When Christians these days talk about the end of the world it can make us sound foolish, like real-life Chicken Little’s dressed in borrowed prophet’s robes. It was easy to snicker last year at the church in California that had predicted a May 21st apocalypse which came and went without a whimper. So in the progressive church we don’t talk about the end of the world, because the world isn’t coming to an end. Right?
Maybe. Maybe not. But I think people are honestly afraid that the world as we know it is coming to an end, but not because of what it says in the bible or because of a Mayan calendar set to roll over like a cosmic odometer. No, I think people are honestly afraid that the world is coming to an end because of pure hard unforgiving facts: too many people looking for too much from too little. I think it is a commonplace belief that people simply don’t share with one another; they are afraid there is a terrible day of reckoning approaching, that as a human family we are careening toward a cliff of un-sustainability, some terrible tipping point that, once passed, will create suffering on a global scale lasting for generations.
The reasons aren’t hard to name. I think people are honestly afraid that because of the way we generate and consume energy, the Earth we give our children will be far less hospitable to human life than it is today. Greenhouse gas emissions per person are going up, not down. Because of rising temperatures, the ice at the globe’s poles may be gone completely during our children’s lifetimes, melted and poured into oceans that have nowhere else to go but up. The ocean’s relentless encroachment onto the land may redraw the very shape of our continents. With hotter temperatures come more severe weather fluctuations. Summer, which is so critical for crop growth, could become dominated by extreme weather with destructive storms flooding away some crops while others wither away under season-long droughts. Here in America, we have watched this summer’s almost nation-wide drought and it has stoked the fires of our fear. What kind of world are we baptizing our children into? Will they be able to live a life better than our own, or will our children look with resentment at the way we live?
I think people are honestly afraid that the earth will become less able to support human life just as human population pressures reach levels unthinkable just one century ago. There are over 7 billion human beings alive today and with more people looking to have a standard of living similar to our own, it is harder and harder to provide those things that make for a good life: clean safe drinking water, healthy food, an unspoiled environment. As a human family, we do not provide these things to our 7 billion brothers and sisters. But in the lifetime of our children, the children we baptized today, there will likely be 10 billion souls living on this planet, a planet which may be less able to produce food and water than it is today. What kind of world are we baptizing our children into? Is it one of scarcity and starvation and thirst where everyone who gets enough does so only because another must go without?
As Christians, what are we supposed to think about the future? As Christians what are we supposed to do about the future? For me, the first and most critical response is to remember that I believe in God and that God is good. God has made promises about what the ultimate fate of the world will be. And even if what I read in the newspapers doesn’t seem to point toward a restored creation where the last will be first and peace will be a permanent estate, I can still have hope because my hope rests on a foundation of God’s goodness. As Christians, faith in God allows us to be radically hopeful people. Faith in God allows Christians to work our tails off for something that might seem like a lost cause. And, perhaps ironically, it is precisely our stories about the end of the world which will allow Christians to be voices of hope in the world. We need to tell the story of the end of the world in this generation. Because one thing we know as people who read the Bible and take it seriously, is that humanity has been afraid that the world was coming to an end for a long long long time.
We heard today the story of the end of the world as told in the gospel of Matthew. The story went like this: Jesus spoke to his followers just before he would be arrested, telling them secrets about trials they would have to face. He told them that the temple would be destroyed, and there would be terrible quarrels among the people, and great strife among nations, there would be storms and earthquakes so that it seemed that the very earth itself were coming apart. But he told them not to give up because just when things reached their worst, just when the storms of change seemed to be about to bring the end of the world down on their heads, Jesus said I will be with you. I will be among you like lightning flashing from East to West. I will be with you just as if I were riding on the clouds of heaven. And you will be preserved, God would see you through the trials, not unchanged, but delivered. That’s how Jesus tells the story of the end of the world. And the strange thing is that that’s just how the story of the end of the world goes in the book of Daniel, and the prophet Isaiah, and the book of Revelation, and the gospel of Luke and the gospel of Mark. The end of the world is old news for Christians, we have heard this story before and we already know how it ends. What seems like it will be the end of the world is just the beginning for God.
No matter what terrible dire straits the people of God have found themselves in, God has worked with us in that place. The people of Israel were enslaved by a pharaoh who seemed intent on working them to death. God could work with that and in one generation a people that did not know what freedom was, had became a nation. Centuries later, the people of Israel were conquered by Babylon and forced to serve their conquerors in exile. God could work with that and a people who had known only a holy land learned that God was everywhere not just in Israel. God took on human flesh and found that people would sooner kill a good man than listen to hard truths. God could work with that, and unyielding death proved more malleable than God’s promises. The end of the world is an old story and as Christians, we’ve got a secret: we know the way the story ends, because even the end of the world is just a beginning for God.
So we do not need to succumb to despair when we see news reports of record breaking heat, or failed crops, or greenhouse gases building and building and building. We do not need to despair that the world will become so flat hot and crowded that starvation becomes the norm and all out war against its neighbors is the only way any nation will feeds it own. Don’t be mistaken, refusing to believe that we are doomed is not the same as denying we are in danger. Denial engenders apathy but despair births only malaise—we as Christians act not out of denial nor out of despair but out of faith, faith that the fate of humanity will not be degradation and death. God has promised us a world where there will be enough for everyone, that there will be a restored creation where we do not hurt or kill on all of this God’s holy mountain we call Earth, that there will be long life and prosperity and health for all people not just the wealthy and the fortunate. Seem unlikely? Seem too big a task for us to do alone? You’re right about that, building a new creation is too big to do alone—but we are not doing this work alone. When we work to restore creation and feed and house our brethren, when we do that work Almighty God is working with us as well. And we know that it will be successful because what we cannot finish God will complete.
Yes, people today are afraid that the world is coming to an end, but that is why we must more and more be telling people our stories of the end of the world. Because there is an apocalypse written for every generation that faces grave trials and it always tells the story of the deliverance of the people. The book of Daniel was written for a people under siege, and it contains apocalyptic visions of monstrous beasts. Some were like bears with ten horns, and others with iron hooves trampling and devouring the land as far as can be seen, beasts which are plucked up and placed before the throne of the Ancient of Days to be judged for their rampages.
The book of Revelation was written to a people under threat of annihilation, and it contains apocalyptic visions of angels with trumpets and beasts speaking blasphemy and a dragon poised to devour the whole earth. But then the Lamb of God returns shining like the Sun and bringing a brand new Jerusalem into the world.
If there were a new apocalypse written and added to the Bible today, it would be for a people under threat of collapsing under the weight of our own prosperity. Today’s apocalyptic vision would be of a beast skinned in coal and metal, drinking rivers dry and breathing smoke that poisons the earth and chokes out the stars. The beast would be served by a vast army, a vast army named apathy and error that was building every day a mighty furnace, brick by brick building a furnace that would surround the whole earth and bake the people alive like Shadrach Meshach and Abednego. But there would arise out of the cities and towns and every corner of the world a faithful people, people who would dismantle the furnace and disperse error and apathy. And they would not be an army—they would not be an army because they will not know the words of war. But they will be a holy people marching under a banner that reads “The Last Shall Be First”. And walking at the head of the column would be one like a carpenter, a carpenter who has learned the secret of taking lumber and crafting it into trees, one like a child of humanity whose true name is I am who I am and I will be who I will be and I will do as I will do, the ancient of days, the one whose world it is has returned.
What kind of world do we baptize these children into? We baptize them into God’s world. And we can welcome them with joy into God’s world.