“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21)The Book of Revelation. Much beloved of mystics, losers, dreamers, people who can't cope with the modern world and want it all to end. And I'm quite fond of it too. Isaac Newton was a big an of predicting apocalypses. He spent more time trying to work out when the End would come than doing Physics, I think it's fair to say he wasted his time. I wish he'd done more Physics. Maybe if he'd read that bit where Jesus says nobody knows the day, he wouldn't have spent all that time on it. Anyway, old Isaac reckons the world will end in 2060. Which, with current pension conditions, will be just about when I retire.
And as the evil beggars of ISIL killed a Norwegian and a Chinese hostage - as if to draw the nations of those two poor men in - and as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom works to ensure we can get our share of the bombing in, I remembered the words - as I do every few weeks if I'm honest - of Revelation 16:16: "And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon."
"They" in this context being frog-like spirits from the mouths of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. And "them" being the kings of the earth. That's the trouble with this kind of writing. It's all about context.
This passage where Jesus talks about the End occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels. And it seems to be mixing up two events. One is the one that has happened - the Jewish Revolt which led to the Fall of Jerusalem. This happened within the lifespan of some of Jesus's hearers. And must have seemed like the actual End to a lot of them.
The other is vaguer, stranger, more pictorial. Jesus doesn't separate them - maybe, incarnate, having given up all but love - maybe he doesn't see it so clearly. He tells us that the day will come when the Son of Man will return, in clouds of glory.
There's no timescale, no calendar, no clues. And the great story of Apocalypse is - you never get any firm dates. That's maybe because the dates are unknowable. Maybe they're outside time. But because they're undatable, because they're cast in pictorial, mythical language - they're reusable. To repurpose the language of code development, they can be repurposed.
And so through the ages generations of Christians have been able to see signs of the times, lift up their heads and know the End is near. The Christians of Constantinople when it fell - they must have believed the Day was upon them. For many it was. The people who lived through the Plague that repeatedly struck - sometimes taking a third of the population - we know they did. Every time a Christian group of people suffer persecution - the Day is drawing near.
Then there are the rich, oppressing, comfortable Christians that stock up with guns and get ready for the End to come. Dunno what they think God will do for them really. Free them from their oppressors? Imagined or otherwise? And if they think the thing to do in event of Jesus's return is to head for the hills with a machine gun - what do they think Jesus is going to return as? A fur trapper? As Peter Cook said in the sketch, as his disciples went up on the hills - the hills will be safe as houses.
I do believe that Jesus will come again. But I'm not going to predict how, and I'm not going to predict when. I believe the whole Creation is waiting to be repurposed - not going to use that word again now - recreated, renewed, resurrected. And on the grand scale of things I believe that may take longer than most who predict the end of the world are prepared to wait. And I also believe in lots of little apocalypses - not the one people are constantly ready to predict will take place next Wednesday or whenever. That whenever God's people are at a crisis - and wherever - these words of Jesus are true once again. That whenever God's people are persecuted, fleeing and threatened - then Jesus is once again drawing near.
There's something written in our hearts that keeps telling us the world is supposed to be fair. I even remember one lady saying to me, when it was diagnosed that her cancer had returned - "I suppose I must be a right evil bugger to deserve this." We ache for meaning in the things that life throws at us - even if that meaning implies we have caused our own misfortunes. "Serves 'em right", we say, when somebody we think deserves their comeuppance gets it.
Of course, this deep feeling that the world is fair is contradicted by everything we know about the world. Bad behaviour - even evil, spiteful, vicious behaviour - sometimes brings its rewards. If the world handed back what people deserved we wouldn't need police and armed forces - people would know not to be evil because they'd know the consequences. But I do believe that's the thing that is just a sign, just a clue - not a proof - that the world is designed for good. Against all sense, we believe that the world ought to be fair, if it's not. That people ought to get what they deserve, even if they don't. That a world where the best and fairest that it ever produced gets hung on a cross, is not living up to what we expect. And that's a belief that starts with the story of Adam and Eve, and goes all the way through to the Revelation of John.
The promise of Advent is that in fact this is written in our hearts. That one day the hungry will be fed forever, the lonely comforted, the sinful forgiven and the whole broken family of God will be drawn together from far and near. That beyond the endless battles, the pain and fear and woe and darkness of this world, there's a light dawning. That the world is struggling, yet pregnant with the promise of a new hope.
And we wait for the Lord to come. Not daring to guess when, and not knowing how, but believing that the work he completed on the Cross will be made clear in the earth and heavens, when we see God as he sees us, when the water of the Spirit pours out across the world as healing streams, when a cross is transformed to the Tree of Life for the healing of the nations.
Come, Lord Jesus!