Beginning at the Very End
“But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
He went to the door and they all followed him. He raised his head and roared, “Now it is time!” then louder, “Time!”; then so loud that it could have shaken the stars, “TIME.” The Door flew open.
They all stood beside Aslan, on his right, and looked through the open doorway. Immediately the sky became full of shooting stars. Even one shooting start is a fine thing to see, but there were dozens, then scores, and then hundreds, till it was like silver rain: and it went on and on. And when it had gone on for some while there was [a] dark shape against the sky. There were no stars there: just blackness. But all around, the downpour of stars went on. And then the starless patch began to grow, spreading further and further out from the center of the sky. And presently a quarter of the whole sky was black, and then a half, and at last the rain of shooting stars was going on only low down near the horizon.
The last few seconds before the rain of stars had quite ended were very exciting. Stars began falling all around. But stars in that world are not the great flaming globes they are in ours. They are people. So now there were showers of glittering people all with long hair like burning silver and spears like white-hot metal, rushing down out of the black air, swifter than falling stones. They made a hissing noise as they landed and burnt the grass. And all these stars glided and stood somewhere behind, a little to the right.
On the grass lay Aslan’s shadow. It streamed away to their left, enormous and very terrible. And all this was under a sky that would now be starless forever.
At last something white – a long, level line of whiteness that gleamed in the light of the standing stars – came moving from the Eastern end of the world. A widespread noise broke the silence: first a murmer then a rumble, then a roar. It was a foaming wall of water. The sea was rising. In that tree-less world you could see it very well. You could see all the rivers getting wider and the lakes getting larger, and separate lakes joining into one, and valleys turning into new lakes, and hills turning into islands, and then those islands vanishing. And the water came swirling up to the very threshold of the Doorway so that the foam splashed about Aslan’s forefeet. All now was level water from where they stood to where the waters met the sky.
And out there it began to grow light. At last the sun came up. This sun was dying. It was three times – twenty times – as big as it ought to be, and very dark red. Then the Moon came up, quite in her wrong position, very close to the sun, and she also looked red.
Then Aslan said, “Now make an end.” And instantly there was total darkness.
They had seen strange things enough through that Doorway. But it was stranger than any of them to look round and find themselves in warm daylight, the blue sky above them, flowers at their feet, and laughter in Aslan’s eyes.
He turned swiftly round, crouched lower lashed himself with his tail and shot away like a golden arrow.
“Come further in! Come further up!” he shouted over his shoulder.
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
-- The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis. Pages 148 – 184, excerpted. 1956.
Some of you C.S. Lewis fans have already recognized these excerpts from the last few pages of the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. I love the end of The Last Battle especially. One of my great memories of our children’s childhood was the opportunity I had to read the whole series to Tim and Beth around the time they were 7 and 9. I had read The Chronicles of Narnia when I first became a Christian, but reading them outloud to my children, complete with voices for each of the major characters and a very poor fake of a british accent really brought the series to life.
Those of you who have never read Narnia before, must be having the experience a new Christian or a person seeking God has when they first read certain parts of Matthew, 1 Corinthians, 1 Peter, 1 Thessalonians, and Revelation. The words seem strange, the narrative is disjointed, and it talks about events that seem phantasmagorical or even ridiculous.
Over the next twelve weeks, from today to the beginning of Lent we’re going to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts. The word renaissance, in French, of course, means “rebirth.” If you were French, you’d certainly recognize the root word is the same as in John 3:3, where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And over the next twelve weeks we’re going to be looking at beginnings.
Today marks the beginning of Advent. It may seem strange then that the lectionary has taken us to the very end of the story, when ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken,’ but to make sense, some stories have to be told from the very end. For without the very end in view, none of us would want to engage with this story of refugees, of a futile search for shelter, of homelessness, of resources running out, of birth in the filth of a stable, of fear and flight, of ominous prophetic warnings, and of genocide. And that’s just the first chapter of the book.
Unless we know the end of the story so well that it will sustain us, we won’t journey on from there to experience the heights of water turned to wine, of crippled limbs restored, of epiphanies of angels, glimpses of God himself. We won’t go on to hear our own name called out with the twelve, “Follow me!” We’ll never see sight restored, demons driven out, long-deaf ears hearing for the first time. Without the end of the story we won’t climb the hill with the multitude to hear that the poor in spirit are blessed, or stand to collect basketful breadcrumbs; we won’t laugh out loud when the sea is stilled or take the first step out of the boat.
