‘But in those days, after that suffering, 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.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’
I have been fortunate to live all my life so far thinking that Biblical passages such as this were rather mysterious, far-fetched, even primitive. The end of the world has not seemed an imminent prospect. I am too young to remember the Cuban missile crisis, and I am likely to die before climate change begins to destroy our part of the planet. However, the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president, promising to build up the USA’s nuclear arsenal, and remarking that there is no point in possessing nuclear weapons unless one intends to use them, has suddenly made these passages seem relevant and important. He also seems intent on speeding up climate change, so we may personally experience rather more of that than we thought until recently.
The ordinary people of Jesus’ time knew nothing of nuclear weapons or climate change. But they did know of lives which were nasty, brutish and short; which could end at the whim of a passing Roman soldier; of being a remote part of an empire whose politics and theology could change at the behest of an Emperor-God far, far away. The end of their world was always a possibility – and in 72CE Jerusalem and their beloved temple was indeed destroyed.
In our age, we can suddenly begin to reconnect with the fears and terrors into which Jesus was speaking. The apocalyptic passages of scripture, about which I have studiously avoided preaching or even thinking for 25 years, have sprung to life for me. Maybe our generation will not pass away before the stars fall from heaven and the powers in the heavens are shaken. But as I re-read it, I find that this is not a prophecy of doom after all. It is a description of the darkness of the world in which we live, and in which Jesus lived. And it gives us hope. Not the vacuous hope that “it will all turn out right in the end”. Not the selfish hope that we can make our country great again or take back control of our own destiny. Rather, the deep, eschatological, ultimate hope that even if heaven and earth do pass away, these words will survive to teach a new generation, perhaps a new world, of the boundless undefeated love of God.
Powerful God, maker of sun, moon, stars and fig trees, in Jesus you knew the powerlessness of human beings in the face of changes of regime and human leadership, and you knew the hubris of leaders who believe they have divine power. Help us in our day not to be totally overwhelmed by human power, but rather to hold to the eternal power of your words which will outlive us all. Amen
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff, and Policy Officer, Cytun.