Years ago a close friend and I were discussing Scripture. He is a staunch Christian who interprets the Bible literally. If it says that Eve was created from a rib taken from Adam’s side, that’s how women were created. Creation was accomplished in one earthly week—seven days, the earth is a bit more that 6,000 years old, and so on. We were discussing the imagery in the Book of Revelation, written around the end of the first century, with all of its terrifying events heralding worldly destruction on an unimaginable scale. For my friend, the end times are near and the images, such as a plague of locusts, are references to helicopter gunships being employed in the Vietnam War. Our discussions prompted me to consult a study guide for Revelations, from which I derived several conclusions. First, Revelation was written to console and strengthen Christians of that period who were undergoing severe persecution from Roman officials, Jews, and other non-Christians. Second, those who remain steadfast in the faith will be rewarded with eternal glory. And third, the bottom line is…despite all the turmoil, all the evil, in the end…God wins!
Today’s readings are also meant to consider the turmoil we see in our society and to focus our attention on end times—when we die and face judgment before the throne of God. The prophet Daniel, writing around 167-164 B.C.E, exhorts the Israelites to remain faithful in the face of persecution under the Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus is determined to impose Greek customs and religion on the Jews; resistance results in torture and death. Daniel writes that those who remain faithful, even though they may be martyred, will shine like the stars. They considered the stars in the heavens to be holy people who bring light to the darkness and afford travelers guidance on their journeys.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is also intent on preparing the apostles for the trials about to fall on them. They are looking at Jerusalem across the Kedron Valley from the Mount of Olives. Jesus attempts to prepare them for their world turned upside down. He tells them, Jerusalem will be destroyed—its massive outer walls breached, the city ablaze, the temple desecrated by the Romans, its blocks strewn about, its people either put to the sword or led away in chains. At some point, there will be massive earthquakes, heavenly signs, wars, famine, and disease signaling that the end times are drawing near. False prophets will arise claiming to be the Messiah, and Jesus tells them, “Don’t be fooled. Remain watchful!” All these things will occur before the end of the first generation of Christians…and yet, despite expectations of the imminent return of the Son of Man, no one save the Father knows when that day of reckoning will come.
Jesus continues, “Take your lesson from the fig tree; when its branches become tender and sprouts leaves, spring is near. So, too, when these events happen, remember that I told you of them in advance, and do not lose heart. Remain vigilant; keep the faith; trust in Me and you will enter eternal life in heaven.”
Here we are, in our own time and culture. The calamitous events prophesied by Jesus occurred almost 2000 years ago, and still we await Jesus’ second coming. But Jesus never really left us, for He sent the Holy Spirit to guide and defend us. The Kingdom of God is, therefore, already here. But do we realize it? So many worldly distractions can blind us from seeing what is most important. Work, sports, entertainment, self-indulgence, indifference…can cloud our vision and make it seem that worshiping God and loving neighbor may be nice ideas, but not central to our happiness and fulfillment. But compared to eternity, our earthly existence is over in a blink of the eye. Before we realize it, we will be standing before the judgment seat of God to give an accounting of our lives. How will we respond once we understand God’s plan for our lives?
Imagine we are seated around Jesus and the apostles that day on the Mount of Olives. Jesus tells us, “Do not worry about the little things, about what you will eat and what will your wear. Don’t stress out over what might happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Today’s opportunities and challenges are sufficient for now. Remain faithful this day, and every day forward. Seek ways to share your faith with others; by your example, draw people back to God and closer to Me. Focus, then, not on the world, but on doing my Father’s will and your place in heaven will be assured.