Saturday 2 December 2017

Getting on with the Job

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (Mark 13)

It's been a long old wait now.

There's an old book which most people don't read now, called "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe." In it, the followers of the great Prophet Zarquon, at the very end of time are still waiting for Zarquon to come back. Douglas Adams no doubt wrote it as a satire of Christians believing in the Second Coming - but then undercut his own satire by actually having Zarquon arrive, just in time for the Universe to end.

Or consider the case of poor old Gunnershaw, in the Last of the Summer Wine episode, "According to the Prophet Bickerdyke," Gunnershaw is a follower of the prophet, whose final forecast was the date and time of the End of the World. Unfortunately, although Gunnershaw knows the world will end on a Wednesday a 14:17, he doesn't know which Wednesday - the prophet having died halfway through his prophecy.

Or again, in real life - Harold Camping, whose dedication to prophesying the End was surpassed by his inability to get the right date.

One problem with the End is you can get obsessed with it. There's a nasty stream of apocalyptic theology among some American evangelicals [1] that thinks we can bring the End on if we work hard enough - the preconditions being preaching the Gospel to every nation, and the Jews returning to Israel. These people will often be keen on supporting the state of Israel. Not because they have a right to exist - let's park that one, shall we - but because they believe in that last battle at Armageddon. And to bring that battle on it's necessary that the kings of the earth turn up and do their bit. In other words, they want Jews in the Middle East as much to be cannon fodder as to be conversion fodder. ISIS had a similar view of Dabiq - they wanted the fight there because it meant they would bring in their equivalent of the Apocalypse.

Or it can bring on an energy-sapping form of Pietism. If all you have to do is stay awake, if the End has a timetable worked out, then why do anything? Why not just sing a few hymns, thank God for the well-deserved punishment coming on the wicked and the delights coming to the Faithful Few, and sit around with your ticket for heaven, waiting for the journey to be over?

Both these views founder around the fact that actually, if we take the New Testament witness as a whole, there's no obvious signs of how the End will happen in any detail at all. It's all myth-language - all picture language - being caught up in the air, dragons, barcodes... sorry, I made up the barcodes. It's not coherent, because it doesn't need to be. It's saying that one day - and you aren't going to get to know when, because even Jesus didn't know on earth - one day justice will finally be delivered. All the bad stuff will be sorted out. But it doesn't give us a timetable. Which is why whenever you hear the latest prophecy of the world ending, it tends to drag astrological ideas or the alignment of the planets into it. Jesus hasn't set down a proper calendar - maybe because he didn't know it, maybe because in fact there wasn't one; isn't one. Because the judgement, the restoration, the resurrection will be beyond our earthly time.

The Bible's full of the hints - all the way back to Genesis 2, when the snake is told that, through the True Eve and the New Improved Adam, he will get his head crushed. When Jesus switches from the near future of the Temple to the myth of the End. When John the Divine stands on a beach on the island where he's exiled, and sees that the Empire that is persecuting his sisters and brothers will not last.

But Jesus says in the meantime, do something that might seem, at first sight, to be a bit duller than an Apocalypse. Do your job. Jesus says that he may physically be in heaven, waiting for the glorious day, but you will see his earthly representatives every day - the sick, the poor, one who is in prison. They may be a bit dirty and smelly, may be a bit sweary, may be completely underserving of our love - in reality, or in our judgement - but he's there all the same. So look after them.

You will have talents. You may be an encourager. You may be a prophet. You may polish pews. You may sit in a cold church for hours on end, so it can be open when people want to visit. Well, crack on.  You may be called to oppose injustice. You're gonna have a rotten time, probably - a real struggle. But if that's what you're called to do, do it. Maybe you're lucky enough - or "blessed" as you/d probably call it - to have plenty of disposable income. Well, the good news is, the Holy Spirit can find lost of ways for you to spend it. Then when the King returns from his journey, he'll find you doing the job he gave you.

One day, on the great day - Jesus will rip this world apart like a sheet of paper. The Spirit will breathe, the dead will rise, the sheep and the goats will be sorted out. The earth and heavens will be renewed, and you won't be able to tell one from the other because everything will shine with the light of the Lamb.. The ones who recognise Jesus will be healed, and the Lord will wipe every tear from their eyes. In the mean time, do your job. It's not terribly well known (apart from readers of this blog and a few special others), but the great Isaac Newton  spent more time trying to calculate the end of the world than he spent on Physics. Given the limitations on calculation we've discussed, it's fair to say he failed at working it out. Isaac Newton is one of the greatest geniuses this world has ever seen. I wish he'd stuck to Physics. That was his job.

[1] I can hear the cries of "say it's not so" from here.

Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. And don't forget it's nearly Christmas!

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