Delivered at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO, November 13, 2022
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28C: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
For those of you who were at the Kirkin’ last night, please forgive me as a repeat some of my introduction of myself. I am Brother Mike Malone. I am a friar in the Anglican Order of Preachers, the Episcopal /Anglican expression of Dominican spirituality. I am not clergy, I am a layman. I’m not a deacon, not a priest, and in no way a bishop (thanks be to God). I made my life profession a year and a half ago at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Puerto Rico, which is extra special to me because the Diocese of Puerto Rico is now in a Companion Diocese relationship to the Diocese of Missouri, where I am a parishioner.
There never seems to be a dearth of people predicting the end of the world. Every year, it seems, there is some new prophet either extolling some new interpretation of Scripture that points, they say, to the Parousia (that’s a technical term for Christ’s return) happening at some specific date and time. Or they point to a date and time for the “Rapture,” supposedly the event where all the faithful will be physically removed from the world.
In our modern times we have seen the explosive growth of what is called “Darbyism,” for which the technical theological term is “premillennial dispensationalism,” a 10-dollar phrase that just means that history is divided up into periods with different rules, and Christians will be raptured before the thousand-year reign of Christ. Although invented by John Nelson Darby in the 19th century, it has hit its stride in current evangelical circles, really taking hold in the 1960s and 1970s. I went through my Southern Baptist teenage years under the influence of Hal Lindsay’s book “The Late Great Plant Earth,” a masterwork of this particular brand of interpretation.
I’m still recovering. You have no idea what this sort of thing can do to a young person’s psyche.
The most recent popularization of this school of futurism comes in the form of the “Left Behind” series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins which, truth to be told, contain mostly bad theology and worse writing, with a healthy dose of finger-pointing and schadenfreude thrown in.
The hits just keep on comin’. And we’re still waiting for that Rapture thing that they assured us would come “any day now.”
Now, I’m not going to go into a point-by-point refutation of this kind of thinking. If you’d like to have me come to St. James some time and talk about “end times prophecy” and its misuse I’ll be glad to, but that’s not really the point I want to make today. What I want to talk about is the fact that Jesus usually side-stepped the issue of when he would return.
Let’s look at what he said in today’s Gospel reading:
“’When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.’
Sounds like a great bunch of pedictors, right?
OK, so let’s look at these “Signs of the Times” as they are called, and compare them to our current era.
Wars and insurrections? Check.
Nations rising against nation? Check
Famines and plagues? Check.
Signs in the heavens? Comets, novas, sunspots…check.
Seems pretty definite, doesn’t it? Jesus’ return must be just around the corner!
But let’s look back about…100 years or so.
Wars and insurrections: Russian revolution, anyone?
Nations rising against nation: You may have heard of a thing called “World War I.” You can look it up on Wikipedia.
Famines and plagues: Check out the Wikipedia article on “Spanish Flu.”
Signs in the heavens: Halley’s Comet has been coming around every 75-79 years for a long time. And there have been plenty of other visible comets.
The fact is, you can find these “signs of the times” in any age of civilization that you look at. They are constantly with us. And, I would venture to say, not reliable indicators that Jesus is getting ready to come back in the next few days. I can almost picture Jesus delivering this speech with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
Earlier in the passage, Jesus says, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”
So, what Jesus appears to be saying is, if someone is telling you they know when he will return, or that it’s immanent…you should run the other way. This is pretty good advice as we are inundated with people who claim to perfectly understand New Testament prophecy. I can tell you right out that there are parts that I don’t understand, that I will likely NEVER understand this side of the resurrection, because they were not written to or for a 20th-century Anglican Dominican whose primary training is in Information Technology. They were written for 1st Century mostly Jewish “followers of the Way,” as they called themselves. They understood symbols that we just don’t get.
So…why does Jesus talks about it at all? Probably because people asked him. He talked about his return, but all his responses seem to point to…not letting the timing worry us.
Need more evidence that we shouldn’t fret about it? At the risk of being accused of proof-texting, I will quote Matthew 24:36: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Simply put, we are not supposed to be concerned over when Jesus is coming. We won’t really notice any difference in the world anyway, so we won’t see it coming. Nobody will. Nobody. Not you, not your rector (when you get one), not your bishop, not the Presiding Bishop, not the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the Pope. Nobody.
So what does Scripture say about his coming back?
In the 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, the writer says “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
Who expects a thief to break into their house in the night? Nobody that I know.
In Matthew 24 Jesus says it will be like it was in the days of Noah: people will be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.
Well, that narrows it down doesn’t it?
No, nailing down a date and time didn’t seem particularly important to Jesus.
In fact, in our Gospel today, Jesus seems more interested in preparing the Apostles for witnessing than in preparing them for his return.
“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
In other words, don’t worry about it.
Keep your eyes in front of you, where they belong. Focus on the job, people.
What Jesus did tell us to do was “be ready.” Be ready all the time. Trust God to provide, and trust him for the words that you will say to spread the Kingdom.
How about if, instead of obsessing over when Jesus is coming, we simply act as if he is coming tomorrow? Or even this afternoon. If we really expect him any time, maybe the best thing would be to do what he told us to do: take care of the poor and oppressed, lift up the downhearted, spread the Gospel. If everything we do, everything we say, were done as if we really expect him any time now, I’d bet that our actions and our words might be very different.
I realize that this is a radical idea when we could be writing bestsellers about Christ’s return and scaring people, but I don’t think that sort of thing is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom.
Writing books is not what he told us to do.
He told us to take care of the poor.
He told us to work for justice and peace.
He told us to spread the Gospel.
When is Jesus coming back?
I don’t know. Don’t worry about.
But…what should I do?
Do what he told us.
And…be ready. Amen.