Zombies are having their fifteen minutes of fame. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is wildly popular. Audiences flock to zombie movies. By one count, filmmakers have produced over 500 zombie flicks.
At the core of this living dead genre is the idea of the zombie apocalypse. The world as we know it utterly disintegrates as a result of an initial zombie outbreak that spreads across the planet.
The broad appeal of this story line suggests something about our culture. We are afraid. Lots of people seem to think that the world is in decline. Hurricanes and earthquakes and droughts and terrorist attacks signify a larger trend to them. The world is flying apart. Some powerful force beyond our control is on the verge of wiping out everything we love. This is the beginning of the end.
If you didn’t know him better, you might think that Jesus is saying something like that. He predicts the destruction of the Temple, war, earthquakes, and famine. (Mark 13:7-8a) Some followers of Jesus teach that God’s wrath brings about this destruction as a warning about his final judgment. It’s the beginning of the end.
There’s just one problem. Jesus is saying nothing of the sort.
On the contrary, he wants us to see that no matter how bad things get, it is not the beginning of the end. In Jesus Christ, sorrow, suffering, even death itself is just the beginning of the beginning. Jesus has come to raise up what has been cast down, to make new what has grown old, to bring all things to perfection through his love.
Jesus is not saying that God’s wrath will destroy the wicked world. Instead, Jesus teaches that God’s grace makes the wounded world whole and new. That is why he says, “This is the beginning of the birthpangs.” (Mark 13:8b) Jesus transforms even death, violence, and destruction into the birth process of the new heaven and the new earth.
Jesus is not trying instill fear about the afterlife in his followers. He’s teaching us to be agents of hope in this life. I’ll explain what I mean more fully by answering three questions.
What is hope?
What practices express the hope within us?
How does our hope advance the Kingdom of Heaven?
An Infinite Yearning
Now, for our first question, what is hope?
Hope is an inextinguishable longing. Optimism and positive thinking are attitudes we may assume toward some desired outcome or some future set of circumstances. By contrast, hope is our yearning for what we can imagine but cannot yet see.
We can want and imagine all sorts of finite, temporary things. We may want to get into Harvard or receive a promotion. There could be a certain someone you want to marry or maybe you’re about to play for the championship.
It is fine to want admission to your college of choice, advancement in your career, a “yes” when you pop the question, and a championship trophy. And yet, as much as we may want any of these things and would feel deep disappointment if things do not turn out our way, our lives do not hinge upon these specific outcomes.
Hope has a deeper, more fundamental object. To take the next step in life, we have to believe that that step is actually leading someplace. We are not wandering aimlessly but are instead on the path to a kind of completion and fulfillment.
Passing a test or winning an election gives us a temporary sense of satisfaction, but it doesn’t take very long for us realize that we’ve only taken a step toward the next test and the next election. No matter how many tests we take or elections we win, no test or election can assure us that we are on the right path to something enduring.
And that is the key. We cannot help but long for an outcome that endures. Eternally. The very notion that all our efforts and loves and losses could come to nothing gives us a kind of spiritual nausea.
With our finite minds and wills and hearts, we are incapable of securing the kind of future we imagine. A future in which all that we have done is vindicated. Our tender affections and our heartbreaks, our laughter and our tears, our triumphs and our disappointments, our exhausting effort and our grateful rest.
Hope reaches beyond itself to something higher. Someone higher. Hope is our infinite yearning that God himself will make all things right once and for all. Hope is the desire that we will dwell in God’s perfect, perpetual presence in the kingdom he has reclaimed as his own forever.
That is what Jesus is talking about with his disciples. He understands that life is difficult. Our hearts will be broken, we will fall down and not feel like getting up, and we will tremble with fear and doubt as we face what seem to be overwhelming odds.
The temptation is to give in, to believe that this is the beginning of the end. But our relationship with Jesus instills in us another way. We can see those same hard places in life as the beginning of the beginning: the wound or the regret or the injustice that Jesus has come to redeem and to set right.
And that brings us to our second question. What practices express the hope within us?
Hope is not merely an attitude or a state of mind. Hope is a direction of the will. Optimism and positive thinking are all well and good, but they are mental dispositions. Hope is our root desire. It propels us toward action. Hope is something we do.
Hope yearns for God to set things right, the new heaven and the new earth. We cannot make the new heaven and the new earth appear. Only God can do this and he will do so on his own timetable.
However, we embody the hope within us by refusing to accept the world on the terms in which we find it. We embrace the fallen and wounded world as the beginning of the beginning and participate with Jesus in his redeeming, healing work.
For instance, poverty is not God’s will for anyone. And yet the number of indigent people on this planet is staggering. Fifty percent of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day. Eighty percent live on less than $10.00 a day. 22,000 children die due to poverty every single day.
You and I will not end this poverty. God will. However, that is exactly the hope that motivates us to do the good that we can do. Jesus does not want us to feel guilty about our own level of comfort. He wants us to see that through him we can do our part in his mission to relieve the suffering of his people.
It is good and important to give money. In addition, the hope within us also urges us to do something more personal, to engage the poor with our time, our hands, our hearts.
We can feed the hungry ourselves by volunteering at a soup kitchen or staffing a food pantry.
Literacy is crucial for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. Teach an adult to read or tutor a child in school.
Managing your monthly income and expenses may be simple to you, but it is often a skill lacked by people born into generations of poverty. You can help break the cycle by teaching the basics of making a budget and handling a check book.
Our hope is to be near Jesus Christ. And he teaches us that we will find him in the lives of the poor. I know you remember his words:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)
Jesus did not say serve the poor that we deem deserving or the poor that got that way in some way that we approve. He didn’t even say serve the grateful poor. He just said serve the poor. And when we do, we inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Or to put this a slightly different way, we advance the Kingdom of Heaven.
Advancing the Kingdom of Heaven
And this brings us to our final question. How does our hope advance the Kingdom of Heaven?
In one way of speaking, we do not advance the Kingdom of Heaven. Only God himself can do that. And yet, as followers of Jesus, God has invited us to participate with him in his mission.
God does not in fact call us to build a perfect government or to erect a utopian society. He calls us instead to live together in communities that follow Jesus. Our congregations are communities of hope. Together we respond to the needs of the world and nurture one another with love because of the hope that is within us.
We advance the Kingdom by providing a foothold for it within our congregations and in our surrounding communities.
Our hope is contagious. Like yawning and laughter, hope catches on. Some can remain immune to it, but in time many begin to join in before they even realize it. The Kingdom advances.
Our hope is attractive. Except for the most hardened cynic, a compassionate witness–a witness expressed in action instead of words–has a way of softening the heart. With each softened heart, the Kingdom advances.
Wherever our hope infects or attracts another, the Kingdom of Heaven has extended its reach.
Do not be deterred or discouraged by those who reject the Kingdom’s call. For Jesus, even the most hardened and wayward heart is just the beginning of the beginning of his redeeming work.
This sermon was preached at Christ Church, Bastrop, Louisiana.