A pastor friend of mine told me that ever since the tsunami in Indonesia he has been thinking about the many recent catastrophes worldwide: hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, the earthquake in Port au Prince, the massive landslides in India and northwest China, floods in Pakistan and the avalanche of water now threatening millions in Australia, deadly wildfires in southern California and elsewhere, cholera outbreaks in Zimbabwe and Haiti.
This got me thinking too, not only about the many natural disasters, but also about the countless tragedies we humans bring on ourselves: millions of abused and abandoned children, school massacres, terrorist attacks, genocides, refugee camps, oil spills, the death of innocents from abortion, sexual wantonness, and war, political repression, and civil strife.
As difficult as life may be for each of us personally, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. What is going on in the world? Something is happening, something of cosmic significance that transcends the plight of our own personal dramas. Are we paying attention?
Before Jesus’ death, he told his disciples what would signal his second coming and the end of the age:
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. (Matthew 24:6-8)
Note that Jesus said these were the beginning of birth pains, the beginning of the end. The end will draw even closer when his disciples specifically are targeted and persecuted, when many defect from the faith, and when wickedness increases and love grows cold (Matt. 24:9-12).
Most of us hesitate to make doomsday pronouncements. In fact, most people of faith are reticent—despite apocalyptic bestsellers—to assign to today’s events any eschatological significance. But for those of us who do believe the gospel and do set our hope on Christ’s second coming, the catastrophic and tragic events that proliferate in our time point to something of real spiritual significance. God’s kingdom is coming!
If this is the case, what are we to do about it? Seek out the righteous, get our nation back on track with God, and prepare ourselves for Armageddon? Start calculating dates? Throw our hands up and say good riddance to the world? Or what?
Not long ago I went to a friend’s house. The downstairs had been completely redone: walls were moved, a bathroom enlarged, a new entryway put in. My friend was seriously ill and had been in the hospital. Unbeknownst to him some builder friends of his got together and, while he was in hospital, made his house easier to get around in. They were preparing for his arrival in a very concrete way—a way that demonstrated not only expectancy, but also real love.
Jesus told his disciples to get ready and prepare for his coming. He instructed them to be like a steward who makes sure that while the master is away his household is well run and well looked after (Matt. 24:42-51). In other words, Jesus told them to live in such a way that God’s domain is as it should be. Live so that God’s house is in order, ready to welcome him home.
In recent years we have seen that when catastrophe or tragedy strikes, most of us stop what we’re doing, band together, and try to help out. We sense more acutely our mutual vulnerability and our need for each other. The flame of goodness flares up in us, and we take action in complete disregard of personal sacrifice. This is how it should be. But is this enough? Is life a matter of doing the run-of-the-mill until disaster hits? Lending a helping hand in times of crisis is good, but do we grapple enough with how to live differently so that such devastating events are avoided altogether?
Jesus said that his kingdom would be given only to those who produce fruit in keeping with his rulership (Matt. 21:43). His followers are those who are dressed ready for service (Luke 12:35) and who invest themselves in things that last (John 15:16; Luke 12:33). In other words, Jesus asks his followers to live for a different kind of world—a social order that exhibits here and now what God’s economy is truly like. God’s economy is God’s family—a life built not on personal peace, pleasure, prosperity, power, and prestige but on self-sacrifice and joyful service.
Many of us agonize over what goes on in our world today. In his time, Jesus also wept over what he saw, and this evoked in him the following question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Will he?
Will Christ find simple deeds of faith worthy of his kingdom, a burning love and compassion for each other? Or will he find people who have hardened their hearts and encased themselves in small ego-driven worlds of personal pursuits? Will Jesus find people who have joined together in heartfelt solidarity, like chicks under the wings of their mother hen (Matt. 23:37)? Or will he again weep, like he did over Jerusalem, because we have barricaded our lives and ignored the things that make for peace (Luke 19:41-42)?
Our world has undergone many terrible events since the turn of the new millennium. Do we recognize the signs of the times? Do we see our world in the larger context of God’s plan to transform all things? If so, do we live accordingly? Jesus said, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready when he comes…” The question is: Are we ready?