Apocalyptic visions come from God that have something to do with life-changing events to look for in the future and in the present. Some people think apocalyptic visions, or “Bible prophecies” are predictions of things that will definitely happen in the future. More than this, however, they also point to the present. God is saying to the prophets not just “Look, see what’s going to happen.” But also, “Look around see what is happening, now here’s where you’re heading if things don’t turn around.” Prophecies are more than fixed reality, but warnings designed to allow people to repent, to turn around and make a different future possible.
There are two equally wrong-headed responses to apocalyptic prophecy. Some people panic and go around trying to interpret the signs of the times, convinced that the end is near, that Christ will return if not by the end of the week, surely before the year’s out. Then there are also those who ignore the warnings, and laugh at the idea the end of the world. We become overly confident that life as we structure it and have known it will continue for our children and our children’s children.
This was a great comfort to the early Christians. They experienced great persecution. Nero, the Roman ruler, who was known for standing by doing nothing while Rome burned, tried to blame this burning on the Christians. Christians faced cruel and unusual punishment. They could read Mark 13 and see some of their own situation in the suffering and chaos. They could take heart that God was still in charge even though these terrible things were happening.
Knowing that God is still alive and well, we are able to act whether we believe the end is near or far away. We can watch for the signs of the end and not get hung up about setting a date. Both Mark’s Gospel and Daniel’s vision challenge us to proclaim loudly the joyful news that Jesus Christ is coming again, and the world as we know it will come to an end.
The lesson we learn from Daniel is that there is courage to be found in faith. We need not be paralyzed when things we’ve grown to rely on pass away. We can grieve our losses because we know that death and destruction are not the true end. God, who is merciful and just, has the last word.
As Christians, we need not hide from the realities of life and death, of worlds collapsing and coming to an end. We also don’t need to panic. We know that life goes on beyond death. In the midst of the chaos, we can sing, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and we have faith.” Like Daniel, we can have the faith to stand up under the pressure to give in when the world says, “It’s okay, everybody’s doing it.” Faith to help each other through times of crisis, to sit beside someone in pain, someone who is dying, someone who is confused, because we know God is near us. Faith to repent from creating an early end for the world through violence and abuse of the land. Our faith gives us the courage to take steps nobody else would be willing to take.
When life seems cruel, we are tempted to look for signs that the end-time is around the corner that Jesus will return soon. Still, Mark’s Gospel tells us, “About that day or hour no one knows.” In the meantime we can look for signs of hope, indications that God’s promises are kept and that Jesus is with us now. Such signs call us away from passive waiting; we are to “Keep alert.” Like the doorkeeper waiting for the owner of the house to return from a journey, we have a job to do. Keep awake. Waiting and watching for God.