May 21, 2011. That was the day the world was supposed to end.
I remember it very clearly because I was in Oakland at the time vising my daughter, and Oakland is the home of Family Radio and Harold Camping, who is the man who studied the Bible very carefully and came up with that date. Family Radio spent millions to publicize it with billboards and bumper stickers, and it was all over the news while we were there.
The day came and the day went, and we’re all still here. Actually, it wasn’t the first or the last time that Camping set a date for the end of the world, for Judgment Day, and it turned out to be wrong, so God wasn’t on his page, I guess.
It’s kind of easy to make fun and to laugh, you know. You picture that old cartoon with the prophet saying repent, the end is near. But my intent really isn’t to make fun of him.
My intent is to say how easy it is to look at readings like the ones we had today, Daniel in the Old Testament, and this Gospel from Mark, and misunderstand what the message of those readings is. Jesus is talking about the terrible times ahead, and Peter, James, John, and Andrew want to know when, when is this going to happen, what are the signs.
And Jesus tells them, don’t worry about when. What you really need to focus on is how you are going to be living in the meantime. Jesus wanted them to know that God was with them whatever terrible things might happen, and that God will prevail in the end.
Those readings, they’re a form of literature that we really don’t have in the same way in our time, and that’s part of the complication. This is a genre of literature called apocalyptic, about the end times, and in the days of John and Peter and James and Andrew and Jesus, this was a very common form of literature.
People were used to it. They understood how to read it. It was poetic. It was highly symbolic. It wasn’t to be read literally as an actual prediction of things that were going to happen. And when we read it, we see all the scary things in it, and actually it wasn’t intended to be scary. It was intended to be reassuring. It was intended to have that message, God is with you. No matter what happens, God will prevail.
When we look at this Gospel today, I think the more important question is not when are these things are going to happen, but how are we going to be living in the meantime?
The line that jumps out at me is where Jesus says, beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and they will lead many astray.
Where are the places that we are being led astray? How are we living right now as disciples? Sure, I mean, we say our prayers, we come to church, we believe in the Trinity, we kneel for communion if we can, but maybe even more important is how are we living when we go out that door. Are we really living in a way that’s faithful to the teachings of Jesus himself, or are we letting ourselves be led astray by all the swirls of thought that go on around us?
I think that’s a really tough question because you really have to search your soul. It’s hard to sort out those things that we hold most dear and those values that we accept and say which are from the Gospel and which crept in from other places. Maybe when we do this kind of soul searching, maybe the answers we come up with are going to be different for each one of us, but there are some places I think where we can see that our whole society is not heading in the right direction.
I think one of the most significant places is believing and acting as if we’re special somehow, as if God loves us more than all of God’s other children, as if somehow we’re entitled to advantages that people who are different from us don’t deserve. The poor and suffering of this world, it’s okay for us to turn our backs on them, or maybe make a small donation, but once we’ve made that donation, they’re not really our problem because what’s ours is ours, after all.
I think if you look really closely—but actually you don’t have to look all that closely, it’s not like poring through looking for the date of the end of the world, it’s pretty blatant in the Gospels: That is not what Jesus taught.
This is a man who out of compassion crossed boundaries all over the place, eating with sinners, speaking with women, touching lepers, traveling out of his own safe territory.
This is a man who described the judgment that would happen at the end when—this is Matthew’s line—when the Son of Man comes in all of his glory and there’s a judgment in which people are separated the way shepherds separate the sheep from the goats.[i]This again is apocalyptic, so it’s symbolic, not literal, but still, we can take lessons from it.
And what did Jesus say about the criteria that would be used in that judgment, in that separating of sheep and goats? He didn’t asked if they baked a cake for a gay wedding.
He asked how they treated the hungry, the immigrant, the poor, the sick, those in prison. He said we’ll be judged by how we treat those people, because he’ll consider that how we treat them is how we treat Christ himself.
Then Jesus, he said love your neighbor, and when a lawyer—you’ve got to watch those lawyers—when a lawyer asked him who is my neighbor, he didn’t say the neighbors are the ones who look like you and talk like you and live in the same place as you.
He told a story,[ii]of course, and in this story, a man is beaten and robbed and left for dead, and two important people in his own group passed him by because one way or another, he’s not their problem.
And the righteous man in this story is a despised foreigner who stops and take care of him.
When Jesus is finished with this story, he asks the lawyer, who in this story is the true neighbor? And the lawyer answers, the one who showed him mercy.
And Jesus replies to him, go and do likewise.
If we were looking for four words to sum up how we’re supposed to live, living in the way that Jesus taught us, I think that we couldn’t do better than that phrase:
Go and do likewise.
[i] Matthew 25: 31-46