Tomorrow's "Mayan Apocalypse": A Call to Readiness

"But about that day and hour [the precise timing of the End] 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." --Jesus, Matthew 24:36, 42, 44

If our old friend Harold Camping was wrong about the timing of the End of the world (and he, though steeped in the Bible, seemed to miss Jesus' very obvious points, above), then could the ancient Mayans be right? Could tomorrow, December 21, be the end of the world? (Of course, the media has reassured the public that this cannot be the case, since the Long Calendar of the Mayans only indicated an ending that day, implying a cyclical new beginning the next day.) Still, perhaps we have an opportunity to engage in a little apocalyptic reflection--and consider how it might impact our lives.

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologies all teach that the world will not roll on endlessly. Each of these monotheistic religions (at their basic level) look ahead to the end of the world and a final judgment. This couldn't be clearer to a pilgrim visiting the Old City of Jerusalem. As you look westward from the top of the Mount of Olives (the site of Jesus' ascension into heaven in The Book of Acts, Chapter 1), you're overwhelmed with tombstones in the Jewish Necropolis, the cemetery in the prime position, Jews believe, to participate in the resurrection on Judgment Day. These are stadium seats, the best seats, for the faithful as they look ahead.

Across the Kidron Valley, on the slopes of the east edge of the Temple Mount, is a Muslim burial ground. They too believe that here, in the Valley of Kidron, will come the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead. And Christians have traditionally believed the same: that though the signs of the end and specifically of Jesus' second coming, will be universally visible, Jesus will likely return to the place from which he ascended: this very same place above the Valley of Kidron in Jerusalem (see Acts 1:11).

Now we can debate the specifics of this 'til the cows come home. The point I want to make is one that seems so appropriate for Advent: the call to live in a state of readiness. Advent, for Christians, is a season where we reflect that we live "between the times"--of Christ's first coming in humility as a baby in Bethlehem and Christ's second coming in glory at the end of the world. Advent calls us to look backward in thanksgiving, wonder, and worship; it also calls us to look forward in hope, anticipation, and appropriate eschatological readiness.

Eschatta what?! It's a recognition that Jesus could come back at any moment. And, if his words are correct, we won't know the moment. For that reason, I doubt that tomorrow's the day. Because of this "reverent agnosticism" about the End's timing, we must live in readiness, on tip-toe. This doesn't mean living with anxiety or fear: no, if Jesus is our friend, Savior, and Good Shepherd, his return for believers will be great joy. My favorite verse to remind me of this is John 14:3 "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." I love that!

So what does readiness look like? First of all, especially for the not-yet-believer (and I hope there are some reading this), it means getting to know Jesus, drawing close to him, speaking with him honestly about where you are (and are not) in your faith journey. Ideally, if you're ready, it means kneeling before him and praying a simple prayer of surrender. It could be something like this: "Jesus, I'm learning that I can't--and I don't want to try anymore to--run my life by myself. I mess it up. I grow fearful, empty, and confused. Deep down I realize I need you. I want you. Come into my life. Save me from all the things I've done that I regret. Save me from missing so many opportunities to love and do good. Be my Savior. Lead my life. I open myself to you. Amen." Praying that prayer, or something like it, if you haven't done so already, is the best way to get into a posture of readiness.

For those of us who are already Christ-followers, the best ways we can live in readiness are:

1. Keep short accounts. If there are patterns of sin or rebellion in our lives, if there are damaging habits or harbored resentments, bitterness or unforgiveness, we must confess them--first to God in Christ and then, if and as God leads, to those we may've injured. This helps us travel light through life--and be ready.

2. Seize the Day. Today's all we've got. Yesterday's gone. Tomorrow's not here yet. What opportunities does God give us to love someone today? How might we speak a word of encouragement today? Help a neighbor? Give generously of our time and money? Do it today!

3. Invest in relationships. "Love God, love people, the rest is just commentary." That's a paraphrase of ancient Jewish and Christian wisdom. Strive to create or mend or otherwise build up your relationships. Don't live in regret.

Jesus said to his followers: "Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job" (Matthew 24:46). We don't know when the Master will return. We have no say in that. What we do have a say in is how we will live: will it be in readiness, doing our job faithfully?

