Signs of the Apocalypse?
Timothy W. Ross
How did the presidential election turn out for you? How are you feeling about the realities of Washington in 2017?
Regardless of our politics and preferences, we all have probably been bruised by the news of recent months. As they say in West Africa: “When elephants fight, all the grass suffers.”
Whether your buttons are popping with pride at the success of the Trump Revolution, or whether you are still checking real estate prices in Canada, the Word of God has an apocalyptic message for us. Apocalyptic Scriptures are charged, vivid, sometimes hard-to-understand pronouncements that interpret the times and look toward a momentous, sometimes catastrophic, always dramatic future.
Apocalyptic prophecies were offered to help specific people hang on during very tough times. We do well to read them first as a message to their original hearers, but as we peer “over their shoulders,” perhaps they reveal something of our future too.
The disciples followed Jesus in and out of the temple grounds in the last days of his life. They didn’t know how
Jesus’ “election” was going to turn out, but they assumed they were on the cusp of a monumental victory. Perhaps they were even “measuring the drapes,” thinking of their own ascension to power.
Luke 21:5-19 records that some were “speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.”1 The Greek word adorned is also defined as “ordered.” The disciples were struck by the way the massive walls were ordered just so—every stone in place, rising one on top of the other to impossible heights.
The solid masonry mirrored the disciples’ mood. Jesus was ready to take over these halls of power, and the disciples were in position to become leaders of the new order. What could possibly go wrong when your candidate could calm the sea, multiply bread and fish, heal the sick, pull money from the mouth of fish, and even raise the dead?
But Jesus likely motioned to the temple before saying, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). All that is “ordered” will soon become “disordered.” All this stability will be destabilized. This monument to religion, this seat of power will be smashed to bits.
“Teacher,” asked the stunned disciples, “When will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” (Luke 21:7).
In response, Jesus warned of impending chaos:
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. . . . You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 16:10-17).
Last Week’s News
I used to read these dire warnings without being touched personally. My little world, like the stones of the temple, was ordered, stable, adorned. I didn’t worry about getting thrown in jail, or my family hating me, or meteors destroying my home. International chaos, planetary upheaval, societal friction, environmental catastrophe, and families splitting apart were the kinds of disasters that affected people in other places.
But what once sounded apocalyptic now sounds like last week’s news. Did you ever expect to hear predictions of global chaos and environmental disaster from a slight warming of our atmosphere? Did you ever expect to hear about earthquakes in places like Oklahoma?
We don’t need Jesus to tell us we live in increasingly restless and even dangerous times. We see it with our own eyes.
Political instability and chaos seem to be the order of the day. Our soldiers fight in distant countries, and veterans struggle to find their footing when they come home. Will a new administration undo climate agreements, overthrow nuclear treaties, and scrap major elements of social programs?
Politicians and newscasters keep us jumpy and suspicious about terrorism, causing us to look for enemies in our midst. Even the fabric of creation—air, sea, and land—seem to be unraveling.
In times like this, apocalyptic Scriptures can confound and frighten us. But they can also fire our imaginations to see new possibilities. Will Willimon writes:
Our apocalyptic vision, our Christian conviction about the end, influences how we live in the present, generating both judgment (for the world as it is, is not all there is) and promise (God is going to finally finish the work that God began in Creation). This means we can live and act in this world because we have a vision that gives us hope for the future. Apocalyptic scripture promises “new heavens and a new earth” and invites people to participate in a coming future that, while it is not dependent upon their success, is open to the labors of their hands.2
Apocalyptic Scriptures invite us to participate in a new future. The prophet Isaiah provides us with another image of that hoped-for future in Isaiah 65. The people of Isaiah’s day lived through some shaky times. They had no idea what tomorrow might bring. Isaiah warned of impending doom, but he also saw a new day ahead when God’s people would be at home, at peace, at rest.
Isaiah’s vision of the future encouraged his hearers to “lean toward the future.” God, said Isaiah, is about to create new heavens and a new earth. No more will the sound of death and dying be heard in Jerusalem. Young men will no longer go off to war. If someone doesn’t live 100 years, folks will wonder what went wrong. Food will be abundant; children will be blessed by the Lord. Indeed, said the Lord,
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord (Isaiah 65:24, 25).
Here is where apocalyptic visions for the future bump up against the choices we make today. If we know the way life in God’s kingdom will one day be, why don’t we begin to live that reality right here, right now, in the midst of troubled days?
If there will be peace in God’s kingdom someday, why don’t we say no to fighting and killing right now?
If the lamb and the wolf will lie down together in the coming kingdom, can’t we make peace with the wolves that cause us pain?
If there will be no hurting or destroying in the heavenly kingdom, can’t we teach our children to stand up for our vulnerable neighbors today?
Jesus braced his disciples with heavy doses of reality and hope. Life is going to get crazy for you and you are going to be completely overwhelmed, but “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:18, 19).
Here is what is at stake: your life. Your soul. How you behave when order collapses into chaos is a matter of life and death. There may come a time when your “ordered” life will crumble and you will be buffeted by chaotic forces. Don’t panic. Stand up straight. Keep walking the way of Jesus. Keep doing the right thing.
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Don’t give up. When you get knocked down, get back on your feet. Keep moving.
And one more thing, Jesus said. “This will be a time for you to bear testimony” (Luke 21:13, author’s paraphrase). When the heat is on, when order descends into chaos, when trouble comes to your doorstep—or your neighbor’s doorstep—that’s the time to speak up for Jesus.
“When things get really bad,” says Jesus, “keep speaking up for me. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say. I’ll give you the words and the wisdom. You just remember to put in a word for me” (Luke 21:13-15, author’s paraphrase).
These dark and troubled days need not testify to the power of death and the triumph of chaos, but they can be for us another step in our journey toward God’s promised Heaven and earth. What the world interprets as chaos and destruction, Jesus reads as opportunity. So lift up your head. Don’t be afraid. Lean toward the future with God. Walk as disciples of Jesus.
Some Americans are filled with optimism, joy, and hope because of this new political climate. If you’re in that number, don’t let it go to your head. Don’t think that political power equals divine favor.
Others face these days with a sense of foreboding and sadness. If you are in that number, get up, wash your face, put on your boots, set aside that Canadian real estate guide, and get on with the work of building, loving, welcoming the stranger, speaking up for Jesus, and pushing for a better tomorrow.
Be the change you want to see. Live as a citizen of God’s kingdom. It’s coming. And nothing can stop it.
1Scripture verses are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, unless otherwise indicated.
2William H. Willimon, “And Now, the End,” Pulpit Resource, November 14, 2010, pp. 30, 31.
Timothy W. Ross serves as minister with Hopwood Christian Church, Johnson City, Tennessee, and as an adjunct professor with Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College.