December 20, 2013

Cover Feature

The practice of recognizing Matthew 24 in world events is becoming easier with each passing year. Place the year’s headlines next to each other, or place the covers of your favorite news magazine side by side, and they virtually preach the sermon for you.

While we didn’t see another Katrina or Sandy during the past 12 months, the year of our Lord 2013 has still easily answered to the pattern Jesus gave us: wars, rumors of war, famine, pestilence, earthquake.

Nothing New

Of course, none of the themes that surfaced in the year’s stories were new. They are replays of ancient woes, underlining Solomon’s assertion that there is nothing new under the sun. Nothing utterly novel happened. The temptation for many people, of course, is to shrug it all off and dismiss this year’s happenings as more of the same:

A gunman went on a murderous rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.? We’ve already seen it, all too often—in a classroom, an office, a theater, a mall.

A high-profile murder trial divides the American nation? A heart-wrenching story, but it reminds us of a courtroom drama that followed in the wake of a slow-speed chase following a white Bronco across the freeways of Los Angeles.

Someone sets off dry-ice bombs in the Los Angeles International Airport? A plane cracks up on the runway in San Francisco? Certainly not the first alarm bells we’ve heard coming from the aviation industry.

The coldhearted, indiscriminate gassing of hundreds of Syrians? Saddam Hussein already did that a few decades ago, and, sadly, on a much larger scale.

A bomb at the Boston Marathon? Horrible, and novel by American standards, but it didn’t bring down a federal building or the Twin Towers . . . and it’s day-to-day life in other parts of the world.

Another bad thing happened?
Meh.18 1 7

This close to the events, it seems jaded and calloused to dismiss the stories as mundane, but give it a year or two, and most people will barely remember. Some of the public is already calloused enough to move on the next day, or even before the newscaster finishes the report. Perhaps that’s because we’ve been conditioned by decades of evening news reports, which relate potentially life-changing information to us in

seconds-long sound bites. As Neil Postman pointed out in
Amusing Ourselves to Death, a gut-wrenching headline is often quickly followed by “now . . . this.”

“ ‘Now . . . this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now . . . this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately 45 seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for 90 seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.”

A nerve-racking headline quickly segues to a squirrel on water skis or to a reporter in the dunk tank at the county fair. A disturbing YouTube clip quickly yields to a dozen other amusing choices in a sidebar. We’ve been conditioned to taste without chewing, to glance without looking. It’s a programmed non-response. Perhaps a brief visceral response, but then (if it didn’t happen to you) you go back to the way things were just moments ago. We are easily lulled back to sleep, perhaps unintentionally joining Peter’s scoffers who dismiss the reality that human history has a destination: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4).

Indelible Images

Yet even if we shrug, these stories still land somewhere in the circuitry of our brain. They affect us, even though we may have conditioned ourselves to play them down. Every image, every sound, is carefully recorded and archived. Glance through the biggest headlines of 2013, and your mind will have trouble vividly recalling the people, places, and things that were involved: a man with a grotesquely amputated leg being wheeled through the streets of Boston, and the deceptively boyish image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of
Rolling Stone; sheet-wrapped, poorly iced bodies lined up along a Syrian street; water deluged streets and homes; Ariel Castro in an orange jumpsuit; Edward Snowden in the Moscow airport.

Once somebody starts a recitation of the year’s events, your mind has no trouble retrieving the images. Try it: when the TV commentators run through the list of this year’s events on New Year’s Eve, close your eyes.

You’ll be able to see most of it without looking.

You might have moved the memories into long-term storage, but you absolutely didn’t fail to notice these events when they happened. Your conscious mind shrugged; your subconscious did not. And traumatic stories
will take a toll on you—somehow, some way, some day. These things change you, no matter how much you believe you have inoculated yourself. Studies at the University of Michigan, after all, have established that exposure to disturbing media images actually takes a physical toll on us: some people experience disrupted sleep patterns more than a year after witnessing something unsettling on the big screen.2 (The study was concerned with horror and suspense films, but it leads one to ponder: how much deeper is the impact when we’re told that what we saw was real?)

