The End of the World As We Know It

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost: Daniel 12:1-13, Mark 13:1-8

The rock group R.E.M. got its start in Athens, Georgia, in 1980 after singer Michael Stipe and guitarist Pete Buck met at a record store where Buck worked. Mike Mills and Bill Barry joined the band and they put out their first single in 1981. Today’s song comes from their 1987 album called Document. The song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” consists of some stream of consciousness type of lyrics, many of which came to Michael Stipe in a dream where he was at a birthday party and everyone had the initials L.B., except him — so listen for all the L.B. initials as I try to sing this song.

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake,
Birds and snakes, an aeroplane — Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs, don’t misserve your own needs.
Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt no, strength no.
Ladder structure clatter with fear of height, down height.
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games in a government for hire
and a combat site.

Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry
with the furies breathing down your neck.
Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered crop.
Look at that low plane! Fine then.
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group, but it’ll do.
Save yourself, serve yourself.
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed.
Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right – right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light,
feeling pretty psyched.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

I have good news and bad news for you all this morning. Let’s start with the bad news. According to a blog called “The Key of Smyrna,” the rapture — the event that some theologians believe is when Jesus will gather up all the faithful in the clouds before the tribulation begins — happened on Halloween night around 11 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. If that blog is right — then we, my dear friends, have all been left behind to suffer the “tribulation” — a time of persecution and suffering for followers of Christ who have not been raptured.

The good news is, according to this blog, is that our suffering will end on April 2, 2010, when the world comes to an end. Well, come to think of it, perhaps that’s bad news and more bad news. If there’s good news there, it’s that the end of the world comes after April Fool’s Day and before the tax deadline. So don’t sweat your taxes too much in this coming year.

Then again, this blog poster could be completely wrong and the rapture has not occurred and the end of the world is still just as unknown as it always has been. This blogger joins a long line of people who have tried to predict the end of the age over the years.

Predicting the rapture

Everyone from Pat Robertson to Jerry Falwell to Hal Lindsey to Isaac Newton has picked a date for the end of the world and been proven wrong.

I remember back in 1988, a retired NASA engineer named Edgar Whisenant wrote two books called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 and On Borrowed Time. He claimed the world would end between September 11th and 13th, 1988.

I remember sitting in a pickup truck with my first girlfriend and a friend of ours on one of those days, waiting to see who, if any of us, would be left to drive home. We all managed to survive.

So did Whisenant who, after those dates passed, then predicted, for certain, the world would end on September 15th, 1988. After we all survived that, he was back claiming it would be October 3rd. Despite his terrible track record, his books sold millions of copies and won the endorsement of Trinity Broadcasting Network founders Jan and Paul Crouch. Not to be outdone after October 3rd passed, he wrote a new book predicting, without a doubt, that the new date of annihilation would be in 1989.

The past failures of all these prognosticators has not deterred others from making predictions, including the most popular one that the world will end in 2012 because that’s when the Mayan calendar ends. To me that’s ridiculous. Just because that’s when the Mayans decided to stop creating calendars doesn’t mean the world will end. I mean my desk calendar ends December 31st, 2009, but that doesn’t mean the world ends then.

If you want to keep up with when the world might end, there is also a handy Web site you can visit called There you’ll find the “rapture index” that rates the likelihood of rapture based on many factors including false prophets, earthquakes, famine, drought, plague, global turmoil — even the rise of liberalism. Currently, the rapture index stands at 167. Anything over 160 and the website says, “Fasten your seatbelts!” The index was at its highest in the days after September 11, 2001, and at its lowest back in 1993.

This is not a site mocking rapture theology. They are quite serious and are among the many people who are obsessed with trying to predict TEOTWAWKI (tee-ought-walk-ee), or The End Of The World As We Know It.

