Apocalypse Not




Matthew 24:36-44

(36) "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

(37) For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

(38) For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark,

(39) and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

(40) Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.

(41) Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.

(42) Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

(43) But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

(44) Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.


By this time, you have probably heard about Harold Camping's unfortunate prophecy that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. Did you hear Camping’s latest prediction? He has revised his apocalyptic prophecy, saying he was off by five months and doomsday for planet earth is actually October 21. Harold Camping, a California radio preacher, apologized on Monday for not having the dates "worked out as accurately as I could have." He spoke to the media at the Oakland headquarters of his Family Radio International, which spent millions of dollars on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 RVs plastered with the Judgment Day message. It was not the first time Camping was forced to explain away an errant prediction. The 89-year-old retired civil engineer also prophesied the Apocalypse for 1994, but said later that did not happen because of a mathematical error. Now he says he made a different kind of error. Instead of the usual idea of a Rapture in which the faithful are swept up to the heavens, May 21 was a "spiritual" Judgment Day, which placed the entire world under the judgment of Christ. Actual destruction of the world will take place in five months, so Camping says now, but because God's judgment and salvation were completed on Saturday, May 21, there is no point in continuing to warn people about it, so his network will just play Christian music and programs until the final end on Oct. 21. I suspect that on October 21, he will change dates again.

Now I confess to you that for many years, a sort of hobby of mine has been reading about failed prophets. I have read the blathering of Nostradamus. Nothing he wrote made any sense to me. I read about Heaven's Gate in 1997 and about Y2K in 2000. I read about William Miller back in the 1800's, and Hal Lindsey in the 1960's, and now we have Harold Camping. There have been a host of others, and they have all been wrong.

However, one thing impressed me about Camping's May 21 prediction--the extent to which the media covered the story. That tells us something. Camping, even though he was wrong, somehow touched a nerve. He hit on the uncertainty of our times. Many people are wondering just how bad things might get. The year is less than five months old, but 2011 has already brought us a cataclysmic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, another tremor in New Zealand, major tornadoes in the American heartland, (and yes we even had a tornado warning the other night), and a volcano eruption in Iceland. Manmade events, from the uprisings in the Middle East to the ongoing struggle with the economy, also contribute to the sense that things are out of control, and not going well.

So when Camping so emphatically declared that May 21 was the end, bloggers blogged. Newspapers editorialized. Cable news anchors spent big chunks of Saturday chatting about it. The Daily News in New York dedicated its entire tabloid front page on Saturday, May 21, to this headline: "BUY THIS PAPER! ... if it's the last thing you do."

Some folks made jokes about apocalypse not. Someone suggested that everyone should hide so that when Camping came out, he would think the Rapture happened and he was not chosen. Another person was concerned about consoling those who had believed Camping. She said, “What do you say? You cannot say 'Cheer up, it's not the end of the world.'”

However, let us go back to the uncertainty we mentioned earlier. The church itself is suffering from a plague of uncertainty. Christians are not sure where we stand in America. Much has changed with regard to the state of the church in the last generation. Today many Christians feel like “strangers in a strange land.” We are colonists in an otherwise hostile, post-Christian, secular society. The church has been pushed to the fringe of our culture, and we feel something like illegal immigrants.

In spite of that feeling, perhaps because of that feeling, the church pretends it is business as usual. We come to our buildings. We drink coffee and talk to each other. We sing songs and pray prayers, but there is no urgency about what we do. We may say that people in America are more and more regarding Christians as a little less than sane, but we are not that concerned about it, or at least that is what we pretend.

And we are not really excited by the notion that Jesus might do something about this situation—like come back. It is hard to keep on expecting Jesus to return. It is hard to maintain any urgency, any real belief, that the Second Coming is a possibility right now.

It was even hard back in the first century when Matthew’s church was operating. That soon after the life and death of Jesus Christ, they were dealing with a sense of embarrassment caused by the delay of the return of Christ. They had believed that the Son of Man would return soon, they had made calculations regarding precisely when he would return, they had bragged to their neighbors about him coming back any day now, they had stood on tiptoe with their noses pressed to the windowpane, looking for Jesus, waiting for Jesus, and nothing happened. Some folks began to be skeptical. After all, by Matthew’s time, they were already into the second generation of Christians. That is a long time to wait for the kingdom.

To add insult to injury, the early church had begun to suffer the taunts of outsiders: “You Christians have been bragging about the return of your Christ. You have had your noses pressed to the glass for so long that your faces are permanently imprinted there, and what do you have to show for it? When is he going to come? You say, ‘In this generation.’ Well, where is he?”

So lethargy had set in. After all, what is the point of urgency, when, day after day, it is the same old thing? You cannot stand on tiptoe, so to speak, you cannot expect something on and on and on. Matthew is addressing this problem. This problem was tearing at the edges of Matthew’s church.

What is the church to think? If the church decides that we are wrong about expecting any kind of apocalypse, and that nothing much is going to happen, if the church decides something like that, then it is done as a church. Christianity makes sense only if there is the hope of an end to history. Christianity makes sense only if we can believe that our story is being gathered up into God’s story, and it is all going somewhere. If we give up on that, then the church is finished. Yet that sort of skepticism was tearing at Matthew’s church--which is probably why he wrote his eschatological discourse—as a response to this skepticism. Matthew 24 is called “the Apocalypse of Matthew,” and our verses for today affirm the connection between the life we live now and the coming Kingdom of God. Christians should always act, said Matthew, as if the coming of the Son of Man were today. In other words, we live the way we live because of what we believe about the apocalypse. We live the way we live because we know where life is going.