The framework provided by prophecy proves to be important for a generation raised on a diet of the disturbing. What do you do with all of that information if you don’t have a chassis on which to hang it? What effect does it have on you when you work under the assumption that your existence and world events are

I have heard some suggest that the signs enumerated by Jesus in the gospels are “doom and gloom” preaching. “That stuff is so negative,” they tell me. “It encourages an unbalanced apocalyptic mind-set.” And admittedly I’ve met a few who answer to the description. But when your mind unfalteringly compiles the disturbing events of this world and relentlessly adds them to the database you subconsciously access in order to inform your decisions—and you have no meaningful way to structure such horrific impressions—how positive is
that? Over time it would only add to the suspicion that the universe is a cruel, purposeless joke.

But when Jesus informs us, centuries in advance, that these sorts of things are going to happen, it gives us a way to make sense of the data; it allows us to cling to hope:
OK, it’s bad, but we’re still on course for the kingdom. In fact, as the contractions grow, we’re getting ever closer. Don’t get off the ship. Don’t lose hope.

Daniel was given the same message. As the winds of strife blew across the sea in his vision, world empires emerged on the shore. Each one fell to a successor as further strife ensued, but the vision ends with the judgment and the Ancient of Days giving the Son of man
His kingdom—the one that will never be destroyed. Ezekiel’s vision of the wheels highlighted the confusing and seemingly chaotic appearance of world events, but before it was over, he was shown God’s throne above it all.

In other words, no matter how chaotic things get, we have the assurance that Someone is still in charge and that human history is still headed somewhere.

Storms Around Us

The “little apocalypse” of Matthew 24 gives us somewhere solid to hang our hope. It’s not a case of God trying to scare us with bad news; it’s a case of the captain telling us to hang on to the rail, because He knows how to get us through the storm. “See to it that you are not alarmed,” Jesus began (Matt. 24:6).

18 2 4 7Even though 2013 didn’t produce the sorts of momentous black swans
3 we’ve seen in other years (at least not that we know of),4 it still gave students of prophecy much to contemplate:5

Devastating floods wiped out entire canyons on the eastern edge of the Colorado Rockies, destroying homes, inflicting nearly $2 billion in damage on communities, and taking lives. The same thing happened to residents of Calgary earlier this summer when their city was catastrophically deluged and more than 100,000 people were forced from their homes. Large swaths of central Europe also found themselves under water this summer, and in January, monsoons in eastern Australia caused more than $2 billion in damage. In April it was Argentina’s turn when the worst floods in the nation’s history took 80 lives. But all of these floods pale in comparison to the floods in north India, which claimed more than 6,000 lives.

In northern Europe in October, record-setting winds over the North Sea (119 mph) pushed a storm ashore that wreaked havoc from France to Scandinavia, battering the continent, closing airports, cutting power to hundreds of thousands, and claiming lives. That storm pales in comparison, however, to the November typhoon in the Philippines (the largest in history, based on maximum wind speeds), with latest estimates at 6,000 fatalities, with additional thousands missing.

In Bangladesh the deadliest structural failure of modern history claimed 1,127 lives when Rana Plaza suddenly collapsed in the city of Savar. In Canada an oil train derailed and exploded in a Quebec town, killing nearly 50. Wherever you happen to live in this world, more such accidents continued to demonstrate the vulnerability of human technology.

After becoming convinced that someone was trying to control his mind through low-frequency radio waves, Aaron Alexis went on a gun rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., killing a dozen employees. In California former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner became the subject of one of the largest manhunts in the department’s history after gunning down several police officers. Another gunman forced his way through security at Los Angeles International Airport, killing a Transportation Security Agency officer and injuring several others. Unfortunately, such stories are almost becoming routine in places once considered safe to live. Schools, theaters, shopping malls, places of employment—no place is safe.

The centuries-old Muslim question continued to plague the world this year, when al-Shabab terrorists seized control of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, initiating a four-day standoff that ended disastrously with 72 deaths and more than 200 wounded. Earlier this year, in America, young men inspired by Islamist terror groups set off pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, bringing into North American neighborhoods events that used to be something Westerners saw only on foreign news reports.

Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned from office, making him one of only two popes who have ever stepped down. While many (most?) are satisfied with his explanation that his health is too frail to continue, some speculated that it was a move calculated to spare the pontiff embarrassment in the face of persistent scandal. After the potent ecumenical efforts of John Paul II and the rigid conservatism of Cardinal Ratzinger, what will the next pontiff, the first from the New World, bring to the equation? We had the goodwill ambassador, followed by a doctrinal policeman, followed by . . . we’ll see. The curiosity of the world to understand the new pope, Pope Francis, is clearly reflected in his selection as
Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013.

The American economy, which still supports much of the world’s financial activity, sat perched on the edge of default yet again as deeply polarized partisans entrenched themselves,, and the gears of government ground to a halt. In addition to a debt load that is mounting at an alarming and hopeless pace, a controversial health-care plan that includes compulsory measures also fueled the debate. In the wake of threatened instability and arrested economic recovery, some of the world’s leaders revisited discussions to drop the U.S. dollar for the purposes of international trade, and all of us teetered on the verge of the Bible’s prediction that the world will eventually weep and howl at the corruption of its riches (see, for example, James 5:1-5; Rev. 18:9-19). In the midst of the fracas a Seventh-day Adventist voice is heard pleading with God to bring sensibility to government. He becomes nationally visible to the point that
Saturday Night Live lampoons him: U.S. Senate chaplain Barry Black. It reminds us that at crucial turning points, God has sometimes brought His people into close proximity to those in the corridors of power.

The American courtroom continued to be a modern theater of the macabre, vividly reminding us of Paul’s prediction that people in the closing moments of earth’s history would be “without love” and “brutal” (2 Tim. 3:3). Ariel Castro was convicted of crimes so horrific that they defy any attempt to explain them. Shortly after he began serving his sentence, he was found hanging in his prison cell. Unfortunately, hideous crimes like his seem to make the news more and more frequently. Kermit Gosnell was also convicted on several ghastly counts of murder after the world learned of his late-term abortion house of horrors. Former New York police officer Giberto Valle was also found guilty this year of plotting to cook and eat women . . . including his wife. Yet again, a nation that often publicly touts its Christian foundations provided a stage for last-day human depravity.

Another highly publicized trial—that of George Zimmerman—served to highlight how sharply polarized is the American public. No matter where you might stand on the verdict, it did prove one thing: how dysfunctional the world’s remaining superpower continues to be.

In Saudi Arabia a troubling and deadly SARS-like coronavirus, MERS-CoV, began to spread, touching down in new locations. While it has thus far been contained, experts worry about yet another possibility for a deadly pandemic.

In Europe there were new concerns about the world’s food supply. While outbreaks of salmonella, e. coli, and mad cow disease have been cause for concern in the past, this was a new(ish) wrinkle: meat labeled as beef in Ireland and England proved to be horse or pig. Needless to say, Jewish and Muslim communities were incensed.

We were reminded several times this year of how vulnerable we have all become in the digital age. The National Security Agency was discovered to be monitoring
all of our digital communications, including those of foreign nations—and heads of state. Private Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Edward Snowden was also able to download state secrets and escape to a transit lounge in Moscow, where he has now been given temporary asylum—and cold war tensions between Moscow and Washington suddenly seemed to (temporarily?) resurface.

As long as we’re contemplating the resurrection of American-Russian tensions, we ought to mention what was perhaps the biggest story of the year: the gruesome chemical warfare used against Syrian dissidents in the throes of a civil war, and the possibility of yet another global skirmish in the Middle East. The situation in Syria spiraled out of control, and the world marched quickly toward a potentially explosive war, until Vladimir Putin secured Syria’s cooperation in seizing chemical weapons. He then used the showdown to score political points against the United States with a letter published in the New York

And, of course, the birth of a royal baby in England. But even for the most talented expositor, it would be hard to attach any prophetic significance to this event. It is just nice to have a feel-good story in the mix.

See? It might not have been the kind of year that future historians will mark as a global turning point, but we were handed a
lot to think about in pondering Jesus’ predictions. All of these things have absolutely happened in the past, but the pace and the magnitude of our crimes against God—and each other—seem to be relentless and growing. We have every indication that the world is still sliding, irreversibly, toward its conclusion.

And, to visit an earlier point, your mind faithfully yielded visual recollections of the events as you reviewed the list, didn’t it?

