In 1987 the American band REM released their song
‘It’s the end of the world as we know it.’[i]
I was seven at the time,
but I guess, for those who we then a little older,
it may have felt like the end of the world,
the Cold War was still in full flow
and of course in the UK Margaret Thatcher was still PM!
The belief that the world is going to end is something that has been present throughout much of history.[ii]
In Jesus’ day, the Jews were praying that God would bring the end of the world,
which in other words meant the end of the Romans –
this was the great hope!
Three hundred years later,
many Christians thought the end of the world had come,
when the Roman Empire became Christian,
and what must have felt like the whole world becoming Christian –
this was heaven on earth!
For those in the middle ages,
the end of the world was thought of more in terms of whether you were going to heaven or hell –
this produced more fear than hope!
In the 17th and 18th century and rise of science and the idea of the individual,
the end of the world in terms of something God might do
became less widely believed
as God himself became less central to how people viewed the world –
this generated the myth of the great progress,
the world getting better and better,
no end of the world was expected or much feared.
And in the last century
the end of the world became something humanity could achieve itself with the advent of nuclear weapons or environmental catastrophe –
fear of a different kind, not fear of God, but fear of the bomb.
‘It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’
Christians are an end of the world type of people.
The purpose of Advent,
it’s horizon, is the end of all things.
Don’t get overly fixated on a stable in Bethlehem,
but on the one who came and is coming again,
this time in glory and majesty.
Christians are an end of the world type of people,
because we look to God,
who created the world,
with a purpose, with an end.
Christians are end of the world type of people,
because we believe we have already seen the end of the world
and it is Jesus.
Christians are end of the world type of people,
because the purpose of the world
is found in Jesus,
and so we pray ‘come Lord Jesus come’.
Advent is a reminder that we are always approaching the end.
The end is always in sight,
because we believe Jesus is in sight.
The end of the world is not far away,
because Jesus is not far away.
And at the same time, the Advent prayer is always
‘how long, O Lord, how long?’
For while the end of the world is known in Jesus,
it is not yet fully realised.
The end has not yet fully come,
for we know that today good and evil still flourish together.
We know the presence of
injustice, oppression, violence, hatred, indifference and vengeance.
So we pray
‘How long, o Lord, how long?’
Our reading from the second letter of Peter
speaks to the end of the world.
It answers those who disbelieve,
those who ask, where is this “coming” promised?
those who see only a world that is unchanged from its beginnings.
the end of the world is coming.
Don’t doubt it and don’t doubt God’s intention.
God is the creator God,
creation is not eternal, it will not last for ever,
it had a beginning and it will have an end.
The question is not will it end, but what kind of end?
God is the God of judgement,
evil will not prevail, remember the flood,
the world was destroyed by water.
The end of the world is coming
and all will be revealed, laid bare,
The end of the world will draw together all that is good,
and redeem all that is bad.
The world’s end,
is heaven and earth reconciled,
is God all in all.
In apocalyptic language Peter speaks of the world ending –
The day of the Lord will come like a thief.
the heavens will disappear with a roar;
the elements will be destroyed by fire;
and the earth and everything done in it
will be laid bare (2 Peter 3.10)
This does not the mean the world will be annihilated or obliterated.
It does the world will be judged,
and the elements will be destroyed,
but the earth will remain.
What seems to be the meaning here, and its not entirely clear,[iii]
is that judgement will bring about the destruction of all that is evil.
The evil of the world that has acted like a parasite,
will be melted away by fire,
so that the world might be renewed;
a new heavens and earth might emerge like a phoenix from the ashes.
The end of the world is not ultimately annihilation,
The end of the world is a new beginning.
It is purification, it is transformation,
a transformation in which Peter says ‘where righteousness dwells.’
This righteousness is Jesus.
In other words, to borrow words from the Book of Revelation,
the new heavens and new earth
will be where God dwells his people for ever (Rev. 21.4)
For Peter the end of the world is always almost here.
Time is always pregnant with Jesus.
We are not in some kind of dead time, waiting for everything to happen,
we are in God’s time, in which he is patient.
We are in God’s time in which a day is like a thousand years,
and thousand years is like a day.
We are in the time of God’s patience.
While we pray, ‘how long, o Lord, how long?’
God is slow, not because he won’t keep his promises
to right every wrong,
to heal every wound,
to free every captive.
He is slow, because he is patient,
He is slow in order that the world and the church might wake up:
He is patient with you,
not wanting anyone to perish,
but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3.9).
God’s patience is for the sake of God’s mission.
‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ as the hymn goes.
A slow and patient God means a slow and patient church.[iv]
A slow church is not the same as a fast-asleep church.
It’s easy to fall asleep – remember the disciples in Gethsemane.
It’s easy to fall asleep when we out of touch or not in tune to the time we are in.
The end of world is near, this is no time to curl up on the sofa.
Advent is a reminder to wake-up to God and God’s end.
You can’t pray ‘come Lord Jesus come’ if you’re asleep
and you can’t pray ‘how long, o Lord, how long?’ if you’re asleep.
The church is called to be slow, but not dead.
Are we asleep as a church?
What’s waking us up?
What’s causing us to long for the coming of Jesus?
What’s urging in us to long for God to make things right?
Where is God calling us to rise from our beds to do his bidding?
A slow church is also not the same as a frenetic church.
It’s easy to full our lives with activity,
it’s easy to exhaust ourselves with doing,
it’s easy to get obsessed with success.
The end of the world is near
and we turn to thinking that we need to be Jesus,
that salvation is something we do.
We never slow down, we never allow ourselves the patience
to see that God is patient.
Advent is a reminder that God gives his people all the time they need.
Therefore if patience marks the character of God,
it should mark the character of our lives:
a godly life is a patient life.
Advent is a reminder that God slows us down.
The church is called to be slow, not frantic.
Are we rushing around too much?
What’s slowing us down?
What’s causing us to see that Jesus is already near us,
that the end of the world in kingdom terms is already among us?
What’s urging us to pay attention to the mercy of God?
Where is God calling us from doing to praying?
It’s the end of the world as we know it,
and we feel fine,
because Jesus is here and on his way.
We can be patient for our God is patient.
We can be confident for God’s promises are sure.
We can be joyful for a new heaven and earth is already and not yet.
[i] The song can be found on the album Document.
[ii] This journey through history owes much to Sam Wells’ sermon entitled ‘The End of the World’ preached on the 30 Nov 2014, http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/30-Nov-2014.pdf.
[iii] I’ve been helped by J. Richard Middleton’s discussion of these verses in A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker, 2014), pp.189-200.
[iv] This section I owe to Stephen Picard, Seeking the Church (SCM, 2012), pp.216-217.