Living in the End Times: Love those who face their end times now

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Luke 21:5-19
Peder Stenslie

"The terrible truth of life is that many people must face such dark times. It’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of their world. For them, the end of days has come; and they need the strength and hope that comes only from God. Jesus’ words in these passages are for all people in all generations who face the horror of their world crashing down on them, and who need to set their hope in something… and need strength to face the darkness."

25th Sunday after Pentecost
November 14, 2010 

In the hands of some people, a little bit of information can be a dangerous thing. It can lead them to think (and claim) they know more than they do. Actually, that’s probably true of all of us some of the time.

Today’s dramatic Gospel lesson is a good example of a little bit of information that can be dangerous when misused. Ever since the time of Christ, these sayings of Jesus have fueled speculation about how and when the world is going to end.

Of course, everyone who does this imagines the sayings and signs indicate their time is the appointed time.

We are being very foolish when we fail to consider how Jesus’ words were intended to comfort those standing before him at the time he spoke them. It is reckless and egotistical to pluck words, phrases, or passages from scripture and think the words apply directly to us to the exclusion of Jesus’ actual audience and to all generations that have come before us.

For example, in today’s lesson, much of what Jesus is talking about is not the end of the world, but the destruction of the Jewish temple (which happened in the year AD 70). This was a devastating event for those living when it happened… and it was a very important issue for the early church.

The truth is… it is simply pointless to pursue the question of how and when the world ends. Jesus says so himself. In this lesson he warns, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”

In another place, Jesus says: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

And yet another place, he says simply: “You do not know when the time will come.”

I don’t know what more Jesus can say to us before we stop trying to figure out when the end will come.

Even as Jesus speaks of signs of the end; listen to what he’s talking about… false leaders, wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecutions, and so on. When has the world not been full of these things?

This week I spent some time perusing through the centuries of church history looking at all the many widespread and popular claims of knowledge about the signs of the end times.

The list is truly endless… from the generation after Jesus up to today. It is just endless. In every generation, there have been multitudes of people (and groups) claiming they have figured out when the end is coming.

They are always sure the end times are upon them… and are always wrong.

After 2000 years of endless failed predictions… still today… new books, speakers, seminars claiming knowledge about the end times are popular. The human race, it seems, is determined to cling to this silly notion that we can know God’s end game.

Why do we do this? What is it that makes us think we could and should know this? I imagine it has to do with our desire for control. If we have the plan in our hand, then we have a degree of control. But Jesus tells us that we can’t know this and shouldn’t pursue it… and all our attempts over 2000 years have been failures.

So what are we meant to draw from these passages? If Jesus doesn’t want us to try to figure it out… if he doesn’t intend to encourage us to think we can know how the final end times will play out… then what should these passages mean to us?

Look again at what he draws our attention to… false leaders, wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecutions…. These terrible things are always with us in the world. And for many people, these terrible things spell the end of life as they know it… or even the end of life, period.

In scripture, Christ’s concern is always on our lives here and now. When he speaks of final end times… it always at the request of others… as in today’s lesson. “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” they want to know. As he responds to their anxiety, what he wants them to know is that, in the end, God is there. When we are in the darkness, alone, and face the end of all that we know, we are safe in the hands of God.

The terrible truth of life is that many people must face such dark times. It’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of their world. For them, the end of days has come; and they need the strength and hope that comes only from God. Jesus’ words in these passages are for all people in all generations who face the horror of their world crashing down on them, and who need to set their hope in something… and need strength to face the darkness.

These passages remind us that when these times come upon us, we can’t control them. We are powerless in the face of them. And so we must be ready to trust in God to preserve us.

In these passages, Jesus assures us that, despite appearances, God is there, holding all things together. Not a hair of our head will perish. Body and soul, we belong to God. Though we may suffer terrible things… even die in terrible ways… our whole being is held and preserved by God. Terrible violence, pain, fear, death, the end… these things cannot hurt us, Jesus says. God will not permit that. His love has the final word over all that we are. That is something we need to know.

For those who spend most of their lives in peace and prosperity, like so many North Americans, these end time passages can be a distraction… just one more thing to distract us from the real world and from our calling as Christians to serve our neighbor. Rather than speculate on what these passages tell us about how and when the end of days will come, they should draw us into solidarity with those in the world who suffer end times now. As Christ felt compelled to speak to and help and serve these people, so should we.

During the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Heart River Lutheran aims to do that. As a result of discussion at our last congregational quarterly meeting, the church council has planned a “Haiti Christmas Project” for the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

The “Haiti Christmas Project” will be our effort to join with others who are reaching out to help the people of Haiti. From our position of security and affluence, we will seek to gather a gift to help ease suffering, aid recovery and promote healing for those who have been devastated by poverty, earthquake and disease.

It will include an upfront gift by the Heart River congregation followed by special Sunday morning collections during the 4 Sundays of Advent and the 2 Sundays of Christmas. Heart River members, Y.C.C. youth and staff and Sunday school students are all invited to participate. During the opening hymn of each Sunday during those 6 weeks, we will have a processional offering where people will make their contribution. The gift will then be channeled through the ELCA or the Lutheran World Federation into one of their well-established aid projects in Haiti. (More information on that will be coming.)

Haiti has the highest death rate in the world. 80% of its people live in wretched poverty. A quarter of a million people died in the January 12th earthquake, including Pastor Renee’s husband, Ben. One and a half million people were left homeless. A cholera epidemic is now spreading through the country. It has already claimed around 800 lives. It is estimated that at least 200,000 people will develop the disease within the next year. Resources for stopping… or even slowing the epidemic are hard to come by in Haiti. Hurricane Tomas hit Haiti earlier this month and caused more deaths and severe flooding and damage.

The Haitian people can show us what “end times” look like. If we want to be faithful to Christ’s teaching in today’s Gospel lesson, we won’t speculate about how and when the whole wide world will come to an end, we
will open our eyes and give our attention and care to those who bear such times now.

In doing this, we will embody Christ’s concern for his suffering people. We will be a physical reminder to the people of Haiti that they are not alone. We share with them the hope and light of Christ as they face poverty, homelessness, cholera… and the mortality that follows these things. We will be a word of hope, sharing the presence of God in the midst of their darkness.