Matthew 28:20 “…. I will be with you to the end of the age ….”
We come now to the end of things.
It’s the end of a school year. It’s the end of many church programs. On this Trinity Sunday we read the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the last words of Jesus. You may remember recently some zealous Christians, among them Harold Camping, were touting May 21, 2011 as the end of days. And others still look to next December 2012 as the end of time.
We are a people consumed with thoughts of things coming to an end — even to catastrophic proportions.
Why is that? Perhaps a simple answer is: Understandably, as we age we cannot deny the reality of our mortality. We begin in earnest to reflect on and come to terms with the end of ourselves.
But do our thoughts of “end times” simmer over the cauldron of fear? I suspect our curiosity about the end is often tied to a fear of the unknown, fear of suffering, fear of something going horribly wrong, out of our control. Fear of something.
And, I suspect the cloak of fear surrounds the popular theology about most religious speculations concerning the end of days. Some call it the Rapture. Some call it Judgement Day. Most Christians call it the Second Coming of Christ.
This theology of the Rapture began with a British preacher in the 19th century, John Nelson Darby. Darby used what Lutheran New Testament professor at the Chicago School of Theology, Barbara Rossing, calls “pick-and-choose literalism”; that is, taking a verse from 1 Thessalonians about us flying up into the air to meet Jesus, and a verse from Matthew where two people are working in the field, and one is taken, another left behind, and a verse from Daniel 9 coupled with some violent imagery from Revelation — put those together and you have this belief that Christ doesn’t just return once at his second coming– there are actually two second comings divided by a seven-year period of tribulation inbetween. And you are either a pre-tribulation believer, or a post-tribulation believer — and fundamentalist churches are divided over this rapture belief — you are either pre-trib, post-trib, or as some joke: pan-trib — believing it’ll all pan out in the end!
And then, we become pre-occupied by that question in our lives: What happens next? About death — what happens after we die? At the end of it … what happens next?
If fear is the dominant emotion attributed to our beliefs — whatever they are — let me suggest we need to put that belief under the microcope and examine its validity and truth. Why? Because if the underlying and constant state of the heart is fearful — then there is no room for faith, for trust, for hope, and for love. And if our lives don’t demonstrate these higher spiritual qualities, but only fear — then what does that say about our faith?
I agree with Barbara Rossing who debunks the popular notion of the “Rapture” — a term not even mentioned in the Bible. She relates a story of some children raised with this belief who when they come home from school are overcome with fear upon finding their parents absent. They are worried that their parents have been “raptured” and taken up to heaven. And, they are traumatized that they have now been left behind.
The danger of Darby’s rapture theology, for one thing, is that it prescribes certain world events must take place for Christ to return. It prescribes what is necessary, what is requisite, in order for Jesus to come back to earth — such as the third temple being built in Jerusalem, and agreements between world leaders in Israel, Russia, and America. Consequently it encourages some radical Christians to take action to precipitate these contrived world events so Jesus can come back. And to top it all — these scenarios are incredibly violent in nature.
Does this theology accurately describe what God wants for our future? Does God want for us to live in perpetual fear? Does God want for us to live out our lives on earth under a tyranny of anxiety and trepidation looking to violent solutions to God’s will? Certainly, fear plays a role in our development and maturity as people of faith. And yes, there is biblical truth pointing us to the second coming of Jesus. Absolutely.
But essentially God is not a fear-mongering God, but a God of love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” we are reminded by the author of 1 John 4:18.
The word “trinity”, like “rapture”, is another word not found in the bible. But the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a foundational doctrine for the church of all ages. I would encourage us to reflect more on this doctrine, rather than the rapture, when we consider the end of days.
What does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity tell us about the God we worship today? Many good things. But, fundamentally, it teaches us that God is a relational God — one God in three persons. And so, we understood God, not a solitary entity unto Godself — detached, autonomous and individualistic in expression. Rather, God is a God of mutual relationship.
And so it shouldn’t surprise us to hear Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s Gospel suggesting an ongoing, loving relationship with his disciples to the end of time, even if the future remains somewhat clouded to us. The point is not to figure it out to the last detail how it will all pan out — that is not the goal of biblical study.
Because even persons of faith can’t know exactly how things will pan out in the end. Saint Paul said himself in 1 Cor 13:12 — “Now, we see as in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face ….” when we are united with God in heaven. On earth, we cannot know such things. Imbedded throughout that famous apocalyptic text from Matthew 24 are those words we need to affirm time and time again: “But about that day and hour no one knows …”(v.36), ” … for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (v.42)” and “… the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (v.44).
So, what does happen next? I believe the biblical writers were inspired by God for a reason to do what they did. Because the bible is not a closed canon. The bible is not just stories about what happened a long time ago. The bible is not just a history book, or a legal textbook that we study to satisfy some intellectual pursuits or to make propositional statements about God. The bible is not a code book to decipher, as many pop-fiction books today suggest.
The bible is a living text — a living Word — that invites us in. All the books in the world cannot contain all that can be said about the ongoing relationship between God and people (John 20:30; 21:25). The story of faith, in other words, continues. What happens next?
WE happen next. GOD-with-us happens next, no matter what.
The teachings of Jesus are not the last word. The last word is that there is never a last word with God. In the original Greek, it does not literally say “Remember I am with you to the end of the age” — as the NRSV suggests. Jesus is not to be a memory only.
“Behold!” would be a better translation beginning the last verse of the Gospel of Matthew (Meda A. A. Stamper, Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 3, eds David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p.49). Behold! “I am with you.” The one who is named Immanuel, “God is with us,” before his birth will be with his followers all their days until the close of the age.
Therefore we can be true to the biblical call for us to “remain awake” and “be ready” for the coming Saviour; that is, we can live in trust and hope that even in the most scary, horrific of circumstances, we will not be alone. Even should the heavens crumble and the earth shake and the tempest of life unerve us, we are infinitely lovable and infinitely loved in relationship with God, with creation and with one another.
Martin Luther had one of the best responses to the question about the end of days: He said that if he knew for sure the end of the world was coming tomorrow, he would still go outside and plant an apple tree today. This is a statement that reflects abiding hope and abiding truth: Facing the direst of situations, we are called to act, as we are able, in promoting hope, promoting good, promoting love, promoting life, promoting relationships guided by the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus. Now this is what a life of faith, hope and love is all about.
What endures is not fear, but love. Therefore, may we live our end of days as ambassadors of God’s grace, God’s light, in a darkened world hell-bent on violence, destruction and hatred. Let us go forward in faithful, loving, and trusting relationship with the Triune God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.