According to Wikipedia, in my lifetime there have been 46 major, notable, well publicized predictions of when the world was supposed to end. Some of them you might remember more vividly were the ancient Mayan calendar ending December 21, 2012, or Y2K when all technology ever was supposed to crash and cause mass destruction of society as we know it.
This week, in the midst of a pandemic, a divisive election, natural disasters, and feeling for many reasons like the world was ending, I rabbit holed into some of these apocalyptic predictions and conspiracy theories, and tried to make sense of them. Surprisingly only one of those 46 is a prediction for 2020, which seems like a missed opportunity, given the state of the world. A few of them were from fringe cult groups, or fortune tellers, or alien conspiracy theorists. But a lot of them, probably almost half, were from Christian ministers, often predicting or “calculating” the time of the rapture or of Christ coming again.
In our text today, Christ is not alluding to an end time when technology crashes, or aliens invade. When we think about the “end times”, and how to prepare for them, our imaginations shift toward stockpiling underground bunkers stashing away food and weapons for years of survival, but that’s not what Jesus had in mind either. This parable today is part of a series of teachings in Matthew about the end times and being “watchful” for Christ’s return, and that return is depicted in many different ways, and with an intentional emphasis on the unknowns associated with it. Many biblical apocalyptic texts like this depict darkness, isolation, division, unpredictability, and instruction of some sort to be prepared.
How do we prepare for darkness? How do we prepare ourselves for something horrible that could happen at a time no one knows, with a consequence that no one could imagine? How do we prepare for separation from those we love, or feeling separated even from God? While this parable brings up lots of questions, the only real answer given is to prepare and keep watch, which can feel frustratingly vague, and scary if we do not fully know what that even means.
This passage is not meant to frighten us. It is meant to refocus us. To prepare us for the inevitable times of darkness throughout our lives, and to humble us in remembering that we can never know what to expect or when to expect it. Preparing for the worst all the time, living in constant fear, only blocks us off from the work the Spirit is trying to do through us. Even in my final year of seminary, there are still times I walk into a hospital room, or a conversation, or a phone call where I am at an absolute loss for words. And if I were to prepare for that, to have a scripted response prepared and memorized for every possible scenario, there’s no room for the spirit to work through me there, and there’s quite frankly no room for me to be in honest and genuine relationship with whoever I’m with. Sometimes with faith, the less of ourselves we force into the way, the less we worry and get anxious about exactly how to say or do the right things at the right times, the more room there is for the Spirit to work through us, and God is far more equipped to handle those times than we are.
In the back of my mind all week as I’ve been thinking about this apocalyptic text, and thinking about all that Christ talks about in it, I couldn’t help but realize that yesterday was the 2 year anniversary of a mass shooting that killed 13 people in Thousand Oaks, California. Thousand Oaks is where I went to college, where my husband Cole grew up. Before the shooting, it was ranked in the top 10 safest cities in America. The shooting was at a country line dancing bar that I had gone to before, I had even been by there just a few months before the shooting. 13 people were killed that night, including my friend Justin, who died shielding strangers as he helped them escape through a window. The shooting happened late at night, and by morning a massive fire had broken out just a few miles away, that burned almost 97,000 acres, destroyed 1600 buildings, killed 3 more people, and caused 75% of the city to have to evacuate, while they were still grieving and trying to figure out if all their loved ones were still alive from the shooting. My friend Kelsey, who had just survived the Las Vegas Massacre, survived her second mass shooting but lost 6 people that she knew and loved night. That week was full of grief, and chaos, and frequent phone calls with friends and with Cole’s evacuated parents to see if they knew whether, they had lost their home.
As if all that, the shooting, the fires, the chaos, weren’t enough, as soon as the fires started to finally be contained, an extremist Christian group sent members from halfway across the country to protest on a busy street with picket signs saying God sent the shooter, signs with a picture of a burning house and the words “God’s fury”, and other incredibly hateful things. They tried to convince people that God’s wrath was coming upon Thousand Oaks, that God had killed 16 people and burned nearly 100,000 acres and countless homes because there were too many Catholics and LGBTQ people, and because the local high school had a mental health support group.
I think about Thousand Oaks, and I think about this apocalyptic text, and I recognize both the chaos, and the powerful presence of God within it all. The gospel writer Matthew was writing in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, the death of Christ and the persecution of everyone who followed him. He was using his memory and experience of Christ to reflect on his world absolutely falling apart, and trying to help others to do the same, to process, and to cope with the uncopiable.
Thousand Oaks had tragedy after tragedy, and it all happened within a matter of hours, in one of the safest cities in the country. They could not have prepared for that. No one can prepare for the possibility of what if I instantly lose everything I own, and many people I love, what if I lose my entire sense of security and safety, what if in the midst of that, people try to come and tell me that God hates me and is the cause of my suffering? You cannot prepare for the unimaginable. But you can trust that God is with you through it all. You can take courage in knowing that God is good and gives us wisdom so that we can be prepared for the darkness we need to face. He moves through people, and works through us constantly, just as he worked though Matthew to bring the word of the Gospel to so many people, and just as he worked through the people of Thousand Oaks.
In the aftermath of the shooting and the fires, neighbors took in neighbors who had been evacuated or lost their homes. The community came together with memorials and remembrances and services and parades honoring and remembering those who were lost. People raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support victims’ families, and to help get survivors the counseling and support they needed. Even on days like the day when other Christians brought signs of hate and accusation, those 3 or four hateful persecutors were absolutely dwarfed by the crowd of several hundred students and community members who gathered across the street at the same time with signs saying God Loves You, You are not alone, Thousand Oaks Strong.
We can’t prepare ourselves to know exactly what to do in unthinkable situations, like what thousand oaks faced two years ago, or like what we’re facing today with a global pandemic where work, class, worship, nearly every aspect of our lives has changed, that’s fueling isolation, fear, anxiety, instability and so much more, in addition to an election year that’s been more divisive and stressful than many of us could have imagined. I could not have prepared for the emotional and spiritual toll of this year any more than I can prepare for what is to come tomorrow or the months and years after.
But when the unthinkable happens, when darkness comes, what we can do is open ourselves to what God can do in us and through us. We can use the little bit of power we have to be Christ to others who desperately need it, so God may be glorified through us. We can refuse to give in to hatred and evil and tragedy. We can take courage in knowing that even when we don’t know what to do, God does, and so we must endure, we must have courage, we must act wisely, because we as Christians know that there is so much more potential for good in the world if we can find the strength to open ourselves to what God can do through us, no matter the circumstances, because what God can do through us is so much more than what we could do on our own.
So even as the temple falls, as persecutions rise, and the world feels like it is absolutely falling to pieces; Be prepared by being open. Christ is coming, but Christ is simultaneously in our midst and working in, through, and among us here and now. God is already with you, and there is nothing the world can do to change that. Amen.