In Central Asia, a war is raging.
Across the part of China formerly known as Tibet, China is slowly destroying mosques and other Islamic holy sites as it imprisons Muslim minorities in the region into detainment camps or otherwise resettles them. Just over the border, in northern India in the disputed region of Kashmir, the pro-Hindu government is also waging a war against Muslim holy sites. In neighboring Pakistan, also in the same region, the Muslim-majority government is doing much the same to Hindu holy sites. In the whole region, there are skirmishes on borders, increasing tension and anxiety among these three powers.
And not just any powers: three significant powers. A war between any of these two countries or all three would be devastating. No one wants war. And yet, the various governments are exercising their control over competing religions in order to force their will and maintain their power.
Throughout the area, there are hushed rumors of war.
Just as Jesus said. Wars and rumors of wars; a sign of the chaos of the world we are to expect until Jesus returns in glory.
For the last three Sundays, and concluding today, we have examined the little apocalypse in Matthew: chapters 24 and 25. These tell us Jesus’s elongated, and often metaphorical answer, to the disciples’ rather simple question: how are we to know if it’s the end times?
Jesus gives the final, and ultimate, answer to that question in our scripture this morning: “As you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.”
How are we to know if it’s the end times?
“As you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.”
That’s the ultimate answer Jesus gives. But it doesn’t really feel like an ultimate answer. This dialogue began because Jesus forecasted the coming destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, a fact that would actually occur some forty years later. But the disciples hear something deeper, darker, in Jesus’s comments. They hear resonances of the Old Testament tradition of the “dreadful day of the Lord,” as Malachi put it, when God would return and issue judgment upon the people, just as they believed God had done when the Babylonians destroyed the temple six hundred years before this moment.
So the disciples, mindful of that first destruction, probably believing that it was because the people had been sinful and God had come down in righteous judgment, believe another “dreadful day of the Lord” is coming. Another ending, just as the people six hundred years ago had experienced a terrible ending. They had lost everything and those who weren’t killed, who were of high station in society, were hauled off to live in Babylon against their will. What Jesus is describing here sounds downright awful; a repeat of a terrible history for the Jewish people.
And rather than be pastoral, rather than offer comfort, Jesus speaks of wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, personal suffering, and persecution. He speaks of false prophets and falsehoods issued by trusted sources, what we might call conspiracy theories today. He warns the disciples not to be easily led astray, not to allow themselves to be deceived, and to take all this suffering on the chin.
Because, as we’ve seen in the previous sermons, suffering and chaos in the world are to be expected. They are the norm. They are the result of a broken world.
“But Jesus,” you can almost hear the disciples pleading in the background as he answers their question, “how are we to know if it’s the end times? If that dreadful day of judgment is coming soon? If those dreadful times of destruction are coming soon?”
“As you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.”
Jesus tells them that no one knows. The angels don’t know. He doesn’t even know. Only the Father knows.
But that isn’t enough for Jesus. He has to further complicate matters by then telling the disciples to keep watch, because God is coming “like a thief in the night.” Then he gives several parables, metaphors, to illuminate what that coming will be like. All the while, the parables remind that the disciples, and we today, are to keep watch, for we do not know when Christ is coming.
We keep watch because we are to be found laboring for the kingdom of God. Our first allegiance is to that Kingdom, to work and labor on behalf of Jesus and his bride, the church. That labor looks like the other thing we are to keep watch for: the suffering in the world. We are to be responsive to the suffering we see, through prayer and through acts of service. That’s how we labor, that’s how we work for the kingdom, that’s how we are to be found when Jesus does in fact return.
But, still, even after all this, you can still hear in the background the disciples pleading with Jesus to tell them how they will know if it’s the end times. Even though Jesus has told them he doesn’t know, they still want to know. They still want answers.
And don’t we all.
We want answers to this world’s suffering. We want to do something to relieve this world’s suffering. We want to act to make things better. It’s so tough to watch and read news articles about what feels like increasing chaos, whether in tensions between nations, the pandemic, the global recession, our own national politics, or the chaos we know in our personal lives. We want some way to grab hold and feel a sense of control over it all. The world sometimes, and I think especially lately, feels like it’s spinning out of control. So, we want to make sense of it.
And one of the ways we can make sense of it is to see the increasing chaos as a part of a grand plan by God to soon, very soon indeed, come and restore things; in other words, to read the signs of the times and decide that the end times, really, are just about here.
But of course Jesus says right before saying “keep watch” that no one knows when the return will be, not even the angels nor Jesus himself. No one knows. No one can know. No signs can be read because there are no signs that forecast the future. It’s impossible to figure out.
The end times cannot be predicted. That much is clear.
But that’s certainly unsatisfactory. The disciples ask when the end times are coming and how they can know. We have much the same question. Jesus says he doesn’t know when and they can’t know. There are no signs to read.
But then he gives all these signs and tells the disciples to keep watch.
What exactly are we to do with this?
Here, we have arrived at the end of this sermon series. The little apocalypse is indeed confusing, jarring, difficult. We’re not wrong to ask, even here in the last week, what we’re supposed to do with scripture, especially considering Jesus’s odd answer to their question: as you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me. It really doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Except that Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to ask that question. So, instead, he gives them the answer to the question they should be asking.
