Pastor Emily Hartner:
Before the invention of readers and iPads, when books came in paper form with pages that sometimes smelled musty and you could underline things with real ink and use a real highlighter to mark what you wanted to remember, when the term “page turner” had a literal meaning, I frequently read the last sentence of a novel first.
In one literature class, a professor asked what we thought would happen to the main character in the book.
“He dies,” I said, confidently.
“How do you know?” she said.
“Because I read the last page” (of course).
I don’t do it as much now, because ereader, my prefered means of reading, makes it difficult to flip back and forth, but I really do like to read the last sentence first.
It’s not that I want to know how the story ends, or that I don’t like surprises.
I’m just curious about the course that will take me from Point A at the beginning of the book to Point B at the end.
All those imagined twists and turns were something to look forward to.
I liked beginning at the end.
In a sense, that’s what we are doing today–we’re beginning at the end.
We’re beginning because we’re starting a new liturgical year.
The first Sunday of Advent starts a new cycle–preparations for Jesus’s birth and Jesus’ birth, the visit of the wise men at Epiphany, the ministry and teachings of Jesus, the Last Supper, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
We’ve read through that story in Luke and now turn to a new Gospel, that of Matthew, as we begin to hear the story anew.
But we’re beginning at the end because we begin not with Jesus’ birth, not with the pregnant Mary, not with the annunciation of Jesus’ birth, and not even with the prophecies from the Old Testament.
We begin this new church year with predictions of the end of time when Jesus will come again.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s an end that sounds rather scary.
The end of time will be like the flood in Genesis, we’re told, and I think that comparison is supposed to scare us.
Just as so many were swept away by the waters of the flood in the time of Noah, so will many be swept away at the coming of Jesus at the end of all time.
We’re supposed to get our act together so we end up on the ark with Noah and not swimming (drowning) in the ocean as shark bait.
It’s certainly tempting, like my reading strategy, to focus on how we get from Point A, which we might call now, to Point B, which we’ll call the end of time when Jesus comes “to judge the living and dead,” to quote our creed.
The problem, however, is that, from what I just read, we simply don’t have enough information to even begin to predict what will get us there.
Though Jesus compares it to the flood, and though we certainly know that it was Noah’s righteousness that saved him, we have no idea what the difference was between the two men working in the field, only one of whom was taken, or the two women grinding meal together, again, only one of whom was taken.
They all seemed to be hard workers, both of the men and both of the women, so what exactly was it that saved the one and not the other?
Did one of them volunteer more hours than the other?
Did one contribute more money to charity than the other?
We have no idea, and to make a guess would not serve us well here.
Of course, we like to imagine ourselves with Noah on the ark, as the ones saved and taken to live in heaven with Jesus forever.
But since we’re into the Gospel of Matthew now, we might as well recall another passage where Jesus comes to judge the living in the dead–Matthew 25–sometimes subtitled the final judgment.
It’s the separation of the sheep from the goats, when the ones who thought they were righteous got it wrong in the end and the ones who were saved were surprised by it.
Not only do we not know the day or the hour here, we don’t–we can’t–really know how it ends, despite beginning at the end.
If we were to fill in the gaps between now and then, we would have our work cut out for us.
My guess is that our focus on being prepared and alert would also make us anxious and on-edge, certainly not very pleasant people to be around–like when you’re at the eye doctor waiting for that puff of air, or when you’re waiting for the doctor’s office to call with test results, or perhaps even when you’re waiting to say goodbye to one pastor and call a new one–anxious and on-edge.
It doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of life I want to live between now and then.
How about you?
They say ignorance is bliss, and while I wouldn’t necessarily apply that to every situation, I do believe that, in the case of faith and what will happen at the end of time, a little ignorance is okay.
For if we cannot know the day or hour, if we cannot guarantee whether we’ll be safe on the ark or swimming in the ocean, if we cannot predict our final identity as sheep or goats, if we’re not given enough information even to guess, then we might as well stop worrying about it so much.
And if we’re freed from worrying so much about the end of time, then we’re certainly strengthened for living here and now.
That’s the gift of not having enough information to know for certain.
Leave the end up to God and focus on living faithfully here and now.
You’re likely familiar with Martin Luther’s response when asked what he would do if he knew the world end tomorrow.
He said he’d plant a tree today.
Perhaps he was recalling that other place in Matthew that talks about not worrying about tomorrow since today has enough worries of its own.
(Aren’t we in for a treat this coming year, with all these gems Matthew has to offer!?)
So why, on this First Sunday of Advent, do we begin at the end?
Because beginning at the end reminds us of why Jesus came in the first place.
He came to reassure us that everything that happens between now and the end of time, and, in fact, everything that happens between now and every moment before the end of time, is in God’s hands.
And though we may be frightened by the sweeping waters of the flood, it would make sense to also remember the rainbow after the flood and how God promised never again to destroy the earth.
Will there be judgment?
Yes, I think we do have enough evidence from Matthew’s Gospel to determine that there will be judgment.
After all, the end of time as we know it will usher in a new era of God’s kingdom in its fullness–a kingdom in which certain things–hatred, racism, bigotry, discrimination–simply won’t be able to survive.
There is judgement in eliminating what cannot exist in that new era.
But isn’t that all the more reason to focus on the here and now?
To focus on that which will survive–kindness, love, mercy, and respect?
So what can we learn–what can we do–by beginning at the end?
By reading the last sentence first?
We can love.
And we can love some more.
And just when we think we’ve loved enough, we can love even some more.
For by not having to worry about how, exactly, we get from Point A–here– to Point B–there–we are as freed as we can be to do so.
And we trust that the end–the end of ends–is in God’s hands, and only God’s hands.
So perhaps this holiday season, in light of this refreshing news and in the midst of the hustle and bustle of preparations and attempts to remain alert despite such tremendous fatigue, we can all let out one collective sigh of relief that all is, really, in God’s hands.