The end of the world is nigh!

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Luke 21.5-19

The end of the world is nigh!

There’s always someone, it seems, who believes that they know when the end of the world is coming! All kinds of predictions have been made down the centuries about when the end of the world as we know it was coming, only for nothing to happen.

Take Ronald Weinland, for example. Ronald Weinland is the head of a Christian denomination with the rather long title: Church of God, Preparing for the Kingdom of God. He founded it in 1998 in the United States. So much easier to just be able to say you’re a member of the Church of England. Weinland started predicting that the end of the world was due at any moment in 2008. And then declared that Christ would return and the end of the world would come on the feast of Pentecost in the year 2012.

When that didn’t happen, he changed his prophecy of the end of the world to Pentecost 2013. When that didn’t happen, he then prophesied that the end of the world would happen at Pentecost 2019. Yes – you, like me, may have noticed something of a pattern emerging here. Weinland hasn’t yet got it right yet. Of course, Weinland’s credibility with his fellow church members may have been somewhat undermined by the fact that in 2013 he was imprisoned for 3½ years for tax evasion – something he apparently didn’t see coming.

Every year around this time our readings focus on what the Bible has to say about the end of the world. So every year I have a look on the internet to see the latest theories. This year, other than Weinland, there is nothing. So it seems that we should reach New Year’s Day 2020 without any problem. We do have a General Election to get through but I’m sure we’ll all survive that!  And just to put your minds at rest, Weinland does not appear to have made any further predictions about the end of the world as we know it. People have always thought the end of the world is nigh. There is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun.

Today’s gospel reading shows us Jesus predicting a cataclysmic event that for Jews of the time meant the end of the world as they had known it. Some people were talking about the temple, about how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.

And Jesus says: These things that you see, the days are coming when not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.

At the time people would have thought of Jesus in much the same way as we think of those who in our own day tell us the world is coming to an end. They would have thought he was quite barmy. You have to understand just how magnificent the Temple was and how central to Jewish national identity. It was the centre of their religious and political life.

At the time that Jesus spoke the second restoration of the Temple had been going on for around forty six years. It wouldn’t be completed until AD 63. It was one of the biggest construction projects in the ancient world. It was huge – four football fields wide and five football fields long. It was made of marble. One wall was of solid gold. It had pillars of marble forty feet high. We know what it was like because the historian Josephus records just how magnificent it was. Even Herod donated a gold vine for one of its decorations – and when I tell you that the golden clusters of grapes on the vine were as tall as a person you can imagine just what that must have been worth!

The Temple was a symbol of security, a symbol of national identity, for the people. And Jesus says that it will all be pulled down. How could it be? What nonsense! And yet within seven years of the completion of the Temple, in AD 70, the Romans while putting down a revolt of the Jewish people, tore down the Temple. This amazing building had only been complete for seven years.

In the film Independence Day there is a scene where the White House, a similarly iconic building for a nation – in this case the United States – is destroyed by an alien space ship. In cinemas when that happened people cheered. I can’t imagine why! No-one cheered at the destruction of the Temple. Except, perhaps, the Romans.

People thought that the destruction of this iconic building, God’s dwelling place among his people, marked the end of the world. Losing this symbol of God’s presence amongst them felt like the end of the world as they knew it.

In these few weeks between All Saints Day on 1st November and Advent Sunday in two weeks’ time, the Church turns its attention to what is popularly called ‘The Second Coming’ and to the point where Jesus wraps this world up and ushers in the new age of the kingdom of God. The point at which this world comes to and end and the new heaven and the new earth of God’s eternal kingdom come into being. The readings we have highlight this aspect of our Christian faith – the belief that one day Jesus will return and we will live with him for ever.

Following the resurrection the first Christians were expecting Jesus to return at any moment – and yet he hadn’t come back. Luke’s gospel was written 30-40 years after Jesus had ascended and he still hadn’t returned. And Christians were starting to ask: When’s he coming, then? Why hasn’t he come back yet? They were waiting for the end of the world as we know it, and for Jesus to usher in God’s new kingdom. And in this passage Luke is saying to the church community for which he wrote his gospel: Don’t worry about the future – stop being alarmed – the end is not coming yet. There will be difficult times but Jesus will be with you.

And to do so he tells this story of how, after a visit to the Temple with Jesus and the prediction by Jesus that the Temple will be destroyed the disciples are desperate to know: When will this happen? When will the Temple be destroyed? And in reply Jesus himself talked of false prophets who would tell everyone that the end was nigh and of terrifying wars, earthquakes and famines. And all these things, he says, are but the beginning.

A problem we have always had is that various groups look at the world, and they see all the wars and the natural disasters, all the violence and famine and earthquakes, and they say: Look, here are all the disasters that Jesus predicted – we must be reaching the end of the world. Jesus is about to return. And then they try to work out when it will happen, claim to have some kind of insider knowledge, and are consistently wrong.

And in any case, if you actually look at what Jesus says, he doesn’t say to his disciples that when they hear of wars and rumours of wars and so on it’s a sign he is going to return. He says: Don’t be terrified.

What we find that Jesus says to his followers is: Forget all this worry about the future. Jesus calls upon his followers to concentrate on the here and now; because they, just like him, will be attacked and persecuted, some of them will even be put to death. The vital thing is to witness to the truth of the gospel now. Holding fast to the gospel in present troubles is the real task for his disciples, not worrying about what lies ahead in the future. The only preparation for Jesus’ return – whenever that will be – is to have a living faith in God, a relationship that will see them through anything that happens.

In all their troubles and in all that they suffer for the sake of the gospel, Christians can be confident that Jesus is with them to inspire and guide them. Jesus calls upon us to direct our attention to the present rather than spend our time being over-anxious about the future. For the future is in God’s hands. There really is no point in worrying ourselves about future events. This is his message to the disciples in our reading, and what Luke is communicating to the church community for which he wrote his gospel. We are called to concentrate on the present, the here and now. Don’t spend your time worrying yourself to death, says Jesus, just get on with the job of being a Christian, of living out your Christianity in daily life.  

Corrie ten Boom, was a Dutch woman who somehow survived a concentration camp during the Second World War. She wrote about her experiences in the famous book The Hiding Place, later made into a film. If you’ve never read it, you should. As she so correctly observed:

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.