A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on December 9, 2012.
The Second Sunday of Advent
Since we started our year-long, every-member mission trip back in September I have posted a fresh article on my blog almost every day. The word blog, if you’re not familiar with it, is short for “web log.” It’s a way of posting pictures and stories and almost anything else you can imagine on the World Wide Web—it’s a kind of online journal or scrapbook. I’ve been posting pictures and stories about the way First Baptist Church is working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and I’ve been pleased to see that people are reading. On Tuesday of last week 528 people visited my blog. On Wednesday that number rose to 607. And on Thursday 720 people stopped by. 358 of those were from the United States, 36 from the United Kingdom, 23 from India, and 12 from Mongolia, not to mention Nepal, the Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates. But here’s the most startling statistic of all: of the 720 people who visited my blog on Thursday, 214 of them came looking for an article called, “Will the World End on December 21, 2012?” an article I posted more than a year ago.
I read that article to you last week, and if you were here you know the answer is no, the world will not end on December 21, 2012, at least not according to Walter R. T. Witschey, Maya Archaeologist and Professor of Anthropology at Longwood University. He says the Maya Calendar doesn’t predict the end of the world. It only comes to the end of one cycle on December 21 and starts a new one on December 22. “It rolls over,” Dr. Witschey says, “like the odometer on your car.” I hope those people from Australia, Mexico, and Hong Kong who are reading my blog will get that message, and that it will put their minds at ease. But I’m amazed at the resiliency of this rumor, at the way it persists in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It’s almost as if some people are hoping that the world will come to an end.
I did a little research last week and found a YouTube video called “Five Signs the World Will End in 2012.” It’s not hard to find these things; they’re out there. This one begins with an announcer saying, “So, 2012 is the big date, with the recent fear, curiosity, and excitement over the onset of Armageddon on December 21, 2012.” And then he lists the five signs: the first is the Maya calendar, which he calls “one of the most well-known signs of the Apocalypse,” and one that “suggests the end of life” (Dr. Witschey would disagree). The second is the I Ching prophecies. He says, “These ancient Chinese prophecies predict the coming of the Armageddon on December 21, 2012.” The third sign is geomagnetic reversal in which the earth’s North and South Pole will interchange rapidly causing electronics to break down and animals to lose their sense of direction. “Some people think it will happen abruptly,” he says. The fourth sign is the “black hole alignment,” which involves the earth lining up with the center of the galaxy in such a way that the increased gravitational pull could affect its orbit. The fifth sign is the “web bot,” a program that searches for specific key words on the Internet and looks for a pattern. “Apparently,” the announcer says, “the web bot predicted the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 and the tsunami in 2004. Now it has predicted the Armageddon on December 21st, 2012.”
With a little help, I could make my own video, and I would call it, “Five Signs This Guy Has No Idea What He’s Talking About.” One, he doesn’t understand what the Greek word apocalypse means; two, he uses that word interchangeably with Armageddon, a Hebrew word, which he also doesn’t understand; three, he himself discredits two of the five signs he lists; four, he admits that he doesn’t believe the world will end on December 21; and five, he calls himself “Houdini,” the name of a famous escape artist, just in case you try to trap him in his lie. But again, what fascinates me, is the lengths some people have gone to to keep this rumor alive. They’re not going to let an expert like Dr. Witschey dismiss it with a wave of his hand. They want us to circle December 21 on our calendars with a red Magic Marker, and write “The End of the World!!!” with lots of exclamation points behind it. In the season of Advent—a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ—it’s kind of fun to play along, to ask the question: “What if those rumor mongers are right? What if the world is going to end on December 21? What would we do with these last twelve days?”
There’s a wonderful little novel by Alan Lightman called Einstein’s Dreams in which the novelist imagines the things Albert Einstein might have dreamed about as he was coming up with his theory of relativity back in 1905. Most of those dreams are about time. One of the chapters begins with these words: “The world will end on 26 September 1907. Everyone knows it.” One year before the end the schools close their doors. Why learn for the future with so brief a future. Delighted to have their lessons finished forever children play hide-and-seek, skip stones on the river, squander their coins on peppermint and licorice. Their parents let them do what they wish.
“One month before the end businesses close. People sit at outdoor cafes where they sip coffee and talk easily of their lives. A liberation fills the air. Just now, for example, a woman with brown eyes is speaking to her mother about how little time they spent together in her childhood, when the mother worked as a seamstress. The mother and daughter are now planning a trip together. They will fit two lives into the little time remaining. At another table a man tells a friend how he has settled an old grudge with an enemy and reconciled with his wife. Relieved at last he stretches his legs and lets his eyes roam over the Alps. The baker sings as he puts dough in the oven. These days people are polite when they order their bread. They smile and pay promptly since money is losing its value. They talk about picnics in the park, cherished time listening to their children’s stories, long walks in mid-afternoon. They don’t seem to mind that the world will soon end, because everyone shares the same fate. A world with one month is a world of equality.
