“The End Is Near (The Ends Are Near)”
Rev. James Rausch
The end of all things is near, according to the Bible. What does that really mean? When we lived in Kansas, the microwave oven over the stove had a digital clock. The door to the back porch was right there in the kitchen, and I used the back door constantly. The church was right across the alley behind our house, and our unattached garage was also behind the house. So, I got into the habit of checking the time on that microwave oven digital clock every time I went in or out.
Occasionally, if someone had heated something in the microwave and not yet removed it, the readout on microwave didn’t display the clock. Instead, when I looked to see what time it was, all that was on the display was the word “end.” The first time that happened, I did a double take. What time is it? Apparently, it’s the end, at least according to the microwave! After that, whenever it happened, it made me chuckle every time. Better yet were those rare occasions when just then, from another room, someone would ask me if I knew what time it was. You can imagine how much pleasure I took in answering them with the literal message I saw on the microwave clock… Apparently, it’s the end of time.
I was pastor at the church in Kansas during all of the Y2K silliness, and as people speculated about the end of the world coming as the year 2000 approached, it led me to preach and teach from Scripture how futile human attempts to predict such things have always been. I was happy to find the cartoon that’s in your bulletins which illustrates humanity’s stubborn determination to repeat our efforts at prediction in spite of the past proof that we don’t have any clue about things only God can know.
Now, I don’t imagine that many, if any of you, spend much energy these days concerning yourself with the end of the world. But I bring it up only because in today’s passage Peter clearly states, “The end of all things is near.” What are we to make of that? That’s certainly not the only place in the Bible where words to that effect appear. So, when you read words like this in Scripture, do they make you do a double take, sort of like I did when I looked for the time at that clock and saw the word “end?” What thoughts and feelings come to you when you read in the Bible that the end of all things is near? Do those readings stir up some anxiety for you? Do you avoid those passages or shrug them off?
When Jesus and Paul warned that the return of the Son of Man would come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, how does that inform your perspective and impact the way you live? Many people who believe in Jesus hear these words and begin to look for signs that the end of the world is approaching. Some of the Apocalyptic writings in the Bible even seem to suggest doing so when read in a literal way. In Bible times, the Thessalonians did this, and they became convinced that the end of time was so close that many of them stopped working and just looked up at the sky in anticipation. Paul had to address this problem in a second letter to them.
Many people still act like the Thessalonians today. Bible passages about the end cause them to feel like times when they have experienced approaching deadline. When some difficult assignment or task must be completed by a certain time, we often feel stress about that time limit. For people under this stress, the end is somewhere ahead in the future, but it is approaching with urgency.
This understanding and response to and “end” that is “near” isn’t necessarily wrong. But it would be better, I think, for us to consider another approach. Christians can understand that the end is not something off in the future but rather something that is as near to us now as it was for the disciples and Paul and all the first Christians. That includes Peter when he wrote that the end of all things is near. Does that sound strange?
Let me explain. It’s all about our understanding of the word “end.” When we emphasize thinking of “the end” in terms of a specific time or event, we tend to focus on predicting its arrival. As we have noted, history shows that humans are very poor at predicting the end of the world. We’ve been wrong every time so far. The image of a person on a street corner holding up a sign that says, “The world will end in so many days” has become a cartoon caricature that we use to poke fun at ourselves for our tendency to fall into attempts at predicting what is beyond our ability to know.
What did Jesus say when the disciples, clearly thinking of the end in terms of a time and date, asked him when it would take place? “But about that day and hour,” Jesus answered, “no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We can no more predict those things than you can tell me… well let’s have a little demonstration to illustrate this. Let’s identify someone here who we can all agree is smart. Come on… some of you were known in high school as being included in “the brains.” Don’t be shy. In fact, some of you have signed document from institutions that say you are smart. I keep mine on the wall of my office just in case anyone doubts it.
Okay, we have our victi- er, our volunteer. What is this object in my hand? Right, a battery. Now, you take it and examine it. When you’re done, please tell us all how much life is left in this battery. A percentage will do… is the 100% left, or 50% or 20%? Aha! No matter how smart you are, you can’t know the remaining power of a batter just by looking at it. Now, if you had been highly committed to the demonstration, you could have placed the battery between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. But that would likely only cause you to conclude that the percentage of power left is not zero.
Some things are beyond our knowledge and are better left to God alone. When Jesus states that not even he, while he walked the as a human, knew the day and the time, we can surely let go of any urge to make predictions. In fact, I think this suggests that we would be much better off if we change the way we think about the “end” of all things entirely. This came to me for the first time when I was studying today’s passage back when I was in Kansas, and was led to look closely at the word “end” and its various meanings. Often times, our current understanding of a word, or at least our primary understanding of it, is not the same as when that word was used in previous centuries. Words and their usage evolve over time.
