What were you doing last Saturday (May 21st, 2011)? I spoke at a men’s meeting in the morning, and at a church group in the evening. In between I rushed to finish a paper I was writing for my own church community. A full day. It was only much later that I discovered that a pastor in the U.S had prophesied that Jesus Christ would return on that day to wind up history.
A loosely organized Christian movement has spread the word around the globe that Jesus Christ will return to earth on Saturday (May 21st) to gather the faithful into heaven . . . The prediction originates with Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer from Oakland, Calif., who founded Family Radio Worldwide, an independent ministry that has broadcast his prediction around the world. (Tom Breen, “Apocalypse today? Pastor predicts end times,” The Associated Press, Saturday, May 21, 2011.)
I am writing this column on the evening of May 25th. Christ did not come back on May 21st. Pastor Harold Camping is being ridiculed. (Apparently he had made a similar prophecy before.) Those elements of the media who are not particularly sympathetic to the Christian faith are having a field day. Christians will be pointing to bible verses like Mark 13: 32-33 where Jesus tells us:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” (NIV)
We will shake our heads at the Campings among us and remind them that we were never meant to calculate the time of Jesus’s return. We will look sheepishly at the onlooking world and ask for understanding, hoping that they know that there are some among us, like Camping, who are not that bright, but there are many more like us who are more sophisticated and not given to such silly, embarrassing mistakes. Maybe we need to do more than that.
In verses like Mark 13:32-33, Jesus does warn us against trying to guess the exact day and hour of His return. But He is also clear that He will return, and the fact that we do not know exactly when is the reason why we need to be “on guard” and “alert.”
Commenting on these verses, Walter W. Wessel writes:
. . . Jesus at his ascension, clearly says that it was not for the disciples “to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). A map of the future would be a hindrance, not a help, to faith. Their responsibility and ours is to get busy and do his work without being concerned about date setting . . . Vigilance is the order of the day because the time of the Parousia is not known. (“Mark,” The Expositors Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, 753.)
So while the Lord may have a word with the Harold Campings about “date setting,” He may have a different word with us — have we been vigilant and faithful? At least Camping took the return of Christ seriously. Some of us may have the right doctrines about the Parousia (second coming of Jesus) but it remains a concept that has little impact on our daily lives. And we need to be certain about the Parousia.
When we look at all the evil and heartache in the world, and in our own lives, we need to know that it will not always be like this. Jesus will return, tangibly and historically, as He did during His first sojourn on earth, to finally make all things right again. This assurance gives us the faith and courage to press on. It may be dark now but the sun will rise and dawn will come, and so we do not lose hope or grow weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9).
Therefore we are not to be clock watchers, doing what we ought to do only when we know the boss is coming back to check on things. Whatever the time on the clock, we do what we are called to do and we do it whether it is convenient to do so or not.
But what if I had known for sure that the Parousia was to take place on May 21st 2011? I don’t think I will be doing anything dramatic. We are no Chicken Littles, headless or otherwise. Our call as always is to live lives of obedience. So, if I checked with the Lord and He had wanted me to give two talks and write a paper on May 21st, that is what I would have done. My focus is on the Lord, not the time. And that is what I need to do every day.
So yes, there are things we would like to tell Harold Camping. That doesn’t mean we cannot learn from him as well. So let’s lose the condescension.