Near the Mukhpari peak, a few rounds were fired across the LAC, the Line of Actual Control. These are the first shots fired in forty-five years and represent just the latest in escalating violence in the disputed Chushul region.
In the Indian-administrated region of Ladakh, a disputed area on the Himalayan frontier between India and China-controlled Tibet, armies that have long eyed each other warily have engaged in skirmishes, brief conflictual encounters, and earlier this week, live rounds fired at each other. It threatens to start a war, for these northern reaches of India are just as disputed as the more famous region of Kashmir on the Indian border with Pakistan.
I read these reports, hearing news of these rumors of war, and thought it was on brand for 2020.
This year has taken us all by surprise. A year that began much like any other devolved into a pandemic-laden, racial-conflict driven, protesting turned rioting chaos. Add to that a major hurricane, wildfires raging out of control, an election cycle that chrysalises the distrust and division of our country, an earthquake in North Carolina, of all places, millions going hungry around the world because of the global recession, and you get nothing less than Matthew 24:6-8:
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places…”
Sounds very much like 2020. Are we living in the end times?
Let’s hear a more complete context of those lines by reviewing Matthew 24:3-8.
Are we living in the end times?
The question of the end times came back to me most recently when researching the national coin shortage. I was just curious what could lead to a coin shortage. My google search quickly led to conspiracy theories about shadowy figures who were working to create a one world economy. This was bad, these blog posts and faux news articles said, because a one world economy was a sign of the end times.
Or the coin shortage, so other conspiracy theories said, was an indication of shadowy figures moving us to a cashless society, also a sign of the end times; a prelude to the return of Christ.
Since the coin shortage first made news, other conspiracy theories and end times predictions have made the rounds over various things that are happening this year. Some of them are very America-centric, some of them more global, but all of them point to the same idea: that behind the scenes there’s a conspiracy afoot that will inevitably lead to the end of the world; the end times as forecasted by scripture.
It’s hard to receive all that news and not find ourselves naturally asking, are we living in the end times? Even if we feel skeptical about these conspiracy theories and supposed small groups who are truly in the know, the question of whether or not we’re living in the end times persists.
The disciples have the same question for Jesus.
Jesus has forecasted for them the coming destruction of Jerusalem, an event that happened some forty years after the crucifixion. This includes the destruction of the temple. The disciples can’t believe it. The temple is the center of religious life. The temple is where God literally dwells. The temple is the sign and the symbol of Judaism. The last time the temple was destroyed, in 587, the people were hauled off into exile and suffered greatly for many years.
So the disciples now have many questions, hearing this forecasting. Is that what will happen to them again? Is God angry with them as a people? Will God be punishing them, as some understood God had done six hundred years earlier?
The disciples are quite alarmed by all this talk of the coming destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. Alarmed, perhaps, like we are about all we see happening this year.
For some of the disciples, the question goes even deeper. Prophets like Malachi and Zechariah had forecasted the coming of the “day of the Lord.” If you’ve traveled up Interstate 75 between Byron and the Hartley Bridge road exit, you’ve seen a billboard that has the earth being consumed by a fire. The text says, “the dreadful day of the Lord,” and cites Malachi 3:1.
The disciples might have had the whole chapter in mind, which forecasts the return of God to destroy things in order to restore them. Before there was Revelation, before there were these little apocalypses in the gospels, like here in Matthew, there was Zechariah, Daniel, and Malachi, forecasting much the same.
So even before there was Jesus, the people of God have asked themselves if they’re living in the end times.
Are we, today, living in the end times?
The disciples ask.
They’re alarmed. They know, as we think we know, that the coming of the day of the Lord, the coming of the end times, will come with much suffering, much chaos, much destruction. And they, of course, being human like us, don’t want to endure that. They want order and pleasantries, they want love and comfort, they want peace and hope.
So do we.
Like them, we want to avoid suffering.
We also want to understand if we’re living in the end times so that we can feel a sense of control over the course of events. If we know that we’re living in the end times, then we can be prepared for whatever the future holds. If we know that we’re living in the end times, we can control our destinies because we can read the signs in scripture, know what’s coming, and make plans to protect ourselves, to protect our families, to protect our assets.
Or maybe our thoughts don’t go quite that far. Perhaps we just want to know if we’re living in the end times so that we can feel that natural sense of control that comes from understanding something.
We just want to feel in control.
In a year of chaos, that’s understandable.
We want to feel in control in a normal year. So often, I see folks who are wanting to feel that sense of control over life. Life is chaotic, messy, challenging, difficult; it comes in waves that seem to have no concern for our wellbeing. We look to religion to give us a sense of meaning as we are tossed and turned by those waves. We look for religion to give us a sense of order to the waxing and waning of the waves. We look to religion to teach us to stand firm in the midst of the waves, unmoved and unshaken.
So we look to religion to help us know if we’re in the end times so that we can be unmoved, unshaken, by understanding the meaning of all this chaos that washes over us like so many waves.
