I was asked the other day what I thought about 21 May 2011 as the biblically-foretold date of Christ’s judgement. I’m a bit slow and had to confess that I had heard but not read anything about it. I started to make up for my lack.
The end of the world, or rather the Second Coming of Jesus, is confidently believed by those in the know to be on the way next month. Forget 21 December 2012, you have seven weeks to get your act together. The declaration is based on a whole host of confident pronouncements about the age of the world, the date of the flood, etc., all multiplied by certain “significant” numbers and usually multiplied in turn by 1000. Equally confident predictions have been made for other dates, of course, all of them refer to 2 Peter 3:6, “…one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” I have irreverent visions of St Peter bashing his head on the Pearly Gates and moaning, “Why did I write that?”
Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to do with this amazing insight. Am I frantically to rush about, thumping everyone on the head with a Bible (apparently it has to be a King James Bible) shouting, “Jesus is Coming”? Or perhaps I should wear a sandwich board in the centre of town, “The end is nigh”? Will that bring people into the Kingdom? I seriously doubt it.
One of the problems I have with this numerological approach to the Bible is that it makes the content or story of the Bible irrelevant; it is simply a tool in which to hide the numbers. It’s very clever, make no mistake (which is maybe why it’s taken two thousand years before anyone worked it out). And when it’s revealed you can, if you are so inclined, sit back and wonder at our amazing God. But what do we learn about God? Is he no more than a clever arithmetician? Which stories tell us about God and which are simply hiding places for the ‘real’ message concealed in the numbers?
Our local newspaper carried its usual April Fools’ story on 1 April this year. It was good enough, I thought, but not great. It was certainly topical. Our municipality is struggling with service-delivery failure in a number of departments, and fixing potholes is apparently way down the list. The front-page story told us that the Municipality had decided to outsource the fixing of potholes…to us! Each business and house that fronted onto a public road would be responsible for fixing potholes in its section of the road. Do-it-yourself kits would be available (at a price) and we would be fined for failure to repair ‘our’ potholes!
It was fun and topical, but it was a little too obvious for me and lacked the ‘Wow’ factor that makes for a great April Fools’ joke. However, the real April Fools’ joke was revealed the next day. And it wasn’t the content of the story but the message hidden in its construction. The joke was on me because I missed the fact that there were 17 sentences and the first letter of each one together spelt, “APRIL FOOL WE GOT YOU”. They sure did. Suddenly one saw that the story itself wasn’t important, it was the construction that was brilliant; and I was certainly “got”.
Is that how we are to view the Bible? The people in it, God’s interaction with his creation, his intervention in history, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, are all of these irrelevant? Is it all about the numbers? If that is true, then how do we know how to get ready for 21 May 2011? How do we even know what or who awaits us? Is he a God of mercy or a God of destruction? How can we trust the content of any of the Bible stories? How do we know that this one or that is not just another numerologicaly-rich tale we haven’t yet deciphered?
Me? I’ll take my chances with the 21st of May and trust in the plain truth of scripture and of the God who reveals himself there. However incredible the story of a creator who loves his creatures unconditionally, and who would (and did) rather die than lose them, countless millions (including the biblical writers) have experienced this God at work in their lives.
There is more than enough mystery in the plain words of scripture to keep us all hard at work interpreting it and living it out for another few thousand years, if that’s what God wants. But, hey, if it is to be 21 May 2011, great! Will someone please tell my boss that I won’t be finishing that project we’re working on.
Fortunately our salvation doesn’t depend on our knowing the numbers or understanding hidden truths. Our place in God’s family is a gift of God’s grace brought to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus (an event strangely missing from the 21 May literature). Now that’s something worth getting excited about.
The final word belongs, I think, to a New England politician faced with the arrival of Judgement Day, also in May, 231 years ago. It was 19 May 1780 in Hartford, Connecticut:
“At noon the skies turned from blue to grey and by mid-afternoon had blackened over so densely that…men fell on their knees and begged a final blessing before the end came. The Connecticut House of Representatives was in session. And as some men fell down and others clamoured for an immediate adjournment, the Speaker of the House, one Colonel Davenport, came to his feet. He silenced them and said these words: ‘The Day of Judgement is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish, therefore, that candles be brought.’”
(Told by Alastair Cooke in Letter from America (11 September 1953)
WikiLeaks: Judgement and Hope (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)