Many Christians struggle with these apocalyptic passages in the gospels that seemingly refer to the end of the world.
It does seem that the early Christian community did live with an imminent expectation that the end of the world was near. But as time went on they had to readjust their thinking on the so-called second coming. In more mainstream Christian circles such talk of the immanent end of the world has become less and less focused on. But it is also true that there have been some Christians in every generation over the past 2000 years who have continued to preach that the second coming is just around the corner.
The first time these passages in the Bible began to make some sense to me was in reading the work of NT Wright – retired Church of England Bishop and scholar. He believes that these passages were not in fact originally about the end of the world at all, but rather about the fall of Jerusalem. He suggests that Jesus’ original statements were an insight from Jesus that if the Jewish people continued on their current trajectory there would be dreadful political consequences for them. Rome would invade.
One can see elements of that message in this passage: vs 20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.
How terrible it would be on that day, Jesus said. For those living in Jerusalem, it would be like the end of the world had come upon them. It would be a dark and terrible day. For those going through it, it would feel like the sun and the moon had ceased to shine, and as though the sea was being convulsed. How dreadful it would be for pregnant woman and nursing mothers. Indeed, it is always the weakest and most vulnerable in society who suffer the most in times of war.
In verse 32, we see that Jesus is not talking about the end of the world: I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.
About 30 years later, in 70 AD, the disaster that Jesus predicted did indeed come upon Jerusalem. The temple was utterly destroyed. Historical documents indicate that blood flowed in the streets. A dark and terrible day indeed.
What does all of this have to do with us?
There are universal lessons in this predicted fall of Jerusalem.
In the folly of humanity, history has shown how disastrous moments like the fall of Jerusalem have come upon the world and upon humanity from time to time. In verse 35 “...For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth...”
In a way, it is true that all of us go through experiences where it seems like our world has come crashing in... the end of the world as we know it. The death of a loved one. Loss of a job. An unexpected diagnosis. Sometimes it is literal earthquakes and literal fires that sweep across neighbourhoods as we have seen in California in recent weeks. Sometimes, economic crashes... sometimes literal wars between nations. For those living through the first and second world war, it must have seemed as though the world as they knew it had come to an end.
Interestingly in this passage, we read in verse 28, when these things come upon you, stand up, and lift up your heads, because your liberation / redemption is coming near.
How do we make sense of that? How is it that when disaster comes upon us we should stand up straight and lift up our heads because our liberation or redemption is near?
One of the ways in which disasters can liberate us is that they remind us of what is most valuable. It does so I think in two ways:
Firstly, we are awakened again to the impermanence of this world. When disaster comes, it can have the affect of awakening us from our stupor and ignorance about life. When we see how fragile life is, we are reminded that there is a spiritual dimension, the realm of the eternal that is not affected by the change and decay of this world. We are awakened to discover and seek that which is most real and most true in life.
In Western countries where there has been a relatively long period of peace and stability, it is perhaps not a surprise that secularism and atheism have arisen. When life is fairly predictable and life expectancy is long and there is a fair amount of wealth, who really needs God? Who really needs to think about things of a spiritual nature when this life seems to be offering all that we need?
But when disaster comes and this world no longer provides all we need or want, then it makes sense that people’s religious sensibilities begin to rise once again... when life fails us, then it makes more sense to look to the world of the eternal for spiritual meaning and purpose. In America after 9/11 it was noted that there was a marked rise in religiosity among Americans. A study showed similar results in those affected by the major 2011 earthquake in Christ Church New Zealand. Isn’t it interesting that Northern Ireland, which experienced 30 years of troubles which affected almost everyone in some way or another, is probably the most religious place in the United Kingdom. Trouble and difficulty remind us that this world is not all there is. There is a something more.
Disaster awakens us to the eternal dimension of life.
Secondly, when the fragility of life comes upon us we also begin to have different priorities in this world... we begin to cherish what is truly valuable in life. We become grateful for the things that really matter in this life, those priceless treasures that money just can’t buy:
- The gift of friendships and family members.
- Precious moments shared together – special meals.
- Gratitude for a hand-clasp, a gentle smile, a warm embrace.
- Gratitude for the support of loved ones
- For the gift of food, clothing and shelter
- for the gift of being alive.
I think there are many who are aware today of of how fragile the world is. But the truth is, most of us are not in a position to do much about it except to live with as much faithfulness and integrity as we can within our own small sphere’s of influence. And in the end that is all we can do.
In verse 34 we read “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” I read this verse as a call to faithfulness and not to allow ourselves to be weighed down with anxiety about things we have little control over.
Do our best to live as followers of Jesus, putting into practice his teachings to the best of our ability.
And in Luke 6:46-49 we read that when we do that, when we hear Jesus words and seek to put them into practice, we are like a builder building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, that season in which as a faith community we consciously begin to prepare ourselves to celebrate again the birth of Jesus among us.
And so, in this season of Advent, let us dig our foundations deep again as we seek to build our lives on the things that matter the most and allow our homes to be built not on the fleeting chances and changes of this world, but rather upon things of infinite and eternal value. May we treasure with gratitude the small things in life that make life worth living and deep and meaningful.
And in doing so, on Christmas Day, may we not simply celebrate the birth of Christ in the distant history, but may we celebrate the birth of Christ in our hearts, in our words, in our actions and may that second coming of Jesus in us and through us bring joy to the world.