Sunday, 1 December 2013

The end of the world?

My apologies but this is all based on a long reading.  The thing with Jesus's sayings about the end of the world is that there's a reasonable amount of them.  So rather than just picking a little up out of context, here's the whole relevant section.  I've left the verse numbers in because I refer to them from time to time below.

Matthew 24

24As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!”* and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines* and earthquakes in various places: 8all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
9 ‘Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10Then many will fall away,* and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. 14And this good news* of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.

15 ‘So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), 16then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 17someone on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; 18someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 19Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 20Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. 21For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23Then if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!”* or “There he is!”—do not believe it. 24For false messiahs* and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26So, if they say to you, “Look! He is in the wilderness”, do not go out. If they say, “Look! He is in the inner rooms”, do not believe it. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

29 ‘Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
   and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
30Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. 31And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

32 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33So also, when you see all these things, you know that he* is near, at the very gates. 34Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,* but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day* your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

The end of the world?
In my earlier days as a theological student I was forever bombarded with words about which I had no comprehension...

...words like ‘priest’ and ‘church’ and ‘God’.

But in the midst of those were some nuggets of real incomprehension; words like apocalyptic and eschatology.  One of the lecturers saw the worry on my face and said to me, ‘Paul, don’t worry if you don’t know what eschatology is, it’s not the end of the world!’

For those who don’t understand the reference, of course that is exactly what eschatology is, the study of the end of the world, and that which is apocalyptic is actually about revealing what is taking place behind the events in the world and what they mean.  So this is all about the end of the world.

Or is it?

Well actually the truth is that serious theological scholars are utterly divided on what exactly is going on here with some saying that this entire section is all about the end of the world and others saying that absolutely none of it is about the end of the world whilst yet others say that only some of it is about the end of the world.  Since knowing how this world will end and how close we are to that end is something that everyone is interested in, it seemed to me pertinent that we look at the whole section and see what Jesus is actually saying here.  We local clergy were lucky enough to listen to Paula Gooder, a Birmingham based theologian, speaking about this recently, and she takes the third view, that some of this is about the end, and some of it isn’t.  That was a relief to hear for me because that was what I was taught and I haven’t read anything yet to contradict that point of view.  So we’re going to take a whistle-stop tour from two thousand years ago to the end of human history, all contained within one chapter, and then we’re going to ask what it means to us.

The first part of reading was one where you find yourselves feeling a little sorry for the disciples.  They have just arrived in Jerusalem and are awestruck by the Temple.  Bear in mind that by this time construction of Herod’s temple has been going on for decades leading to a colossal building of astonishing beauty, standing more or less where the current Dome on the Rock stands, but something like three times the size.

Alison and I visited Salisbury cathedral for the first time last year and were awe-struck by its beauty and architectural magnificence, but imagine how much greater the effect would have been if we had never seen a cathedral before.  That’s really how it was for the disciples.  So they make a passing comment which is more or less, ‘Wow Jesus, have you ever seen anything like this?’  It’s just a passing comment, no big deal, but you have to feel sorry for them by the way Jesus leaps in with a prophecy that has probably been on his lips for some time, waiting for an opportune moment.  The shocking news that this amazing new temple will fall leads the disciples to ask two questions, when will this happen and what will be the signs of the end of the age?

We need to recognise that there are two questions here, not one, and that the answers Jesus gives relate to both questions.  His first answer is a broad brush stroke painting of history, warning people not to pay attention to false signs and to expect persecution in the coming generations.  We forget, because this is a so-called Christian country, that Christians in other nations are imprisoned and executed for their faith today, not to mention the hideous ordeals that the early Christians went through.  It is from verse 15 that we start to get into the meat of the passage when Jesus warns that when the desolating sacrifice stands in the holy place then everyone should run away from Jerusalem as fast as possible because a great disaster is about to befall them.  The question is, what is this desolating sacrifice?  When the prophet Daniel used the term it referred to an incident between the Old and New Testaments when Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple and sacrificed pigs on it around the year 167 BC.  But that event was in the past when Jesus spoke.  So what was he referring to, even though he was quoting directly from Daniel, a book that was very popular in Jesus’s time?  Well I can promise you that whole books, indeed whole theologies have been constructed around this statement, and the matter is still not settled.  However most modern serious Biblical scholarship believes that Jesus was referring to the armies of Rome beginning to mass around Jerusalem in AD66 for the most appallingly long siege, and their ultimate placing of their standards in the temple when they finally captured it.  In other words he was simply warning them not to get drawn into nationalistic fervour when they saw the Roman army start to gather, because God wasn’t going to bring about his new kingdom through war with the Romans.  Instead they should get out of Jerusalem and run for the hills because God’s judgement was coming on the city, and that they should pray that it wouldn’t come in winter and that they wouldn’t have small children to care for. 