A story will illustrate this nicely. It is a story that has been told about Sir Christopher Wren, the brilliant architect of the 17th century. One of Wren’s best-known designs was for London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. When the medieval St. Paul’s was destroyed in the great fire of 1666, Wren was engaged by the Crown to entirely rebuild it on a new plan. The building got started in 1675 and went on for some 35 years until the great rotunda and dome were completed in 1711. Proud of his work, Wren had the honor of personally guiding the English monarch, Queen Anne, through the cathedral.
At the conclusion of the tour, Wren asked the queen her opinion of his work. After a long pause, the Queen replied that she found the Cathedral to be “awful, artificial, and amusing.” Wren sunk to his knees…and then kissed the Queen’s hand in gratitude and joy for her enthusiasm for his design. “Awful, artificial, and amusing”? What’s to be grateful for? Here’s the reminder of how words change their meaning in common use over time. Queen Anne meant what she said. The Cathedral was awful, which meant that it provoked awe, wonder, and appreciation for its grandeur. Now that was how the word was used in the 1700’s. If today you tell me how awful my sermon was, it would be taken very differently.
It was artificial, the product of artifice — of artistry of design and skill of craftsmanship. It was the work of a master. And it was amusing, a delight to the senses, encouraging of deep concentration, of musing itself. This was high praise indeed! And those of you who have visited St. Paul’s may very well agree with Queen Anne’s assessment.
Words can have multiple meanings, and our usage of them can evolve over time. This is true of the word end. I checked in both the English and the Greek and in both cases the word for end is commonly used both when the intended meaning is termination or conclusion, and when the intended meaning is the outcome, purpose or fulfillment. The difference is significant.
One student believes that by receiving passing grades and, one day, a diploma in his cap and gown that he will have reached the “end” of his education. He is not wrong. However, another student believes that by the effective development and application of her abilities, one day those skills will be put to use in earning a living and serving others. For her, that is when she will have achieved the “end” of her education. She is not wrong either. Both are working toward the end of their education. For the first student, the end is understood as the termination his education. For the second, the end is understood as the purpose of education. One is an end date. The other is an outcome. Both are right, but which student will likely get more from the process of education and have more to offer as a result? The one who approaches it with an anticipation of its purpose rather than its conclusion.
The life of discipleship calls us to ask if too many Christians approach faith as if life is all about doing whatever it takes to receive their heavenly diploma the termination of life this life. Or if it’s about predicting the termination of the world as if that will make us more ready for it. If we understand the end this way, Christianity easily degenerates into living for some kind of final test for which we must urgently cram.
All that I have said so far is the “so” of the sermon. But all that “so” is only helpful if it leads to the “so what?” So, what does this mean for how we should live? The better approach for us is to focus on the end of life as the purpose of life and not it’s termination. The question then is not “When is the end of your life,” but rather “What is the end of your Life?” What is the purpose? What is the reason for living? For generations, many Reformed and Presbyterian Christians grew up learning the faith by studying, and often memorizing the Westminster Catechism, either the longer or shorter form. There was a time when you could ask most Presbyterians the first question and nearly always get the accompanying answer. What is the chief end of man? (In those days, that’s how they said “mankind” or “humanity.) And the answer would come back: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” That is our chief end – our purpose.
If the end of life – if the end of all things – is to glorify God, then the end of all things is truly near. It is as near today for us as it was for Peter when he first wrote these words. If the end of all things is to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the same is true.
So, we don’t need to be afraid when the Bible says the end of all things is near. Instead, we can take it as an encouragement. If someone comes your way and asks if you think recent wars and rumors of wars are signs that the end is near – if they speculate that natural disasters are somehow to be interpreted as clues to the coming of the day of the Lord, you can say, “We can’t know when. But we can know that we are ready for whatever comes, because the end of all things, the purpose and God-intended outcome of all things, has always been as near to us as the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts.
So, stay alert, and focus on your purpose in life, just like the servants in Jesus’ story who all had their jobs to do while the master was away. Don’t try to guess the day or night of his return. Instead focus each day on living out your purpose – loving your neighbor as Jesus taught. Keep your lamps filled with oil, Jesus taught in another story. For the bridesmaids who try to predict the day or night of the groom’s arrival – so they can fill their lamps at the last minute – will be caught with no oil. The others who diligently went about fulfilling their purpose need not be concerned about the time of his arrival. They are always ready.
Jesus said in Revelation 22:13 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” If Jesus, who is God, is the end of all things, then the end is truly near – as close for us now as it was for Peter back then.
A person who is aware of what the end of his or her life is and focuses on it lives much more closely to the will of God than a person who tries to focus on when the end of his or her life will be.
If you can become aware of the end – or purpose – of your life, you can say, “I am no closer or further away from the end of my life now than when I was much younger.” Whether you are 10 or 100 you can say “The end of my life is near,” and be right without being afraid. The end of our lives in terms of time – who can say? We may live for one more minute or a hundred more years. But the end of our lives in terms of purpose — that we can affirm because Jesus came to give us this gift.