I was watching a movie the other day. I honestly forget which movie - it was one of those many disaster epics, where the world is about to end thanks to a meteorite, or aliens, or the raising of the water levels, or some such thing. What I remember most about the movie was a tiny little scene - just a bit a humour to lighten the apocalyptic mood. The camera showed us one of those slightly barmy folks with a sandwich-board...the kind that normally says "The End of the World is Nigh!". But instead of that message, in the middle of all the panic and chaos, his sign had its normal slogan crossed out - and instead he had written: "Told you so!"
We find such people amusing because people have been predicting the end of the world practically since the world began. Every few years we hear of another religious sect which has walled itself into a cave, or climbed to the top of a mountain, to await the end of the world...as confidently predicted by their leaders. The internet, and certain types of bookshops, are full of the writings of people who claim to be able to interpret the numerology of the Bible...and who reckon that God has shown them that the End is nearly upon us.
A lot of this apocalyptic doom-saying comes, of course, from the example of the Bible. It was clearly something that was exercising the minds of those around the writer of Matthew's Gospel - as we've just heard. According to most scholars, Matthew's Gospel was written after the year AD70 - when the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, after yet another uprising against their rule by those 'troublesome Jews'. Life for the early Christians was proving to be very hard. They were being persecuted for their faith, thrown out of the synagogues and the Temple, as well as coming up against the might of Roman Emperor-worship. Now, after the Temple has been destroyed, Matthew records a tradition, handed on through the years, that Jesus himself had predicted the Temple's destruction.
What else had Jesus predicted? Well according to Matthew, he had predicted the very persecution that people found themselves going through. It must have been comforting for them to know that their persecution was predicted, and somehow accounted for, in God's plan. Of still more comfort was the promise (in verse 14) that once the Gospel had been preached to the four corners of the Earth, then the end would come, and all the persecution would stop.
These were messages of hope - messages designed to help the newly established 'followers of The Way' (as early Christians were called) to hold onto their faith, and to keep on persevering. Matthew wanted to offer comfort and encouragement to people who were doubting that Jesus was ever going to return as he had promised.
But of course the problem with Jesus words, as Matthew recorded them, is that they are deliberately ambiguous...and they relate to all of human history. Famines, earthquakes and wars are a repeated phenomenon, throughout history. Did you know that according to one recent historical survey, there have only been seven years, in the last 2000, that a war has not been going on somewhere in the world? Seven years, out of 2000. Persecution and suffering by Christians is a common theme of the last 2000 years as well. Even now, as we meet in safety and peace here in England, our brothers and sisters in certain parts of India and Afghanistan are in fear of their very lives. One of the worst effects of the War in Iraq has been that Christians are now fleeing the country - whereas under Saddam, they at least had the freedom to worship.
Perhaps the end is coming soon. Many Christians talk about these as the 'Last Days' - but then that is a phrase that was used by St Paul as well - nearly 2000 years ago. We would be wise not to imagine that the world is going to end tomorrow. The lesson of history is that we should be very suspicious of anyone who tells us that the end is nigh.
On the other hand, we are encouraged to live as though the end was nigh. Jesus told many stories which encourage us to live as if the end was upon us. We can boil all those stories down into one question: "If Jesus came today, what would you like him to find you doing?" (I have a rather facetious fridge magnet at home which captures that thought rather comically. It says: 'Jesus is coming...look busy!'). Would we want to be caught gambling, or giving to charity? Would we want to be caught fighting, or reconciling? Would we want to be caught praising or cursing? Would we want to be caught shopping, or sharing?
So there is a challenge for us in Jesus words - but there is also promise. There is promise that history is His Story. There is promise that God holds all of human history in the palm of his hands. Famine, war, earthquake, persecution, false Messiahs, God is big enough to cope with them all. Jesus' words, recorded by Matthew, help us to understand that God is so much bigger than human history and human events. He stands outside of history, and yet he contains it. He is before human history, and after it. Whether and when the world will be transformed by God into 'heaven on earth' is not really the issue. The issue is whether or not we trust God when he says that he loves us - and how we respond to that love. That's all that ultimately matters: how much do we let the love of God overwhelm us. How much are we willing to let his love flow through us - transforming the world into a new heaven and a new earth? How much are we willing to let the Son of Man rule in our hearts?
A final thought - on a related theme. Today is All Souls Day - and we shall be remembering those we have loved later on, at our 3o'clock Service of Memories. Some people get rather anxious when they think about their loved ones who have died - especially those who died without obviously expressing a Christian belief. It is a question - sometimes an unspoken one - which often hovers between a priest and a grieving family: "where do you think our loved one is now?". The easy thing for any priest to do would be to offer meaningless words of comfort...to go along easily with statements which assume the loved one is now in heaven. But that would, I think, be dishonest.
The truth is, we cannot know the ultimate destination of any human being. When the end is nigh for us as individuals, no-one else is able to judge the state of the human heart...no-one other than God alone. But we can have confidence in one thing - and perhaps one thing alone. We can have confidence that God is good...and God holds all of human history in his hands. We can have confidence that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...so that the world, through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
In other words, we know that every fibre of God's being is bent on our salvation, not on our destruction. God wants 'the world' to be saved...and that surely means everyone in it, or who has ever lived in it. God never stops reaching out for us, loving us, drawing us to the Divine Life. None of us can judge to what extent that process has been sucessful in the life of any individual. We can only trust that God will have done, and has done, and continues to do all that God can do to save everyone.
And so we celebrate All Souls Day with real hope. Whatever the life of the people we pray for today, we hope and trust in God. "All our hope on God is founded"...and we trust that he who holds all of human history in his hands will hold our loved ones too.