There was a great deal of excitement in the media this week thanks to an American radio station that has been broadcasting end-of-the-world predictions by its founder, the 89-year-old preacher Harold Camping.
According to Mr Camping, Christians would all be swept up in an event called the Rapture to meet Christ in the air and begin a new existence in eternity, while all the unsaved left on earth would face a series of ever-bigger natural disasters until the world itself finally came to an end on 21 October.
The date of the predicted Rapture, 21 May, came and went without incident. Mr Camping disappeared for a few days before emerging to claim his interpretation of the Bible was a little off (not the first time he has had to admit that, incidentally) and his detractors, especially those without any religious faith at all, took the opportunity to have a laugh at his expense.
In our Sunday service on 22 May we read from Matthew 24:36-51. In it we read that nobody knows when the End will come except our Father in Heaven. We can be confident that as soon as anyone stands up and claims to know when it will be, they are not speaking anything they heard from God because he has already told us it is a secret.
This arrangement is very much for our benefit – and I mean all the human race, not just those of us who are already saved. Just as we are restricted in what we feel able to do with ourselves on a day we have to wait at home for a parcel delivery, or sit at a station waiting for a train, in a similar way our whole pattern of living would change if we knew exactly when the world was going to end. Some of the changes we might make in our lives might be positive, if we were to focus on the reality of coming face to face with our Saviour. But other changes might not be so good.
Would we be so willing to invest time and energy in major outreach, reaching people where they are, building relationships and drawing them into real, living encounters with Christ? Or would we do what Mr Camping and his followers did, simply shouting that the end is nigh from behind billboards and Internet radio broadcasts, failing to connect with anyone but those already saved and merely giving many lost souls just another excuse for a laugh and a party?
The description of the Rapture given by Jesus in Matthew 24 shows people being swept up from the Earth while in the middle of their daily work in the fields or at the mill. These were saved people who had not withdrawn from society to await the end, but were still in the midst of it, living and working (and, we assume, witnessing) alongside those who are not saved.
This is the kind of life that Jesus calls us to. We are to be aware that the end will come; he has guaranteed it. But the date and the time is not ours to know.