A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on December 2, 2012.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (NRSV).
Several years ago I heard a rumor that the world would end on December 21, 2012. At the time it was easy to dismiss it as “merely” a rumor. But that was then, and this is December 2, 2012. I find that I want to know more. Is there anything to this rumor? Does it have any basis in reality? If you logged onto the Internet and typed this question into your favorite search engine—“Will the world end on December 21, 2012?”—you might be directed to my blog, and to an article I published on November 23, 2011, with that exact title. This is what I wrote:
“Will the world end on December 21, 2012? No. Not according to Walter R. T. Witschey.
“Dr. Witschey wrote to me after my recent sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 in which I mentioned that some people think the world is going to end on December 21, 2012, because that’s what the Mayan calendar “suggests.” It was in that part of the sermon where I was talking about the Day of the Lord coming suddenly, like a thief in the night.
“’That’s how it will be,’ Paul says. ‘That’s how it will happen. But the only people it will catch off guard are those who are not expecting it. They will be drunk, and snoring, and sleeping it off when the thief crawls through the window, but you will be wide-awake, sober as a schoolmarm, sitting on the front porch with your suitcases packed. So, why should you worry about “when,” and “where,” and “how” the End will come? You’re ready! You belong to the day, you belong to the light! You don’t have to worry about a thief in the night!’ And so, Paul says, stay ready. ‘Be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.’ In other words, you who are believers can protect yourselves against the anxiety of the end-times by clothing yourselves with great faith, great love, and great hope. Those places where you are most vulnerable to attack—your heart, mind, and soul—will be shielded by that impenetrable armor. ‘For God has not destined us for wrath,’ Paul says, ‘but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
And then I said:
“That’s a good thing to remember, isn’t it, when Harold Camping tells us that the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011, or the Maya calendar suggests the world will end on December 21, 2012? What Paul is trying to tell us is that end-time prophecy is for others, not for us. Its purpose is to warn those who are not ready, rather than those of us who are.”
And that’s where Dr. Witschey corrected me, ever so gently. He wrote:
It was a pleasure to hear your sermon this morning, via Channel 8 in Farmville, VA. There were a couple mentions of the Maya calendar, and the special calendar date in December, 2012. The calendar has interested me greatly since I was ten years old.
All that you said was true, and offered with a smile…yet there is an important nuance here: although some writers claim, “the Maya calendar foretells the end of the world,” the truth, I believe, is that the Maya calendar and inscriptions, and those who make scholarly study of them, make no such claim or forecast. Such claims (mostly in popular and self-serving forums) are based on an observation of a special date in the Maya count of days.
We write the Maya count-of-days, the ‘Long Count,’ as a five place base-20 numeral such as 184.108.40.206.1 for November 20, 2011, in the Gregorian calendar. That calendar will, in just over a year, increment to 220.127.116.11.0 on December 21 (or thereabouts). Neither the ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions, nor the modern Maya, nor any Maya archaeologists of standing, claim that this is the day the world ends. Rather, the appropriate claim is that, just like Y2K in our calendar, or 100,000 miles on a car odometer, the next day is just the next day, and the beginning of a new calendar cycle. In the Maya calendar we will write it as 18.104.22.168.1 (and most likely will not need to postpone any of our appointments). Having picked that small nit, may I say your central message, “Be Prepared,” came through loud and clear.
With esteem, admiration, and thanks,
Walter R. T. Witschey
Professor of Anthropology and Science Education, Longwood University
Director Emeritus, Science Museum of Virginia
“Thank you, Dr. Witschey. I hope that millions of people around the world (and not only the seven who read my blog) will stand corrected.”
“Looking forward to 22.214.171.124.1!”
Now, I think I just heard a collective sigh of relief: all of you here in the sanctuary and those watching this morning’s live telecast and others joining us from around the world by webcast can rest easy, right? The world isn’t coming to an end in the next three weeks. But just for the sake of argument let’s say that it is: that the Mayans knew something we don’t, and that the reason they have all those zeroes on their calendar on December 21st is because that’s how many days are left. How would you live your life if you knew that you had less than three weeks to live? What would you do differently? That’s a question worth considering whether or not the rumor is true.
