Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Trinity Episcopal Church, Ware, MA.
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Fatalism about the end of the world?
Here on the First Sunday of Advent we are beginning a new church year, embarking on a new season, making a fresh start. Now is the time, as our opening Collect says, “to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” During these four weeks that lead up to Christmas we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Christ, when God became incarnate in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And we prepare for his second coming, too. We look ahead to that last, great day sometime in the future when Christ will come again, when everything will be gathered up in love, when all that is broken will be healed, all that is estranged will be reconciled and forgiven, and the Lord of life will return at last to reign in glory.
Christianity is full of hope about where we are ultimately heading – into the loving arms of God – but it is also bracingly realistic about the suffering and turmoil that will take place in the meantime. Today on the first Sunday of Advent, as we do every year, we must grapple with the Bible’s portrayal of the end-times, which include frightening predictions of social breakdown and cosmic turmoil. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus foretells “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7); he speaks of earthquakes, famines, and persecution. As we heard in today’s passage, when the Son of Man comes at the end of time, we can expect that “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24).
It’s scary stuff. So what do we make of apocalyptic passages like these? How do these biblical passages about the end times help us to live with faithfulness, confidence, and hope? As you know, I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I do a lot of speaking and preaching about climate change and about the urgent need for human beings to change course and to take action to protect and cherish the world that God entrusted to our care. According to a new poll about American attitudes to religion and the environment, about half – 49% – of the respondents believe that recent natural disasters are evidence of biblical end times. Apparently, about half of Americans believe that climate change caused by human beings is somehow preordained, part of God’s plan.
Could this be true? Should biblical accounts of the end times evoke and amplify a sense of fatalism about climate change? Should Christians settle for a helpless shrug of the shoulders as we consider the devastation that climate change is already causing or likely to cause, if it continues unchecked? I recall a cartoon in which a mother, father, and their young son huddle around a toaster. Two smoking slices of bread have just popped up, burned to a crisp. The mother looks mournfully at the burned toast and declares, “It is God’s will.” The father intones, “Had the toast been destined to be edible, it would be so.” The small boy grips the table with his two hands, looks up at his parents, and says, “B-b-but…”
I admit it: I’m standing with that child and saying “But!” I refuse to believe that it’s God’s will that human beings burn the Earth to a crisp. I refuse to believe that destiny, fate, or the biblical end times give human beings permission to unravel the web of life and to destroy the world that God created and proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). I believe that God’s presence fills and sustains our precious, living planet, and that all of it belongs to God – meadows and rivers, soils and seeds, animals and oceans. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). And the first task given to human beings is to care for the earth and to exercise a loving dominion as stewards and caregivers.
We’re having some difficulty with that assignment. Climate change caused by human activity is already having drastic and far-reaching effects around the world. In only two centuries – just a blink in geologic time – human beings have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands of years. I heard a climate scientist remark, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.”
When we burn fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil, we release vast quantities of carbon and heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, as if the atmosphere were an open sewer. This practice could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world an extremely difficult place for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Already our planet is changing before our eyes: oceans are heating up and becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide released by power plants and cars; tundra is thawing, ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others. Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” The Pentagon recently issued a report asserting decisively that climate change poses “an immediate risk to national security” and is a so-called “threat multiplier,” increasing the likelihood of terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages. The latest climate report from the United Nations warns of waves of refugees and of the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course. Of course, here in this country and around the world it is the poor who are hit first and hardest by the impacts of climate change.
How serious is the threat? As environmental lawyer Gus Speth puts it: “…all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and [organisms] and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today... Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.”
So – is this the end times? I don’t know. No one knows. Jesus repeatedly told his followers, as he does in today’s Gospel, not to speculate as to when the end times would come (Matthew 24:3-8; Mark 13:3-8; Luke 21:7-11) – even Jesus himself did not know. But what we do know is that at some unexpected moment, the last day will come – whether it be the last day of our lives or the last day of the world. Until that day, Jesus urges us to be faithful witnesses to the enduring love of God. The biblical end time passages and their frightening imagery of chaos and distress were not given to us so that we can indulge in helplessness, resignation, or fatalism, but just the opposite: in order to sustain our hope and perseverance even in the midst of crisis.
Again and again, in different ways Jesus came to say, “Fear not” (see, for instance, Matthew 6:25-34, Matthew 8:26, Matthew 10:31, Matthew 14:27). In Advent he summons us not to faint from fear and foreboding, nor to let our love grow cold, but rather to stay awake and be alert for the small but telling signs that God is in our midst, bringing forth something new. Just as the branch of a fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its first, soft leaves, assuring us that summer’s abundance is near, so Jesus urges us to trust that even in the midst of chaos, violence, and endings, God’s kingdom is drawing near. In the very midst of endings, something new is being born. Will we take part in that birth?
Advent and its end-time readings tell us that in the face of climate change, we should not give ourselves up to apathy, indifference, or despair. In this perilous time, God calls us to stand up, raise our heads, and bear witness in word and deed to God’s never failing love. “It is like a man going on a journey,” Jesus says in that tiny parable concealed in today’s Gospel. The man leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, “each with his work” (Mark 13:34). Each of us has our own work to do, as we keep faith with the God who is faithful to us.
And when it comes to healing Creation, there is so much we can do! We can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. If you don’t yet have a green team or a Creation Care team (whatever you want to call it) here at Trinity Church, you can form one. If you’d like to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation, I hope you will give me your name and contact information. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can.
As individuals we should do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our leaders to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. We need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels and to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a level that allows life as it has evolved to continue on this planet.
Here in western Massachusetts we are blessed to have a strong grassroots group, Climate Action Now, which is involved in many local campaigns. I hope that you will sign up to receive weekly emails, read the news, and connect. Tomorrow an important U.N. climate change conference will begin in Lima, Peru, and I hope that you will join me in praying for its success. (I invite you to take part in #Light for Lima, a series of vigils that will take place around the world on December 7, right in the middle of these crucial climate talks.)
Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our life, to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.
Now is the time to abandon whatever stupefies us and puts us to sleep – whether it be the call of consumerism or a fondness for cynicism or helpless resignation.
Now is the time to look ahead and to embody a robust hope, for, as Paul says, “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:12). It’s as if we were standing in the doorway of a dark house, looking out to the hills beyond, and in the sky we can see the first glimmer of sunrise. Behind us is darkness, but ahead of us, light.
Christ has come, so the dawn is shining on our faces.
Christ is here, so we know we are not alone.
Christ will come again, so we step out boldly through the doorway, leaving everything less than love behind.
1. James Gustave Speth, The Bridge on the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008, p. x (Preface).