Six o’clock — TV hour. Don’t get caught in foreign tower.
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn.
Lock him in uniform and book burning, blood letting.
Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate.
Light a candle, light a motive. Step down, step down.
Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh, this means no fear – cavalier.
Renegade and steer clear!
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

Rapture theology

“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” writes the author of the book of Daniel way back in the sixth century BCE. These words are revolutionary. This is a brand-new sort of theology that the ancient Hebrews had never heard before.

Before the sixth century the idea of God judging people after death was unheard of. In fact, many of the other ancient Hebrew Scriptures from Psalms to Isaiah affirm that Yahweh is the God only of the living and not the dead. The idea of a judgment day after death would be foreign to these ancient ears. However, as the times changed, so did the theology. In the sixth century, many of the Jews were exiled to Babylon, and this was confusing for many of them.

Among those exiled were priests and other leading citizens — the good, rule-keeping, law-abiding citizens who had done everything right but were still exiled from their homes. They wondered, how could both the righteous suffer the same injustice as the unrighteous?

Enter a sixth-century Persian prophet known as Zoroaster. His thinking greatly influenced the theology of Daniel. Zoroaster believed that human beings have free will and they can choose, in this life, to pursue a path of light or a path of darkness. They would be judged not in this life, but in the next.

This helped to put the Hebrews’ minds at ease, knowing that even though evil may befall them in this life, in the end, God would judge them as righteous and punish those who chose a life of debauchery and evil.

This theology of rapture is also a revolutionary idea, something that never existed in Christian theology before 1738 when the word “rapture” was used by Phillip Doddridge in his New Testament commentaries.

This theology was later expanded upon in 1827 by a man named John Nelson Darby, who is called the father of “dispensationalism.” While Christians have always proclaimed a second coming of Christ, it was Darby who gave us the idea that Christ doesn’t just come back once, but twice — first during the rapture, and again after seven years of tribulation. This view was popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible published in 1909.

Apocalyptic literature

As a Southern Baptist child, I was raised to believe that Christians have believed Darby’s theology since the very beginning. I wasn’t even aware that there was a time in Christian history that this idea would have been preposterous — let alone knowing that there was a time before Daniel that the ancient Hebrews would have found his ideas unbelievable. Does that mean that these theologies are not true? Not necessarily. Each of them were created in an attempt to explain world events or make sense of a crisis moment in history. They belong to a long line of traditional writings called “apocalyptic” literature.

Unfortunately, what has been lost in the mists of time is the real purpose of such writings. When we read apocalyptic literature like Daniel or the book of Revelation, we tend to look at them as predicting future events — things that will literally come to pass. This was Darby’s mistake when he read these books and formulated his muddled theology of rapture and dispensations.

Apocalyptic writings were never meant to be read in this way. Instead, as Pheme Perkins, New Testament professor at Boston College, writes in the New Interpreter’s Bible, this form of writing is intended to diagnose “the moral or spiritual health of the people. A prophetic word of judgment intends to promote repentance and reform, even though many people reject the prophet’s word. Destruction occurs only because the words of warning go unheeded. Thus prophetic speech is a form of instruction, not fortune telling.”

In other words, Daniel’s revelations should change our hearts, it should change how we live in this world — not prompt us to pull out our calculators and try to predict how many more days we’ll have to wait for the end of the world as we know it.

The other night I tripped a nice continental drift divide.
Mount St. Edelite. Leonard Bernstein
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs.
Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam, but neck, right? Right.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

To be honest, sometimes I hate this world. I hate the injustice. I hate the suffering. I hate the poverty. I hate the despair. I hate the grief. In these moments, I completely understand the attraction of end-of-the-world predictions. The world is going to hell in a hand basket and I feel helpless to stop it. I see the injustice, the pain, the suffering, and I can’t do anything to stop it. The world breaks our hearts, and eventually we become numb to it. Forsaking this world for the next becomes a pretty attractive idea — let God destroy all this madness and take us to paradise. When I reach this point I find myself wishing all those end-of-time prognosticators were right, and this world would just end. This is the point where I find myself angrily shaking my fist at God and asking, “Is this the best you can do?”

