Rev. Caroline Barnett
Endings and Beginnings
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"
Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"
Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Do you think we’re living in “The End Times”?
It’s a question that was posed to me four years ago in an Uber, coming home from the airport, after the driver learned I was in grad school studying theology.
Now, I’m not a fan of deep theological conversations with strangers — with you all, I love it, but a stranger, especially when its late at night and I’m stuck in a car with them for at least another twenty minutes? Not so much.
So I’ll admit it, I didn’t give the question a lot of thought. I probably said something a little canned, and maybe a tad dismissive, about how it’s not our place to know those things, and we can’t know God’s mind, or something like that. Anything to cut the conversation short.
But it’s been four years, and I haven’t forgotten his question. In fact, I think about it often.
Do you think we’re living in the end times?
I can’t for sure, but I imagine, that this man wanted to know if I thought if the biblical apocalypse was imminent. That, if you look at the signs described in scripture, such as wars and natural disasters, we could pinpoint the exact date the world will end and Christ will return to judge the quick and the dead in a blaze of glory that usually includes some pyrotechnics.
But I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the End Times in that way. We Presbyterians prefer to think about the here and now, about how God’s Kingdom can be found right now on earth, And if there does happen to be a day when the world ends, when Christ will return in a way that is both thrilling and a little scary, we trust that God is good and faithful.
But I’ll ask again: Do you think we’re living in the end times?
Because if you look at the world through this man’s eyes, you can see signs. There is war, and earthquakes, and famines. And there is pain and loss and death and tragedy on a scale that at times feels world-ending. And you could read the news about how we always seem to be on the edge of collapse— whether it is economic, ecological, or societal.
So do you think we’re living in the end times?
Maybe we’re not sure if we’re living in the end times, but I imagine the first readers of our Gospel text for today may have.
Mark wrote his gospel for a Jewish community of Christ followers living about thirty years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
And in those days, things were not going well. Having been cruelly mistreated and oppressed by the Roman Empire, a group of Jews had started to revolt— pushing back against the Empire that had persecuted them. For ten years, they were at war for control over Judea.
But the Jewish rebels were no match for Emperor Nero and his army. And the Roman Empire crushed the rebellion, killed the leaders of the community, swept through Jerusalem, and then raided and burned and destroyed the temple. The same temple Jesus tells his disciples will thrown down.
To destroy the temple isn’t just property destruction: In destroying the building that housed the heartbeat of Jewish life, that housed the throne of God, it was the end of an era of Jewish life and tradition.
So these people, these early followers of Christ, they read Mark’s account of Jesus, of his miracles and about his unwavering belief in justice and grace, and in it they find themselves reading not about the future, but about their own loss and heartache and despair.
They read about The End Times, only to realize they have already lived it.
So, perhaps the question isn’t “Do you think we’re living in the End Times?” But “If the world is ending, how do you go on living?”
Because the world already ended for Mark’s community as they read Mark’s story about a man named Jesus, and the world ends for us all the time.
It ends in sudden moments, like a storm that tears through a community. One day there is a town and life, and the next there are only the remnants of houses and no clear path toward rebuilding.
Or it ends slowly with repeated trips to the doctor, and tests, and diagnoses, and procedures, and then the news that there’s nothing else they can do.
The world ends for us in collective ways when a global pandemic alters how we do everything. We say good bye to— or at very least pause —events, rituals, and routines we assumed would always be there.
And it ends in private, personal ways that others will never know.
The world ends for all us, not just when we die, but over and over again.
And yet, the world also begins anew.
Because Jesus concludes a story about endings with a beginning. With newness through birth, newness through labor, the world is made new.
So the world ends, but it also begins.
Because after devastating storms, people find ways to rebuild.
After loss and change, people find new opportunities and jobs. After heartbreak, new friendships and relationships are formed.
Even as we grieve the death of loved ones, families also grow and change. Babies are born with no idea what has been, only what could be. We rebuild, we recommit. We want this world to be better than it is for our children, and our children’s children.
New things emerge even as other ones disappear.
In some ways, this is the heart of the Gospel message.
To believe in a God who at once is both crucified on a cross and resurrected from an empty tomb is to see that this world is finite and has limitations— and make no mistake: they are real and painful. But it is to also trust that there is more than just destruction.
There are the birthpangs of something new, something good.
And this promise of resurrection— of life after death, of hope rather than despair, of rebirth and renewal and transformation— is not a promise for someday, in the future, when all the stars align, but for today, for right now, even if it feels like your world is ending.
Especially if it feels like your world is ending.
Like Mark’s community that wonders if they are living the End Times, like the disciples who will witness Jesus die but will also watch him rise again, we live with endings and beginnings, with Good News and difficult, despairing times. And we live with it all— all at once.
So, I’ll ask the question again: Do you think we’re living in the End Times?
Possibly. Though probably not in the same way my Uber driver believes.
But parts of our world end— today, tomorrow, and it will probably end in some big way in the future.
But then, it begins again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.