Taking Control

But at the end of the day (or the end of the year, as it were), a year in review isn’t really about facts, figures, personalities, or events. Not for Christians. As a world untethered from its Creator continues to unravel and the prophecies of Scripture are increasingly vindicated, the words of Jesus need to land on your own doorstep. It’s one thing to analyze the world and shake your head at the decline of human civilization, to bemoan a planet apparently out of control and without solutions; it’s quite another to analyze the one small part of this universe you
do have control of—

18 3 5From the comfort of your home, it is easy to assume that you are in no way responsible for the massacres, the natural disasters, or the crime that took place this year—and to most peoples’ way of thinking, you’d be right. But look at the way God’s Old Testament prophets spoke of the sins of Israel. Daniel used the word “we”(see Daniel’s prayer in Dan. 9). When the psalmist reviews the centuries-old sins of God’s people, he also uses “we”(see Ps. 106:6). Believers assume responsibility for their role in the unrepentant defiance of the human race. The rebellion that yielded dominion of this planet is not just everybody else’s rebellion—it is also
ours. Because all have sinned, because all have fallen short of the glory of God, there is a sense in which we are all responsible for this mess.

Perhaps the turn of yet another calendar year is a good moment to engage in a little bit of self-examination; after all, Paul heartily encourages it (2 Cor. 13:5). Did
I contribute to any sort of solution to the suffering in this world—or did I contribute to the problem, even by failing to mitigate something that was within my power to effect? Did I allow God to continue rebuilding His image in my heart, or did I allow this world to chip away at His work, effacing His image and pulling me back down toward my baser instincts?

It doesn’t take a Christian to realize that our planet is troubled; even a hardened skeptic can recognize it. And James assures us that devils are able to recognize the truth of God and tremble(see James 2:19). But it’s not enough to
know things. You cannot know your way into the kingdom of God, after all. You cannot be right enough about prophecy to pay for your sins or to atone for your participation in humanity’s rebellion and breakdown.

But you
can be honest about your role in this mess. You can own your sins and repent of them. You can quit sizing up everybody else and evaluate your own culpability. You can admit that you need Jesus. And you can offer Him your life right now, even before the new year begins.

Think about it: you have control over one tiny piece of this miserable planet—
you. You have a sphere of influence, one that you can surrender to His will. You can love where others hate. You can build where others destroy. You can seek peace where others stir up controversy.

You can refuse to participate in the kingdom of darkness.

You can surrender it all: your partisan affiliations, your affinity for worldliness, your personal philosophies and ambitions—and you can choose to live as a biblically informed, Spirit-led Christian instead. You can form your worldview on the teachings of Christ. You can approach the human problem from God’s perspective. You can be salt. Light. You can let Christ write the Father’s name on your forehead, in your heart, and you can offer hope in a world where it’s getting darker by the minute.

As you begin 2014, you have control over just one piece of the planet, one human heart, a place where the world doesn’t have to keep falling apart. As all the world persists in wondering after the beast, as they slide toward collapse and ruin, you can stand on Mount Zion with the Lamb. You can offer heaven—and your fellow human beings—one more person on this planet whose citizenship is in Eden.

You can live out God’s kingdom in front of the world even before it arrives.

The fulfillment of Matthew 24 is becoming more obvious with each passing year. Line up the year’s headlines on a sheet of paper, and they preach a convincing sermon. The signs will continue to deliver their message until Jesus comes, but the question at this moment is whether or not your life will also preach Christ until the day He arrives.

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), pp. 99, 100.
  2. h...
  3. The term black swan was popularized by writer Nassim Taleb. It refers to unexpected events that suddenly change the course of history and the way we do business, such as September 11. It comes from the sixteenth-century assumption that all swans are white, an assumption that was suddenly turned on its head in 1697 by the discovery of black swans in Australia.
  4. We often don’t recognize watershed years until much later, when we see the fallout from events that prove more monumental than we first suspected. A great case in point: when Romulus Augustulus was deposed as the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476, few people at the time noted it as a landmark moment. Today it is the date most commonly given for the fall of the empire.
  5. I fully confess that after moving to the United States a decade ago, I have fallen prey to the tendency of Americans to view their own newscasts as world news. For those of you residing outside of the United States, please forgive the Americentric nature of this list and the possible oversight of significant events reported in your corner of the globe. You will, undoubtedly, know of other events that should have made this list.