Dr. Robert Zielinski
There is an old movie, called “Grumpy Old Men”, about two old retirees, slugging through a cold winter in the north Midwest. One morning, as they are getting ready to go ice fishing, one says to the other, “Hey, did you hear about Harry? His daughter went to bed, left him watching television on the couch, and when she got up in the morning, there he was. Gone.”
After a pregnant pause, the other one replies, “Lucky jerk.”
I often tell my patients and their families that we all want to live to a ripe old age in full control of all our capacities, and then one day, like our fictional friend Harry, just not wake up. But for some reason (and it’s on my list of Things To Ask When I Get There), few of us are that lucky. Hard times befall all of us sooner or later, whether in health or relationships or finances or career. The world can be a difficult place.
And today Jesus delivers us a message about all that.
Don’t worry! Be happy!
In our Gospel reading, the disciples are all giddy about how beautiful the Temple is in Jerusalem. They are not Judeans, remember; it is a couple days hard travel from Galilee, so they don’t get to see Jerusalem and the Temple very often. Many Jewish travelers of the day, when they arrive at Jerusalem, the first thing they do is go to see the Temple. When we went, about 2000 years after this, that’s the first thing we did. Got pretty lost, and it was getting dark, scared the heck out of ourselves, and we were only going to see what was left of one wall on the Temple Mount! So like us excited tourists, the disciples are reveling in the beauty of this magnificent human achievement. And instead of joining them in their joy, Jesus says, “Better enjoy it while you can, because it won’t be here much longer”.
Now note the break in time between this verse and the next. The next words are spoken much later, on the Mount of Olives. This might have taken them an hour, depending, I suppose, on where exactly they stopped on the Mount. Whatever, it’s a long way.
I bet it was very quiet walk. The disciples are probably stunned in to silence, and during this long stroll, they are no doubt wondering, worrying about what the heck Jesus meant, and what awful thing is out there on the horizon waiting for them and the Temple.
It’s similar to the anxiety or fear we may experience when we think about death or coming blizzards or ISIS, or the end of the world, which is what seems to be going on in Daniel’s vision from today’s reading. It can be scary stuff, and having a firm picture of what is to come can be a way to calm those fears and anxieties. No matter how awful the reality winds up being, we generally find it less difficult to deal with than not knowing.
Now let’s think about Jesus in this situation. During that silent walk down from Jerusalem and up the Mount of Olives, I imagine him thinking what a can of worms he opened up by saying that about the Temple, and how he’s going to have to explain that somehow. He’s thinking how difficult this is going to be to get in to with his disciples, his friends. And maybe the human Jesus was a bit overwhelmed by it all himself, knowing all that is to come.
We can empathize with this. Sometimes as adults, you can see so clearly what a child needs to do and why, for their own safety and well-being. Like Jesus, you can see the long run, but the kids can’t. And you can’t really explain it to them because they just don’t have the maturity and experience yet to really get it. So you say “because I said so!” No, wait, that’s not right. When you really can’t explain something you know to be true, you ask them to trust you. Have faith, in other words. Just believe that I understand what you can’t, and trust me that it will work out.
So Jesus says, a lot of bad stuff is going to go on around you, but it isn’t the end of the world. It’s just how the world is. There will always be people who will want to give you all the answers, but don’t be fooled. Instead, as the writer of Hebrews wrote, trust that “he who has promised is faithful.”
I have a friend whose Dad was in the very late stages of prostate cancer. He was dying, and he knew it. He wasn’t in much pain, but so weak that his quality of life was poor, and he was ready. My friend describes how in those last days sometimes, his Dad would awaken from sleep, look around the room for a moment, as if being sure of what he was seeing. And then he would say “O, crap, I’m still here”.
Now that’s a man with faith that whatever came next was going to be OK.
So when it comes to what happens at the end of life, or the end of ALL life, or a lot of other things along the way….. I think sometimes we’re not supposed to know. He wants us to trust him, to have faith sometimes, instead of trying to figure everything out. Or believe someone else who thinks they have.
Now, he knows this uncertainty is scary, and the world will be filled with scary times. Wars and famines and earthquakes. But in the passage of Mark that follows today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples, “no one knows the day or the hour.” And he specifically includes himself in the “no one”.
Some of the people of Paul’s day thought they knew the hour and the day. They were convinced the end of the world and the second coming were right around the corner, and you know what they did? NOTHING. They stopped working, they stopped contributing. Why bother? How do you think that worked out for them? Then again, in the polar opposite, thinking we’ve got nothing but time, we still get complacent. And do NOTHING. “I should really get over there some time”. “One of these days, I’m get that started.” “Someday, I’d like to volunteer some time there”.
Nah, don’t worry about it today, there will be other chances, do it later, you have time.
Do you? How do you know that?
So here’s the wisdom in our not knowing. When you don’t know the day or the hour, and you accept that you never will, you can hope you have all the time in the world, but realize that maybe you don’t.
When you don’t know the day or the hour, and you accept that you never will, you can try to let go of the worry, trust that He has your back, and just live; live in this moment, not the future you can’t see; live in contentment with whatever blessings you still have, for as long as you have them; live in a way that Jesus would be proud of. Every day, each minute as much as possible, for as long as you have. Don’t worry about what you can’t see, be happy in what you can.
I suppose it’s true that it’s never too late to do something, but the wisdom, the beauty in our not knowing is that it’s never too early either. To do the right thing. The generous thing. The compassionate thing. The forgiving thing. The thing that Jesus would do if he were in your shoes. The thing you’d do if you knew it was going to be your last thing. Go ahead and do that now. Because you really don’t know if you will get the chance again.