As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
I really do feel as if I’ve drawn the short straw here: what a passage! End-times theology? Well out of my comfort zone. The problem is that down the ages every generation has had its prophets of doom announcing that the end-times are near. Only this week I read that a former American presidential hopeful for the Republican Party, Michele Bachmann, has gone on record as saying that she feels the end of the world is near. She says, “Events are speeding up so quickly right now, and we see how relevant the Bible is, and we’re reading our newspaper, at the same time we’re learning about these biblical events, and it’s literally day by day by day, we’re seeing the fulfilment of scripture right in front of our eyes, even while we’re on the ground. We recognise the shortness of the hour…” For the record, her pronouncements are based on the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine. So, we’re straight into it, trying to fit the events of our age into some template of the fulfilment of scriptural signs. It’s tempting to dismiss her if only on the grounds that if her grasp on theology turns out to be as tenuous as her grasp on politics was, we should all be perfectly safe.
Of course you may also remember Harold Camping – another American – who announced the end of the world and the second coming of Christ that many times, with specific dates, always revised after each non-apocalypse, that you’d think public humiliation and ridicule would have led him to be more circumspect.
These people are not alone: a whole industry of spurious theology has grown up around the idea of The End Times: you may have heard of the Rapture, the belief that Jesus will gather up his faithful suddenly and dramatically, leaving the rest of the world scratching their heads as to where they’ve gone and of course this is good film material: we have the film “Left Behind” depicting what happens after the Rapture, “The entire planet is thrown into mayhem when millions of people disappear without a trace -- all that remains are their clothes and belongings. Unmanned vehicles crash and planes fall from the sky, overwhelming emergency forces and causing massive gridlock, riots and chaos.”
Only Nicholas Cage can save the day – if not the film from a critical panning.
What are we to make of all this?
It is true that scripture seems to drop tantalising hints about the end times but not in any credible, helpful timetable. Taken individually, or as a group of “prophecies” – and I put that word in inverted commas – they are as vague and misleading as the prophecies of Nostradamus, and he still pops up with monotonous regularity.
If I sound deeply cynical at this point … that’s because I am. In every Christian based Myers-Briggs type personality profile or on the Enneagram, I come out as a Thomas in my pattern of discipleship. (I am strangely proud of that.) Thomas the doubter, you may remember.
And yet there is a strong discipline of Biblical scholarship called Eschatology, the study of the destiny of humankind as described in the Bible. The major issues in Christian eschatology are death and the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, the Second Coming of Jesus, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Rapture, the Tribulation, the end of the world, the Last Judgment, and the New Heaven and New Earth of the world to come. Eschatological passages are found in many places in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. There are also many extrabiblical examples of eschatological prophecy, as well as church traditions so perhaps people like me need to curb the impatient cynicism that is our default position when the Michele Bachmanns and Harold Campings of our time take to the media.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage?
When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
And this is the problem: every time there is an earthquake or a famine, are we to think of the end times? Every time there is a war?
Now it isn’t in today’s Gospel passage, but Jesus goes on to tell Peter, James, John and Andrew some disturbing things that would by anyone’s standards be seen as predictions – false prophets; false Messiahs; conflict; persecution; suffering; religious desecrations and the like and he suggests that they would live to see it – as has every subsequent generation. So should we seek to read the signs like Bachmann and Camping and seek to be Christian clairvoyants?
Well, as ever scripture needs to be seen in its own wider context. What else are we told about the end times? Or at least what are we told that is helpful? Later on in this chapter Jesus tells his followers, But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the Angels in Heaven, nor the Son but only the Father. We also have Jesus’ words from the opening chapter of Acts, It is not for you to know the times and periods that the Father has set by his own authority. To put it another way, I think we are being told not to waste our time speculating because like Nostradamus or Harold Camping it is something of a pointless exercise. It is time wasted when we should be concentrating on other things.
We live in the in-between times. We always knew that, surely? We live between the start and the finish; between the start and the finish of God’s plan for the institution of his Kingdom, that reign of peace and justice ushered in by God’s intervention in history in the incarnation of Christ.
Yes we can look at the “signs” but to read them as any more than reminders of the fragility of human existence seems to me to be missing the point. Personally, I see such signs – if I register them at all – as akin to punctuation marks in a narrative, points to pause and reflect on before we move on.
So, there is a famine, an earthquake, a war and I am reminded of the fragility of human existence and, mindful of that and of the fact that there will one day be an end, I move on.
But it is how I move on – how we move on - after that period of reflection that is important, because we move on as Disciples. We move on in this in between time, conscious of the ultimate finality of the Kingdom of this world, as those called to the mission of bringing God’s Kingdom closer.
In some respects it is a shame that the Lectionary leaves Mark’s Gospel at this point as it heads to Christ the King and Advent in the coming weeks so I don’t feel too bad about looking a bit beyond today’s reading because I won’t be guilty of spoilers for next week’s preacher when I tell you that Jesus tells his followers to be alert because they don’t know when that time is coming. Remember, these were people who expected the return of Christ and the end times within their own generation.
Given the time lapse, such a sense of urgency seems rather lost on us – well, it’s lost on me anyway. I don’t live with the urgency of an imminent Second Coming ushering in the end times. I’m sure I should, but I don’t and I guess you don’t either, but we are still in the in-between times. So what is this sense of urgency all about? Remember too, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids: some were prepared when the bridegroom finally arrived and were admitted to the reception: those that had gone off to get more oil for their lamps missed his arrival and got left outside. It seems to me to be a similar warning.
But what is it a warning about? What’s the urgency about?
I always remember an episode of the Vicar of Dibley, where Dawn French has a postcard on her wall: Jesus is Coming – look busy! I’m sure I had a vicar who had that on his coffee mug too, but that is the essence of the warning to urgency: because we don’t know when it’s all going to get eschatological and apocalyptic we are in danger of not being busy about the Lord’s work.
What does that mean in practice?
We are all called to discipleship but beyond that the nature of that calling is individual and personal: our individual discipleship has different patterns and emphases so I am reluctant at this point to try to offer answers which will inevitably appear glib. This is a congregation noted for its spiritual maturity. What is it as a church and as individuals that you feel is your calling? And that’s the answer: do that. Carry on doing that, being that, whatever it is that the Holy Spirit has given to you as your template of discipleship. There aren’t many Christian congregations as aware of their sense of mission as this congregation. That’s your warning, that’s your urgency as we seek to grow the Kingdom of God while there is still time.
If there is anyone still in doubt about the nature of their call to discipleship, I would leave you with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: He will separate them “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” He says to those on his right, the sheep, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” The righteous will not understand: when did they see Jesus in such a pitiful condition and help Him? “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25.31-46)