I saw a film recently called “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. When the film opens the character played by Steve Carell is sitting in a parked car with his wife, listening to the radio as the announcer says, “The final mission to save mankind has failed. The 70-mile wide asteroid known as Matilda is set to collide with earth in three week’s time and we’ll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days along with all your classic rock favorites.” The man and his wife sit in stunned silence and then she looks at him, reaches for the door handle, gets out of the car and runs away. She is never seen again. He doesn’t know what to do. He goes back to his apartment, goes to bed, and the next morning gets up and goes to work at his insurance office out of sheer habit, where he finds a few other workers there for the same reason. Eventually the boss tells them to go home. Their work isn’t relevant anymore. And so he does, and finds his pretty young British neighbor distraught because her family is still in England and she has no way to get there. All transatlantic flights have been canceled. He says he knows a man who has an airplane and perhaps he can help her. And so the two of them set off on this long road trip to see if they can get her home before the end of the world.
Along the way they have a number of adventures and experiences but one scene stands out in my mind and that is the one where they are driving through a suburban neighborhood and see a man out mowing his lawn. When I saw it I wanted to laugh out loud. It seemed ludicrous that you would use any part of the last three weeks of your life to mow your lawn. Surely it wouldn’t matter. Who cares if your lawn looks ragged? The end of the world is coming! And yet, he might have argued, “What else am I going to do?” Or maybe, “I always mow my lawn. I wanted it to look nice for the end of the world.” It raises the question, though, doesn’t it? If you didn’t mow your lawn in your last few days on earth, what would you do?
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus gives us some clues.
He had been at the temple with his disciples, where they had remarked on the beautiful adornments and the impressive stones. Jesus said, “You see all this? The time is coming when there won’t be one stone left on top of another. Everything will be thrown down.” They said, “Teacher, when will that be?” And Jesus said, “Watch out, and don’t let yourselves be deceived. People love to predict the end of the world. Some may even claim to be me. Don’t believe them. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars don’t be frightened. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Did you notice how Jesus says “People will faint with fear and foreboding?” He means other people. They will faint with fear and foreboding. But not his disciples. He says to them, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It’s like I said in that blog post about the passage from 1 Thessalonians 5: the warnings about the end of the world are only for those people who are not prepared for it, not for those people who are. And so, Jesus says, to his disciples then and now, when these things begin to take place stand up and raise your heads. Your redemption is drawing near. In the meantime,” he says, “Be on guard so that your hearts and not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
And so, just to be clear, if it turns out the Mayans knew something we didn’t, and if all those zeroes are on their calendar after the 21st of December simply because that’s how many days there are, then what should we do with the 19 days we have left? First of all, we should be careful that our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life. That’s a good thing to remind people of in the month of December, when they often worry about what they’re going to buy for everybody on their list, and how they’re going to pay for it, when they end up rushing from one Christmas party to another and sometimes staggering home. Be careful, Jesus says, and secondly, be alert. Don’t ignore the signs of the times. Don’t imagine that God’s story—which had a beginning and a middle—will never have an end. Remind yourself every morning in the season of Advent that “Today could be the day,” and then, if it is, don’t panic. Stand up and raise your head: your redemption is drawing near.
You know, I called this sermon “The End of the World as We Know It” mostly because there is a catchy song by that title, but since then I’ve thought that the world as we know it is always coming to an end. I drove to West Virginia to see my Mom and Dad on Thursday and was happy find them in a good place, well cared-for. But as I drove back toward Richmond I also realized how much things have changed. The world I used to live in, where my mother would bake sugar cookies and my dad would bring in the tree, where my brothers and I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning to thunder down the steps and tear open our gifts—that world is long gone. It brought a lump to my throat to think of it, and to think of how much my mom and dad have changed. I wondered how many more Christmases they might have in this world, and especially my dad, who seems to be so feeble these days. But I also thought about how Jesus might come to his bedside on that day, whenever it is, and whisper in his ear:
“Stand up and raise your head; your redemption is drawing near.”
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.