Horoscopes are, or were, a popular feature in magazines and tabloid press: popular with people who believe that the stars can tell them what is going to happen in the coming week, month or year. When I was but a lad there were known ladies who could tell your future by reading tea cups, empty ones of course, to allow the pattern of tea leaves sticking to the inside of the cup to take shape tell you the good news or the bad – mostly the bad! Popular and basically harmless, some church ladies considered they were of the devil and the advent of the tea bag may have put an end to it. You and I may not resort to the gypsy lady and her crystal ball in her caravan at the fairground. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we may have to admit at some time or another to ‘star gazing’, looking beyond and ahead of ourselves in the hope of being able to predict what the future has in store. In some religious circles there are people who claim to possess powers which enable them to tell when and how the world will end, the manner and the circumstance in which Jesus will come among us again. Present them with this judgement and they call on the authority of Scripture in support of their theories. The passages which they quote are among the more obscure, consisting of pictures and imagery that do not make easy or comfortable reading. The tendency of those self-acclaimed prophets is not to promise marvel or surprise but to herald doom and gloom. Our criticism calls for a certain amount of caution.
This reflection is headed by a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew (24:36) – we should be shaking in our shoes! It is from one of those passages with which a religious speculator or crank can have a field day. All the ingredients are there: nation making war with nations, famines, earthquakes, lawlessness, distress such as the world has never known, the sun and moon eclipsed, stars tumbling from the sky, lightning and vultures. It is an odd passage which leaves us ill at ease – we are in the company of those whose hobby is to match the signs of the times with the strange end of time sayings in the Bible; bits of Scripture that may be difficult for us but which did not present the same problem to the Hebrews in the first century AD. For generations, they looked forward to that final victory by God in the conquest of the wold and its people. They called it the Day of the Lord and their prophets assured them that before it happened there would be a great outburst of evil and the sun and the moon would be darkened. A fearsome prospect, a strange way to celebrate conquest and victory, demanding that questions be answered as to credibility, opening the way for speculation.
Let us remind ourselves again that we are looking at a passage which is concerned with our Lord’s return to earth to establish and complete God’s kingdom. A time we sing about in the hymn When Satan is vanquished and Jesus is King. Matthew knew nothing of other planets or worlds. But we have this knowledge and we are trying to accept that science fiction may not always comprise the impossible or make-believe. That may be ‘heretical’ perhaps, but back to Matthew. He quotes Jesus on the subject with all the ‘horrendous’ happenings He says will herald His Second Coming and the end of time as we know it. Not easy to take in, not a simple concept. Added to which the apparent contradiction where it says people will be able to recognise that great and glorious day of the Lord. But we are also told no one knows when Jesus will return to complete his unfinished business. The angels are not privy to it; surprisingly and puzzlingly Jesus does not know, God alone knows! And when it happens, it will come suddenly like a rain storm out of a clear blue sky. What is more, it will happen in Matthew’s lifetime. One explanation is that Matthew may have inserted it, or done a little embellishment of the text, as he was wont to do.
What does it say to us? We are on a familiar and well-trodden track so there is little need to tell the whole story. This slender synopsis of a difficult and disturbing Gospel passage will not answer all our questions about the unknown future. Does it matter? Whatever the future, today, tomorrow or beyond, does it matter when or how it all comes about? What does matter is the promise of Jesus that, come what may, ‘I will be with you always to the end of time.’ Or Paul’s testimony, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.’
Do not despair! Live in hope! Continue in faith!