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Vol. 81 - No. 5
May 2010

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:             

Earthquakes and the End of the World

An "Ask the Pastor" question inquires: "What is the Lutheran take on 5-2011?" When I first read the question, I thought it was a lottery number (I didn’t play it)–and then I realized the questioner was talking about a famous Christian radio personality’s prediction that Christ would return in May of 2011.

My response to that date comes straight from the lips of Jesus: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Matthew 24:36). God deliberately leaves us in the dark about the timing of the final judgement. It is confidential, top secret–so secret that God alone knows it. And He’s not telling. That has not, of course, kept people from guessing. The Millerites thought the end would come in 1844. It didn’t. Their fall-back position was that in 1844 Jesus entered the Holy of Holies in heaven. The Jehovah’s Witnesses looked for the return of Christ in 1914–He didn’t arrive (World War I did). Their fall-back position was that Jesus came to earth invisibly that year. Shortly after I moved to Albany, a book arrived in the mail called 88 Reasons Why Christ Will Return in 1988. (I waited for the sequel–89 Reasons Why Christ Will Return in 1989–but it never arrived). In the late 1970s, Hal Lindsey published a book called The 1980s–Countdown to Armageddon. We’re still counting down 30 years later. So making predictions about Christ’s return is a risky business. I guess I have to admire the Christian radio guy for having the courage to go public with something that he obviously believes. But I have a feeling he’s going to be highly embarrassed in May of 2011. (I wonder what his fallback position will be?)

That said, we don’t want to lose sight of the reality of the Second Coming. Jesus promised He would return again to bring all things to their fulfillment–and we believe that. The timing is left deliberately vague–because He wants us always to be ready. It’s like a surprise inspection in the military, or a pop test in a class–you don’t know when it’s coming, so you stay prepared all the time. "Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house in charge of his servants, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back–whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping." (Mark 13:33-35) If I really thought that Christ was returning in May of 2011, then I might be tempted to slack off in my faith until...oh, say, April of 2011. But if I live with the thought that Christ might return thirty seconds from now, then I’m not going to be as tempted to get lazy in my life with God. I’m going to always stay close to Jesus.

However, Jesus also said: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places." (Matthew 24:7) That verse catches our attention–because in the last three months or so, there have been at least four major earthquakes, along with a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Do these events somehow herald the end of the world? Again, only God knows that. Certainly they should remind us that someday the world will come to its final consummation at the return of Christ.

When I think of earthquakes as a sign of the final judgement, though, I go to the place where Lutherans always end up whenever they think about religious matters: the cross. At the cross, there was an earthquake. "The earth shook and the rocks split" (Matthew 27:51). Since the earthquake is a sign of final judgement, I think there’s a profound message here: that at the cross, judgement fell on our sin. And Jesus took that judgement. So when we stand before God’s judgement seat at the end of history, if we belong to Jesus, we will hear the blessed words: "Not guilty"–because Jesus already took the judgement for our sins on the cross.

This might be a good time to deal with another "Ask the Pastor" question: "Why are certain books of the Bible not read/preached in church–such as the Book of Revelation." Actually, the last few Sundays have featured readings from Revelation. It’s one of my favorite Biblical books! I quote from it all the time. (And certainly it’s being heavily drawn upon in our current Bible study on heaven). But I think what the questioner means is: Why don’t we talk a lot about the end of the world in church? Certainly every time we recite the creeds we affirm our belief in the future God has prepared for us: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." But we don’t focus on it the way some groups do, nor do we lay out the kind of complicated timetable that one finds in, say, the Left Behind series. That’s because Lutherans tend to major, not in the end of the world, but in the cross. You may note how, a few paragraphs back, I managed to take a discussion of the end of the world and steer it to the death of Jesus in 30 A.D. That’s a very Lutheran thing to do. The cross is where we live. Certainly we believe in the end of the world, we join in the great cry at the end of Revelation: "Come, Lord Jesus." But that future would be pretty scary if we didn’t have the assurance that our sins have been pardoned at the cross. In fact, not just the future, but today would be pretty scary if we didn’t have the love of God that was poured out on the holy cross. So even though we affirm God’s future, we rejoice in God’s future, our focus tends to be the one suggested by St. Paul: "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (I Corinthians 2:2).

God loves you and so do I!

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