Sunday, 30 November 2014

How to Predict the End of the World

Image: Albrecht Dürer (public domain)
Predicting the End of the World: how hard can it be? After all, isn't it all laid out in the pages of Revelation and Daniel and bits of Ezekiel? The cast of characters is well-known, if a little strange: the Lamb, the Beast, a Dragon, Babylon the Great, some angels with bowls and trumpets and scrolls, the Antichrist, the Four Horsemen, and lots (and lots) of locusts. Somewhere in there are various events like stars falling out of the sky, people getting boils, the thousand year long peaceful rule of Christ on earth, Satan being loosed from the abyss, and a gigantic city named New Jerusalem descending from heaven. The challenge is simple, really: follow the clues, get the events laid out in the right order, and figure out the start date. Oh, and if you like, write a series of best-selling novels explaining how it'll all look when it plays out on the streets of major American cities...

(Warning: the link in the previous paragraph will take you to information about the Left Behind series, which some scholars believe, in a cruel irony, is itself one of the terrible plagues predicted by Revelation.)

However, if you're looking to get into the Predicting the End of the World business, I feel I need to offer you a few warnings based on the Gospel reading being heard in many churches around the world today: Mark 13. 24-27.

Warning #1: You Will Be Wrong.
Sorry. But it's just a fact. Jesus said, "Concerning that day or hour, no on knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." You'd think if the answer were there in Revelation the angels in heaven or Jesus might have worked it out for themselves by now. Take it from me: everyone else has been wrong so far, and Christians have been predicting the end of the world since Jesus ascended to the Father. That's two thousand years of being wrong. You'd think we'd have learned something in all that time.

Warning #2: You Will Be More Wrong.
At least, if you pay attention to most of the other End of the World people. Most of Revelation has already happened. It's an apocalyptic book, which is a technical term for a style of writing we don't use much these days. It means a book which uses a lot of cosmic symbolism to discuss the events of the writer's own time from a divine perspective. Revelation is about the first and second century Roman Empire, and Rome, and the persecuted Church. Just as most of Daniel is about Jewish persecution under the Seleucid Empire. It's great reading if you want to encourage suffering and persecuted Christians, even today. But as a predictive tool it's about as useful as Leviticus. Or Gone with the Wind. As Jesus also said in today's Gospel: "You do not know when the time will come."

Warning #3: You Will Be Even Wronger.
Most likely, if the other End-of-the-Worlders are any guide. Because you'll start thinking the end of the world is the thing that really matters. You'll preach on it and write books on it and walk around with a sandwich board proclaiming "The End of the World is Nigh!" (Because "Nigh!" sounds so much more holy than "Near!") You'll mark dates on your calendar for the Three Woes and the Millennium. You'll avoid using products with bar codes (which are the mark of the Beast) and put a sticker on the back of your car saying, "In case of Rapture this car will be unmanned!" You won't buy any more songs from iTunes once you have 665 of them, just in case.
And while you're doing that, you'll stop paying attention to everything around you right now. Jesus says, "Stay awake!" but you'll be daydreaming of some distant future filled with plagues and bliss. In your daydreams other people will simply become potential converts to win over to your views or enemies of the truth. And somewhere down the line you'll be so caught up in your End of the World fantasy you'll just stop doing the day to day loving Jesus actually called you to do. So here's a reminder: love is the thing that really matters.

Actually, there's one bit of Revelation I have a great deal of confidence in: the New Jerusalem. Somewhere in there, after all the mess and death and destruction, comes God's gift of an unbelievably massive city from the heavens, large enough to accommodate every man, woman, and child who ever lived on this earth with a great deal of room to spare. If it were a real city today, and it descended on the United States with one edge on the California coast, the other edge would cross the Mississippi, the north would be in Canada and the south in Mexico, and most of it would be sticking out into space. It's a symbol of God's grace and God's love which is beyond comprehension, and when we love God and love one another we begin to sense what it might be like to live in it.

Get out there and love someone. Find out what the end of the world is going to feel like.

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