My friend Jeremy recently told me a story about a radio station in his home state of Nebraska. The station was 101.9 The Edge, located in Omaha and it was know for its excellent selections of alternative rock. It had quite a powerful transmitter, broadcasting at 100,000 watts, and on nights where the conditions were right, you could hear it over two- hundred miles away in his hometown of Hildreth.

No other music genre could complement the teenaged angst of the 1990s quite like alternative rock. Whether through the hoarse vocals of Kurt Cobain and others who rose to stardom out of the Portland grunge scene, or the lively and energetic lyrics of Green Day with their Bay Area “buck-the-establishment” punk rock community, many Gen Xers and Millennials, then and now, found ways to express their dissatisfaction with the world through the lyrics and beats of alternative rock.

But in the spring 1998, something utterly unexpected happened at 101.9 The Edge: on the afternoon of April 10, through the radios of countless Nebraskan teens and young adults, the four count intro snare beats to the R.E.M. song It’s the End of the World as We Know It began to tap out their familiar rhythm. Then Lead singer Michael Stipe and back up vocalist Mike Mills began to call out their rapid-paced list of horrors of the mid-80s and 90s:

World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light
It’s the end of the world as we know it,
It’s the end of the world as we know it,
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

The song’s lyrics drift from deforestation, to the death of ideas and book burnings, to plane crashes, the selling out of government, and war; concepts we seem to be still dealing with over 30 years after the song was written. The chorus continued, declaring once again the end of the world as we know it, and finally faded out. And then, unexpectedly, the song began to play again, once, twice, three times, and over and over for hours. No voices of DJs.

No commercials between songs. Calls placed to the radio station went unanswered. No answering machines, no voicemail. Just REM with their anthem of the end of the world as we know it.

What may have sounded like an apocalyptic scenario to those tuned in to 101.9 that afternoon, turned out to have a more mundane, and definitely amusing, origin: the station was changing formats the next morning, and as an angry send-off to the new station owners, the DJs, producers, and staff, now out of a job, rather than stick it out on their last day, stuck it to their soon to be former employer. At 3 pm, they started the music, set it to repeat, locked up, and left the building until the new staff took over the next day.

Apocalyptic texts can sometimes feel like this. Out of the Biblical narrative comes this terrible imagery of the end of the world. The sun will cease to give light. The moon will darken. Stars will fall from the very heavens, and all of creation will quake. When we read these texts, we’re left spinning, seeking answers.

We turn to scripture and say, “Hey, I have a questi . . .”
“Uh, yeah, I got that part, but I have a quetio . . .”
“No, seriously, I heard you the first time. I really need to know about . . .”
“Yeah, I KNOW. I, HEARD you, I GET that . . . but I DON’T feel fine!”

If you pay attention to the scripture lessons at the change of liturgical seasons, you may have noticed a pattern to the beginning of each Advent. As each new liturgical year begins, the authors of the lectionary present us with a Gospel message that is apocalyptic in nature. And there is good reason for this. These pieces of scripture calls us to turn inward, to watch, and wait, and look for the impending Advent of Christ: not just a return to the first Advent at his birth over 2,000 years ago, nor simply to a future vision of Christ returning to us at the end of things, but to the ways that Christ reappears to us daily in the cacophonous tumult and in the quiet mundane.

This year, however, as we begin the scripted rituals of an American Christmas: a chaotic capitalistic revision of our sacred season, so often devoid of the introspective, liminal waiting into which scripture and tradition calls us, the world seems to be dangling out further on the precipice of cataclysm and apocalypse than it has in living memory. The specter of nuclear war appears more real than it has since the cold war, as our president wantonly and impertinently tweets out threats and juvenile insults at an unstable North Korean regime. Wealth inequality is so great that Robert S. McElvaine, professor at Millsaps College and historian of the Great Depression era, warns that the tax bill just passed this week has put us into a “sprint . . . toward an economic cliff” reminiscent of pre-depression regulations.

When we’re in moments such as these, we’re often left with a sense of hopelessness. We turn to scripture for comfort, but at first glance, these texts offer little sense of promise or redemption. The world is literally falling apart around us and so often like, the lament of both the psalmist and the author of Isaiah, we wonder where God is and why we feel abandoned.

We know the good works of God, we have seen them in the past, we have felt the comfort of the nearness of Divine grace, and yet during those apocalyptic moments, we feel alone, and our questions and concerns go unanswered. The end of the world as we know it feels near, we wait for God, and we call out questions, we demand in astonished wonder to know what it is that God is calling us to do.

At first glance, the prophetic texts that begin each Advent seem to offer little to anchor ourselves to, as the world spirals out of control, but a closer inspection of the text opens up a world of comfort in this liminal place of anticipation and waiting. Christ calls us to keep awake. Especially in times that feel apocalyptic, there is no time to sit on the sidelines and take a nap. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, reminds us of our spiritual gifts and directs us to use them as we wait for the ever revealing Christ. We are called ever more urgently, ever more boldly to serve others in the name of Jesus, to live into the fullness of communion with each other, and to usher in with great joy the Kingdom of God, so that this human chapter of greed and war ends, and a Divine, hopeful vision of grace and compassion begins.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, but by living fully into the life that Christ calls us to live out, of preaching the Gospel through or words and through our lived acts of justice and compassion, truly we’ll be just fine.


© Wesley D. Capps, M.Div.