Anticipating the apocalypse

Preaching in public spaces

There was a game I used to play at school which my friends and I called ‘slapsies’. We didn’t invent it, and I’m sure it has other names. Two players, both extend their hands forward, roughly at arm’s length, with the palms together and finger tips touching. The object of the game is to slap the back of the other player’s hands before they get pulled away. It is a game of anticipation, bluff and pain. Pull your hand away too early and the other person gets a free slap. Move too late and you get slapped. You only get out if it if the other person misses.

Good players don’t look at their hands, they look at the face of the other player. Watching for a sign that they will try to slap your hands.

Childhood games teach us something about the world we are growing up to be part of. In this game we learn that other people will gleefully hurt you if it means they don’t get hurt. There are some people who are very good at the game, some people who play but get hurt a lot. And there are some people who simply refuse to play.

Another thing this game teaches children is the importance of looking for signs of things to come, of anticipating the future and taking action to look after yourself. Indeed, our lives seem to be taken up with anticipation:

What will the weather be like tomorrow? Can we tell from the dust in the sky? Can we tell from the way the birds are flying? Can I tell from the arthritis in my joints. Do cows lie down when a storm is coming or are they just tired? There is always the famous ‘Yorkshire weather stone’; if the stone is wet it is raining, if the stone is dry it is going to rain, if you can’t see the stone it is foggy… and so on. We choose our clothes appropriately.

Reading signs in anticipation of the future happens in all aspects of life: which queue will you join in the supermarket? What stocks and shares will do best? Is the traffic light about to change? There are also more personal things, like how much energy will I have later in the day? How is my mental health? Will I have enough money at the end of the week? Can I afford to put the heating on?

With everything we anticipate, there is the risk of getting it wrong and the consequences of reading the stock market wrong, jumping a traffic light, or walking in the hills during a storm can be life changing.

Life changing moments, some seem good: like winning the lottery. Some less good, like a long-term illness. But the key thing about these life changing moments is that our lives continue but we learn to adapt to the new reality.

None of this is what Jesus is talking about.

Jesus takes a moment to talk to his friends and followers about a time to come: when those who love him will be gathered from where ever they have been scattered. Like a disaster movie where the hero rescues their family, these readings are genuinely terrifying:

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Do we read this literally, or is this another parable of Jesus? It seems likely that Jesus is describing something more than metaphorical, but perhaps less than literal? What is not in doubt is that this isn’t life changing, this is reality changing.

And perhaps that is why we get the contradiction of being told to “learn the lesson of the fig tree” and at the same time as: “about that day or hour no one knows”.

What is the lesson of the fig tree? Can you remember the fig tree Jesus cursed for not bearing fruit even though it was not the right season? Now Jesus is talking about a fig tree bearing fruit as a sign of the season to come. I have come to learn the lesson of the fig tree like this: God acts unexpectedly. The fruit, or the results of God’s work are most clearly seen when it is contrary to nature: when the fig tree bears fruit out of season. Totally unpredictable.

Anticipating the apocalypse is a fool’s game. The closest we will ever come will be like the Yorkshire weather stone.

Stone wet: it is raining.
Stone dry: it is going to rain.
Too dark to see the stone because the Sun has been darkened and the stars are falling from heaven: it is the apocalypse.

Somehow though I feel like I’ve talked about the wrong thing: what good does it do to be able to forecast the apocalypse? What is the plan? This isn’t life changing, this is reality changing. Stocks and shares will be no value and these are no traffic lights to be beaten. There is no win for humanity.

The only way forward is to be able to trust in the hero of this disaster movie – to trust that Jesus will be gathering you from the four winds, gathering you from the corners of the earth to the corners of heaven.

The change in reality which will eventually come won’t be survived by adapting at the time, it is survived by adapting now. Adapting to the reality that there is a God and you are loved.

Adapting to the truth of God, the truth of Jesus is a lifelong experience, and it begins fresh every morning as we wake up and say, “Good morning Father, good morning Jesus, good morning Holy Spirit. Thank you for this new day. Will you be with me today, hold my hand in times of trouble, comfort me when I’m hurt, share joy with me when I laugh, give me wisdom when I speak?”

Whatever your relationship with Jesus is like, my prayer for you today is this: that you will grow in the knowledge and love of God. Have peace, trust in Jesus, then when life changing and reality changing moments occur, Jesus will be there, drawing you out from the chaos. Amen.

A photo of my own print: John Martin 1789–1854
The Great Day of His Wrath 1851–3
Oil paint on canvas


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