Alma was a sweet old lady I knew in a congregation where I was a pastor years ago. She had not always lived in in the Minnesota. She had grown up in Pennsylvania where her parents belonged to a small religious sect. What she described of the group sounded like something we might call a cult today. But to her as a young girl it was just ‘church,’ and it was the only church she knew.
One of the beliefs of that small sect was that the world was going to end very soon. It was 1917 and the United States had just entered World War I. The world had never seen such a war before, a war that involved dozens of nations from around the globe. This earth shaking crisis, plus a creative reading of several verses from the book of Revelation, convinced the leader of that sect that the world was indeed going to end any day. In fact, after a little more Bible study, he told his followers that he had even figured out exactly what day it would be that the world would end. And once he knew the day, the exact time was easy to figure out. Everyone knew that Jesus would come at dawn with the rising of the sun.
“Forget your jobs, forget your homes, forget everything but your eternal soul” he said; “Forsake your earthly life and prepare yourself, so that you may be ready for the day of the Lord’s return.” This was a convincing preacher, and this was serious business, so yes indeed, everyone thought, “Why worry about jobs and homes? We will let everything go, spend our remaining time in prayer, and we will be ready.” And so they did. They quit their jobs, spent hours together in prayer, and desperately begged relatives and friends to join them in being ready for the end.
On the last night before the day that the world was to end, the small group gathered at the top of the highest hill in the area, a hill bare of trees, a place where they would have the earliest and best look at the rising of the sun. They wanted to be there, because that next morning it would not be the sun rising in the east to bring the light of another day, but it would be the radiance of the Son of God, bringing his eternal light. This old world would be passing away, and they would be the first to see it.
Well, guess what? It was the same old sun that came up over the dark horizon, and the world did not end that day. The minister had apparently misinterpreted a few verses, and his calculations had fallen on the wrong date. However, he did some more Bible study, recalculated, and then kept on preaching that the end was near, now, announcing a new date that he was sure Christ would return. But Alma’s father had enough. Going back into town to the jeers of his friends and neighbors, not to mention the lack of a job anymore, made him decide to go west. He wanted to get to a place far enough away so that no one knew of his embarrassing mistake of dropping everything for the end of the world. He got as far as Minnesota, found work, and joined the Lutherans, the only church in town. I don’t know if he ever told anyone about the end of the world that failed to come. But after 65 years his daughter Alma, then an old lady, was well past the embarrassment of it all, and could tell the story.
The old minister was wrong, but only in the minor details. He had the wrong day, of course. And I have heard of the old tradition that says Jesus will return in the eastern sky; though it would be hard to prove from the Bible. But the rest of his message was classic Christianity, believed by all Christians at all times. Jesus is coming again, the Bible says, and Jesus often told his hearers to, “Be careful, watch, and pray that you may be ready.”
That is the message of the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent from Mark 13:24-37. After he gave some signs of the coming end of the world, Jesus told everyone to, “Beware, keep alert, and stay awake.” Alma’s old pastor was certainly a radical, but according to Jesus words here, we might say he wasn’t radical enough. That minister had only one specific night picked out in which he wanted to make sure everyone was ready for the Lord’s return. Jesus, however, taught that we should all, always be ready, every day and every night. We should always be as serious about his return as were the people in that small group of believers on that bare hillside in 1917. Alma knew that her childhood minister had the wrong date, but she never stopped believing that Jesus would be coming back.
This world will indeed end for you and me, either when Christ returns, or, if we are not around for that, it will still end for each of us, one at at time, when we die.
Mark 13:33 — (Jesus said), “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.”
Mark 13:26 — (Jesus said), “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
Mark 13:36-37 — (Jesus said), “ If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
The Bible’s closing prayer, Revelation 22:20-21:
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”