“One day before the end, the streets swirl with laughter. Neighbors who have never spoken greet each other as friends. A lawyer and a postal clerk who have never before met walk through the public gardens arm in arm, smiling at the flowers. What do their past stations matter? In a world of one day they are equal.” The story goes on from there, from the last day, to the last hour, to the last minute. “Everyone gathers in a giant circle and holds hands,” the author says. “No one moves. No one speaks. It is so absolutely quiet that each person can hear the heartbeat of the person to his right or his left. This is the last minute of the world.”[i] The end, when it comes, is surprisingly gentle, almost as if someone had blown out a candle in a child’s bedroom. It’s a fascinating vision of how people might spend the last few months and weeks and days of their lives, but what’s missing from Lightman’s description is God. At no point in his story do people try to get right with God or even acknowledge him before the world ends. You get the feeling they have no conception of God, which makes Lightman’s story a good bit different from Luke’s.
Today’s Gospel lesson is from Luke, chapter 3, verses 1-6, and as I looked at these opening lines I thought about that YouTube video, about those “five signs the world will end in 2012.” The creator of that video draws lines from five different sources to suggest that they all intersect on the same date: December 21st. In a similar way, Luke makes reference to seven different historical figures whose reigns all intersect at the same moment. He says:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
It was then, at that precise moment in history, that the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness like a meteorite hurtling out of deep space. And the word that came to him was the word that the world was ending. I don’t mean that the world was about to be destroyed; I only mean that the world as it was—barren of hope and empty of God’s presence—was ending and a new world was beginning—filled to the brim with hope and overflowing with the glorious presence of God. The Kingdom was coming and that’s what John the Baptist came to announce.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Although it doesn’t say so in today’s Gospel reading, the people responded to John’s message. When they heard this talk about the coming Kingdom they didn’t sit at sidewalk cafes talking about how to make up for lost time, they didn’t squander their coins on peppermint and licorice, or walk arm-in-arm through the public gardens. They got up and went to the river. They confessed their sins, they repented, they were baptized. And there were lots of them: “Crowds,” Luke says. In Mark’s Gospel it says, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). Because they didn’t think they were getting ready to meet the end of their earthly existence; they thought they were getting ready to meet God.
George R. Beasley-Murray, a renowned British Baptist scholar, insists that in John’s time people weren’t expecting the end of the world, but expecting what some have called “the day of the Lord.” Malachi 4:5 says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,” and many people, including Jesus, saw John as that prophet. But that great and terrible day wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would be the coming of the Lord, and that’s different, isn’t it? Beasley-Murray says, “The simplest interpretation of the issue of the last times involves viewing it as being ushered in by the coming of God and the Day of the Lord, which will entail the overthrow of evil powers and the establishment of the kingdom of God in this world.”[ii]
There’s a huge difference between thinking that the world is going to end and thinking that the Lord is going to come. And there’s a huge difference between thinking the world is going to be destroyed and thinking that the old world—the one where fewer and fewer people acknowledge God’s existence—is going to be replaced by one where God is king. What if, instead of circling December 21st on your calendar and writing “The End of the World!” you circled that date and wrote, “The Day of the Lord”? And what if you knew that on that day you had an appointment with him, at 11:00 in the morning, in a downtown office building? How would you get ready for that?
I’ve been trying to think of my own answer to that question. What would I wear to my meeting with God? A nice suit, my favorite pair of blue jeans, a baptismal robe? And what would I take with me? My perfect attendance pins from Sunday school, my giving records, my best-loved and most-used Bible? I might take my ordination papers, or my seminary degrees, or I might just take a picture of Jesus and slide it across the table and say, “That’s the best I’ve got.” I can almost hear God say, “That’s all you need.” But because Jesus said the most important thing in the world is loving God and loving others, I would want to spend the next twelve days doing that—making sure my relationships were right. I would want to say “I love you” to the people I love, and “I’m sorry” to the people I’ve wronged. But most of all, I would want to make sure things were right with God. When I walked into that meeting, when I saw him face to face, I would want it to be a good thing, and not a bad thing.
Spending some time thinking about how you would meet God is a good thing to do during the Season of Advent, isn’t it? On Monday of last week I got voicemail from someone named Mike who said, “Hello, Brother Jim. I just wanted to call and let you know I really enjoyed your message yesterday. It hit me real hard because back in March was when I fully surrendered my life to Jesus and I’ve always wondered about the Mayan calendar thing and … yesterday you gave me some new ideas on what I would do with my last three weeks. So, what I’m going to do is, I am going to write my nephew and my niece and my sister and my brother a little letter and send it to them before the 21st and let them know how God has changed my life, because they know the type of person that I was, because I was into drugs and alcohol and all sorts of things, and I knew from my mother’s teaching and my upbringing that all I had to do was call on Jesus. And when I did and fully surrendered, my life has just been blessed so many times, and I need to try to get through to them and hopefully with God’s help when I’m writing they will feel something that I felt and fully surrender as well.”
That’s what Mike is going to do to get ready. Whether or not the world comes to an end on December 21st, he’s going to do something between now and then to get ready. Because even if the world doesn’t come to an end on that day, the world will come to an end someday, his world will come to an end someday, and he wants to be ready for that. He wants to be able to stand before God without fear, without shame, without apology. What about you?
How will you get ready?
[i] Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (Vintage, 1993), pp. 57-62
[ii] G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Eerdmans, 1986), p. 46.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.