We need the end of the story or else we’ll never weep and wipe oil off beautiful feet, or learn that even the religious can be born again, or fall on our face at the brightness of transfigured glory.
We won’t stick around for these things because we’ll have auditioned the book by opening it somewhere in the middle, where we read of rejection and beatings, betrayal and denial, bloody suffering, and learned that in order for God’s kingdom to come, innocents often are tortured and mocked, lied about and lied to, abandoned by all but next of kin, and left to die. We’ll have been so troubled on Friday afternoon, that we won’t be around on Sunday morning to see how that chapter turns out.
It has often been said that we are an Easter People, who live and move on the hope of resurrection. If the dead are raised, then maybe… just maybe… and our hope catapults us back to an earlier chapter in the book and we read of these things: Yes, God can be raised from the dead, but my daughter has died, my servant is sick, my mother-in-law has a deadly disease, my son has a demon or mental illness, or both, and the stories seem like idle tales because I have prayed and I haven’t seen anyone raised from the dead. I haven’t seen the healing. The cancer is still there. My child is still on drugs. The heart condition is still terminal. If the dead are truly raised, where is my resurrection?
That’s why we don’t make it from the hillside on the outskirts of Bethlehem all the way to the hillside on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We are happy enough to touch tiny perfect hands in a manger, but we recoil when asked to touch hands with the scars of nails. That’s why we need to read the very end of the story before we read chapter one. There’s something there that can comfort us in a way the promise of our own salvation, our own resurrection, all by itself, cannot. We need to know that “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
The Son of Man has great power. Focus on that as you peer into the crib and you too will say with Simeon, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) Focus on that, and you’ll walk a little further.
The Son of Man has great power and glory. Focus on that as you walk through the dark alleyways of your life, when it seems so dark you can only just barely make out his form. Remember that he has life in himself, and he will bring life and light even where all you see is death and darkness. Focus on the light, and you’ll walk a little further.
The Son of Man has great power and glory. And he will send his angels to the cancer ward, the nursing home, the crack house; to your daughter’s bedside, and the deep recesses of your son’s wounded mind. And do not wonder that the resurrection, the healing, the restoration has not happened yet. You are living in the middle of the book. But he will gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. That is what is at the end of the book.
We were told to learn a lesson from the fig tree. But Advent comes at a very strange time of the year indeed. It is still three weeks until the shortest day of the year and three months after that before the trees will even begin to blossom. (pause) Oh… but they will begin to blossom. Yes, it is going to be a long winter. And there is no guarantee there won’t be another “storm of the century” before the weather turns again. Heck, there were two just sixty days apart already!
We’ve been told to learn a lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. But if we did not know that we know that we know that summer is coming, we’d never stick around for winter. It is just too hard.
But summer is coming and the Son of Man has great power and he said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” And he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11 ESV) He also said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.” (Hebrews 13:5-6 ESV)
The Son of Man has great power and glory. Summer will come again. And everything he said will happen.
But things are not right in my life. I need help, and no help seems to have come. It isn’t that I expect instant results, but there has to be something I can do. Won’t someone please tell me what to do until all this works itself out?
There’s a children’s tale embedded in the very end of the story because he knows we are all children and he doesn’t want us to ever lose our sense of wonder and amazement. In the children’s story he told us how to meet life: “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.” It is going to feel very like the owner of the house has left and all the responsibility is in your hands. It is going to feel very like God must be off in some foreign country and that he cannot possibly know or understand your need. But the things he has promised: restoration, healing, comfort, provision, resurrection, are all his responsibility. All he has asked you to do is stand at the door and watch for him. And sometimes the pain or the need or the trouble will be so great all you’ll be able to do is stand at the door and hold onto the doorpost for dear life. The water of the great flood is lapping at your feet just as it was in The Last Battle. But if you know The Story, you also know he told his people to put a mezuzah on the door, a little metal or glass capsule, placed just where your hand would go if you were holding the doorpost against some force that threatened to suck you out. And your hand would be resting on the mezuzah, and you’d remember that part of The Story, because what is in the mezuzah says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ESV) That’s all he’s asked you to do. He knows the rest.
The Son of Man has great power and glory. Summer will come again. And everything he said will happen. And all he wants you to do is hang on. That’s why it is so important as we begin at the beginning of all the beginnings that we begin at the very end of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.