“The End of Days” by Roberta Berke
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Several weeks ago I was visiting my family in New York City. My niece warned, “You’d better fly out early: there’s a hurricane coming.” We all laughed. “Don’t silly, Julia. You’ll be predicting plagues of frogs next.” Because I was still on London time, the next morning I awoke at 3am and turned on the weather forecast. I began to worry. I phoned the airline, and managed to get one of the last available seats on an earlier flight. A few days later, as I left, I gazed back to admire Manhattan glittering in the darkness, always a magical sight. I asked my driver, “ Will you be working the night shift again tonight?” “No,” he replied, “I’m not on the road after seven tonight.” The smiling fat woman who checked in my bag was joking with her co-workers about their coming Halloween party. “I want to dress up as a French maid!” she laughed. Nobody mentioned a hurricane. I’m always a nervous traveller, but surely this time I had over-reacted.
Thirty-three hours later, the tunnel thorough which I had been driven out of Manhattan was completely flooded, all the bridges were shut because of the hurricane. No one could leave the city. Flood waters surged in as far up as 33rd Street. Electricity substations exploded, the sparkling buildings became black shadows. Forty-three people were killed and large areas were without electricity for days. The city that had appeared so strong and powerful was revealed as fragile and vulnerable.
To Jesus’ disciples, who came from small villages, the city of Jerusalem must have looked as splendid as Manhattan. When Jesus predicted that all the stones of Jerusalem would be overthrown, his disciples were astonished. Yet just a few years later, the Romans pulverised Jerusalem into rubble.
Sometimes cities have been destroyed by wars or by natural disasters. In the Bible there are predictions of a much larger cataclysm: the end of everything. Political regimes will collapse; humans will be judged, then be punished or rewarded; the sun and moon will go dark, the stars will fall; time itself will end. These apocalyptic writings variously describe this cataclysm as, “the End of Days”, “The Day of the Lord”, “The Last Judgement.” Everything will be thrown into turmoil: governments, personal lives, the cosmos itself. People both feared this apocalyptic upheaval and longed for it to come.
In our Old Testament reading today, Daniel prophesies that there will be wars, kingdoms overthrown, and great anguish. Then the archangel Michael will come, the dead shall rise, the wicked will be punished, and the just rewarded. The Book of Daniel was written about 168 BC, when the Jews were suffering under their Seleucid conquerors. Jewish religious practices were forbidden under pain of death. These invaders defiled the temple in Jerusalem by erecting an altar to Zeus in the holy of holies. The Maccabees struggled against their pagan rulers. Daniel’s prediction that their oppressors would be overthrown obviously had political appeal. But the Jews also had a much greater hope: that God, who is just, would come and enact justice throughout all the earth. The forces of evil would finally be defeated. The world would be restored to its ideal state, as it was when God created it.
It was against this background of speculation about “the end of days” that Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Tell us when will this be.” In Jesus’ time the Jews longed to be free of their hated Roman oppressors. If only the Messiah would come and drive them out. This political unrest came to the boil a few years later in 70 AD when the Romans smashed another revolt and destroyed Jerusalem. For the early Christians, the idea of a second coming of Christ gave them consolation when they were persecuted. Many believed that they were living in “end time”. Some even thought that they didn’t need to work, as they expected Jesus to return at any moment.
In the Middle Ages, the Last Judgement was a widely depicted. On the west walls of many churches, terrifying paintings showed the damned being dragged off by demons and shovelled into the flames of hell. In contrast, smiling righteous people were floated up to heaven by angels. In a world where the wicked often appear to prosper with no punishment, the idea of a Last Judgement can be both appealing and frightening. The baddies get punished, the goodies (us, of course) get rewarded.
For Christians today, the idea of a Second Coming of Christ can seem to be a problem. Despite predictions, the Second Coming hasn’t happened — yet. Still in the Creed we say, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Are the prophecies wrong? There is a difference between believing that Christ will come again, and in knowing exactly when He will come. We do believe that Christ will come again, but we do not presume to know exact time when this will occur. As Jesus told his disciples, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Are the Bible’s visions of the Last Judgement helpful to us today? Biblical apocalypses are a particular type of writing. They are imaginative, poetic, and visionary. Apocalyptic visions of the future encourage us to imagine a world which is more just and harmonious than our flawed and broken one. Apocalyptic visions urge us to repent and to make the place where we are more like God’s kingdom. When our efforts seem futile, apocalyptic visions give us hope and consolation and impel us to continue our struggle to bring God’s kingdom on earth.
One of the most breathtaking visions of the Last Judgement appears in John Donne’s sonnet that begins, “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise / From death, you numberless infinities….” Donne imagines all the dead being roused from their graves by the angels’ trumpets. His grand vision encompasses all the cosmos. Then suddenly, he wants the angels to wait. He looks down at on his own small self and remembers all his failings. He asks God to postpone the Last Judgment to give him time to repent of his sins. “…here on this lowly ground, / Teach me how to repent….”
Predictions of natural disasters, like the hurricane that struck New York City, sometimes come true. Predictions of wars that devastate cities can be accurate. But we have not yet had that apocalyptic cataclysm which the Bible predicts. Although the world has not yet ended, for each of us there is a prediction which is certain. Each of our own little worlds will end in death. Before our inevitable end, we humbly ask God to teach us how to repent. We pray to God for his grace and for his forgiveness. Because we trust in God, we do not fear the end of our days. Jesus promised, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time.” AMEN.
Copyright© by Roberta Berke 2012. All rights reserved.