“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.”–Assyrain Tablet, 2800 BCE
The end of the world has been predicted by both scholars and crackpots practically since the beginning of the world. In the reading today, we encountered one of the most famous phrases in the Bible: “signs and wonders.” It’s a good phrase. Like a lot of good phrases, it’s all in the way it’s used that gives it weight. It’s a phrase that’s often been used by those poking the anxieties of others by predicting with often scientific precision, the end of the world. People from Nostradamus, to Martin Luther, to Jim Jones have all written either with down-to the minute science or vague generalities when the end times would commence.
If you Google the phrase “signs and wonders”–and I actually recommend you do not, in the same way I wouldn’t recommend you Google your symptoms if you weren’t feeling well. You will find yourself in an oubliette of doomsday predictions, some of them gleefully expectant of the end of the world. It’s a recipe for sleepless nights, fearful days, and–at the very edge of the spectrum, violence against those you fear.
Today we feel like we invented the age of anxiety, the fear of it all coming crashing down around us– but even in the First Century of the Common Era, the writers of the Gospels themselves thought that the end was near, and it increased their sense of urgency to get the message out to as many people as possible. After that oft-quoted phrase, the lesson we read this evening tells quite an important story, so let’s turn our focus back to that.
Peter and the ever-growing group of believers– described in one translation of the text as “a crowd of people who believe in the Lord”, are proclaiming and healing in the temple when the priests decide they’re making too much noise and trouble and they’re carted off to jail. In the night, an Angel appears and busts them out. By the next morning, the temple authorities are baffled to find them back in Solomon’s portico, once again preaching anti-authoritarian messages of love and hope. The guards run back and check, but find the cells in the jail remain locked. The high priests and other authorities are confused by this miracle–it overwhelms them. They cope, as authorities usually do, by simply arresting Peter and his friends again (this time on the quiet).
Returning to our own age of anxiety–indeed, peoplekind’s constant age of anxiety, the Bible tells us again and again to not be afraid. It also tells us again and again that we know nothing about the end of the world. In the beginning of Acts 1:7, we’re cautioned: “It is not for you to know times or seasons.”
The other thing that we are reminded again and again of is that we are loved. In the portion of the Psalm we read together tonight we are reminded that God’s love is unfailing. This is the the sign and wonder we can return to– the “wondrous love” that God has for us. A perfect love that can “cast out fear” and give us the “peace that the world cannot give.”
Anxiety is real–I believe it’s terribly cruel to expect anyone to use prayer as their only medicine, but I also know that without prayer as ONE of my medicines, I wouldn’t survive in a world that is full of real evil and present danger. This is the twofold message that God constantly gives us: “Do not be afraid; I love you.” When we are to remember this, and are able to therefore give our anxieties back in prayer, we can be relieved and revived and encouraged in the presence of the Holy Spirit to get out of the prison of our fear and go back into the world.