When I finally calm down though, I hear God pose the question right back to me, “Is this the best you can do?” Look closely at what Jesus is telling his disciples about this world — everything he talks about, wars, rumors of wars, famine, nation rising against nation — even earthquakes — these are all man-made events. Remember, we can’t read our modern knowledge of science into this text. In Jesus’ time, earthquakes were the result of man’s disobedience to God — not the natural shifting of tectonic plates. Earthquakes were seen as a divine omen or a divine punishment because of something humans had done or had neglected to do.

Apocalypse as revelation

Whenever we read this passage, we immediately think that Jesus is predicting the end of the world. This is known as an “apocalyptic” passage, but the word “apocalypse” doesn’t mean the end of the world, it means “revelation” — and this is what Jesus is giving his disciples, and us, in this passage. He’s telling us this world, full of war and starving people, is definitely not the best we can do. Instead, he’s revealing a whole new world — one that we can create. These signs, he said, are not signs of the end, but instead are “birth pangs.” The pain of birth is not the end of creation, but the beginning. Jesus is asking his disciples — and through this scripture, is asking us — to stop living in a world torn apart by war and famine. Instead, we are called to bring about the end of the world as we know it — and give birth to a new world.

As followers of Christ, we are called to create a new world — a world without greed, a world without injustice, a world without hunger, a world without poverty, a world without suffering, a world without despair, a world without grief. The end will come, Jesus said — but it’s the end of a world that sorely needs to end — a world where it’s “us” against “them”. The world we are called to create is the world where it’s “some of us for all of us” — where we understand that we’re called to be healers of the world, to give hope to those in despair, to give food and clothing to those in need, and to bring about the end of a world filled with greed and injustice. We are to witness, and give rise to, the birth of a new world. Seen in this light, the end of the world as we know it is not a terrible event to be feared, but a glorious and joyous event to be celebrated. We get to see the realm of God being birthed. We’re in the delivery room awaiting the birth of a new creation. That should create feelings of joy instead of feelings of fear and dread.

Ah, but that old friend despair creeps back in — how in the world can we, a small community of people who believe it’s some of us for all of us, bring about this kind of incredible birth? We don’t have that kind of power.

The real end of the world

But we do! By doing as Jesus commanded — loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving others just as much as you love yourself, we are empowered to birth a new world. Whatever you want for yourself in this world, want it just as badly for someone else. You want a job? Want that for someone else just as much — even for the person competing for a job you want. You want a partner? Want that just as badly for someone else. You want to never be hungry? Feed those who are hungry now. You want happiness? Be concerned, first and foremost, with making another person happy — and you will be happy as well. Whatever it is you want in this world, want it for others just as much — and you will end this world as we know it. If we want to end our own despair, our own greed, our own suffering, our own poverty, let us look to end it for everyone else first, and, like a miracle, our own despair, our own greed, our own suffering, our own poverty, will vanish.

This world we live in — the one that needs to end — is a world inhabited by those seagulls in “Finding Nemo.” What did those gulls say? “Mine, mine, mine.” This is a world of self-absorbed people, worrying about what’s in it for me, and how does this affect me, and who will look after me, and when will I get mine? Self-absorbed people are dangerous people. They chant “mine, mine, mine,” and in that chant they start wars — causing nation to rise against nation. They horde food and create famine. They create scarcity for others by their selfishness, they greedily horde money and resources, leaving others to starve or die.

Jesus said this is the world that must end, and I challenge you today to start — to bring about the end of the world as we know it — and take part in giving birth to the realm of God. Find ways to step outside yourself this week — to stop chanting “mine, mine, mine” and instead look after the needs of others.

Remember there is no us and them — it’s some of us for all of us, and we know when we end the world as we know it, we’ll all feel fine.

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine