Nobody knows. Now, in the last century and a quarter, people have begun to come up with elaborate timelines based on various passages pulled out of the Bible, stating when Jesus is coming back. It’s always interesting because these timelines never say “Jesus is coming back in five hundred years.” No. They always lead up to right now. People stand there with wide eyes and tell you “All this is going to start happening any day!“
At every point in history someone has said, “It’s time, Jesus is coming very soon.” This happens especially when we feel like our world is coming apart. For example, when Vandals and Ostrogoths took over the city of Rome starting in 410 AD, some people thought it was the end.
About four hundred years later, the Vikings came down from Scandinavian countries north of Europe and stole everything worth stealing in Europe, burning and pillaging and doing horrible things. People said “It’s the end!” Another four or five hundred years after that, Bubonic plague struck Europe, killed off about a third of the population. People said “It’s the end!” Couple of hundred years later, the invention of the printing press, the Protestant reformation and the conquest of North and South America brought about huge changes in Europe, people said “It is the end. Five hundred years after that, in the 1950’s and 60’s, the United States and the Soviet Union faced off with nuclear weapons. People thought there would be a nuclear war, maybe the end.
In recent years, a great deal of money has been made on books and movies that supposedly show what will happen around the end. Particularly I am referring to the Left Behind series. Very dramatic. Very exciting. Very scary. Not very Biblical.
Evidently some of us did not get the memo. No one knows. Nobody. In fact, Jesus says we will be going about our business, riding to school, coming home from work, sitting down to dinner, and Jesus will come back, in the middle of the most familiar and ordinary things. Watch for Jesus then.
In more recent years, there have been books and movies about things coming apart, about the end of the world as we know it, that don’t even pretend to be Biblical. For example, in The Hunger Games, environmental and governmental breakdown lead to these teenagers who are forced into a great arena and have to kill each other in order to survive. I don’t know, sounds like Middle School to me. Or a zombie plague hits the earth, and you get this TV series called The Walking Dead.
How do these stories capture people’s imagination? They are about what happens when our backs are against the wall, when we have very few people to depend on, when what we do matters.
Have you ever noticed the kinds of questions we ask when things are holding together? When there are millions and billions of people and what we do as individuals doesn’t matter much? We ask, “What do I want? How can I fulfill my dreams? How can I realize my potential? How can I enjoy myself? Do I really want to help those people?”
Kind of sad. Because when it’s all about me, then life gets empty, without meaning or purpose. Thigns have come apart already. So to fill the emptiness inside, we will do anything, take anything, believe anything to make ourselves feel good, to feel like we have a purpose, like we matter in some way.
When we feel like we don’t matter. When we feel we have no purpose or meaning, we are the walking dead already.
You know why Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of Hunger Games is so popular. Why do you think everybody wants to learn archery like her? I think part of it has to do with the fact that she is always thinking about her connections with people. She’s thinking about her sister, Prim, her mother the physician, the two young fellows she is interested in romantically. She thinks about the little people, from her home town, and even her enemies. She is concerned with community and connection and life. She is willing to feel the pain of caring. She is alive.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says “Stay Awake!” Don’t just react out of whatever your feelings are, your anger, or resentment or fear or feelings of power or depression. Don’t just react out of what you think, your ideology or understandings of the way everything should be. Watch for Jesus. Jesus is coming not just at the end of time, which may be next week or in twenty thousand years. No one knows. Jesus is also coming now, this day, to you. Jesus usually comes in the form of connection and community and compassion.
The Gospel lesson for today comes from the last of five great teachings Jesus presents in the Gospel of Mark. The first teaching is the Sermon on the Mount. You may have heard parts of it: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, love your enemies, do to others as you would have them do to you, the Lord’s Prayer.
This last set of Jesus’ teachings has to do with the End Times, how to be prepared for Jesus’ coming. So this set of teachings includes the story where a wealthy landowner gives money to his servants, expecting them to invest that money and bring back even more as a return on his investment. In other words, God gives us the breath in our lungs, the thunder in our heartbeat, the spark of creativity, the tool of money, the fire of determination, the gift of time, the wonder of abilities in business or mechanics or art or words or people. God says “Don’t just go burying all that stuff I gave you. You are expected to use what you have to bless my people and care for my creation. When I come back, I expect to see a return of blessing.”
Jesus tells another parable in this set of teachings, called the Ten Bridesmaids. Ten friends of the bride are waiting for the wedding party to start, and the groom is late. You may have noticed this. Jesus seems to be somewhat late to the party. Two thousand years seems to us to be a bit of a long time, though to God it might be no time at all. Jesus is saying: “Keep your lamps lit. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Manifest the power and love of God in the world by bringing about the miracle of everyone having something to eat. Doesn’t matter how long it takes. Keep working at it. Manifest the power of God by making it so everyone can live in freedom. Seems like it will never happen, like it’s futile. That’s not your problem. Keep working. Manifest the power of God, keep shining, keep your lamps lit.
Last story in this set of teachings and in the Gospel of Matthew itself, Jesus tells about the sheep and the goats. You may have heard it. Jesus says when the Son of Man returns in all his glory, referring to himself, he will divide up the people, some on one side and some on the other. To one side, he will say, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a foreigner and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me.” And indeed, just this week some folks from our church gave out scarves and socks and soap and things like that to homeless people on Thanksgiving day. Naked and you clothed me.
Jesus then turns to the folks on the other side and says, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, a foreigner and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me.”
Wake up. Watch for Jesus. He comes to us right now as well as at the end of time. Watch. Nobody knows when he will show up. Watch because it matters what you do. It matters. We have a meaning. We have a purpose. Where is Jesus in your family. You know what he’s like. Where do you see him? Where is Jesus at your work or school? Where is Jesus in this city and in our nation and in our world? We don’t know when he’s coming but we know he’s here. Keep on serving Jesus. Keep Awake.