The End of the World As We Know It?

“Do you think we are living in the end times?” a parishioner recently asked me. We had a spirited conversation about this question.

I visited my Mom in the Chicago area and picked up a Christian publication she had just received. The whole issue was devoted to biblical interpretations of current events in the Middle East. It explained in detail the progression from an event described as the rapture–or disappearance–of the true believers, to a period of great tribulation followed by a cataclysmic military confrontation between the powers of light and darkness. Then, it described a thousand year reign of Christ on earth.

Leading climatologists give us 10 years to put a big dent into the forces causing global warming before the effects on the planet become irreversible.

Do you think we are living in the end times? Are we approaching the end of the world as we know it? What do you believe? Members of the congregation responded,

“I think we are nearly in ‘the last days,’ but not quite,” one said.

“I think we are at Revelation, Chapter 20, verse 7, in ‘the age of deception,’” another replied.

A retired person spoke, “I remember when a group of people from Cleveland sold everything and moved out to Denver to wait to be raptured in 1924. It obviously didn’t happen. I guess I’m a little skeptical about such predictions.”

Another responded, “Jesus repeatedly says in the Gospels that we won’t know the time, day, or place, or his return, so I don’t bother with all that speculation. The point is to be ready at any time.”
“I’m looking at Acts, Chapter 2, where Peter quotes the prophet Joel, saying ‘This is what I will do in the last days, God says: I will pour out my Spirit on everyone…” After reading Acts 2:14-21, the person responded, “We have been living in ‘the last days’ since that time.”

The last comment was from a woman who quoted part of a song by Darrell Adams, which speaks of the fact that God is with us every day, and that we can trust God in all situations.
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We hear the cry of Christians from Lebanon, Palestine, Jerusalem, and a host of other places urging the Church in the United States to engage in a theology of reconciliation and shalom. They implore us to stop exporting our particular brand of religion that mixes Christianity, Empire, and End Times Theology in a deadly cocktail affecting real lives both here and abroad.

Let me speak about that ‘cocktail,’ because it is critical to address the complicity of the Christian Church in the United States in the changes occurring in our country and world. I want to speak carefully, because these are huge issues. They can be over-simplified, and are surely more complex than I can describe in a sermon, but they cannot be overestimated.

On one hand, some believers see the world as racing toward Armageddon. They anticipate the imminent return of Christ preceded by a specific set of signs and events which they see unfolding right now in the world. There is no reason to save the environment, because Jesus is coming back! There is no reason to work for peace and justice, because things are supposed to get worse and worse! There is no reason for interfaith dialogue, because Christians have got it all right and other religions have got it all wrong. Violence, mayhem, war, environmental degradation–all are part of God’s end times plan! Don’t tamper with it!

There are also Christian Reconstructionists who want to transform the United States into their vision of a “city on a hill,” a “light for the nations.” They believe God has given the U.S. a particular mandate among the nations. In their eyes, Biblical law, as they interpret it, should become the “law of the land.”
I studied Old Testament with a Christian Reconstructionist at seminary twenty years ago. While I thought I came to class to study the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses, he spent much of class time railing against working women, public schools, communism, gay people, and incorrigible children. It was the first time in my life that I learned that there is actually a text in Leviticus commanding the stoning of incorrigible children. Where did Jesus fit into his scenario? Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law–period.

One day a student asked him the question, “What about Christians who disagree with your interpretation of Christianity in this ‘Christian nation’ you envision?” He replied, “You can think different thoughts; you just can’t act on them.”

In such scenarios as these, peacemakers are dangerous both to Christianity and to the State. Instead of being blessed, as Jesus describes them in the Beatitudes, they are seen as obstructionists. They retard the race toward Armageddon. They humanize those whom others demonize. The challenge the sharp division of the world’s population into those deemed “righteous” and others deemed “evildoers.”
End times theology is preoccupying hundreds, even thousands, of churches in the United States. Millions of eyes are turned toward Israel and the Middle East, toward Islam and Christianity, even toward the role of the United States in this Master Plan.

As I listen to this dialogue and see its effects in the wider world, three important issues stand out to me. First, a free church cannot be entangled with the State, or it will quickly become an instrument of the State. We cannot worship Caesar and God. Nor can we worship the American Way and the Prince of Peace. It cannot be done.

Second, the scriptures affirm that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The history of Christianity is not innocent of spilled blood. The Church has not always been loving, nor has she always been prophetic. Humility among other religions, not superiority, is necessary.

Third, there is simply no place in true Christianity for demonizing our enemy. It may be the way of the world, but it isn’t the way of Christ. “Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that!” Jesus challenges his disciples. A costly discipleship sees through the eyes of grace.

What, then, is ahead for those of us who combine the phrases, “Christian,” and “peacemaker” (Matthew 5:9), who believe that the scriptures call us to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8), no matter what times we live in?

We must prepare ourselves as Christians for harder days ahead. The Church needs to rise up and meet this critical hour wisely–with discernment, humility, and care. “You were told that the Enemy of Christ would come, and now many enemies of Christ have already appeared,” the letter of John recounts (I John 2:18). Glenn Gall often speaks of these times as an “age of deception,” and I think he is right.

Jesus warns his disciples, “Many false prophets will appear and fool many people. Such will be the spread of evil that many people’s love will grow cold. But whoever holds out to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:11-13). The journey before us calls for perseverance as well as discernment.

After Hurricane Katrina scattered congregations far and wide across the United States, Glenn suggested that we as a church develop a plan for staying in touch in the event of catastrophe. This is a wise idea, although we haven’t done this. Pollsters occasionally ask U.S. citizens how prepared they
are for a big disaster. Most of us are not physically prepared.

Several years ago, one of my children was struggling with high school math. I knew it was a matter of effort more than ability, so I often encouraged her to take her math class more seriously.
Pessimistic about the future, during one such discussion she retorted, “What difference does it make? I could die tomorrow!”

“True,” I responded. “But you might not…in which case, you may need those math skills some day!”
Are we spiritually prepared to follow Jesus in times such as these? Are we prepared to practice love and compassion when hatred and division are the order of the day? Are we prepared to stand up with those Jesus called “the least of these” when their rights are trampled by those of the rich and powerful? Are we prepared to stand with our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters when they are callously used as a wedge issue, state by state, ballot measure by ballot measure? Are we prepared to challenges those who consider peacemakers evil and torture good? Are we prepared to practice costly love as “the love of many grows cold”?

May Jesus find us faithful when he returns. Let us close with excerpts of a prayer, “Sometimes It Just Seems to Be Too Much,” found in Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle by Ted Loder.

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