Advent! What do we do when the end is nigh?

In my job as a tertiary chaplain I was recently talking about Y2K. I was surprised to discover how few remembered until I realised you can born in 1998 and still have finished school… so I asked about the Mayan 2012 instead. But whether you remember Y2K, or Mayan 2012, or if you’ve just seen the film Titanic, it all works, because I just want us to think about how people act when the end is nigh.

In the face of the end, there seem to be two ways to respond?

1)   Hoard and Withdraw

2)   Intensify Living

The Hoard and Withdraw response:

This approach is exemplified in the show ‘Doomsday Preppers’ and we saw this come through during Y2K as well. It is characterised by an attitude of stocking up on as much as you can to survive as long as you can, and then withdraw from the world in order to increase the chances of said survival (and to ensure folks can’t get your supplies). Some religious movements follow this approach; going off into the wild, up into the mountains to wait, to ensure purity for the few days left on earth, something I played with in a short video I made back in 2012.

The Intensify Living model:

This was the model of the early church. The earliest believers tended to think that the end was nigh – that Jesus’ return would occur in their lifetime, or perhaps the generation after. However this did not send them off into the hills, this did not cause them to be insular, closed off, and withdrawn. Far from hording, it actually caused them to be joyfully generous with their possessions. The early church intensified their ethical engagement with the world; they upped their neighbourliness and outward focus. They sought to care for those marginalised by society – widows, orphans, lepers – they shared what they had, giving to all who had need, they devoted themselves to their cause, and to the one on whom it was grounded. The presumed immanence of the end empowered them to live boldly, to love boldly, to care boldly – because any difficulties, any struggles, anything they had to go without, would pale in comparison to what was coming. Rather than withdraw, they sought to witness and live out a rehearsal to the world that would be ushered in by the forthcoming end.

For instance the early Christians deep commitment to non-violence came from Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek and love your enemies, but was also fueled by pictures of the future to come, such as that we read in Isaiah:

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more. (Is 2:4)

Sometimes Christians will be accused of ignoring the problems of the world because of the importance they place on the world to come; captured in the old adage “you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good”. Sometimes Christians will have earned that charge, believing the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, means they can abdicate care of the world and its non-human and human inhabitants.

However the example of the early church showed that by setting their eyes expectantly on the end, and what was promised, they were able to do more earthly good than many of those simply focused on living for now.

Interestingly, the two New Testament readings (Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44) show that an anticipation of the end, a waiting on Christ’s return, actually promotes a greater focus on the now (even while it consistently directs eyes towards the future). Paul is urging the believers in the church in Rome to awaken to the time, wake from slumber and realise you are closer to the time than when you first came believers, but this is done to provide the basis for shaping how they live now, in this moment:

“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy”

Jesus also stresses that people must keep awake as they wait, for we do not know the hour or the day… this again is not designed to have us remove ourselves from the present, remove ourselves from others – but is intended to draw us deeper into the present, into each moment, because we do not know how many moments there will still be.

It is this focus, this anticipation, this awaiting that makes possible the kind of life Christians are called to live.

Actors are notoriously lazy. While musicians practice and dances go to class, actors drink coffee and complain about who else got cast… I know and have worked with actors who are different… but most (me included) fit this characterisation. The thing of it is, it is hard to work on acting without a goal in mind. Even the laziest of actors tend to get to work once the date of opening night is set. Once you read a script, and meet with your director you have a picture of what the end should look like, and so you rehearse to ensure your performance matches that picture. The vision of the end makes easier preparation; it sets our sights and fuels our work.

It is very difficult to continue loving our neighbours as ourselves, to continually love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. It is not easy to maintain the outward focus and inner compassion necessary to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned as if they were Christ, if we do not have a picture of the future to guide and inspire, and if we do not have the promise, that regardless of our setbacks and shortcomings, there will be a day when the kingdom will arrive in all its glory and there will be no more tears, be no more war, be no more hunger and thirst, be no more loneliness and isolation. A strong picture of tomorrow equips us better to live today.

How do we live in light of the end?