Preached in Spring 2008 at Eugene Friends and Fall 2008 at Vancouver First Friends
Matthew 23, 24 and 25
When I was a university administrator, I was on the Crisis incident response team—talking about how to deal with avian flu pandemic, potential violence on campus—how to respond to these things. The flu predictions are pretty dire, and our security person at the time, a sweet guy who spent his time off working with youth in trouble, said, “When this sort of disaster occurs, there will be looting.” We looked at him in disbelief; he said, “People will come to get the food in the kitchens; they’ll raid the offices; we may need to secure the perimeter and we may need to be armed.” This is a funny story, really.
It is no slam on security—when your whole life is given to protecting a population and a property, you just think differently. You’ll be glad to know that we decided we would give the food away, we would open the dorms to the Red Cross, and we would not arm our security personnel. For one thing, if the halls are filled with flu sufferers, it keeps the looters away.
Driving home from work shortly after we began dropping bombs on Baghdad, I felt deeply the fragility of the earth and the human life on it and I prayed, Please God, don’t let us destroy what you have made so beautifully.
I grew up under the shadow of the cold war in America and civil war in Burundi, Africa. No one could predict in either case who would die and who would survive and what would be destroyed if things went very wrong.
And here we are in the middle of a global financial crisis greater than anything most of us have ever seen. We know people who are losing jobs, losing homes, losing health insurance, asking for help, angry at government, angry at their neighbors, turning political rallies into mob scenes, hiding their money under the mattress.
Someone called me a pessimist the other day, and that may be a correct assessment. I think I come by that honestly, both from genetics and experience. So it was no wonder that as a young adult I took seriously the evangelical prophets’ prediction that the world would end a generation after the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. At first that was 1968, then you may remember 1988, and now here it is 2008, and we’re still here and wondering what it meant.
I don’t have that answer to the question of when will we face the end of time and what will the experience be like. The question that interests me is the “so what” question. How does Jesus expect me to live when the world can end today or in millennia?
It’s useful to place Jesus’s comments on the “end of the age” into their context. Matthew 24, the apocalyptic chapter, comes after Matthew 23, where Jesus told people to do away with the hierarchies that identified some as rabbi, father, teacher; to serve all if they wanted to be great; to stop shutting the door against those who were entering the kingdom of Heaven; to stop venerating religious traditions above God; to stop trying to buy their way out of being just, merciful, and faithful. Then in the next chapter, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “what will be the signal for your coming and the end of the age?”
This phrase, “the end of the age” is translated variously, but it does indeed carry with it the idea of apocalypse. Jesus says some mysterious things about the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place, and Matthew advises the reader to be sure they understand this. To the listeners, this likely referred to some form of idol worship in the place that was holy, namely the temple. They lived to see the temple destroyed, just as Jesus predicted, and the holy place desecrated. And yet, the messianic return of Jesus to set up his throne among us did not happen as they thought it would.
Thayer’s lexicon talks about the period of instability, weakness, impiety, wickedness, calamity, and misery that precedes the appointed return of Christ. Isn’t that a great list? And which age from Jesus to now hasn’t seen this as characteristic of some part of our world? Where is that golden age in the past? Frequently, we think from our own lives particularly—I remember when I felt safe, comforted, strong, good, godly and happy—and we think a change to our surroundings means that the world is about to end. So it is possible for someone in the US to talk about tribulation as if it were a future event and someone in Zimbabwe or Myanmar to think it is already here.
Or for someone watching the stock market fall to think this is the end and someone in the 14th century watching half of Europe die from the Black Plague to think that the end was surely near. The Black Plague may have begun in Asia and spread to Europe during the 1340s. The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75-100 million people, 25-50 million of them in Europe—between 30-60% of Europe’s population.
Jesus says that even he did not know when the end would be, even though he knew hard times were coming for Jerusalem and the Jews. What he did know is that it would be in the midst of things. The lesson is Matthew 24:44, “Be ready because I will show up when you are not expecting me.”
And here’s the so what: What does it mean to be ready?
1) parable of the misbehaving servant: a delay is not an excuse to do whatever you want; do what you know is right in your job and relationships (45-51)
2) parable of the 10 virgins: be prepared for the return, be prepared for a long wait.
3) parable of the talents: invest what God has given you so that there is a return on it; don’t hoard it or try to protect it in hard times.
4) parable of the sheep and the goats: make your neighbor’s life easier not harder; give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty; a home and clothing to the homeless and naked; comfort and presence to the sick and imprisoned.
Whatever you do for another, you do for Jesus, he says. That’s how close he is to us.
So, when we hear of wars and rumors of war, earthquakes, famines, global financial meltdown, how are we to respond?
Do NOT buy duct tape and plastic and lay in a supply of water.
Do NOT buy more guns and set up survival caves.
Do NOT hoard.
Do NOT take advantage of those in need.
Do NOT panic.
What Jesus teaches us to do in response to misery, war, famine, crisis—global, local, or personal:
Say YES to generosity
Say YES to responsibility
Say YES to hospitality
Say YES to loving the world around us
Say YES to loving our neighbor
Say YES to confidence in God’s love and goodness
Stay alive while we live—give it our best effort—work to make the world better—Jesus is always near, Jesus is also coming.