” And the answer Jesus gives them is maybe unexpected. He tells them about a number of signs to look for: people coming in Jesus’ name and claiming to be the Messiah; wars and rumors of wars; earthquakes and famines; your basic kind of end-times stuff that we’re used to hearing about, the fodder of Left Behind novels. And then he tells them: this does not mean the end times. Don’t be fooled. This is not it.
The disciples of Jesus would go on to live through some desperate times indeed. In the year 70, a Jewish revolt led to a brutal Roman invasion. Jerusalem was sacked, and the Temple was destroyed, just as Jesus predicted. No doubt many of them thought it was the end of all things. But it wasn’t. It was simply another in the long list of tragedies of history, not sent from above as a supernatural plague or tribulation, but a very human act of occupation and domination. And through the centuries these things have continued to happen. Wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Famines. And Jesus says: don’t be fooled. This is simply the birth pangs. A new world is being created, but this is not yet the end.
Here we are today, twenty centuries later, in a time of many tribulations, again, or still. We live amid wildfires, the signs of potentially devastating climate change; amid political anxiety and shifting geopolitics; amid wars and rumors of wars. At the turn of the millennium it was briefly fashionable to speculate that we lived in a sort of “end of history,” when the Cold War was over and the world would now settle into an era of increasing democracy, prosperity, globalization, and peace. But we know how that turned out: 9/11 happened, and then Iraq, and the financial crisis, and the degeneration of our politics from dysfunction into crisis. And Jesus still says to us today: Don’t be fooled. This is the reality of human history in a fallen world. Sin and evil and suffering are constant realities. God will, one day, bring an end to all things, whether it’s next year or a billion years from now. But our job is not to speculate about when or how. Our job is to be faithful, to watch, pray, worship, work for peace and justice. Our job is to write our own little chapter. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
It’s been said that the Old Testament introduced the idea of linear history to human culture. Most religions before then saw time as something cyclical, with endless cycles of golden ages followed by dark ages, from eternity to eternity. The Biblical worldview brings something different. It teaches us to see time not as a shapeless mass of endless repetitions and reincarnations, but as a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s a big deal because it means that our own stories matter. Our own lives are part of that narrative. They’re not swallowed up in an endless cycle of repetition. Each of us has a part to play; each of our lives is an irreplaceable chapter of the history God is writing.
Next Sunday marks the end of the church calendar’s liturgical year, and in two weeks we start Advent. Advent is a season that is all about expectation and getting ready. During Advent, especially at the beginning of the season, we hear many readings about last things and end times. It’s a time to prepare ourselves for the return of Christ in glory. And then we come to the end of the season and we find that what we have been preparing for is not a fearsome judge, but a poor infant lying in a stable, because there was no room in the inn.
Jesus is the end of the story, just as he is the beginning; the Alpha and the Omega. In him all our stories are safe; from beginning to end; and now, in the time in between.