The Lessons of Two Fridays

It strikes me that Friday, December 14 and Friday, December 21 have something in common--and taken together give us an invaluable, if painful, reminder. Last Friday, December 14 a deranged 20 year-old gunman broke into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, massacring 20 first-graders, several teachers, and prior to this, his mother. He then took his own life. This horror has shocked the nation and the world; and yet it seems that incidents like these are on the rise. Gun control debates are heating up; schools are implementing stricter security measures; legislatures are looking for increased mental health screening and funding. We're desperate to do something, anything, to stop the violence. And that's a good and right impulse. But...after taking the appropriate steps, if we're able, we must also acknowledge: there is no such thing as perfect safety. The human problem behind the Sandy Hook shootings goes much deeper than gun control. Our world and we who live in it are deeply broken. To think that we can solve this problem in our own brokenness is deluded. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't institute wise measures or seek to protect the weak and innocent in our midst. It's simply to acknowledge: these are bandaids on the problem. We are not the ultimate solution to our own problems. The crisis is too deep for that.

And then there's this Friday, December 21, the supposed end of the world, according to the ancient Mayan "long calendar". While we can lump this eschatological prediction together with other mistaken prophecies of the end, we might want to pause a minute. I suspect I'm not the only one who's wondered in quiet moments, "Hmm, you never know...what if this really WAS the end of the world?" I believe there's a latent end-times anxiety in many of us. If there weren't, we wouldn't be seeing such broad coverage of this in the news. The idea that the world might end unexpectedly is so deeply-rooted in Western thought that it fuels everything from the rise of self-appointed prophets leading millenarian cults to apocalyptic box-office gold. Sure, we can say to ourselves, "I'm sure this Friday will just be one more failed prophecy." And, likely, it will be. But...let's not make the materialist mistake in believing that, on the contrary, the world will roll on forever. And let's not foolishly think that somehow we can shape, prevent, or otherwise avoid any kind of End (through environmental, militaristic, economic, pacifistic, or legislative means). That's back to the arrogant assumption that we, in our brokenness, can solve the world's brokenness. Bandaids on the wound, again. The crisis is much too deep for that.

The bottom line is we're not in control. There's in us and among us an inescapable, pervasive brokenness (what the Bible calls sin) that is too deep and too profound for us to change in our own strength. We may pass laws on gun control. We'll still have tragic shootings. We may think that history cycles on endlessly (the ancient Sumerian thought this) but even astrophysics teaches us that the world will end someday. We can either grow more anxious about these limitations of ours...or we can confess our desperate need to control our lives and world and acknowledge that even in this scary place there's an invitation: to kneel before God and recognize our dependence--and the biblical testimony to God's faithfulness. We need the words of Psalm 46, especially verse 10: "Be still, and know that I am God!" Only God--and the hope God offers in Jesus Christ and his resurrection--is big enough to handle the crises behind these two Fridays.

"What Does Christmas Have to Do with Easter?"

Hi Everybody,
At our staff devotions yesterday our new pastor/head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder read the following poem, assisted by a female reader. It addresses the above question, which may particularly be helpful for those who might attend services only at Christmas and Easter (pretty much someone like me when I was young).

I hope you'll find it as moving and helpful as we did.

Advent blessings,

"Enchantment--The Christmas Connection" by Lee Magness

Female voice:     "So God stopped time for 33 years/And he pitched a tent of flesh/Which he unfolded one night/And enfolded the next.

Male voice: "And that moment in which God tread time/Lasting from the darkness to the darkness/From the sunrise to the sunrise/Was called Jesus Christ--

F: In great pain Mary labored over God/And suddenly in merciful agony--

M: A man burst forth from the courtroom/Into the yard filled with a vicious mob--

F: And the mother knelt down/To wrap the baby in swaddling clothes--

M: And they ripped them from his body/And kneeling down, gambled them away--

F: And because there was no room in the inn/She gently laid him--

M: On the wooden beams of a cross/Where they nailed his reaching hands--

F: And the animals heard the baby/And they drew close hoping to be fed--

M: And they bleated and bawled/"Crucify him, Crucify him"

F: And the shepherds on the hillside/Came to see this thing--/Which they thought would soon be past--

M: And asked, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

F: And the wise men came to see Jesus/One brought spices, another perfumes/And a third removed his golden crown

M: And jammed its thorns into his brow--

F: And in that dark Judean night/The new-born baby cried out/Wanting protection from the cold wind--

M: "My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?"

F: And as the star stopped over the manger

M: There was a darkness over the whole land

F: And just before the baby fell asleep

M: He softly cried, "It is finished."

Both: And in that moment of ghastly glory/When Mary lay exhausted with an empty tomb/He said, "I am the resurrection and the life,"/And in the next moment He redeemed the time.