Summary: Is it time to flee from the coming destruction? Or should we continue to witness and work for the kingdom?
"Repent! Repent! For the end of the world is near!" How many of you have heard a sermon on this subject? How many of you have heard a joke on this subject? Every faith tradition has a different way of looking at end-times prophecy. Some ignore it. Some codify it. Some rationalize it. Some obsess about it. and some ridicule it. Mine did. In the Unitarian environment I was raised in, thundering proclamations of approaching doom had become a matter for joking; the wild-eyed fanatic on Skid Row marching up and down in a sandwich board
proclaiming the end of the world is a stock comedy figure. Even as I have spent last year learning and this year preaching from Revelation, my past rises up to caution me because the apocalyptic passages have been made a joke by the folly and disobedience of ill-informed Christians throughout the ages. Apocalyptic time-keepers have risen in virtually every generation since Jesus bade his disciples' farewell, saying, "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority." [Acts 1:7]
What does it say to non-believers when dated predictions of the end of the world come and go without so much as a cosmic hiccup? What does it say to believers when their leaders so mislead them in the name of a God whom they are asked to trust with more then their lives? What license does it give to the enemies of the Gospel to point to madmen like David Koresh and say, "Look! That is what comes of taking the book of Revelation seriously!"
Let no one suppose that I am advocating letting the secular world view intimidate Christians into being ashamed of the cross, which “is foolishness to those who are perishing. [1 Cor 1:18 ], We are to glory, as Paul did, in the privilege of being a fool for Christ. But it is another thing altogether to claim for ourselves authority or insight superior to that of Jesus Christ, who told us that neither the angels nor the Son, but only the Father, know the day and the hour of his return. Thomas
Merton, the great 20th c mystic, writes of this snare:
"The Gospel looks to a future event that is still not fulfilled - the full revelation of the Glory and the Reign of Christ. He reigns already, but his reign is not yet manifest as it will be. Yet this brings with it another temptation: the false news of those who have too much of a message, too clear a message - "Lo, here is Christ, precisely here. and we are the ones who have found him for you." They have the date and the hour of his coming, and they are themselves the main point of the news. A very important point, indeed. The Second Coming is their news. Such news is not to be believed. The Gospel itself is much simpler. Now is the judgment of the world...
What was it that John saw, that has alarmed and inspired and confused so many generations of hearers? “...he saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor.. He called out with a mighty voice, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” [v. 18:1-2a-]. When an alarm goes off, when we hear the siren, we want to know what it means. Where is Babylon? Is the angel talking to us? How are we to respond?
The angel's lament over Babylon is, in fact, a quote from the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah was given visions to strengthen and comfort the Jews under Hezekiah. They were strengthened to endure the evil to come under King Manasseh, and they were comforted with the promise of the eventual restoration of Israel. John was commanded to write down his vision in order to strengthen and comfort the church in his time, just as Isaiah had done in his. The OT echo told John's people to harken back to God's earlier promise of judgment and redemption, which they had seen fulfilled. John was given his vision because of the desperate circumstances of the Christian community in the first century. The persecutions which had abated somewhat after Nero's death were about to return under the heavy hand of the emperor Domitian. Doubts were rising about the return of the Lord; Jerusalem had fallen and most of the eyewitnesses of
Jesus' death and resurrection had died.
Now remember that Rome was often called "Babylon" by the early church. So with this vision and the angel’s announcement, these early Christians were strengthened to endure the persecutions to come, and comforted with the promise of the return of Christ. No doubt many of John's contemporaries expected the imminent fall of Rome and the return of the Lord in precisely the manner described in the vision.