I read On The Beach as a teenager, and still remember the chilling pessimism of Neville Shute's novel as his characters wait to die from radiation poisoning. There are hundreds of books and novels with an apocalyptic theme. It seems like these stories are a way of thinking about our deep fears about the end of the world.
Some of them are stories where the world ends. On The Beach is one of those. In others there is a hero who saves the day. In Independence Day Will Smith saves us all from the aliens by flying one of their spacecraft into the mothership and infecting their computer systems with a virus. When the Martians invade earth in The War Of The Worlds, Tom Cruise shows us how to be a faithful father in a crisis.
In our society we have images in our minds about the end of the world which are often shaped by these movies, or which these movies reinforce. In our minds, the end of the world will come from an asteroid slamming into us, or from an alien invasion. Or maybe a pandemic will finish us off if some clever doctor played by Dustin Hoffman (Outbreak) can't develop an antidote in time. We also worry about nuclear wars and nuclear reactors, and natural disasters.
These are the images which come to mind when we think about the end of the world. Everybody understands them and what they mean.
It was the same in Jesus' time. People had a set of images and stories they used to talk about the end of the world. In Jesus' Jewish culture the stories were characterised by the conviction that when the end came it would not be an American movie star who saved us, but God. Their end of the world stories were not like On The Beach. They believed that God would finally intervene in the world, and save the people who had lived the way God desired. We can see that reflected in today's reading from Isaiah 2.
Like us the people of Jesus' time were worried about the end of the world. The difference might be ... that instead of being afraid of it, or only afraid, many of them longed for the world to end. Life was so bad for the poor people of the land, who were oppressed by their own rulers and by the Romans, that the idea God would bring the end and rescue them, was about the only hope they had.
Today's reading is in the middle of the chapters where Matthew talks about the end of the world. He begins toward the end of Chapter 23, where the words of Jesus make it clear that Jerusalem's time has finished; the end is coming. Jesus laments Jerusalem, (23:29-39) and in the beginning of chapter 24 we hear that Jerusalem will be destroyed.
So for the people of Matthew who live 50 or 60 years after the death of Jesus, and 20 years after the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the deadly siege of that city before the Temple was destroyed, these chapters are a story of reassurance.
According to Matthew, Jesus knew these things would happen; he foretells them. "Don't worry, Jesus knew this would happen. So you can trust all the other things he said."
First of all... it's going to happen.
And when it happens... there will be no avoiding it. Two women will be grinding meal together; one is taken one is left.
Don't worry that you won't notice when he comes. The very stars will fall from heaven.
And don't worry about all the rumours of wars and all the other things that are going on, this is just life. It doesn't mean anything. He will come. You won't need to be told.
In the meantime... ignore those people who claim to be the Messiah, or to know who the Messiah is. They are all false, whoever they are, wherever they are said to be. There are no secret Messiahs. If someone says they have seen the Messiah, that is its own proof they are deceived, or lying. Don't follow after them.
And especially... don't listen to the people who say they know the time. Nobody knows...
Not even the son of God knows.
If you listen to some crazy American preacher on the radio or the TV, and he tells you to sell all your stuff and gather at some mountain somewhere, or in some city in Brazil, to wait for Jesus, you're going to make an absolute fool of yourself. The one thing we can be sure of, is that if someone says now is the time, they are wrong.
And there's always someone saying that; I searched on the Internet to find out how to spell Harold Camping's surname— he was the one who said it would all end in October 2012— and without even looking saw two other people who claimed to know the time. Don't listen to these people Matthew said; they are wrong.
Don't think this stuff is not important. Don't be complacent. I have a relative who is a gentle and sensitive man— a faithful, lifetime Christian— who has an unhealthy bank account on account of an end of the world doomsayer, who is currently in the courts at last, for his buying of guns and an island to see out the end times. Very sane people get fooled. Even here in Adelaide.
So what do we do then if we don't know when this is going to happen? How do we plan for it? The answer is: you don't. Be ready, be watchful, but get on with life.
We must be ready to for Him to come after lunch, and yet ready to continue our entire life without him coming, and be training our children to live their entire life without his yet coming. We do not know the day or the hour.
In the meantime life will go on as it always has, eating and drinking, and giving in marriage. And we will go along with it, like the exiles in Babylon, seeking the welfare of the city where we live. (Jer 29:7) We are called to live differently, to live for justice, to love, and to have mercy.
Now you might be slightly worried by what I've said so far. It might almost sound as though the minister thinks all these words of Jesus are just a story. In fact, you might have wondered if the minister half suspects Matthew is putting a few words into Jesus' mouth! And that doesn't square with what you've always heard and believed, which is that Jesus foretold all these things and they will happen exactly as they are written!
The reality is that within our church there are people who believe that Jesus knew and foretold every last thing here, and there are others who read the stories quite differently. But it is at this point that the ways we two groups understand the gospel come together... and how we read them makes no difference: The way to live is to be ready for Jesus to come at any moment.
If we do this we are living well, and we are living in the way that both Matthew and Jesus before him desired.
Look what happens in Chapter 25 (25:31-46) when the Son Of Man comes in his glory.
Do people get judged because they knew their doctrine, or didn't? Do they get judged on how often they came to church, or didn't come to church? What happens in that story is that the people get placed with the sheep who are going to heaven, or the goats which are going for roasting in the slaughterhouse, on the basis of one thing only: Were they watching and ready for Jesus?
It says in our reading today that we do not know on what day our Lord is coming. (24:41, 44) In Matthew 25 it is clear that he often comes to us already in guises we do not expect or recognise: hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, alienated, even in prison. (25:36)
If we are ready for him then, and accept him, we become part of the Coming of Christ. We are co-creators of a new earth.
Can you see that what counts is not the day or the time or the hour? What counts is if we are ready when Jesus comes. It will make no difference, according to Matthew, whether it is the time he comes this afternoon, or the occasion when he comes in here next Friday at the Op Shop, or whether it is the final time when one like a Son Of Man comes riding on the clouds.
All the other stuff about exactly how things might happen, doesn't really matter. It's actually in the same league as the stuff about knowing the time and date, or saying that somebody in particular is the Messiah. It's where we get distracted and led astray; interesting stuff to look about to look at and think about, but ultimately not important.
There are only two things about Matthew 24 and 25 which really count.
One is that God plans good in the end. It will happen.
The other thing is that we are to be ready and watchful. And then no matter when the end comes, or how our end comes, we will be ready, and we can be at peace.
So live for God. Live the way Jesus would live if he were here in your shoes. Be compassionate. Be loving. Be generous and help those you meet who are in need. And then when the end comes, however it comes, it will be good.
Be at peace. Amen
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