Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, "Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe." So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.
Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, "Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse's bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.
Proclaim to the nations: 'God is king.'
The world he made firm in its place;
he will judge the peoples in fairness.
Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad,
let the sea and all within it thunder praise. (R./)
Let the land and all it bears rejoice,
all the trees of the wood shout for joy
at the presence of the Lord for he comes,
he comes to rule the earth.
With justice he will rule the world,
he will judge the peoples with his truth. (R./)
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he aid to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
Towards the end of the liturgical year we meet the most odd-sounding texts in the Bible, about global catastrophe and the end of the world, a literature that some find fascinating. This literature is highly symbolic and not to be taken as predicting actual events. In fact, Jesus himself says, "Beware that you are not led astray" about this theme. Probably the best way to apply it is as invitation to take responsibility for our actions, examine our motives, and be ready to come face to face with God.
It's better to read these apocalyptic sayings as a moral tonic for ourselves than to relish the prospect of the destruction of the wicked (others who have harmed us or committed outrages in history).
They are a reminder of mortality, with an undertone of divine justice and mercy, prompting us to live the present moment with fairness and kindness towards our neighbour. While the the wrath of God is mentioned we should ask for guidance from the mind of Christ, who sees to the heart of things. Guided by his spirit, we continue to look forward with hope to what God has in store for us.
Next Sunday we will begin Advent, the start of a new church year. The gospel readings this week speak about endings, in particular the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The disciples were hugely impressed by the scale and beauty of the Temple, then reckoned as one of the architectural wonders of the world. Yet, Jesus says the time will come when not a stone of it will be left standing. It must have been hard to imagine that ever happening and he refuses to predict an exact date. Yet so many other splendid palaces have come and gone in the course of history that it is foolish to expect any building to last forever. This sombre insight inspired the poet Shelley to imagine the ruins of a long-gone civilisation. He hears of "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert" and beside them the broken remnants of an enormous statue of king Ozymandias.
"And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
We are left wondering, What is it that will last? and Will anything endure? To these questions the Lord answers, 'Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.' His words and his values will endure. When all else fails, the Lord will still be there. His love for us endures, even when our response to him may be full of fits and starts. One of Saint Paul's great insights is: "Even if we are faithless, he remains faithful." Our God will surely have the last word.