The end of time
Luke Chapter 21 verse 5-20
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down." "Teacher," they asked, "when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?" He replied: "Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, `I am he,' and `The time is near.' Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away." Then he said to them: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. "But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life. "When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written.
The problem of interpretation German theologians have some words which are very helpful to remember when we listen to scripture in church, or when we try to understand what passages from the bible are saying, they are 'sitz im leben' literally the situation-in-setting, the life context of the information which is written. Essentially what is being said by theology is that it is vital for us to understand what was meant by any particular words at the time they were written, before we try to apply them to ourselves. This is of course true for the whole of scripture. If somebody tells you something is ordered by or criticised by scripture ask to know its sitz im leben.! (Hopefully it will get rid of them)
Let me try to give an example of the importance of understanding the setting and style in which words were spoken. If I left this church as Vicar I might leave written instructions to the next Vicar that he must never use the lights on the dimmers in public worship. The next Vicar would be wise to follow my words, the dimmers switches no longer work since we fitted long life energy bulbs and when the switch is pressed it makes buzzing noises and it can affect the PA. But if years ahead other Vicars started to think my words to be inspired and in churches across the lands we stopped allowing dimmers to be fitted or used it would be daft.
So, it is hard for us, here at the end of the 2nd millennium, to understand these apocalyptic passages. Some people take all these passages quite literally. It was this approach to biblical interpretation that led the late Bishop John A. T. Robinson to write:
'With the Second Coming of Christ we reach what perhaps to most people seems the greatest phantasmagoria in the whole collection of mumbo jumbo that goes under the name of Christian doctrine. For people really suppose that the Church teaches that one afternoon-this year, next year, sometime—Telstar will pick up a picture of Christ, descending from the skies with thousands of angels in train, returning to earth to judge the earth.'
Robinson went on to say:
'But I certainly don't believe that…The Second Coming is not something that can be caught by radar or seen on a screen. It's not a truth like that at all.'
Well, then, what kind of truth is it? The truth is that the biblical writers used metaphorical expressions, pictures and images, therefore to insist on a strictly literal exposition of their thoughts is to do violence to their minds and hearts, as well as to Scripture. I would not want to agree too strongly with Bishop, John Spong but he used a good expression when he said—we do not take the bible literally, instead, we take it seriously. You and I get into a lot of trouble when we forget that the biblical writers used a great deal of poetry and symbolism in their writing. We should not be surprised, their testimony, and their experiences, were so critical, and profound, and at times, they felt them to be so final, that to testify of such revelation was, of necessity for them, to stretch and burst the bounds of ordinary speech.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean about this process of biblical interpretation
1. That some will be taken
Luke 17:34-36 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left. [Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.]"
I wonder whether you ever heard of 'The Rapture'. We read the passage recently which spoke of Christ coming in terms of some working and one was taken and the other left. Two in bed and one was taken and the other left. This has developed into a doctrine of the rapture. That those who are faithful will be taken off the earth when Christ comes in judgement. Rapture from the Latin word.
2. That the gospel must be preached to all nations
Matthew 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
There is no sense in which the second coming of Christ is dependent upon the preaching of the gospel to every tribe, as though it is in the power of the disciples to hasten or delay the coming of the end by their obedience or lack of it to the command to evangelise. Rather it is a stress upon the proclamation of the gospel without racial or geographical restriction. So that for example Paul even though Spain was not evangelised (Romans 15:20-24) Paul can speak of the spread of the gospel as having gone out to 'all the earth' using the words of Psalm 19:4.
3. That there will be clouds
'They will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.'
Luke 21:27-28 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Does this mean that one day we will switch on News at Ten and see Jesus coming down from heaven on a cloud. No. So what was Jesus getting at? In the world of the Bible, the cloud is a symbol and stands for, the presence of God. In similar meaning, Mount Sinai was said to be enveloped with cloud when Moses was encountered by God. Or, in the New Testament, it is recorded that the voice of God was heard from the overhanging cloud when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain. The biblical writers recognised a helpful metaphor: Just as clouds can come near and even envelope us, in their very drawing near, they still cannot be penetrated visually by the eye, even so it is with God. i.e. God's presence is like the cloud, coming near yet still hidden from the human eye. So Jesus will come again, not with glory veiled but with open and acknowledged authority. When this human journey of ours reaches its ultimate conclusion, the inescapable reality that shall confront us will be the presence of God. We miss the bible's transforming poetry if we only view it and interpret it in a wooden literalistic way. If the Christian testimony is true, namely, that we encounter such grace in and through Jesus Christ, then to say that Jesus will return on a cloud, means that when history is consummated, it is God's mercy that will be found to prevail.
4. Flash floods and earthquakes
Like clouds these have a significance beyond the words themselves. When it talks of the end time, the bible also uses the symbol of the flash flood and earthquake. But all of these cataclysmic events are used to underscore only the element of suddenness, the element of surprise. It warns us that we are destined for a surprise encounter with the God who acted in Jesus Christ.
When will then end come and what does it mean for us?
Some really do think that we can set a date for Christ's return and the year 2000 is one which has been selected by some. As Christians we must have no time for guessing Gods moves. Our task is to watch, Jesus says—not to 'watch out', but to watch—to stay alert, to pay attention. For some watching means looking for the literal end of the world, for us it means being ready and involved in that which matters keep praying, keep working, keep doing, keep hoping, keep watching, keep awake.
There are whole books you can buy on the mathematical formulae contained in the Book of Revelation, with detailed advice about how to be in the right place at the right time. The only problem with this approach is that it tries to discover what even Jesus himself could not discover, even he did not know the timetable of the mind of God.
"But of that day or that hour no one knows," Jesus said, "not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
Conclusions: In trying to speak of Christ's return, the Church has always spoken of 'the end'. But the biblical word 'end' that is used in the Greek of the New Testament, is not 'end' in the sense of 'finish' or the French word, 'finis'. Rather, the word means 'end' in the sense of 'goal' or 'purpose'.
What does it mean by that? Well, the bible tells us that history—the human story— is not a road that leads to nowhere. Rather, the human story has an 'end', a goal, an ultimate purpose. This means that your life and mine has a purpose, a destiny with Christ. And that 'end', that ultimate purpose, involves Christ gaining his ends.
To put it another way, the 'end' will be when the things of Christ, of justice, of mercy, of peace, ultimately prevail. When and what this will be like, the New Testament conveys through a whole range of pictures and images, sadly perhaps we are not very good at taking what were then useful images and transferring them into our language. If we truly look at the world today with open eyes, then that realism demands pessimism. But Christians are those who hold a dim view of the present because we hold a bright view of the future. And such a hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible. Participating in the practice of hope, that is our calling.
The poet Tagore said: "Hope is like the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark." You and I are those birds which sense the coming of the light and therefore can sing alleluia even in the midst of chaos. It is a true saying that 'The godly are always prone to think that evils have reached their utmost limit'. Signs of the end have been present in every Christian generation. So do not be discouraged if it appears that things are falling apart. Indeed, instead of causing us to look for the final curtain and work out when Christ will come, they should be a warning to us that every generation could have thought the time was near and it wasn't, hence stop worrying about the dates and get on with your life. The sign language of Christ and the Gospel writers warned of the ultimate reality of judgement, they have no significance in relation to its timing. Things which for the moment may look out of control are nevertheless within God's purpose and providence. The time of the end is in God's hand alone.