A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on December 23, 2012.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Well, this is embarrassing.
I had it on unreliable authority that the world was coming to an end on Friday, December 21. Several Internet web sites and YouTube videos said so. There was at least a possibility that I wouldn’t be preaching today, and therefore an excuse to put off my sermon preparation as long as possible, which I did. But yesterday morning—December 22—I woke up only to realize that the world hadn’t come to an end and I would have to write a sermon after all. So, there’s a downside to all this, and some of you are feeling it right along with me. You woke up yesterday realizing you would still have to go to work on Monday morning, still have to visit your in-laws at Christmas, still have to file your 2012 taxes. You woke up feeling just a little bit disappointed, and wondering why the world can’t end when it’s supposed to.
It’s been interesting to see how those web sites on the Internet are dealing with the disappointment, the ones that assured me the world was coming to an end. For example, the one called “December 21, 2012: the official website for 122112 information” now has a picture of our beautiful blue and green planet spinning peacefully on its axis under the headline: “Welcome to our New Beginning.” Below that picture is this text: “We have entered a new era in our existence. A new beginning. A renewed enlightenment. We have entered a time of peace and harmony, hope and change, love and understanding…” Now, that’s putting a positive spin on things, isn’t it? Before Saturday the site featured ads and articles like, “December 21, 2012: Judgment Day,” and, “37 food items you need to be stockpiling now!” and, “Will the earth burn up in 2012?” Well, no. Apparently not. Instead we’ve entered a time of peace and harmony, love and understanding.
I certainly hope so.
But this is what happens, isn’t it? People make these wild predictions and then, when they don’t come true, they tell us why, as if they knew it all along. “I didn’t mean the world was coming to an end,” they say. “I meant an era was coming to an end.” Or, they recalculate their predictions. Do you remember Harold Camping, the radio preacher who told us the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011? When it didn’t he said that he’d gotten the numbers wrong, and that it would actually happen in October of that year (memo to Harold Camping: it didn’t). Our old friend and Maya scholar Walter Witschey, who assured us the world would not come to an end on December 21 (and let the record show he was right about that), also mentioned that Maya calendar scholars Simon Martin and Joel Skidmore have recently published an analysis suggesting December 24 may be a better match for the end of the Maya calendar.
I’m surprised that hasn’t shown up on the 2012 websites.
You understand what I’m saying: this cycle of prediction, disappointment, recalculation, and revised prediction, has been going on for years, probably for as long as people have been on the planet. It was certainly going on in ancient Israel. When people are oppressed, put down, pushed around, they begin to hope for some dramatic reversal of their circumstances, even if it means upheaval and cataclysm, even if the world has to come to an end. They begin to imagine when that might happen and start to speculate about the future. Have you read the Book of Daniel? The first six chapters are charming stories about a young man who holds on to his faith in God in spite of persecution by his oppressors. But the last six chapters are full of bizarre dreams and visions that make it sound as if the world is coming to an end. Scholars believe Daniel was written in the second century B.C., when the Jews were being oppressed by Syria, and by a king named Antiochus Epiphanes who wanted them to give up their Jewishness. He desecrated their temple, re-dedicating it to the Greek god Zeus, and tried to smash the resistant spirit of the Jewish people by forcing them to eat pork. But during those dark days the people began to hope and pray for a hero, and in one of Daniel’s dreams he says:
I saw one like a [son of man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed
—Daniel 7:13-14, NRSV
Sound familiar? Even after Antiochus Epiphanes was defeated by a fierce Jewish warrior whose nickname was “Judah the Hammer,” even after Judah had cleansed the temple of its pagan elements and re-dedicated it to God (an event still commemorated in the Jewish festival of Hanukah), even then the people held on to the vision of a king who would rule over all the nations, and whose kingdom would never end.
When the Roman General Pompey conquered Jerusalem a century later, and desecrated the temple by walking into the Holy of Holies in his muddy boots, the people began to pray again that God would send them another hero, and they remembered this prophecy of a king whose dominion would never pass away, and whose kingship would never be destroyed. Don’t you think that every time one of their young men began to show some promise they wondered if he would be the one? The history of the Jewish people is full of stories like that. Maybe you’ve heard of Simon bar Kochba—“son of the star” who won some important initial victories before being killed in his unsuccessful rebellion against Rome. Or Simon bar-Giora, who defied the Roman army in his desperate attempt to protect Jerusalem before it was conquered and he was carried away in chains. I’m guessing that in those days young women were told, “Sit up straight. Eat your vegetables. Who knows? You may be the mother of the Messiah.” And when mothers rocked their baby boys to sleep they may have whispered, “Who knows, my darling? You’re so strong, so handsome. You might just be the Messiah!”
It was in those days that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, and to a virgin whose name was Mary. The angel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But Mary was much perplexed by his words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. So the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Sound familiar? But Mary couldn’t see how this was possible; she had never been with a man. So the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:26-35).
