That it is the Mayans and not the Christians who are the ones making headlines about the end of the world this Christmas would, I think, absolutely flummox the Apostle Paul and cause him to pull out (the rest of) his hair.
That is not–not–to say that Apostle Paul would have been an avid fan of Harold Camping’s program on the Family Life Radio Network. I can say with absolute certainty that if the Apostle Paul called into that show, it would be to Second Thessalonianize Brother Camping, not laud him.
(To “Second Thessalonianize” means to correct fellow Christians’ astonishingly errant views about the end of the world, like Paul had to do with the church of Thessalonica in 2 Thessalonians. You’ll be stunned to learn I just made up that term.)
In truth, just about all of us Christians need to be Second Thessalonianized with regard to our understanding about the end of the world. That way, next time we end up in an elevator with a Mayan, we’ll at least be able to intelligibly articulate the belief of the faithful church throughout history.
Here it is:
- Yes, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament do speak frequently about the end of the world.
- Yes, that was 2,000 years ago.
- No, they were not mistaken, so, no, we don’t have to be embarrassed and come up with apologetic interpretations that make them sound less, you know, wrong.
Jesus’ basic premise about his return was that no one knows the day or the hour, not even him. The “therefore” that followed from that was neither “so don’t lose sleep over it” or “so read between the lines in the Bible and do your best to compute the day and the hour; you look like a smart chap.” Instead, it was:
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 (Matthew 24:42-44).
That means, contrary to the thoughts of some of our brothers and sisters, that we do not honor God best by speculation that “clearly the end times are at hand” because of this development in the Middle East, that president re-elected, etc etc.
Instead, we honor God best by living each day fully prepared to enter the world to come, with each aspect of our lives–including our speech–reflecting this orientation.
That’s why Jesus and Paul weren’t remotely wrong when they spoke of the end of the world being imminent. They were absolutely right. In truth, they model for us exactly the attitude we need to have. And that attitude is that, in Christ, life in the world to come has begun, and life in this world–well, let’s just say the credits are already rolling.
So forget purchasing billboards announcing the end of the world, like Camping did; we ourselves are supposed to be living billboards for the end of the world. Anyone who looks at us should see people who are, in the words of the Nicene Creed, looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Today.
Think Ezekiel building the scale model City of Doom. God always had prophets act out mini-vignettes like that as a way of saying to his people, “You know, if I were you, I’d prepare for the doom of Jerusalem.” Only in our case, he uses us as a way of saying to his people something far more amazing: “You know, if I were you, I’d prepare for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, through the return of Christ. Today.”
So the Mayans predicted the end of the world. So the Middle East is showing the signs of the times. So you don’t like the outcome of the election. None of those are reasons to act any more like the end of the world is coming than if the Mayans had predicted four more weeks of winter, the Middle East declared a love-in, and your candidate was swept into the White House with a mandate in both houses of Congress. We are to point to the end of the world–and the life of the world to come–not only in bad times, but actually–and even more so–in the times that others think are good.
So what does that look like at Christmas?
Well, first of all, it looks like celebrating Advent. It’s actually not praiseworthy that we wait until the day after Thanksgiving to start celebrating Christmas. When we do that, we’re actually jumping the gun as much as Wal Mart does when it puts the Christmas trees on the sales floor in October. Christmas begins December 25. So after Thanksgiving, think Advent, which, contrary to the boring way it’s often presented as a “season of waiting” (zzzzz…), is actually a season of preparation for the imminent return of Christ, i.e., the end of the world. Other people sing Frosty the Snowman. We belt out Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending. Other people set out little manger scenes with figurines looking like they’re right out of the Fisher Price set. We build out Ezekiel’s Model City of Doom–and then explain why it’s good news. “You thought his first coming was great? Wait until you see his second coming!”
Here’s another way to do this word:
Don’t put anything flammable underneath the tree.
Not for fire safety reasons, but because as the Apostle Peter says in 2 Peter 3:10:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
Tell your friends, “Yeah, this year our family decided not to buy gifts that perish–kind of a 2 Peter 3:10 thing–and instead use the money to buy gifts we get to unwrap in the new creation. Kind of a Matthew 6:20 Christmas.”
And if the thought of using your worldly wealth to store treasure in heaven sounds like a killjoy Christmas, less fun than enabling your kids to have a My Little Pony-induced December 25 bacchanalia under the Christmas tree, then it’s probably good to evaluate that. Because, interestingly, that’s the very thing that’s behind the story of the rich young ruler.
I bet you didn’t expect that reference, huh? But there actually ought to be more Christmas sermons on that passage, because it gets at the very same subject: When you wake up in the morning, which world are you more ready to live in? If the answer is “this one,” then you will probably go away from Jesus sad, because Jesus is always–always–about getting us so to live that each day we have more treasure stored in the next world than in this one. Check out Matthew Henry’s great and vastly under-read commentary on the rich young ruler story (at the bottom of the page to which the link takes you, reprinted below for the link-impaired):
This young ruler showed great earnestness. He asked what he should do now, that he might be happy for ever. Most ask for good to be had in this world; any good, Ps 4:6; he asks for good to be done in this world, in order to enjoy the greatest good in the other world. Christ encouraged this address by assisting his faith, and by directing his practice. But here is a sorrowful parting between Jesus and this young man. He asks Christ what he shall do more than he has done, to obtain eternal life; and Christ puts it to him, whether he has indeed that firm belief of, and that high value for eternal life which he seems to have. Is he willing to bear a present cross, in expectation of future crown? The young man was sorry he could not be a follower of Christ upon easier terms; that he could not lay hold on eternal life, and keep hold of his worldly possessions too. He went away grieved. See Mt 6:24, Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Advent/Christmas are always gut-check time: In which world do you want to, and are you prepared to, live?
The flammability test of what’s under your Christmas tree is a humbling and surprisingly accurate predictive measure.