The Bible readings for the season of Advent, which starts today, traditionally focus on not only the first coming of Christ, as a baby, but also on his second coming, as judge and ruler. With regard to the Second Coming, there is a lot of bad theology out there that doesn’t actually have a lot to do with what the Bible says about that. So this is the first in a series of sermons that touch on that whole tangle of interpretations and misinterpretations. The titles are, in turn: “What We Don’t Know”, “What We Do Know”, “What We Have Known and Will Know”, and “Whatta Ya Know!”
So let’s get to it.
A couple of months ago I was at the bank and the teller, whom I have chatted with in a friendly but shallow way often enough, saw the “Rev.” before my name for the first time and her voice changed tone. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Here it comes.” There’s a certain look that gives this question away in advance and I saw it. “Do you think that we’re in the End Times?”
When somebody asks that I know that they have already made up their mind. They are sure of it. Almost. They have been reading novels by Tim LaHaye or listening to Jack van Impe. If you don’t know those names, good for you. Someone who asks whether we are in the End Times already (mostly) believes that to be the case but has a small bit of doubt that they identify as a sinful lack of faith and they want a random authority figure on TV or radio or across the counter to reassure them that, yes, the latest war in the Middle East will lead us to Armageddon. Yes, they want to hear, the United Nations is the tool of the devil. And on and on. Then, reassured of certain imminent doom and destruction, they can breathe a sigh of relief.
There is something wrong with that.
I didn’t give her the answer she wanted, though. I told her, “I have no idea. Jesus said he didn’t know, either, so I guess we’re in good company, huh?” She looked a little annoyed at what I am sure she considered my impiety, irreverence, and possible blasphemy, finished the transaction, and sent me on my way. And you know where she suspects I am going.
Jesus did say, though, that it isn’t for anyone to know when the world will come to an end and when history as we know it will finish. It’s right there in Matthew for anybody to read.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Matthew 24:36]
I’m not sure how he could have been any plainer than that. A lot of time and effort and paper and ink have gone into people’s estimations or guesses, generally based on misreadings of the books of Daniel and I Thessalonians and Revelation that ignore the writers’ setting, who they were first written for, and how those people would have heard things.
Jesus had other things to attend to, like healing the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, calling sinners to repentance, and proclaiming the mercy of a loving God. He said that the kingdom of God is at hand, and taught his followers to pray, “May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” not, “May your kingdom come, but please give us 48 hours advance notice.” If we have one foot in the kingdom already, we can step into it more easily whenever the time does arrive.
To be fair to us human beings, there have been times when it has seemed logical that the end of the world might have been upon us. I recently read a book called 1816: The Year without Summer. It was about how a volcanic eruption on Java in April of 1815 set off a series of meteorological events in the northern hemisphere that were so widespread and cataclysmic that the end did seem near. There was snowfall in parts of Italy that rarely see it, and the snow was red and pink. All across Europe that summer there were floods that destroyed crops from Ireland to the Balkans. People barely escaped famine and disease came with physical weakness. Switzerland saw lightning storms that didn’t seem to end. On this side of the Atlantic, there was a widespread drought. New England saw forest fires from the dry weather. There was snow as far south as Pennsylvania in June and frost off and on into July.
That year there were many who believed that it was the beginning of the end, and it spurred a religious revival in many places. While it’s good that anyone confronted with the fact of their mortality should turn things around and pay attention to their relationship to God, it should not take a catastrophe to do that. The timing of that kind of conversion points to being motivated more by fear of death than by love of God. I suspect that it’s far better for us not to know the day or the hour (which, I repeat, we do not) because acting out of fear is not what God wants of us. Have you ever seen that mocking bumper sticker that says in large letters: “Jesus is coming!”; and then underneath in smaller letters: “Look busy!”?
It’s better for us not to be able to fall into the trap of saying, “I have time.” You very well may, but you very well may not. There is no calendar, no ticking clock, no computer alarm that will tell you when you need to answer the constant call of Jesus to your heart.
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [Matthew 24:42]
If you trust God’s timing, and stay awake to God’s grace, the present is the important part, not the future. The present is where we live, and where even now we can meet Christ through his Spirit. John Greenleaf Whittier put it well:
“I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
I know not where his islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond his love and care.
And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
And thou, O Lord, by whom are seen
Thy creatures as they be,
Forgive me if too close I lean
My human heart on thee.”
So here and now I am telling you that I don’t know when the world will end or when Jesus will return, but I do know that he is kind and loving and ready here and now to lead anyone who will follow him into the ways of the Kingdom of God without waiting for the last-minute rush.