Today’s lectionary lesson from Luke 21 and 2 Thessalonians 3 continue an end-time theme. In Luke, the scene is Jesus’ reply to someone’s admiration for the great temple in Jerusalem, whose beautiful hand-smoothed stones Jesus said would be smashed by besieging invaders. False prophets, false messiahs, wars, uprisings, and all such tumult would also occur as part of what to us can seem like an uncertain apocalyptic timeline. Yet, Jesus assured the faithful remnant that he would descend from the clouds and rescue the followers who had endured the carnage and clung to their hope.
There is an overarching, troublesome issue underlying the apocalyptic portrayal. In Luke 21:32, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Everything Jesus says here indicates a sense of urgency, that the events are beginning and that the destruction and Jesus’ second coming will happen within the hearers’ lifetime. Well, the world didn’t end, Jesus did not return as expected, and here we are wondering why. What are we to do with the discrepancy between what Jesus supposedly said and the facts of history? Did Luke or some ancient editor misquote Jesus? Did a divine change of mind rework Jesus’ original plan without our notice? Or, perhaps the end did arrive and we simply didn’t get the memo.
Surprisingly, all of the above questioning hasn’t much undermined Christianity’s credibility. This odd fact is perhaps as interesting as the missed apocalypse, suggesting that there is some strange psychology at work such that we can mysteriously miss a clear promise and not be overly discouraged. Although history has not yet ended as predicted in scripture, there are plenty of natural disasters, strange evil happenings, and moral decay to keep the apocalypse popular, relevant, and expected day after day, year after year, generation after generation.
Consider that cultivating awareness of who and what we are might constitute the greater good in its own right—Jesus told us to be ever-alert—and an expectant attitude might be more productive than trying to pinpoint the apocalypse or feeling disappointed when it doesn’t arrive. Bad things are always happening, and it could be that Jesus’ promise is kept alive because the conditions always seem right—to every generation—for an ever-unfolding end times scenario. And besides all this, for those who press the Bible’s literal words the burden of proof rests with us the readers, and we are not encouraged to blame God even when a key biblical promise isn’t fulfilled. The sense here is that for those who truly want to believe Jesus’ words, there must be something that we’re missing. After all, we must be wrong and not Luke, not the translator, not the Bible, and certainly not Jesus or God. All of this makes for an interesting argument which, depending on how you answer it, partially accounts for Christianity’s diverse divisions, sects, and denominations.
And now for a change of focus that isn’t too distant from our theme. The message in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 can be paired with the end times issues, such that the author warns against idle people who are not properly earning food and other things they need for survival.
On the one hand there are hard-working people earning what they need while on the other hand there are those who are not industrious, not earning their living. The authors’ solution is clear: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess 3:10b). The undying controversy between people who argue for or against social welfare, handouts, and charity continues today. Perhaps the idle persons were missing work because they were staring up into heaven waiting for Jesus’ return. Or, the idle persons might have been simply lazy. Whatever the case, the biblical message encourages peoples’ activity and personal responsibility in doing what they can.
We might conclude that we should all be doing what we can, while we can, because apocalypse or not we shouldn’t miss an opportunity to engage the world and gain strength from exerting ourselves. Our hard work may also demonstrate how God’s strength is manifest in our actions and attitudes. If nothing else, perhaps Christians can set the standard for getting things done—both for themselves and others. Whether the apocalypse is tomorrow or 1000 years away, focus on doing the greater good in the here and now.