When some were speaking about the temple...Jesus said, “...the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down...Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’...Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first...Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” Luke 21:5-9, edited
Does it feel like the end of the world to you? God’s people have certainly felt that way before. In Jesus’ time, wars, famines, even the destruction of the temple, which the people believed was the center of the world and would stand eternally, all felt like the end of the world to them. Apocalyptic language and writings were popular, and Jesus’ followers must actually have been comforted by his words because they put the upheaval, suffering and insecurity into a larger, cosmic context.
That was the First Century version of the end of the world; now for the scientific version. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three cosmologists for discovering that we live in an accelerating universe. It had been thought that the universe’s expansion from the big bang was slowing down and would eventually stabilize. But instead, it is rapidly and mysteriously accelerating its outward expansion, leading to a fate where no discernible matter, let alone intelligent life, will be able to exist anymore―it will all burn up until it is gone. Depressing, yes, but Jesus’ words aren’t so cheery either. But cut Jesus some slack, because when he gives this and other apocalyptic statements at the end of Luke’s Gospel, it’s right before he himself is going to be betrayed, arrested, and put to death, so it’s no wonder that his thoughts turns dark. Contemplating the end of his own life, he contemplates the world’s end as well. Yet he maintains that despite the disturbing picture he paints, we should not be terrified. Jesus, present at the beginning of the universe, must know how it ends, and being the original cosmologist, tells us essentially the same thing science does, that there will be a cataclysmic end. Bummer, dude.
But just as Jesus’ first listeners must have found comfort, so can we in the fact that Jesus is totally honest with us, he never sugarcoats anything. Our God is the God of ultimate reality, which means we must live in the tension between the world as it is–including the physics of the material world, including this disheartening political season–and the hope for the world that will be. We don’t get to escape pain and suffering just because we have hope, we still have to experience all the doubts and anxieties that go along with our humanity just as Jesus himself struggled with.
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard embraced this human condition of anxiety and fear as a cross we get to bear in solidarity with Jesus that leads us deeper into our faith. He said, “Where understanding despairs, faith is already present in order to make the despair properly decisive.” In other words, rather than having to choose between understanding (knowledge), and faith, the deeper we move into faith, the more insight we have into reality as it truly is, not just what we are able to measure with our science. We don’t need to look far in recent events or even sometimes in our own lives to see these dreadful portents that Jesus mentions. But Jesus also says, “Do not be terrified.” God’s promised that “all the arrogant and evildoers” will be destroyed and instead, we’ll see the sunrise of righteousness, “with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:1-2a) And according to Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, that is already happening. He’s been researching this for decades and has proven that while nations do still rise against nations, we are safer today than at any time in history. Rates of war and murder have dropped dramatically through the ages, and we are more than a hundred times less likely to be victims of violence than the people to whom Jesus was speaking. God is already making good on the promise to root out evildoing from the human heart, and that is not rash optimism, that is looking at scientific facts and seeing through them the true reality of God’s promise of new creation being tangibly realized.
Just like scripture, science can give us reasons for hope as well as despair; the difference is, scripture tells us which one will win in the end. God does not lie, and the very fact that God is honest with us about loss and grief and suffering means we can believe it when God tells us healing is coming. And God knows, we are a people in need of healing after this brutal election. We have been wounded and horrified by the things that have been said and the fact that fellow citizens have been blind to and even supportive of these hurtful things. But we still go to work and school and perhaps even to communion next to people who have stood for things that have hurt us so deeply, and we have the strength to do that. Because God’s people have been through this and worse before, and God has promised us that healing is coming. As Kierkegaard said “Meet all the terrors of the future with this comfort: love abides; meet all the anxiety…of the present with this comfort; love abides.”
The cosmologists reached their conclusions by measuring “dark energy,” which is an unknown force that makes up 70% of the universe. That’s in addition to the also unknowable “dark matter,” which had already been determined to make up 25% of the universe. Thus, the press release from the Nobel committee ends with these words: “therefore, the universe is 95% unknown to science. And everything is possible again.” Think of that: faced with this information about the fate of the universe, their reaction, rather than terror, was faith that “everything is possible.” Their optimism might seem strange, but as Christians, we already know that the sun of righteousness shall rise.
Jesus, the only true cosmologist, the one who does know 100% of the universe says, “Do not be terrified.” And every week when we come to the table to receive communion we reach beyond the bounds of time and space to grasp in our hands our own little piece of cosmic mystery–the everyday items of bread and wine transformed into the real presence of the eternal Christ. Let us go forth from all our tables, whether communion or Thanksgiving, heartened by the perseverance of God’s people through darker times even than these, and knowing through faith what some of the greatest minds in the world know through science–that everything is possible again.