You may or may not know that the world is supposed to be coming to an end on December 21, 2012. That’s the cyberspace and tabloid buzz around the date on which the ancient Mayan “Long Count” calendar ends. The Mayans were a central American culture which thrived between 250 and 950 of the Common Era, who were known for their skills in astronomy and elaborate calendars. 12/21/12, or the winter solstice of 2012, is the date when our planet is aligned with the center of the Milky Way in such a way that cosmic energy is supposed to stream over us. It is the end of the so-called 4th Age–the age of Materialism, and the beginning of the 5th age, the age of Spirituality. An incredible percentage of the world’s peoples, at some point, believe that the end of the world will come in their lifetime. From all we know, Jesus too was one of those people.
Not surprisingly, real live Mayan elders have a different take on this doomsday prediction. Felippe Gomez protests the commercialization and distortion of this ancient prophecy and says that they are “turning us into folklore-for-profit.” (Huffington Post, 10/31/12) December 21 is actually the beginning of a new time cycle on the Mayan calendar, he says, and it “means there will be big changes on the personal, family, and community level, so that there is harmony and balance between [hu-]mankind and nature.”
Carlos Barrios, another Mayan Elder and ceremonial priest of the Eagle Clan, explains further–
“We are disturbed [“we” meaning the inhabitants of planet Earth]–we can’t play anymore. Our planet can be renewed or ravaged. Now is the time to awaken and take action. Everyone is needed. You are not here for no reason. Everyone who is here now has an important purpose. This is a hard but a special time. We have the opportunity for growth, but we must be ready for this moment in history.” (SERI-Worldwide. org)
“Tell us,” Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Jesus privately, after he had said that not one of the massive stones of the Temple would be left standing, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Mark’s community lived in the 60’s or early 70’s of the Common Era, a time when the Temple was about to be, or had already been, destroyed. The Roman armies marched through Jerusalem following yet another Jewish revolt, and essentially bull-dozed the Temple, tore down the Holy of Holies, the place where God Himself was said to reside, and slaughtered all the inhabitants of the city. Blood was literally flowing in the streets. It’s as powerful an image of the end-time as you could get.
“There is wistfulness and grief in Jesus’ words,” writes one commentator. “He is for life, not destruction” (Bruce Epperly, The Adventurous Lectionary, 11/12/12). This passage follows immediately upon Jesus’ observation of the poor widow putting her last two coins into the Temple treasury and his lament over the corruption and injustice of the Temple hierarchy. “Beware the scribes,” he said, “for [among other things] they devour widows’ houses…” In Mark’s–and maybe Jesus’–imagining of the end time, the great upheaval, the apocalypse, the Temple and a whole complex of events around it loom large. (Russell Pregeant, Process and Faith website, for 11/18/12)
But Jesus’ advice to his followers here is not to look for signs to figure out the end-time timetable, but rather to keep awake, to beware of being led astray, for persecutions and distortions come not only from without but also from within. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he told them. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am’ [which is God’s name, or] I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”
In our day, there are some who have warned that progressive or liberal Christians, for whom God is still speaking, who believe God’s revelation didn’t end with the Book of Revelation but is still unfolding, some warn that we are leading people astray. But it could also be said that those who preach a prosperity gospel–that God simply wants you to have more cars and houses and to wear the finest clothes–are leading people away from the gospel that Jesus preached and away from his spirit. It could be said that those who preach a gospel of hatred–who demonstrate at soldiers’ funerals saying God is punishing the U.S. for sanctioning homosexuality and feminism and abortion–it could be said that they are leading people astray in the name of Jesus. It could be said that those who preach disdain for the poor, who preach God’s preference for one nation over all others, who preach carelessness or exploitation of the earth are all leading people astray in the name of Jesus, going against the spirit of Jesus. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” Jesus warned. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Alfred North Whitehead, the great process theologian, wrote, “The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe,” [cited by Pregeant, op cit.) and that essence is change. Those who wish to return to some pure, golden time, who want to conserve the way things were, are fighting a losing battle, which is what makes their tactics and their rhetoric so often violent and full of vitriole. There are some in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, the Tea Party, fundamentalists of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism who all share a deep longing to return to the way they imagine things once were, but the current of history flows on.
The ancient Greeks said, “All things must pass. The river flows and life is brief.” As one commentator writes, “Our greatest achievements and the institutions we love (church, country) are finite, mortal, and temporary. This can lead to anxiety and acquisitiveness, it can also lead to gratitude and appreciation for this day that God has made.” (Epperly, op cit.) Another says, “Our job is thus not to impede change but to enable creative transformation…The God of the biblical tradition is…[not] tied to established patterns but rather a dynamic creator who continually re-shapes those patterns to meet new situations; and the church should honor that process of constant revolution.” (Pregeant, op cit.)
At our Re-think Church Task Force meeting this week, we acknowledged that the river of Change for the church is already flowing. We could decide to climb out onto the bank and be left high and dry, or to keep paddling. We acknowledged that the incontrovertible statistics about church decline and disenfranchisement toward institutions like the church are scary, as we think about our own church here and all that it means to us. But we also acknowledged that it is exciting. The image of the white water river raft captured that fear and that thrill. None of us know where the river is headed, but we do know that looking back is not the way to go! The best we can do is keep paddling, keep looking forward, keep our heads above water, give a shout out to the others paddling down the river with us, keep alert. That way, when we do finally arrive, when the new birth finally takes place, we will be able to climb ashore with our companions on the journey, look around, and see then what new thing God has brought forth.
The image of the church as a ship or an ark, self-contained and closed in, is not the image for these times, thinking we can ride out the storm and emerge unchanged. There are others riding these waves with us, toward that hopeful future: allies in other faith traditions, allies in other spiritual if not religious communities, allies in the environmental and social justice movements, allies in positive psychology and yoga communities, allies in artists, dancers, musicians, architects of the new creation. “I have sheep that are not of this fold,” Jesus reminds us.
So, if so much is changing, including our own beloved Second Congregational Church, why at this time of year should we pledge or commit some portion of our financial treasure to its future? Why should we contribute to or invest our time, talent and treasure in this current incarnation if the river of change is carrying us to an as yet unknown destination? This is the craft we’ve been given for the journey. Have you ever tried rowing or steering a raft all by yourself? We still need and want companions on this journey, this journey not only to some new incarnation of the church but this journey that each of us is traveling toward who God wants us to be. We can be reminders to one another of who we are and Whose we are; together we can help others who are drowning. “We are called to support one another to live in joyful hope of what we can’t yet see.” (Brian Volck, Living into the Mystery, Ekklesia Project, 11/14/12) Perhaps the former age is coming to an end, but the new age is being born. God is always doing a new thing. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark