Reading Church History
If you know me you know I’m a lifelong learner and history has always interested me. Over the last several months I’ve read (or listened to on audio books) a variety of things on various periods since the work of Jesus Christ.
- I’m working on the book of 1 Thessalonians for our Adult Sunday School class. The church in Thessalonica had a very real sense of Jesus’ immiment return. Paul has to back them off of it a bit in his letters.
- The church in the Middle ages lived with real uncertainty. Life for many was hard, short and uncertain. From the sack of Rome to the rise and fall of empires to the black death, Europeans lived with the palpable expectation of Jesus’ return.
- Martin Luther, at the end of the Middle Ages believed that Jesus was returning soon.
And what better could he do than take the cowl? Men believed the end of the world already had been postponed for the sake of the Cistercian monks. Christ had just “bidden the angel blow trumpet for the Last Judgment, when the Mother of Mercy fell at the feet of her Son and besought Him to spare awhile, ‘at least for my friends of the Cistercian Order, that they may prepare themselves.’ ” The very devils complained of St. Benedict as a robber who had stolen souls out of their hands. He who died in the cowl would receive preferential treatment in heaven because of his habit.
Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand – A Life Of Martin Luther (Kindle Locations 379-383). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
- The 19th century in America was filled with movements that expected the near immediate return of Jesus. Those that grew out of Christianity include the Jehovah Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, the LDS Church, and others. There are also numerous examples of millennial type movements and ideas in numerous political and religious movements around the world.
- In the 20th Century many others came out and prophesied the end of the world both in Christian groups and sects and other religious groups most recently including ISIS.
Skepticism about Religious Prophesy or Future Spiritual Interventionists
All of this might be seen as ironic since for the last 200 years in the secular West other thinkers have been prophesying the end of religion and the end of these kinds of movements. The idea is that now through science we can dismiss religious superstition and ideas of prophesy, whether they come from the Bible or from the Quran or from some other person a small or large group might consider a prophet. People from both within the church and outside of it began to express not only skepticism but also mockery towards those who prophesied or believed in a supernatural end of the world. This skepticism applies to a variety of prophesied arrivals from:
and all sorts of other beliefs in smaller religions.
Contemporary materialism is skeptical not only about the possibility that there could be such a thing as ancient prophesy to reveal future events but also that some supernatural or spiritual being could, can and will show up in this world and radically change the way we all experience how the world works today. Our assumption is that the kind of life we experience, the kind of world that is governed by the science and technology we understand and possess, the kind of history we see looking backwards with these same skeptical philosophical filters will continue to govern the future.
Before we go any further we should, however, pause to recognize the belief content of modern skepticism. It doesn’t simply recognize things, it asserts things about history. It asserts that miracles don’t happen. It asserts that Jesus didn’t heal people, or rise from the dead or ascend into heaven. None of these things can in fact be proven by the terms of the system they recognize. The assertion that these things haven’t happened are based on the fact that they cannot be proven to have happened and this group of people claim that since they have never seen such a thing nor believe that they have seen such a thing then they therefore could never have happened. If you want an interesting exploration of this read CS Lewis’ book Miracles.
The Pride of Science and Technology
Now in this moment many will point to science and technology and profess its superiority to the world of superstition that it asserts we all lived within in the past. They can point to all sorts of bad ideas and non-working “solutions” that clearly failed. The prayers of the monks and the priests were not able to control the plague or the spread of disease anything like science was able to do when they discovered that fleas on rats were making people sick or that you have to separate your sanitary sewage from your drinking water.
We must admit the truth of this and we should. We should also point out two other things.
First that the philosophical underpinnings that gave rise to science came out of the kind of stable, real world that Christianity created in the West. It didn’t come out of the areas of the world that professed that all experience is illusory as you will find in some eastern philosophies and religions.
We should also point out the faith assumptions of a belief in the progress of science and technology. How many of you would like to go back in time to use the science of the 19th century? We should remember that all the way up to World War II scientists were quite certain of a lot of things that today we condemn as bigotry or ignorance including the superiority of some races over others.
A belief in the religion of science shares elements of awaiting a “second coming” that few people really own up to. We believe that whatever disease or problem we confront will someday be overcome by science. Well that’s a lovely thought but it does little good to someone who has a disease that either science can’t cure today or they can’t afford to treat.
Science and technology are always in our hands which means they are subject to our weaknesses, our evils and our politics. The question today of climate change is a great example. While many of the world’s elites believe we are cooking the planet we are no closer to a political solution to these problems than we were 20 years ago. A faith in science and technology is really a faith in ourselves and if there is one thing we have demonstrated we fail to improve upon it is human evil.
This was why for some the election of Donald Trump came as such a shock. He seemed so evil and here we elected him. This shook the faith of many in our political system and the surety of our ability to improve ourselves.
Being Skeptical about our Skepticism
It seems prudent as human beings to embrace a bit of humility about what we really do and don’t know. The Native Americans when they first encountered the European explorers and pioneers with their ships and horses and advanced technology could not have imagined what would become of their world. This pattern has of course been repeated time and time again in history. We grow accustomed to seeing the world as we know it within the framework of what we’ve been taught and what we’ve experienced and then something unexpected comes along and we need to account for it or adjust to it.
Books, movies and TV shows are filled with stories of unexpected entrances, usually unwelcome, and what people do to respond to them for better or for worse.
History is this way. Older Americans talk about Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy Assassination. More of us remember 9/11 and more recently the Trump upset. We have to recognize that we implicitly build up assumptions and expectations about the world and that these are products of our experience.
These assumptions are of course subject to our fears and biases. If you pay attention to people around you you can quickly figure out that people are all over the map with their ideas and expectations of the future often based on their experience of the past.
- Children of adoption often have what psychologists call “abandonment” issues even when the adoption happened long before they could retain any conscious memories of what happened.
- Children who have been abused carry fears and behaviors into adulthood that they can’t see themselves or even understand themselves much less own or control usually without a fair amount of help from others.
- People who have experienced trauma carry with them expectations and assumptions and bring those things into their experience and judgment.
These are of course obvious and well known examples. We all carry things with us and act out of them and this is why if you sit down win nearly any other human being and have a conversation about politics or relationships or the future you will begin to see that they have very different ideas from you and the choices they make that may seem stupid or foolish to you seem reasonable to them based on their view of the world.
Again if you go back through history you will see that millions of reasonable men and women signed onto political and religious movements that you might today think are evil or just plain crazy.
- Millions followed communism into believing that human history is a story of class struggle and that by revolutions we can remake the world into a communist utopia
- Millions followed the Nazis into believe that human history is a story of racial evolution where the Arian nation would through their great leader establish a thousand year kingdom to rule the world.
- Millions believed that Rome would rule the world forever and that the Roman way of life was the best way to life.
- Millions saw that the sun never set on the British Empire, until it did.
History is simply full of this. It is also full of shocking overturnings where the worlds we assume come crashing down around us. What every such overthrow has in common is the fall of our own pride and our imagination that we can somehow inherit the earth and own the future.
“The Little Apocalypse”
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all include a section towards the end of the story of what is often called “The Little Apocalypse” where Jesus says a number of things that seem to be about the work of Jesus, the coming of the Son of Man and the end of the world as we know it. These passages tend to get upstaged by larger apocalyptic literature in the Bible like in Daniel and the book of Revelation but they have always attracted the attention and puzzlement of readers of the Bible.
There are a few things we know about this passages.
- Jesus is connecting his ministry with the writings of the Hebrew prophets and locating his past, present and future actions within that conversation.
- Jesus is talking to his disciples about events that are about to take place in their lives. As even secular scholars have recognized it was not hard to predict in the days of Jesus (around AD or CE 30) that the religion and politics of the Jewish nation was on a collision course with their Roman rulers and in such a fight Rome would certainly eventually prevail. He is also locating his ministry within those events as well as his far more imminent death at the hands of the Romans which he clearly anticipates.
- Jesus is talking about events on a far larger scale beyond the time and place of the disciples listening to him. He is also connecting those events with what he is about to do.
All of this has of course come to be a part of the Christian teaching we find the Apostles Creed “from there he will return to judge the living and the dead”.
From the time of the early church, as we can see in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians Christians have been expecting Jesus to return again, to judge the living and the dead and to finish the work he began.
OK, but how should we be waiting?
This waiting is not an uncomplicated thing, which is part of the reason Paul has to give advice to the church in Thessalonica. We all wonder how to wait for things that are coming, especially for things that we don’t know when they might come. What if we have doubts that they will come at all? What if we use the idea of their coming as an excuse to do or not do things we should or shouldn’t do? Waiting is a difficult thing.
Jesus’ Commands for Waiting
Our text today, taken from the middle of “the Little Apocalypse” gives commands for waiting. They are really quite straight forward and direct.
Matthew 24:36–44 (NIV)
36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Most of this it would seem is abundantly clear.
- Nobody knows the day or the hour (or the month or the year), not even the second member of the Trinity (so GIVE IT UP you prognosticators please!)
- People will be living obliviously when it happens and it will take everyone by surprise.
- You must be ready!
Two Elements, one obvious, the other less so
Because of the rise of Dispensational theology the “one taken, the other left” gets heard as a sort of rapture with people disappearing from cars and airplanes. Without getting into that long theological conflict I’ll simply say that most of Christianity has read the passage simply as judgment will fall on one and another will escape it and the difference between the two will be indistinguishable to most observers.
The other element is the “Son of Man”. To many reading the text today that will simply look strange. To Jesus’ audience they would have been drawn back to Daniel 7, a very popular and familiar passage where an eternal kingdom comes out of the chaos of the sea and the beasts and is giving to the “Son of Man”. Jesus identifies with this and the clear message from this section, and the sections around it is that Jesus will return and his kingship in this kingdom will be visible and obvious to all.
But the Problem of the Located Listener Remains
What haunts a lot of Christian people and makes many more skeptical is the repeated message to multiple generations “to be ready”. Why say this?
One thought that comes in is that Jesus says he doesn’t know so he’s just covering the bases. He tells his disciples around 30AD “just in case” and that gets passed on to each generation “just in case” until finally at some point in the future all the of the prophesies come true and then it happens.
One of the issues with this is that it feels like manipulation or deception. Why have everyone prepare for something that most of them won’t need, and why have some coded prophesies that gets succeeding generations looking for clues, passing on clues, but then finally being wrong which then undermines their credibility with everyone else. You really don’t want to make predictions and then have them NOT come true if you want people to take you seriously. In fact I think this practice has undermined people’s confidence not only in people who make high profile predictions but also in the Bible itself.
Some have responded to this by simply saying “Jesus got it wrong and everyone else has been wrong too.”
While this might let everyone off the hook in terms of “be ready” it does absolutely nothing for the credibility problem.
What We Know, Again
In some ways this is less of a problem than it appears. If you go back and look at my “what we know about The Little Apocalypse” those elements continue to ring true.
- Jesus connected himself with the Hebrew Prophets
- Jesus connected himself and his work with his own present actions in the crucifixion and the resurrection.
- Jesus predicted correctly the events that would happen in 70AD with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans
- Jesus’ words about a final fulfillment are general enough to seem to speak to nearly every generation. This doesn’t appear to be accidental.
At this point we can then go back and look at the main message again.
- No one knows when the final resolution will come, so give up your predicting
- It will come as a total surprise
- Be ready
OK, but doesn’t the last “be ready” still linger with the time problem?
- Why should I be ready for something that might come hundreds or thousands of years after my death?
- Hasn’t the “be ready” issue caused some of the problems of these groups doing foolish things, the kinds of things Paul has to address with the Thessalonians?
- “Be ready” for what exactly if not the final chapter in the story of this age?
The Day of the Lord
One of the ways Jesus ties this all together back to the Hebrew prophets is the clear tie to the “Day of the Lord”.
The Day of the Lord is not simply an event on a timeline, it is a certain type of event that actually comes again and again, sometimes in dramatic, earth sized public ways, but other times in small, far more personal and individual ways.
The reference with the prophets was often to the fall of Israel, or the fall of Jerusalem, or a disaster that wipes away the hopes and dreams of a people, but also their idolatries and false hopes. It was sometimes a natural calamity, sometimes a political change, sometimes a war, and in Jesus’ case his personal execution.
If we understand that in some ways “The Day of the Lord” in its greatest magnitude is that day when the Son of Man takes full possession of his kingdom, when God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Before that day, however, there have been multiple smaller days, some larger, some smaller. They are like the tremors before the eruption of a volcano. They are what I imagine a “pre-echo” would be.
An echo is the reverberation of a larger, fuller, source-sound after the fact. The multiple “Day of the Lord”s come before the final great event. They are a result of that final great event but they happen before time. They are like a pre-echo.
“The Day of the Lord” in your life
I think Jesus commands these things to all of us, no matter what year we live in, because the pre-echoes of the Day of the Lord reverberate throughout the world. They hit everyone, everywhere, at one time or another.
Go ahead and read the passage. We don’t know when they come. One falls while the one next to them gets off without a scratch. Again, and again and again.
Jesus commands these things of us because the world is at it is, and no amount of power or money or health will exclude you from it. It, like the age of decay, will eventually find you and take you down. This truth rubs against, irritates and exposes the idolatrous lies of our own culture that continually suggest to us that if we’re careful, if we play our cards right, if we’re moral, if we’re smart, if we’re _______ THEN
- we can make all our dreams come true,
- secure for ourselves the life we’ve always wanted
- find in ourselves and our circumstances happiness, meaning and joy in increasing degree from one moment to the next
- obtain every outcome the desires of our hearts demand
The Day of the Lord comes to all and there is revelation and truth and even sometimes mercy in that.
The Day of the Lord reminds us that we are not God, and it is a good thing we are not. The Day of the Lord cuts down our pretense and our ambitions to be gods on our own. The Day of the Lord actually sets the world right, as it should be, as it finally can actually only become. The Day of the Lord brings to an end all lies and deceit and deceptions and rebellions.
This might be easy to say from the comfort of a good chair, with a belly full of food, and a warm bed to go home to. When that day comes often we are undone, sometimes at every level and there is no stopping that day. This is true for all of us and it will come for all of us.
In Jesus “be ready” there is an optimism. On one hand there is a realism about what the day is like. He knows this best because he knows exactly what his day will be, on the cross, wearing our scorn, our mockery, our sin, our debt.
He also knows it will be the day when the world is put right. It will be the day when all the ways we have to bear misery of this age will end. It will be the day when all sadness will be undone. It is a terrible thing but it is finally a joyful thing.
So how do we live between the pre-echoes and the final trumpet?
The coming of the Son of Man is what we long for, because of the Day of the Lord he already endured. Yes there will be many days for us, but that day is one we will wish to see, and that day changes all of the personal days of the Lord we must endure.
In the ancient church calendar this is the first day of Advent, the time when we begin to rehearse the story with the pre-echoes. We celebrate and anticipate the coming of the king and we together as a community prepare.