Well here we are on the first day of advent, yet we start at the beginning by talking about the end!
I am standing here today largely because of “THE END TIMES”! I grew up in a home where there was great interest in the ‘signs of the times’, and my mum would often see something on the TV news and then say ominously “the Bible says something about that”.
And to a teenage boy, this is exciting stuff! Combining world events with ancient scriptures is actually quite good fun! I’ve heard it said that the tanks going into Iraq would, to an ancient prophet, look like locusts. Plenty of prophecies about locusts in the Bible!
And that Saddam Hussein had the spirit of Nebuchadnezzar, and his rise to power was a sign of the end. History unfortunately disproved that one.
I also heard that China is the dragon from the book of Revelation, because dragons are important in Chinese folklore… and more oddly, that Madonna, and then Britney Spears, are the “whores of Babylon”!!!
I loved this stuff, and it got me into the bible, into reading more and onto the long process that led me to finding that things were more complicated than I had previously thought. I came to realise that, as much as all of that speculation is fascinating and great for hypothetical creative discussion, it is basically entirely down to an individual’s imagination. The same event can be matched to numerous scriptures if your mind is creative enough, and any possible outcome deduced as prophecy.
This frustrated me, because I do want to know what the Bible is actually saying! If the scriptures of God are to mean anything consistent, then there must be an objective way of reading them rather than a random subjective way! This process led me into proper bible study and began a process leading to church ministry.
And so we find in Chapter 24 that Jesus Christ has something to say on the matter of “the end times”, and a close reading of the gospel of Matthew brings a big disappointment to those “reading the signs”, but also a big warning to us.
Chapter 24 of Matthew is answering two questions posed at the beginning. The first one is “When will all the stones of the temple be thrown down?”. The second is “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”. Most of Chapter 24 answers the first question. Indeed, Jesus actually says “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And he’s talking about the apocalyptic destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
That temple, which includes stones that weigh an estimated 500 tons, was the glory of Israel. David had prepared it; Solomon had built it; God had consecrated it; and God had promised his presence would be there. But as Israel’s complacency grew, God’s presence departed the temple and Israel fell into captivity.
But then came change – a new Persian ruler, a decree allowing them to return home, and the passionate desire that this time will be different. The exiles returned to Jerusalem and began rebuilding the city. Yet it should have rung alarm bells that much of the temple was reconstructed by a cruel, selfish egomaniac called Herod the Great. This man was very clearly not in the line of David or Solomon.
As Herod’s reign came to an end, a baby was born in the north of Israel, a son was given. Foreign kings came to worship him, but the political leaders tried to kill him. The boy became a man and told people that he was the new temple; that God was among then, in him. And he brought life, and healing and sustenance and direction to all he met.
But the leaders of this Herodian temple, in collaboration with the pagan power of Rome, killed the man who was God’s temple. Yet that did not make the problems go away. As well as an annoying group of people who insisted that this Jesus had come back to life and that they had seen and met him, there were wider issues. Roman oppression was resulting in uprisings, and soon Israel was in revolt against Rome.
To end it all, General Vespasian marched from the north, down through Israel, razing the country. He was called away to Rome to become Emperor halfway through the job, but his son Titus finished the work. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the prophecy of Jesus fulfilled.
But our reading today comes after the destruction of Jerusalem. Now Jesus is answering the second question, shown clearly when he says “But about that day”, contrasting it to the other, earlier ‘day’. And about “that, later” day, Jesus says very clearly: NO ONE KNOWS THE DAY OR THE HOUR. No angel knows. On earth, in his submission, humbling of himself before his Father, and identification with us humans, not even Jesus knew. It was a secret hidden with the Father.
No one knows the day or the hour. Just like in the times of Noah, people will be going about life. Buying, selling, trading, marrying, divorcing, partying, mourning. Two people will be working in a field, but one will be saved, the other not.
The point, therefore, is KEEP AWAKE. Keep yourself alert. Keep your light burning. Keep your clothes on. Keep your guard up. Don’t get slack. Don’t let your behaviour fall. Stand firm, resist the pull of lethargy, the temptation to compromise!
The first people who heard this were wondering when Christ would return. The message is clear: no one knows. But so too is the message: don’t get lazy.
In Matthew’s gospel, much teaching has been given on how the followers of Jesus should be living – see the Sermon on the Mount – and so we have plenty to guide us. The key, then, is in consistency.
One person has become lazy, she goes into the field having stopped charitable contributions, having given up praying for watching more TV instead, having neglected those in her family who need comfort and help, having put her trust in her bank account more than in God. She has plenty of spare time, but uses it all to shop and consume, never once calling her elderly relatives.
The other person remembers to visit her elderly friend, and calls her parents regularly. She gives to those in need when she can, and practices prayer and bible reading, reflecting on how she can grow spiritually. She enjoys time relaxing with the TV, but is wise to discern what is beneficial and what is not, and she makes sure she uses her time profitably. When she can, she visits those who are suffering and helps with a homeless ministry.
One of these ladies has kept awake. One of these ladies is alert. One of them has the candle burning. One of them has her guard up. One of them will be saved.
The message today is make sure you are that one. Don’t be side-tracked by worldly distractions. Make sure your heart is fixated on the important things, the things of eternal value.
For the end will come, and when it comes, will you or I be found alert, looking for our saviour, or will we be so lost in distractions that we are found to be of no use for the eternal king?