And then he dropped this clue:
“Your cousin Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:36-38).
Five minutes later Mary must have been packing her bags. You know why, don’t you? Because she wanted to see if what he had told her was true. She wanted to go see if her old cousin, Elizabeth—who had been barren all her life and was now too old to have children—could possibly be expecting, because if she could it would mean that what the angel told Mary was true, and that with God all things are possible. So, she went with haste to the hill country of Judea, and when she called out to her cousin at the front gate Elizabeth’s baby leaped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. She yanked the front door open and said, “Well, look who’s here! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me! For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting the child in my womb leaped for joy, and blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:39-45).
And that’s when Mary threw back her head and began to sing:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.
You might have missed it if you weren’t listening for it, but Mary wasn’t just saying, “Thank you Lord for letting me have a baby.” She wasn’t even saying, “Thank you, Lord, for letting me have this baby.” She was saying, “Thank you, Lord, that the world is coming to an end”—the old world, that is—the world where the Greeks or the Romans or some other evil empire always seems to be lording it over everyone else, where the weak and poor are always oppressed by the rich and powerful. She was saying, “Thank you, Lord, that a new world is coming into existence, and that through this child you are going to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.” She was saying, “Thank you, Lord, that in and through this child your kingdom is going to come, and your will is going to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Two thousand years later we still believe she was right about that, and believe that Jesus is the one whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and whose kingship will never pass away. The coming of Christ changed the world forever. But if we are honest with ourselves we are still waiting for something. We are waiting for him to take his great power and begin to reign, to put right all those things that are wrong in the world, and believe me, there are plenty of things wrong. If I gave you even a minute you could think of a half dozen. Jesus used to talk about that sometimes. He used to say, “When things are at their worst, when it looks like they’re never going to get better, when it seems as if the world itself is coming to an end, that’s when you need to stand up and lift your head, that’s when your redemption is drawing near, that’s when you will see the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds, with power and great glory’ just as it says in the Book of Daniel.” And his disciples said, “When, Lord? And what will the signs be that all of this is about to take place?” Jesus told them that no one knows the day or the hour, but that hasn’t stopped people from predicting it from that day and hour until this one. And we’ve been disappointed so many times, we’ve heard so many revised predictions, that we hardly pay attention any more.
But this one might have been different.
I think there were some people who were hoping that this Maya calendar thing would be it—that December 21 wouldn’t be the end of the world, but only the end of this world where things are so wrong, where little children aren’t safe in their own schoolrooms. I think they were hoping that Jesus would come back and set things right, establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and that from then on everything would be the way God has always wanted it to be. It didn’t happen that way. We’re still living in the same world we went to bed in on Friday night. Some of us are disappointed. But we’re still here, aren’t we? And that means it’s not over till it’s over, that we’ve got another chance to get it right.
It reminds me of a story I heard from my friend Harvey Michael. Harvey was a member of my church in Wingate, North Carolina, a retired English teacher, and one of those people who seemed to know the secret of life. I wanted to know it too, and one day I asked him. He answered with a story. He said that when World War II started he was barely into his teens, and couldn’t stand it that his older brothers were getting to go off to fight the enemy when he wasn’t. He waited as long as he could but the day after he turned seventeen he skipped school and got on a bus to Charleston, South Carolina, where they weren’t quite so strict about the age requirement. He enlisted in the Navy, and then turned around and came home.
It took all day, and when he got home it was late at night. He took his shoes off at the front door and tiptoed through the house in his stocking feet. But his father must have been awake, waiting for him. He called him back to the bedroom and said, “I know you skipped school today. Where have you been?” And standing there in the dark doorway Harvey straightened himself up and said, “I’ve been to Charleston. I enlisted in the Navy today.” There was a long silence and then his dad said. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you’re going to be some kind of hero. But that’s not what’s going to happen. You’re going to go over there, and some Japanese soldier is going to shoot you and kill you.” And Harvey said, “I know.” He told me that’s exactly what he was expecting—to die in the war. But on the way to Japan the war ended, and the troop ship turned around and came home. And Harvey said, “I suddenly found myself with a life I hadn’t been expecting: a bonus life. And I decided I would use it for good; that I would either be an English teacher or a Baptist preacher.” And then he winked at me and said,
“The preaching didn’t work out.”
A bonus life. Isn’t that a wonderful idea? And what if that’s what’s happened for us? The world didn’t end on December 21, which means that we are now living life in the bonus round. What if, like Harvey, we decide to use our lives for good, to do the kinds of things that will make this world a better place? What if we committed ourselves to the work of the Kingdom, to doing the things Jesus would do until he comes to finish the job? Don’t you think heaven would come a little bit closer to earth that way? Don’t you think this world might begin to give way to that one? It’s worth a try, isn’t it? I mean, really, we’re in the bonus round:
What have we got to lose?
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.