The Coming Apocalypse and the End of Time
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
As we turn towards the end of the year, the lectionary focuses on apocalyptic and prophetic texts. For the coming weeks, many of the Scripture texts will focus on prophecy and the end of times. In recent years, I think it has become increasingly easy for us to imagine and understand these texts. The news these days too often has apocalyptic overtones. When we hear news about a small country church in Texas in which dozens of innocent worshippers were gunned down for no reason, or in which hundreds of innocent concertgoers are shot while attending a concert in Las Vegas, it isn't so hard for us to imagine the end of times. The news events of these days put us all on edge. What previously was unimaginable has become reality. Whether it is seeing the violence that is prevalent in parts of our society, or the extremely twisted values of our celebrities, politicians, and sports heroes, or whether it is the fear that with North Korea and China we are on the brink of World War 3, sometimes we may get the notion that these truly are the end of times. Everything seems so out of control.
Jesus' teaching of the 10 bridesmaids describes the apocalyptic nature of his coming Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven, as it is called in Matthew). In the parable, there are 10 bridesmaids whose job it is to keep watch for the coming groom. Since he may arrive later that night, all 10 of them bring their oil lamps. Now, to understand this parable, you have to imagine a culture in which there was no electric lighting. Travel at night was precarious in a culture without electric light. Knowing what house to stay in, and where to stop for a weary traveler was difficult without it being lit up. the bridesmaids, with their 10 lamps, will keep the house lit up at night so the groom knows which house is the bride's house and where the wedding will be. As the parable goes, five of the bridesmaids are wise and bring extra oil for their lamps, in case the bride is later than expected. The other five, however, neglect to bring extra oil, and when word comes to them that the belated is about to arrive, they find they have no oil left. They ask the other bridesmaids if they can have some of theirs, but are told to go shopping for more oil. They rush to the oil merchant to buy more oil, but by the time they arrive back at the party, they find the doors have been all shut, that the wedding celebrations have already begun, and that they are shunned by the groom. Their foolishness and lack of preparation cost them. They were not able to attend the wedding, and are left out in the dark, on the outside, as the wedding festivals proceed inside without them.
Jesus explains his parable by saying to his audience that they neither know the day, nor the time of the arrival of the end of days. The same is true with us. But one thing bears repeating. For Christians, the apocalypse is neither something to be feared nor repulsed by. For believers, apocalyptic consciousness has little to do with zombies, violence, mayhem, or destruction. Apocalyptic eschatology in our faith means two things: God is in control, even when it seems the world is totally out of control; and we can invest our hope in the vindication of the righteous that will come in the end of days. Indeed, with Christ's death and resurrection, to a degree, for Christians the apocalyptic has already begun. Christ's resurrection was only the first fruits. Throughout the ages, Christians have lived with the hope that sometime soon, in an unexpected way, we will experience the renewal of the resurrection, not only in our individual lives, but in our communities, and indeed in the resurrection of the very creation. So, as the parable illustrates, we live in the tension between the now and the not yet. In some sense, for believers, the hope and wonder of the resurrection has already begun to permeate our lives and our communities. yet, we still await that moment, a moment that could arrive at any time, in which we experience the wonder of creation made new in the end of times.
This summer, I began to enjoy a hobby I once had as a teenage boy, backyard astronomy. I bought a telescope and a camera, of course with the idea I'd be out every other night taking photos of planets, galaxies, and the moon. It didn't quite work out that way. I've only been out maybe a half-dozen times. But I've still had fun with it, especially during the daylight hours as I've studied up on astronomy, how to do it, and of course, the science behind it. One of the things that I have truly come to wonder about is time, and Einstein's theory of relativity, as it relates to astronomy. When we talk about distances between the stars, we measure that distance not in length, but in time, the time it takes light to travel through space. The closest star to us is Alpha Centauri. It is about 4.7 light years away. The average star that we see with our naked eyes is about 1000 light years away. The farthest star that we can see with our naked eyes is about 17,000 light years away. That means that many of the stars we see sent their light this way probably around the same time humans had the ability to write. Sumerian, the most ancient written language, for example, came into being about 3000 years ago.
The andromeda galaxy, which is visible to the naked eye in the month of November, is about 2.5 million light years away. That means the light that we see from the millions of stars in that galaxy left Andromeda 2.5 million years ago. To put that into perspective, the light that came from Andromeda left us about the same time that our species precursors, the homo , were walking around in Africa. Modern humans only evolved about 250,000 years ago, in comparison. When we look up at the stars at night, we are looking at God's clockwork. We can utter with amazement the words of the Psalmist, "The heavens are telling the glory of God, the firmament proclaims his handiwork."
So, even if time and space are relative in the vast distances of the cosmos, all of God's creation is operating on God's time. This means every moment we live, everything we experience, is at the same time experienced in this local moment, and yet is being broadcast, as it were, on light beams travelling to the most distant edges of the universe. In a cosmos of relativity, every moment we experience, just like in apocalyptic eschatology, is experienced as the now and not yet, as the light from yesteryear's stars enters our eyes, and as the light from our star makes the journey to alien eyes thousands and millions of years hence.
when we, like the bridesmaids, prepare ourselves for the arrival of the coming groom, let's be aware that we live in the now and the not yet, that at any moment our Messiah could return and that we will breathe in the light of wondrous eternity. Those who have passed already, we can be assured, have already awoken in the kingdom of heaven—and we will soon join them, whether through our own death and resurrection, or through the thunderous in-bringing of the apocalyptic. Regardless, at this moment, in this our eternal now, we surely have nothing to fear. The brides-groom is coming. Be not afraid. He will soon be here. The light of the kingdom of heaven will soon arrive, and we will have no more need of shoddy lamps and oil that runs out.