Your Last Day on Earth

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

It’s called the Great Disappointment.

No, we’re not talking about the performance of Big Ten basketball teams during the first weekend of March Madness.

Tens of thousands of followers of William Miller, a Baptist preacher from New York, became convinced that the Second Coming of Christ would occur on October 22, 1844.  Some of them quit their jobs and gave away their possessions.  Others began to act like toddlers, remembering Jesus’ teaching that only those who become like little children will be able to enter God’s kingdom.

When the sun came up on October 23, with Jesus nowhere in sight, the Millerite movement became the Great Disappointment. 

As Paul Boyer points out in his 1992 book When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, date-setting and end-time speculation are recurrent American pastimes.  Earnest believers in each generation attach themselves to a fresh set of calculations from a new prophetic voice – usually based on texts from Daniel, Revelation, or the Gospels.   

The most recent widely-publicized prediction of the end of the world emerged from the ministry of Harold E. Camping, a California-based radio broadcaster and evangelist. 

Camping first announced that the Second Coming would occur on or about September 6, 1994.  When that didn’t happen, he revised his calculations and pinpointed September 29.  Disappointed, he then looked toward October 2, 2005.  Even after three swings and misses, Camping wasn’t out.  With growing confidence he declared that Jesus would return on Saturday, May 21, 2011 – a day of salvation for believers but Judgment Day for everyone else.  After five consecutive months of “fire, brimstone, and plagues,” the earth would finally go up in smoke on October 21, 2011. 

This time the general public paid attention.   It helped that Family Radio, the flagship of Camping’s ministry, spent more than $5 million on billboards from coast to coast. 

True believers took the dates seriously.  Some of them emptied their bank accounts.  Others gave away their pets.  I officiated at a wedding on the afternoon of May 21.  It crossed my mind that if Camping was right, this nice young couple wasn’t going to have much of a honeymoon. 

Nothing happened.  The 89-year-old evangelist once again tried to pivot, declaring that Jesus had in fact “returned” on May 21 – not physically, but spiritually.  He stuck with the October 21 date as the end of everything, but when alarm clocks went off as scheduled on October 22 (curiously, the famous Millerite date) Camping joined the inglorious ranks of those who have been decisively mistaken about the date of Christ’s return.

Before his death in 2013, he admitted, “We humbly acknowledge we were wrong about the timing.”  He added that he had plunged back into Bible study “even more fervently…not to find dates, but to be more faithful in understanding.”   

The most painful part of the debacle, from a public relations standpoint for Christians everywhere, were the four words that appeared on every billboard: “The Bible guarantees it.”

Everything, in fact, that Harold Camping had ever needed to know about the timing of the Apocalypse had been available to any first-time Bible reader for 2,000 years.  Concerning his Second Coming, Jesus says in Matthew 24:36:  “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

If Jesus himself doesn’t know the day or hour of his own return, it seems fairly certain none of us is going to solve the riddle. 

More importantly, we are expressly forbidden from wasting our time trying to do so.  Check out Jesus’ warnings and the colorful parable that immediately follows:

“So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.

“Who here qualifies for the job of overseeing the kitchen? A person the Master can depend on to feed the workers on time each day. Someone the Master can drop in on unannounced and always find him doing his job. A God-blessed man or woman, I tell you. It won’t be long before the Master will put this person in charge of the whole operation.  But if that person only looks out for himself, and the minute the Master is away does what he pleases—abusing the help and throwing drunken parties for his friends—the Master is going to show up when he least expects it, and it won’t be pretty. He’ll end up in the dump with the hypocrites, out in the cold shivering, teeth chattering.” (Matthew 24:42-51, “The Message”)

The sheer intrigue of discerning “the signs of the times” will undoubtedly produce more doomsday prophets.

But none of their efforts will be sanctioned by Jesus.  In fact, his guarantee is that we’ll all be surprised.  So don’t be surprised that you’ll be surprised

Jesus may return before you finish reading this sentence.  That would surprise most of us.  After all, we’ve made plans for dinner, we need to get our taxes in before May 15, and many of us are hoping to attend a barbecue this summer without masks and social distancing. 

What should we be doing in the meantime?

Choose to be what Jesus calls a faithful and wise servant.  Approach the events of each day with a prayerful stance.  Pay attention to what the Spirit is up to.  Do more than just feed yourself spiritually.  Offer a word of encouragement, a generous gift, or the priceless resource of your time to help inspire and nurture somebody else.  Remember:  Every moment counts, and it counts forever.   

Just think: This may be your last day on earth.

If that turns out to be true, are you doing right now what you would want to be doing during your last 24 hours? 

If not…why not?