We know from previous sermons that the end times are always upon us; it could come at any moment. And so we must be laboring, working, for the kingdom. We must be walking into the suffering of others, the chief takeaway of the last three sermons. That’s the call on our lives as disciples.
So, knowing that’s our call, Jesus wants us to ask a very different question when we think of the end times. Rather than wondering how we’ll know and wondering how to read the signs around us, Jesus wants us to ask this: Knowing the end times are coming, how should we live our lives?
Then, if we are asking how we should live our lives, Jesus’s answer makes perfect sense:
“As you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.”
In other words, go labor for the Kingdom by walking boldly into the suffering of others, just as we have described in past weeks.
The end is coming. One day. Jesus makes that abundantly clear. That day could be today. That day could be in 10,000 years. But it’s coming. So we keep watch over the suffering of the world, we keep watch over the suffering of our community, friends, family members, and ourselves, so that we can walk boldly into the suffering, bringing the good news that resurrection is coming. “As you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.”
That’s a summary of what we’ve said the last three sermons. But consider this: that doesn’t quite feel like enough, does it?
Jesus has just spent many verses describing big, global, problems. He’s describing suffering on a massive scale with famines and earthquakes and wars and persecution and death. So it seems like his answer for how we are to live our lives as Christians should be just as large, just as big; should be far grander than “as you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.”
It should be some big system, some grand effort, some collective action by all Christians around the world. It should be some major plan that has clear objectives. It should be like Jesus’s version of a political party, or a multi-national charity, or something of that nature. If there’s a big need, you need a big solution.
But that’s not Jesus’s answer.
Jesus’s answer is local: go and do your part.
Jesus’s answer is like the mustard seed: small, individual, but mighty.
Jesus’s answer is like the early church in Acts: each person doing their part to serve Christ the best they knew how.
Jesus’s answer is decidedly not grand. It’s not big.
But it’s powerful.
Powerful like voting.
Consider voting. It’s a simple thing at it’s core. We educate ourselves about candidates running for office. We go to our local polling place and make our selections. We each do that individually. And our individual votes have limited impact on their own.
But collectively, our voting has huge consequences.
This election makes that stark with control of the White House and the Senate in the balance. My vote, when I go do early voting later this month, will have very limited impact. I’ll cast one vote for president, one vote in each of the Senate races, one vote for our representative, one vote in local elections, and on and on. My vote will not decide who wins the elections.
But my vote combined with your votes, combined with voters from around this community for local elections, combined with voters from around the state for offices like our two senators, and combined with voters from around the country for president, will determine who wins, and will have consequences for the next several years.
Our individual voting has limited impact. But together, all of us doing our part, acting individually, we have a huge effect. We, together, determine the direction and fate of this country.
So it is with “as you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.” Our individual actions to walk boldly into the suffering of others might not seem like such a big deal on its own; it must feel like it has limited effect.
But when we all act individually to serve the least of these, we make a big difference.
We make a big difference because we bring Christ to the brokenness of the world; we bring the good news that resurrection is coming.
We can make a big impact on the chaos of this world. We can make a big impact on the suffering in this world. We can make a huge impact on the lives of others. If we are willing, if we are bold, if we are brave, enough to suffer.
So when there’s suffering around the world, pray, give money charitably, send relief supplies, do what you can to help. Walk boldly into the suffering. For when you walk that journey with the least of these, you bring the good news that resurrection is coming.
When there’s suffering in our community, pray, give money charitably, offer relief, do what you can to help. Walk boldly into the suffering. For when you walk that journey with the least of these, you bring the good news that resurrection is coming.
When your friends and family are suffering from tragedies, illnesses, financial downturns, relationship loss, and other kinds of personal suffering, pray, call them and talk, go and sit with them if it’s safe, offer relief, do what you can to help. Walk boldly into the suffering. For when you walk that journey with the least of these, you bring the good news that resurrection is coming.
When you see folks in town you don’t know who are suffering in various ways, walking the streets hungry and without proper clothing, do your part. Buy the thirsty a bottle of water at the gas station. Give your clothing to the Christian Life Center. Support the Dodge County Food Bank. Say hi to the stranger who passes you. For when you walk that journey, even for a moment, with the least of these, you bring the good news that resurrection is coming.
When you suffer personally, from persecution, poor health, tragedies, financial downturns, relationship loss, and all sorts of other personal suffering, pray, seek out close friends and family to sit with you and talk, turn into the wind rather than try and run away. Walk boldly into the suffering. For when you walk that journey when you are one of the least of these, you’ve walked with Jesus.
Suffering is the norm in this life. But within that suffering, as we’ve seen, there’s resurrection, there’s new life. When we walk into the suffering of others, we bring that good news that new life is possible, hope is possible. Suffering is the norm but suffering is not the end. Suffering is the norm but suffering doesn’t have the final say.
It doesn’t have to if we will walk boldly into suffering, bring the good news of Christ that resurrection is coming.
So, knowing the end times are coming, how are we to live our lives?
The end times are coming. One day. But until that day, bring Jesus to the hurting. Walk boldly into the suffering of this world. For “as you have done unto the least of these…you have done unto me.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.