Jesus said to the disciples, ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
In 2018 I went on the Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As you journey through the land where Jesus himself walked, worked his wondrous signs and sacrificed himself for the whole of humanity, you cannot help but be aware of the political and military tensions that dominate daily life. Jerusalem is a great city that is not at peace within itself. There is a constant sense of threat and uncertainty. As I made my pilgrimage I found myself pausing to reflect upon the words that open today’s reading: When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Jesus is telling us that the sign that the end of the world was near would be the surrounding of Jerusalem with armies. This end-time would also be associated with the abomination that causes desolation that we read of elsewhere in the gospel narrative. As I stood in Jerusalem, I pondered how much worse it could get before Jesus’ prophecy became a reality.
It is not for us, of course, to know the times and the events that will befall this world. Many have offered confident predictions about the end of all time, only to find the moment pass without significant incident. It is not for us to understand the mind of God. Instead it is for us to heed Jesus’ words at the end of today’s reading: stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
A couple of weeks ago, on Remembrance Sunday, many people across the country sang the hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’. The fourth verse of that hymn gives some perspective to today’s reading: A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.
Our concept of time, and of how human history plays out, is based in human experience and human folly. The words of that famous hymn are used every Remembrance Sunday as we remember the horrific cost of human pride and anger. But, this verse in particular, also offers us the message of hope that is contained within the final words of our reading. Time in this world is but the blink of an eye to God, and we are called to be ready for the moment when it will end, whether that be today, tomorrow or in a thousand of our years.
Let us pray that we might hold firm as the ravages of human turbulence swirl around us. Let us not try to set the timescale for God, no matter how ‘obvious’ the signs may seem to us. Let us pray that we might ever be ready for the moment when we stand before God, and that we may be able to: stand up and raise our heads, as all is revealed and made clear in God’s good time.