Tuesday, March 29, 2011
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs...from the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near...
'But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
(Matthew 24:3-8, 32, 36, 42, 44)
I walked into a local place where I am pretty well known last week and the conversation with the owner quickly turned from "small talk" to eschatology. He quoted from Matthew as he reflected on the news of the day: wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East, earthquakes in Japan, a world that feels like it is coming unglued.
It is hard to gauge just how bad things are: the eyes of nostalgia combined with the images of destruction that global news reports offer us means that we tend to feel sometimes like things are worse than they have ever been. I'm not so sure. In the twentieth century alone, the first half of a century was dominated by two World Wars and the Great Depression. The second half of that century included the Cold War, Vietnam, double-digit inflation...hostages in Iraq. I suspect that ever since Jesus uttered those words on the Mount of Olives, hardly has a decade passed without wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. As depressing as the news has been of late, I'm not certain it is worse than usual:. That doesn't mean it doesn't take a toll on all of us; we live, for sure, in an unsteady and confusing world. But it also includes moments of beauty and kindness, generosity and love and we need to see and hold onto those, too.
Wherever we are in terms of "cosmic time" - whether or not the end is near - one thing is certain: in the face of all these threats that surround us, Jesus' offers us images of hope and encouragement. Instead of being scared (which usually leads to paralysis) he encourages those who trust him to see these signs as "birth pangs." That is a very different set of lenses through which to view the world than as, say, a brain-dead patient on life support that is about to be removed. We are called to put our trust, even now, in the God who is making the heavens and the earth, and to see the reign of God is breaking in. Something new is being born...
The other image is that of the fig tree. It's technically spring according to my calendar in New England and the days are indeed getting longer, but at this moment in time there are not yet any branches getting tender or putting forth leaves. But it will happen, and I'm keeping my eyes open. Before you know it the brave crocuses will be sounding the trumpet and singing their alleluias and eventually spring and summer will come even to Massachusetts.
In the meantime we wait. But we wait not in fear, but hope. We wait with courage and we wait as people called to rebuild Japan and to work for peace in the Middle East. We wait as people who feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and hold forth a vision for all the world, of a day when they shall not hurt or destroy on all of God's holy mountain.
It is times like these that remind us who we are, and who we are called to become. (With God's help.)