Are we living in the end times?
We are concerned, frightened, worried, fearful, overcome and overwhelmed, sensing the characteristic chaos of 2020.
We are alarmed.
To that, Jesus says, “see that you are not alarmed.” But why? And how?
By understanding what the end times will look like? By knowing how to read the signs?
To that, Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ And they will lead many astray.”
This leads Jesus to then say, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Jesus gives what sound like signs of the end times in the wars, famines, earthquakes, but we must all admit that such is normal. These things have happened throughout all of human history. These aren’t new; they don’t seem much like particular signs.
He mentions these normal things. He doesn’t say look for them to get worse or look for them to happen more frequently. Just mentions totally normal, run of the mill, hard and terrible but still very typical human events.
And in the midst of giving this list of typical human events, two phrases stand out: do not be led astray; do not be alarmed.
These things do not seem to go together: the giving of signs and the call to not be alarmed and not be led astray. How are we supposed to know the truth? How are we supposed to function in a way that’s not alarmed by the characteristic chaos of 2020? A characteristic chaos that looks and feels like it must relate to the end times?
How are we to keep ourselves from being led astray? How are we to not be alarmed?
Let’s reconsider the scripture.
So often, we go to these kinds of scriptures looking for answers so we can read the times around us. We look at these scriptures like so many tea leaves, trying to decipher their meaning like a fortuneteller. We want to know, we want to understand. But we want what we cannot have. Just a few verses later, Jesus says, “but about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Not even Jesus could tell his disciples when the end times would come. Only the Father knows.
So it’s not ours to know when the end times are actually coming.
Rather, it’s ours to accept the words of verse 6: “for this must take place.” Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, all sorts of natural and man-made disasters are typical of life together on this planet. They always have been and, until the actual end times, they always will be.
Jesus isn’t giving signs to watch for to determine the end times; Jesus is saying that we should not be alarmed because all this is typical of the world we live in.
We should expect wildfires in California, earthquakes in North Carolina, millions to go hungry in a global recession, major hurricanes, because the world is chaotic.
We should expect race-relations to struggle, protesting to turn into rioting, because we humans like to divide ourselves so some can feel superior and we humans tend to turn to violence; all because the world is chaotic.
We should expect wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and the like because the world is chaotic.
Chaos is the norm.
That’s Jesus’s message here. And to this, Jesus says, “see that you are not alarmed.”
Because this is normal, this is typical, this is to be expected.
We should expect to have years like 2020. Or years like 1940. I’m reading a book right now that’s focused on the lived experience of the British during the blitz. German bombings constantly threatened, people died, properties were utterly destroyed, entire towns leveled; it sounds worse than life as I know it right now. So perhaps things could be worse this year. And yet, this is the typical chaos of the world.
Or I not long ago finished a book about the Gilded Age, that time in American history between roughly 1880 and 1920. It was a time of hyper-partisanship too, not unlike our time today. We have known hyper-partisanship before, in a time when the rich were really rich, the poor really poor, and Americans very divided between two parties in what felt like a life or death struggle over the soul of America. All this today; but all this also over one hundred years ago. We survived then, we’ll survive now, but still, this is the typical chaos of the world.
While driving to Pennsylvania a month ago to celebrate my parents purchase of their first home, a monumental event in the life of my extended family, I listened to a new book that traces the history of race-relations in this country by understanding it through the lens of a caste system. Fascinating book that offers many levels for conversation. And one that points out that while we have come far as a country from the first human trafficking of slaves to this country in 1619, the racism and caste systems in place both now and for thousands of years are typical of the chaos of the world.
History says that what Jesus is describing here has been, is, and will be, the norm. Chaos is, perhaps, the defining attribute of the world.
Perhaps knowing that chaos is the norm gives us reason to not be alarmed. But that’s not the main point; that’s not the surprising news Jesus has for us in this text.
We can’t, as Christians, simply leave the chaos of the world there. We are members of the kingdom, called to labor on its behalf, called to work against things like a caste system, like racism, like hunger.
We’re not called to simply accept the chaos of the world. We’re called to purposefully walk into that chaos.
It’s our calling because we’re called to be Jesus to the world. And the model Jesus set in his earthly life is to live into the chaos of this world.
Jesus entered into the chaos of the world through a teenager who was unprepared and unequipped. His birth was nothing less than a chaotic scene. Driving to the hospital to give birth is chaotic enough. I cannot imagine the scene of having to travel a long ways only to find no where to stay and no midwife much less a doctor to aid in giving birth in a barn.
Jesus then lived life in the chaos of his times. The Romans were a chaotic presence, even though they said they were there for order. The pharisees were a chaotic presence, too. There were storms, like the one that threatened to capsize the boat when Jesus walked on the water. There was hunger. There were people sick and convulsed with illnesses they likened to demon-possession. There was all sorts of chaos.
And in the midst of all that chaos, Jesus walked those chaotic journeys with people. He knew their pain. He knew their suffering. His heart was moved. He wept. Openly. Jesus was willing to be in the midst of the suffering of others.