Every year at Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Jesus. He came to Bethlehem as a helpless infant, and he is coming back at some future time as a king. That says there will be an end to all that is. In an instant, every material possession will become meaningless. All the "toys" we treasure--the car, the boat, the house, the investments—will cease to have worth.

Earlier in Matthew 24, Jesus' followers asked about the timing of all this. Timing is important. Ask the NASCAR driver who just lost a race by .01 second about timing. Ask a batter who just missed that third strike about timing. Many a person has regretted not spending more time with a loved one once that love one passed on, but, of course, they did not know the time. Well the major point of this sermon is that, when we speak of the End of the Age, the Apocalypse, no one knows the time of this event, no one that is except the Father in heaven. If you get one thing from this sermon, get this. No one knows. If you meet someone who claims to know that date of the Rapture or the End of the Age, or something like that, you immediately know that you are dealing with a person who is either ignorant or deluded or a false prophet. If you listen to these people, the only result is more uncertainty, and more anxiety.

So back to timing. What are the conditions for the timing of the EOA? Jesus says it will be like the days of Noah before the flood. People were thinking about the routine stuff of life--birth, marriage, career, retirement. Of course, there was that crazy Noah, building that whatyoumaycallit, that “ark" in his back yard, but he had been going on with that for 120 years and nothing happened. Thus, no one was expecting anything to happen, until the rain came. The Apocalypse will be like that.

Again, Matthew pictures two people working in the fields. They must have been Hispanics spraying weed killer or something. One is abruptly gone. Or, two women are grinding grain. Of course, no one grinds grain any more. Matthew is picturing an agricultural scene from the first century. Every Galilean village had its grain mill, and everyone made their own bread. Two were working at the grain mill. One vanished without a trace. What is the point of this word picture? No one expected that to happen. So will the Second Coming of the Son of man be.

Again, how many of us take precautions against burglars and thieves? We have locks on doors, peepholes in doors, alarm systems. We make sure the house is locked up before going to bed at night Because we never know when a thief might be coming. It would be scary to wake up and find someone in the house. If you had known, you would have been prepared, but, you did not know, you could not know. That is the point of Jesus' little parable. Like a thief breaking into a house, so will be the coming of the Son of man.

Now Matthew means for us to apply this information to our lives. Belief in apocalypse means that life is lived differently. Life is not just an endless succession of tomorrows, all of which look like yesterday. Life is going somewhere, going toward the New Jerusalem. If we believe that, that changes the way we value things. An awareness of how life ends has an impact upon what we value now. As Tom Long, a former professor of mine at seminary, said, “If the dam twenty minutes upstream breaks, then the Rembrandt on the wall is less valuable than the rubber raft in the attic.”

As believers, God calls on us to start living the kind of life that is consistent with what life is going to be. Christ is coming back. That effects what I think, what I say, what I do. We have read the Bible, and we know how it ends. Jesus comes back. Satan is defeated. We have a new heaven and a new earth.

Calvin Butts is the Senior Pastor of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. (Someone has called it “the blackest Black church in America”). Calvin Butts has been there for over twenty years. Abyssinian is in Harlem, just north of 125th St. It rises up above that street in majestic splendor, and from its spire you can see about anything that you would want to see, or, to put it more accurately, just about everything that you would not want to see--blocks and blocks of burned-out buildings, shabby little pawn shops, boarded up storefronts, roach-infested corner groceries that cower behind protective steel mesh, vacant lots which are illegal dumps. You can see prostitutes and crack dealers plying their trades. Nights in that neighborhood are punctuated by the sounds of gunfire and sirens, and in the daytime truant kids roam the blocks in gangs.

You would think that Abyssinian would pack it all up and go somewhere else, but there they are, in the middle of Harlem. They have organized a locally-owned bank (because no other bank will open a branch in that neighborhood), they have set up latchkey programs for children, they ha=’ve put together neighborhood redevelopment agencies, they have conducted boycotts against corporations that price-gouge, they have set up Bible studies in housing projects which policemen are afraid to patrol. However, the neighborhood is still in many ways a war zone.

In an interview with The New York Times a few years ago, the reporter asked Calvin Butts, “Yeah, sure, you’re doing great stuff, but it’s hard to see what difference you’re making; so what enables you and your folks to keep going?” Calvin Butts replied, “Here’s what. We have read the Bible, and we know how it ends. We aren’t at the end yet,” he said, “but we know how it ends, and that’s what makes the difference.”

Good point. Sometimes we do not think we see much of God around us. Why should we keep on believing and keep on trying to follow Jesus? Because we know how it ends. That is what makes the difference.

Our culture may be hostile toward us. We may live in a self-serving and self-absorbed world. That does not stop us because we know how it ends. We take seriously what Jesus said, and we strive to live in his way of love because, we know how it ends It ends with the kingdom.

Matthew said, keep awake, stay alert, because you know how it ends.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 05/02/13