There’s a word you’ll find used a lot in connection with world events…especially unexpected events that end in destruction and danger to human life: it’s the word “apocalyptic.” I did a Google search for the term and found the following, in recent headlines: “Apocalyptic Images Show the Unfathomable Devastation Caused by California’s Deadly Camp Fire” (Washington Post); “Football Fans Injured in ‘Apocalyptic’ Rome Escalator Collapse (The Guardian); “Apocalyptic Dust Storm Rages toward an Outback Town in Astonishing Footage” (Daily Mail). You get the idea. Partly, I suppose, the term falls from the lips of surprised and devastated eyewitnesses quoted by the media. Mainly, I imagine it is used as click bait for internet surfers! The truth is: bad things do happen in surprising and terrifying ways, and it isn’t hard at times to see just how delicately human life hangs in the balance. Though the Christian faith speaks openly and honestly about an End (cf. 13:7, elsewhere the “Day of the Lord,” “The Last Judgement,” etc.), even our popular culture (listen for the Dies Irae theme in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings) can’t help imagining, or at least co-opting, the notion.
With so many dire images of “apocalypse” in our popular culture it’s helpful to go back to the original use of the term in our Scriptures. Our English word comes from the Greek and means “revelation” or “disclosure”…a pulling back of a curtain to show what is real or true…especially concerning the End of time. And what we find when we open the eyes of faith to see what God reveals in His Word is not merely a capital “E” End…but a new beginning: God’s victory through Jesus, our King, made visible for all eternity. Yes, the present threat of wars, natural disasters, false prophets and all that some may call “apocalyptic” in the world is real. Yes, we can imagine how it all COULD end, especially because of our sins and our own self-destructive impulses…and that is truly terrifying. But Christ our King, is coming. And Jesus has already told us how things will end, saying “Do not be alarmed” (7); “do not be anxious” (11). He is coming to right every wrong. Because of all that he accomplished through his death and resurrection (which we are given to see through faith) that will not result in our own destruction and punishment, but with the free gift of eternal life and a “new creation”! That’s why Jesus calls the painful present “birth pangs” (verse 8). It would be easy to trust our worse fears or to ask with the disciples, as if to keep the End at a comfortable distance, “When will these things happen?” (4). I find it comforting that not even Jesus knew the answer (13:32). And that didn’t stop Jesus from living and serving.
Jesus has revealed all we need to know. We need not cower in fear, but live in hope for what tomorrow will bring. No matter the trials of the present day or the imminent End we face, we live to build a better future for those who come after us. You may have heard the false claim that Martin Luther once said “Even if I knew the world were going to end tomorrow, I’d plant a tree today.” Maybe he did say this, or something like it, but there is no record of it anywhere in his writings. His life DID reflect a similar hope, though. Though Luther believed that the end of the world was near and, so far as we know, never planted a tree, he didn’t despair or give up. He got married! What more could reflect hope for tomorrow…even with the End in view…than a commitment to love and family?
As autumn leaves fall and winter takes its hold on us again this year, we know that the end of another calendar year draws near. Jesus gives us a sure and certain hope…he has revealed life that transcends time, even though life as we know it, is passing away.
These are but the birth pangs! The end is in view…but we are given to live! Let us live with the End in view, even as we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.”