Monday, May 23, 2011

The End of the World? Harold Camping and all that...

Revelation 21: 1-14

I guess you've all probably heard by now that according to Pastor Harold Camping of California, none of us should be here this evening.  Pastor Camping is a retired Civil Engineer...not a trained priest...but he conducted his own research into the Bible's prophecies about the end of the world, and confidently predicted that the world was going to end yesterday.

He was so convinced that he had got his calculations right that he has been running major advertising campaigns across the USA and other part of the world...warning them that May 21st was judgement day.  Massive advertising hoardings were erected, in English and Arabic announcing 'the great the terrible day of the Lord'. Scandalously, followers of Mr Camping have been selling their homes, and cashing in their investments to pay for all this nonsense.

Oh dear.  I bet he feels a bit of a silly-billy today.

The troubling thing is, Harold Camping is not the first person to have predicted the end of the world.  John of Toledo thought it would happen on 23 September 1186.  William Bell predicted 5 April 1761.  Nothing apocalyptic happened on 28 April 1843, or on 21 September 1945.  Jehovah's Witnesses have predicted the end of the world 10 times in the last century!

It's easy to mock.  Actually its very easy to mock. Especially when one considers where these predictions tend to come from.  They have never been made by any of the mainstream churches.  Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism...none of the main churches has ever dared to try to predict the end of the world.  Instead, what happens, is that usually part-time bible scholars, especially those with a mathematical brain, attempt to mine the Bible for hints and clues...usually based on numbers (or what we call numerology...the study of mystical numbers).

That was how Mr Camping arrived at his date of yesterday for the end of the world.  He mixed up all sorts of number assumptions - including an imagined, or assumed date of the Great Flood, probably based on the calculations of a medieval numerologist.  He then took texts like those of St Peter.  In his second letter, Peter says that one day to the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day.  Most Christians would take that to mean that God is not bounded by time in the way that we are.  But for Mr Camping, it was a code...a code which meant he could predict that the end of the world would happen precisely 7,000 years after the Great Flood...because God had said to Noah that he had seven days to warn people of the end of the world.

Numerology is a popular pastime for certain people.  Even Isaac Newton had a go at it...and predicted the end of the world would happen in 2060.  We'll have to wait and see if he was right!

But frankly, numerology its a very silly way to spend your time.  The Bible simply does not contain secret codes for the end of the world.  I'm surprised that none of our numerologist friends have caught on to that yet!

But that is not to say that the Bible fails to ponder what the end of all things might be like.  The writers of the Bible were, almost exclusively, people who lived under oppression.  They were occupied or enslaved people - either by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Assyrians or the name just a few!  It is no surprise that people who were under such occupation and oppression should begin to tell one another stories....stories about what the world might be like when the oppression was over, when the oppressors were over-thrown and when, from a Jewish perspective, the world would be remade.

This was no different for the early Christians.  By the time that John was writing his 'Revelation' on the Island
of Patmos, Christianity, and Judaism, were going through dark days.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been razed to the ground by the Romans.  Jews were scattered across the known world.  Christians were being persecuted by a Roman political system which insisted that everyone must worship the Divine Emperor.  They were hiding in the Roman catacombs.  Peter had been executed, along with Paul and - tradition tells us - most of the other first followers of Jesus.  It was a dark time, an uncertain time.  Faith was being tested and challenged.

In the middle of this turmoil, St John had a vision.  Some less-than-charitable scholars have suggested that the Island of Patmos was a great place for growing magic mushrooms...but we have no idea whether John was a mushroom picker.  What we do have, as the last book of our Second Testament, is an astounding, poetic, troubling, magnificent vision...a vision of what the world might be like, when all the enemies of God have been  dealt with.

But its not a prediction.  Its a series of complex images...a dreamlike catalogue of angels and demons and great beasts and cities and lakes of fire and multi-headed beasts and anti-christs.  Many is the Christian who has tried to read the book of Revelation, and ended up giving the whole project up, just out of sheer confusion.  Many of the complex, beautiful and terrible images of Revelation mean very little to us.  We don't live in the same world as John...and some of the images he uses have no modern equivalent.  For us to truly understand the book of Revelation would be as difficult as it would be for John to understand a story of blind-dating via the internet.  Our cultures are worlds apart.

And yet, led by the Spirit we believe that the Church has preserved this book for us.  More than that, we believe that this book contains truth, truth which will repay careful study and reflection.  Like all the books of the Bible which the church has so carefully preserved, the Book of Revelation seeks to answer some of the most important questions of life.  Where did we come from?  Where are we going?  Is God involved in our past, present and future?

The book of Revelation's answer to these questions is an emphatic yes.  The whole thrust of Revelation is an assurance that God is caught up the in messy business of this world...he's battling against anti-christs and multi-headed beasts, he's sending out angels and blowing trumpets, he's calling the people of God to battle the forces of evil. The Word of God rides out on a white horse...and has a huge sword coming out of his mouth (which I imagine would be rather uncomfortable).   And crucially, he is promising, in the final chapters, that none of this effort, will be in vain.

John's final great vision is of a holy city...what he calls the New Jerusalem...coming down out of heaven from God.  Interestingly he says that the City is prepared as a bride, adorned for her husband...which is another strange metaphor.  How exactly does a City dress up as a bride?  Maybe some kind of enormous veil? A blue garter wrapped around a tower?  But let's not get hung up on the details!  A wise Bible teacher once told me that the key to understanding the book of Revelation is this:  that what is plain, is main.  And what is main, is plain.  And the plain message of chapter 21 is this:

"I heard a loud voice from the throne saying 'Behold, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Rev 21.3-4)

This is a resurrection message.  This is a hopeful, passionate, declaration that God is indeed involved with our world...and with our lives.  This is a declaration that God himself will restore the relationship which we human beings have messed up.  He will take away mourning, and crying and pain...and will defeat even death itself.

The people who search the Scriptures for an actual date for Judgement Day are looking for something.  They are hoping, perhaps a little desperately, that among all the awfulness and chaos of this world (in so many places), someone, somewhere, has got things under control.  The point of the book of Revelation is two-fold:  it is to assure us that indeed, someone has got the whole of His Story - history - under control.  But secondly, John writes to seven churches, on behalf of Jesus.  He encourages them, he corrects them, he warns them, and he praises them.  He essentially says to them, through the whole of Revelation that yes, God is in control.  But he chooses to bring about his purposes for the world through us...through me and you...through the Church which bears his name.

And, as Jesus and Paul both reminded us - whether or not the actual world is going to come to an actual end...we are expected to act, always, as if it is about to finish.  Harold Camping may be a numerological crackpot...but he has at least at least reminded us that God calls us to something greater, higher, deeper, broader than the humdrum nature of every-day human existence.  The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ - these are all explicit metaphors for the Church...the people of God who are called to work with God, and in God, and through God for the building of God's kingdom on earth.

Will there ever be a Universal Judgement Day?  I don't know.  I suspect not, frankly - not in the sense of a Day when Jesus comes riding on a cloud and winds up human history.  Instead, Jesus comes again every time that there is peace and justice in the world.  Jesus comes again every time a hungry child is fed.  Jesus comes again every time one of us reaches out to our brother or sister with love.  Bit by bit, person by person, day by day...Jesus comes again.