And ultimately, Jesus went to the cross, the ultimate sign of chaos, and died.
See that you are not alarmed.
Jesus entered into the chaos. Jesus entered into the suffering.
And that’s the surprising news here. That’s the good news here. That’s the gospel.
As Jesus is saying to the disciples to expect the world to be chaotic with its wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and the like, Jesus is simultaneously modeling to the disciples that they are to enter into this chaos, they are to enter into this suffering, they are to be with others who are suffering.
Somehow, modern, American, Christianity is often infused with this notion that life is supposed to be less chaotic, less confusing, less difficult if we’re in Christ. That somehow, religion is supposed to make our lives easier. There’s no biblical warrant for that. The tradition of Christianity has no warrant for that. It’s simply not true. Religion doesn’t make life easier. In fact, I would say religion has made my life harder.
But religion makes life better. Religion doesn’t take away the storms of life, but it teaches us how to find joy in the midst of the storms.
Relationship with Christ doesn’t take away war, but it teaches us how to work for peace, how to be peace.
Christianity doesn’t stop earthquakes, but it moves us to reach out in loving service to victims of any kind of violence, whether the earth shakes, the mountains tremble, or the cities erupt.
Scripture doesn’t tell us that if we all follow Jesus, we’ll stop fighting with each other and social unrest will end. No, it shares with us what God’s vision is for the world, convicts us when we uphold systems of oppression, and shows us the path forward to that new Jerusalem, the restoration of the Garden of Eden, where all God’s people live together in harmony because, not despite, their diversity. In doing so, it calls us to walk into the chaos of our current division and unrest, learning and leading toward that future vision of the Kingdom of God.
The model Jesus gave us, the word of comfort Jesus provides to us, is that we are to enter into the suffering of this world and walk the journey of suffering with others.
And if we do that; if we’re willing to suffer with others, we won’t be easily led astray.
If the main goal of our faith is to seek after understanding about the end times; to read the times, and to know if we’re living in the end times, then we will be led astray by any formula or theory or word that makes sense of our lived experience. Conspiracy theories are rampant right now and they quick and easy explanation to how we’re currently living in the end times. But these are all baseless and false because only the Father knows the day and the time, not even the Son.
And the signs, provided here and elsewhere in scripture, are not a roadmap to understanding if we’re living in the end times. No, they’re to set the expectation that the world will be chaotic and then to call us Christians, us people of faith, to enter into the suffering of this world, so that we can be Christ to others.
If we will enter into the suffering of others, they will know the hope, peace, joy, and love we should know from our relationship with Christ.
What does that look like today? What does that look like in your life?
Instead of watching the news, wondering if we’re living in the end times, choose to allow your heart to be moved by the suffering of others you see depicted on your TV or phone.
Instead of turning off the news, trying to tune it out, choose to allow your heart to be moved by the suffering of others.
Instead of condemning those who believe differently and even those who choose violence over the ways of peace, choose to empathize with their plight, their anger, not to excuse it, but to enter into their suffering. This is like the adulterous woman at the well. Jesus never excused those who were sinful, but he yet still empathized with them; he sought to understand their lived experience so he could walk the journey of life with them.
Beyond the news, you know people in your life who are suffering. Are you calling them to check in? Are you providing meals to them? Are you loving on them? Is your heart moved to compassion by their suffering?
It’s easy to pity someone and not allow our hearts to be moved by their suffering. We don’t want to suffer. It’s painful, it’s uncomfortable, maybe it dredges up painful memories for us; but the example Jesus set, the call on our lives, is to suffer with others. It’s to enter into their suffering so that our hearts are moved to compassion.
Allow your heart to be moved to compassion.
That’s the example Jesus set. That’s the point of this scripture, of this word from Jesus to his disciples, both then and now.
Do not be easily deceived by those promising quick/easy answers. Do not be easily deceived by those who say suffering is not a part of the Christian life. Suffering in this world, acts of evil, natural disasters, are the norm for life together on this earth.
But this is not bad news. The gospel, the good news, is that we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to enter into the suffering of others. We are Christ to the world. Christ has no representatives but us. And he didn’t use his time on earth to call for the overthrow of the Roman Empire, to advocate for policy change, to force a particular morality; no, he lived his life with the poor, the suffering, the despairing, and in living with them and their suffering, gave them hope.
Let us do the same. And let us begin today.
Rather than chase down every lead to try and read the tea leaves of this moment, let’s accept that the world is a chaotic place. Rather than avoid pain, let’s enter into the suffering of this world through the news and people we know in our lives who are suffering this very day.
Rather than wonder if we’re in the end times, let’s allow our hearts to be moved to compassion. And then, let that cause us to go and walk the suffering journey of life, together, teaching each other how to find hope, peace, joy, and love, no matter the chaos that ensues.
Life is chaos. Jesus is in the chaos.
Walk boldly into the chaos today.
Do not be alarmed.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.