As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Caribbean in September, one group of people knew exactly what to do. Richard Branson, his family and his staff headed down into the wine cellar of his luxury retreat on Necker Island. Underground, not sure if they would survive, they did the obvious thing and started on the high quality contents of the cellar. I imagine them emerging after many hours, bleary eyed in the bright sunlight and taking in the devastation around.
Branson can rebuild, but others have lost everything. Fair play to him though, despite media interest he insisted the story was not about his experience but about the thousands of poor people in the British Virgin Islands who had lost homes and livelihoods.
I wonder how we would react in a similar situation? What would you do if you thought it might be your last few hours on earth? Some people eat drink and be merry; some might take the chance to do something they’d always wanted to do; others might tell those most precious to them of their love, or feel the need to make their peace with God.
Those range of reactions will be familiar to us from any number of disaster movies. It may be floods and giant waves, alien invasion, asteroids or flesh munching zombies – whatever the peril our culture seems to be fascinated with end of the world scenarios.
I wonder why that is? Do those apocalyptic films address some kind of deep fear within us? Of chaos bubbling up? An anxiety that our complex society is actually rather precarious? That despite all our knowledge and technology we are still not in control of our lives? Do we perhaps instinctively know that there will be an end, that we shall eventually stand before God and be accountable to him?
It is after all a common theme in the Bible – that God will one day create a new heaven and a new earth. From the Old Testament to the Book of Revelation there is this great promise.
Our broken world will not always be this way. God will destroy all that harms his creation. There will be an end to sickness, pain, death and evil. Which is bad news for those who cling to evil – part of this renewal is the judgement when every person is accountable to God for their sin. Those who cling to evil will be swept away with it, but there’s a great hope for those who trust in Christ to be forgiven and start again.
People in Jesus’ time were not that different from us. They too thought about earth-shattering events, the end of the world as they knew it.
Look at verse 1 in our reading. The disciples were simple country types from Galilee. They were overawed by the huge buildings of Jerusalem; the vast white stones weighing over a hundred tonnes each. Herod’s temple was so grand that even the little spikes to keep off the pigeons were plated with gold. But Jesus is not so impressed, in v.2:
‘Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another, all will be thrown down’. Barely thirty years later this prediction came true. Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in a lengthy siege. With much suffering the city fell, and the temple was burnt to the ground. All that remains is a layer of stones at the bottom of the Wailing Wall.
For the disciples such an appalling event, the destruction of God’s own temple, could mean only one thing. Surely the end of the world must follow? How could the world carry on without Jerusalem? Without the temple? So they want to know, in verse 3: ‘Tell us when will this be, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’
But notice how Jesus doesn’t give them the answer they’re looking for. He pointedly doesn’t give them a date – in fact in v.36 he says ‘About that day or hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.’ Only God knows when this will happen. Jesus also refuses to give the disciples clues, precise signs that will allow them to work out that the end is just about to happen. Instead Jesus tells us how to live our lives in the meantime.
It’s all very practical. Keep faithful. Don’t be panicked by events in the world around. Endure persecution. Stay steady to the end. Don’t waste time on speculation but live in readiness for Christ, whenever he comes.
After all, if we knew when our time would come, if we knew how long the earth had left, would it change human behaviour? And if so, for better or for worse? I read an interesting novel over half-term. It’s called ‘Numbers’ and it’s all about a teenage girl who has what I suppose you would call a psychic ability. Whenever this girl looks into someone’s eyes she sees the date when they will die. So how does she react? Does she tell them? Do they believe her? Can they change the future? And if she tries to change the future, do those new events just lead to what was going to happen anyway?
It’s a fascinating idea. If we knew when Jesus was coming back and it was a long time, would people’s love grow cold? If it’s a short time, would people change their behaviour? But then if it’s right to live a certain way, surely it’s right to do that whether the timescale is long or short? Would knowing make a difference? Should it?
It doesn’t stop people trying though. The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted it in 1920, and then again for 1975. The predictions keep on coming from all over.
So the first thing Jesus says in verses 4 and 5 is: Don’t be taken in. Many false Messiahs will come, many people will be deceived by cults which claim to have found secret codes. I’m amazed it keeps on happening because Jesus says very clearly that if anyone tells you the date, don’t believe them! The new creation will happen one day, in God’s good time. Jesus affirms what the rest of the Bible teaches. He says there will be a judgement, and a new beginning. But it will come at a time we will not expect. Don’t waste your life reading Nostradamus!
Secondly, Jesus says: don’t be alarmed by what is going on in the world. I wonder if you’ve heard of the Doomsday Clock? This is an imaginary clock in which midnight represents global human-made catastrophe – nuclear war and the like. How close the minute hand is to midnight represents how bad the situation is. Anyone like to guess where we are at the moment? Apparently it’s two and a half minutes to midnight, up from 14 minutes to midnight at the end of the Cold War, and the second worse it’s ever been, after the year in which hydrogen bombs were first tested.
Whether that’s an objective assessment of risk, I don’t know, but it certainly says a lot about society’s anxiety levels. What does Jesus say? In verse 6: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but don’t be alarmed for this must take place, but the end is not yet.’ He’s not at all saying that we shouldn’t care about these events; he’s certainly not saying that we shouldn’t do everything in our power to prevent famine and climate change. Compassionate Christians have to act. We have to bring these things to God in prayer. We will feel the pain of our world!
Yet almost every generation has fallen into the trap of thinking that their times are so bad that they are unique, that there is no hope, or that the end is nigh. Jesus teaches us to be hopeful, to trust in God. God’s plan is not derailed. As he says in verse 7: ‘Nation will rise against nation, all this is but the beginning of birth pains.’
An important image to hang on to. Birth pains are not much fun – so I’m told. At the time they’re all encompassing. Afterwards, the pain is forgotten in the joy of a new life. What comes afterwards should make it all worthwhile. Keep that picture in mind as we look at the last few verses in our reading.
In verse 9 to 12 Jesus tells his disciples to stand firm, to keep faithful, even in the midst of persecution. Opposition, violence, even execution were a reality for those disciples. Jesus wanted them to be prepared.
Christians today in many parts of the world suffer for their faith. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to own a Bible or a crucifix. In Pakistan recently a schoolboy was beaten to death by his classmates because he was the only Christian in school. We must remember our brothers and sisters in the suffering church, pray for them, give to the charities that support them.
We too should be prepared – the words of Jesus envisage that faithful Christians could be persecuted anywhere. In our society we need discernment. We need wisdom to see clearly those things on which we cannot compromise, as opposed to fighting battles which make Christians look ridiculous or legalistic.
As Jesus says in verse 13, ‘anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.’ Therefore be confident because your time is in God’s hand. Your lifespan, the world’s existence, is held by God. The end, the new beginning will come, in God’s good time. For the good news must be preached to all nations.
So do not worry, but be faithful and consistent. Stay in the grace of Christ, keep on using the means of grace he has given us. Pray, meet together, worship, serve. For in so doing we work with God’s plan, and we wait for that day when his plan is gloriously fulfilled. Amen.