At the end of the liturgical year, as darkness falls each night a couple of minutes sooner than the last, the church turns our attention to the end of all things. We are mortal and our world will come to an end, for each of us and for all of us, and this both terrifies and fascinates us.
People love stories about the end of the world. The long winter is coming, meteors hurtle toward earth, zombies overwhelm civilization. Such stories indulge our wish to be heroes. The thrill of adrenaline blows the cobwebs off our humdrum little everyday routine, and we can abandon the confusing struggle of managing all the different concerns of the day to embrace one simple mandate: survival. End of the world stories make great escapist fiction.
But scripture tells a different kind of story – good news even in bad times– for quite a different purpose—to draw us into the patient ordinary work of the present moment.
In case we are hazy on what following Jesus might mean, his words in this gospel tell us in no uncertain terms how the world resists good news:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
Nothing in Christianity assures us that everything will be just fine. Trouble will come. And Jesus has clear instructions for us in that case. First, let’s make note of what he does not say. He does not say, “Stock up and arm yourselves so you can defend your family against attack.” He does not say, “Get ready to go to war against the evildoers.” He does not say, “Preserve your accomplishments for the ages.” His story is not a heroic fantasy. He says, “Don’t be terrified; make up your mind not to plan your defense.”
Such a command seems both foolish and impossible. Why would we not prepare, and how could we possibly avoid fear? It is helpful to think about the words of Paul to the Thessalonians, who were expecting an end of the world to come at any time. He does not offer false reassurances and he does not try to predict the future. He tells them to do the work at hand, day after day. The key to the end of all things is to keep doing the work of the present.
We are to do that because the revolutionary and dramatic work of Christians in revolutionary and dramatic times is to love each other in ordinary, boring, time-consuming ways. We don’t do that work because it saves the world; we do it because it gives testimony to the love that is already renewing the world. We miss the point when we turn Paul’s dictum, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” into a rejection of compassion. It refers rather to the discipline of hope: instead of speculating on the future or chasing after shadows, we have to be anchored in this reality that is both troubled and already inhabited by God.
The works of mercy—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the stranger who is always Christ—these are the cure for our mind’s tendency to prepare to face imaginary scenarios. Our faith is not about fantasies in which we can play a heroic role, but about this moment in which we live, because the one who is to come is already among us. From one meal to the next, we just keep following him.
Hope, the habitual disposition to keep working toward a difficult good, is an amazing virtue. It is called a supernatural virtue, because it is only by God’s gift that we can continue to follow Jesus, neither giving up in despair nor adjusting to what is good enough. The reading from Isaiah this week is one of the gifts that feed our hope. Isaiah’s words were given to people in exile, promising a new world, against all the appearances that what he said could not come to pass.
This is good news. But it is not easy news. The more our hope that the world could be different is awakened, the more we become more aware of how far we are from its fulfillment. The promise rouses our hunger for full life, and it speaks most to those who are hungry for it. We often read the lines, “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” as dreamy, but the power of this vision is that it challenges any resignation to violence. Knowing what will be makes us see more clearly what is.
This is good news, unless you are invested in preserving the old world. And all of us are likely to be invested in preserving something of the old world. We cling to our great achievements and our familiar mediocrities and our comforting little tokens of virtue and even our favorite resentments and sorrows. We may love to play at end of the world fantasies for a thrill, but we cling to our old lives, even when they are unhappy. The reality of the joy God intends is too much for us, too new, too costly. We prefer false comforts and grand distractions. We may prefer to panic and build bunkers, ready to take on all enemies.
Jesus says, “Do not be terrified.”
Bad times will come, but in the meantime, we can set aside fear by walking alongside the one who as “pioneer and perfecter of the faith” has already made the end present with us. We don’t need to ask when the end will come. He is already here. “All the way to heaven is heaven, for Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’”