What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow? That’s a good question to be thinking about as we consider our lesson from Mark’s Gospel; that’s a good question to be thinking about as we contemplate baptizing these two boys today. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is warning his disciples about the end of time, and the picture he paints is not pretty:
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.
It’s pretty vivid, to say the least; the stuff of fantasy novels or Hollywood films. This vivid imagery had a powerful effect on Jesus’ first audience, who were Jews familiar with the compelling visions of their prophets, or on the first generation of Christians who expected Jesus to return at any moment, but that’s not really the case with us, is it? Do we really think it still makes sense, let alone actually predicts what’s going to happen? 2,000 years of no return have deadened its power for us!
Of course, predictions of the end still do attract considerable attention, much of it derisive and ridiculing, although there are also true believers. Witness the tremendous attention and preparation given after Harold Camping predicted – and heavily promoted! – that Jesus would return on May 21, and then when that failed, on October 21 of this past year. A little more than a decade ago it was Y2K; a generation ago it was Hal Lindsey and The Late, Great Planet Earth; and next year I’m sure there will be all sorts of attention paid to the ancient Mayan calendar’s apparent suggestion that the world ends on December 21, 2012. Speculation about the end of the world runs rampant. And that’s part of the problem. So many have predicted the end of the world and Jesus’ return to great fanfare and failure that they are almost a laughingstock.
But we are Bible-believing Christians who weekly stand up in church and say, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, [who] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” So when Jesus looks back to and echoes the Prophet Isaiah, and tells his followers that he will come again and how it will be, we should take it seriously!
Especially, we should take it seriously on a day when we take two infant boys and pray over them, when we douse them with water and invoke the power of God’s Holy Spirit to deliver them, open them, fill them, teach them, and send them out into the world in God’s Name, when we make them a part of the People of God, members in the Body of Christ, and participants in the Royal Priesthood of all believers. Our prayers may not seem quite so vivid, quite so fantastic, but we are doing in the lives of these children nothing less than what Isaiah did in the lives of the Hebrew People when, on their behalf, he cried out to God, “Tear open the heavens and come down!”
We should take it seriously! But it often seems that, left to our own devices, we really don’t. We don’t mind approaching God on our own terms, but we often act as if we don’t really want God getting too close. As a colleague of mine puts it, “Like a cagey, skittish cat, we approach God … a little. Slowly. With constant suspicion. And at the slightest movement we scurry in the opposite direction.”
People want to be close to God. Or, at the very least we want to want to be close to God. We want to think of ourselves as “spiritual” people and we want others to think of us that way. And we want to be safe and comfortable while we do that. But along comes Isaiah who prays for heavens to be torn open, for mountains to quake, for nations to tremble … along comes Jesus who tells us to be alert for darkening skies, for falling stars, for shaking heavens. Our general stance of skittishness, of cautious approach, of wary-curiosity is vanquished by Advent’s opening cry to God to “tear open the heavens and come down” and by our baptismal prayer that God will deliver, open, fill, teach, and send not only these children, but all of us, out into the world to do the work he has given us to do. Advent and baptism are meant to kindle in these children and in us the insatiable desire for God to come and, I say again, we should take it seriously! As Christian write Annie Dillard says,
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.
We should take it seriously, indeed!
This is what St. Paul is saying to Christians in Corinth when he greets them, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then reminds them:
[Y]ou are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul’s vision for the church at Corinth is also our vision as we begin a new church year, as we baptize these young boys. Grace has been given to us, the grace of being called into the fellowship of Christ, into the communion of saints. But grace is never appropriated individually, just for oneself; it is always communal in nature, an insertion into community. This is what baptism accomplishes, for we are assured that “all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ … live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory.”
In the verse just before our reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians begins, Paul addresses the church members as ” those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” By these words “sanctified” and “saints”, Paul means that church members set apart from worldly things for a special, divine purpose. In our baptismal liturgy, these children will be told that that “are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
To be sanctified or made holy, to be marked as God’s own has practical implications; it forms and shapes all aspects of the life of the People of God, the way church members live. Throughout the Old Testament, God desires that Israel be different from the nations around them, that they engage in practices and locate themselves within a narrative that marks that difference. It’s the same in the New Testament, in which the church is called to be different from the culture that surrounds us. In our epistle reading today, Paul particularly notes that the church at Corinth is called not only “out” of the world, but “into” community: they and we were “called into the fellowship of [God’s] son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Faithfulness is a team sport that requires the unity of the church.
That faithfulness, the work of the spiritual gifts begun in us through our unity in the church, through our fellowship in Christ and with one another, is lived out through an active waiting for Christ to be revealed. This waiting is not our usual catlike skittishness, our cautious approach, our wary-curiosity; this waiting is the praying and thanksgiving, the singing and sharing that transform our speech and our knowledge, our words and our expectations, into conformity with Jesus. The community of faith itself, the one in which we find ourselves, is called to see Christ coming in its very midst, to take the end of time very seriously.
We should take it seriously, and we do. That is why today, as we begin a new church year, as we look for Christ to come again in glory, in joyful obedience to Christ, we bring into his fellowship these children, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, crying out to God, “Tear open the heavens and come down” in their lives and into ours. Amen.