So this middle section isn’t actually about the end of the world at all!  It’s all about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, event that took place between AD66 and AD70.  But then in verse 29 Jesus shifts his focus abruptly to what does indeed appear to be about the end of the world as he tells of cosmic signs in the heavens.  Again we simply have no consensus as to what this means.  It may be colourful language in the style of  Jewish Apocalyptic, the same style that John wrote Revelation in, to predict massive social upheaval, or it may have a more literal meaning that there will be astronomical signs.  I can’t tell you which because even the best scholars are divided on this one.  We don’t even know what the sign of the Son of Man appearing in heaven will mean.  Again there is no consensus.  The only thing we can actually be sure about is that the text indicates that at some point God will send Christ once again, only not to be born as a baby as at Christmas but to come with power in such a way that it is unmistakeably him.

But when will this happen?

That’s the other question the disciples asked and it’s one that every believer wants to know.  When will the end of the world come?  You can find books and websites geared up to making this prediction.  So let us be absolutely and totally clear on this because Jesus made it very clear.  No one knows, not even Jesus.  And if he doesn’t know then we can’t.  How many stories have we read in the newspapers about people who have exposed themselves as crackpots for making predictions about the end of the world?  No one knows when it will happen and Jesus makes it clear that life will be going on as normal when it does happen.  In other words most people will be caught out.  But not, he says, us, if we’re careful.  So what are we to do with this array of stories?  Well to be honest it strikes me that this is a very good time in human history to be putting all of this together because we are able to use the records of the past to judge the reliability of the predictions of the future by the way earlier predictions appear to have come true.  For example, the Old Testament is littered with predictions of the arrival of Jesus as an earthly incarnation.  Yes, if we read them with integrity so we can see that many of those passages have two points of focus, one close up and one far off.  Many of the prophecies that we read as predicting the birth of Jesus were fulfilled firstly by the coming of others to the Jewish people, anointed as God’s servants, as what we might think of as types of Christ; forerunners.  When Jesus himself arrived he fulfilled or re-fulfilled a significant proportion of them.  But not all of them.  Some of them suggested that God’s anointed one, his Messiah or Christ, would come in power, something that Jesus most definitely did not do.  Yet here Christ himself talks about the Son of Man coming in great power to mark the end of this age, and so we have evolved a doctrine of the second coming, that the Old Testament prophecies were indeed all true but marked two separate roles for God’s anointed servant.  The first was his incarnation as a lowly child of Mary and the second was his return at the end of the age.  It is to these prophecies of return that Jesus is referring in this passage.  But as we have seen, some of them refer to the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD70 when the Romans utterly destroyed the newly completed Temple and not to the end of the world.

There is a fairly clear pattern for us here.  If Jesus’s birth fulfilled half of the Old Testament prophecies about him, and if he himself added prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, then shouldn’t we be taking seriously his claim that he will return one day in power?

And that is really the point of all of this.  Parts of the Old Testament predict his arrival as one who comes almost silently and gently.  That happened.  He predicted the fall of Jerusalem, and that happened.  So if he says that one day he’s coming back, well shouldn’t we be taking notice?  So when will it happen?  Well therein lies the problem.  Jesus made it clear that even he didn’t know.  Only God the Father knew. And the Father was keeping the knowledge to himself.  You can understand why because not knowing encourages us to live in a particular way, which is in a state of waiting readiness, observing the signs of the age.

The whole meaning of this entire chapter can be brought down to just two words at the beginning of verse 42: ‘Keep awake.’

But what exactly does he mean by that? 

A group of us debated this during the week and one person explained her fear that maybe this meant we were supposed to live every day as if it were our last, because if that was the case she’d have to spend every day on the ‘phone to her relatives telling them how much she loved them.  Well maybe we shouldn’t put off telling people what they mean to us, but personally I don’t think that’s really what it’s about. 

To me this passage asks us a fairly simple question: Are we living each day to the fullness of how it should be lived?  Are we trying to live holy and complete lives within the boundaries of the cards that have been dealt to us?  Are we putting things off day after day that need to be dealt with?  Are we conveying our love to the people who matter to us?  Are we praying and growing spiritually?  Or are we simply coasting - waiting for something to happen?

The truth is that no one knows when the end will come, and now I’m not speaking about the end of the world, but about the end of our lives.  Each of us prays that we will reach the end having had all of our allotted time span and with no regrets, but there are no guarantees that this will happen.  Most of us have lives touched by unexpected death or loss of health.  So I want to suggest that this passage is asking us to live lives that are filled with expectation as we wait for the return of Christ, whilst living out each day to its fullest as we explore what Christ has asked of us, using the gifts he has given us.

Advent is meant to be a time of waiting, but that isn’t meant to be sitting around metaphorically reading a book or watching a film as we wait for something to happen.  It is meant to be about a waiting which involves an active preparation for the events that are to come.  So as we wrap the presents and send the cards, as we plan the Christmas dinner and put up the decorations, we should ask ourselves this question:- Are we putting as much active spiritual effort into actively waiting for Christ by the way we live and pray as we are putting physical effort into waiting for Christmas?  If the Turkey isn’t basted and the potatoes aren’t peeled then it won’t be ready for Christmas, and if the prayers aren’t said and the lives aren’t lived, when our time comes, neither will we be ready to meet Christ.  Just two words sum up all of this, the words of Jesus to his disciples: Keep Awake.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry I was too tiredcto stay for the service - this is a fascinating read, thanks for posting.
    Raven x