I was about 10 years old when psychic Jean Dixon predicted the exact date of the end of the world. Somehow in those days before the internet and social media the news of this impending doom raced through our fifth grade classroom, both exciting and terrifying us.
Teachers and parents reassured us that the end was not near, but I still remember going to bed on the purported eve of destruction with anxiety and anticipation.
It was with great relief that I woke up the next morning in my own bed, the world still intact, at least as far as I could tell from my bedroom window.
In the decades that have passed since that day, the end of the world has been predicted numerous times. So many times, in fact, that I and most people I know pay no attention to such prophecies, except perhaps to laugh or roll our eyes at them.
Of course, Jean Dixon was not the first to forecast dire warnings about the end times. Listen to our scripture today. First the prophet Zephaniah and then the apostle Paul talk about the wrath that is to come at the end of days.
Paul is writing to a group of people who believe that the second coming of Christ, or the end of the world, is near. It is a belief that he shares himself. Many in the early church believed that Christ would physically return to earth in their lifetimes.
Although Paul believes that the end is near, he cautions his followers not to try to predict when that time might be. It will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, he says. When you think everything is secure and peaceful, then sudden destruction will come upon you.
The prophet Zephaniah spells it out more dramatically. The day of the Lord, or the end of the world, will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,” he says.
A couple of millennia later, we know that both Zephaniah and Paul were mistaken in their beliefs that the end of the world was imminent. Any my guess is that most of us are not overly concerned with such biblical prophecies.
We are more likely worried about what we may do to the world, through weaponry or our own poor stewardship of creation.
We’re happy to leave dire predictions of God’s wrath to our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters. That means we have a tendency to dismiss Bible passages like those we heard today as irrelevant to our lives and times.
But to do that is a mistake. One does not have to believe that the world is literally coming to an end to benefit from these passages.
All of us, at some time in our lives, find ourselves in times of darkness and despair, surrounded by thick clouds and deep gloom.
Maybe we are confronted with sickness and death. Maybe we are in deep depression. Maybe we are in despair over our finances or jobs. Maybe our marriage, or some other important relationship, is deteriorating.
Or maybe we’re doing okay, but are worried about the pandemic, or escalating violence in the world, or the damage being done to the environment, or the end of our democracy, or the growing climate of intolerance in our country.
There are any number of reasons — both as individuals or as a society — that we may feel as if we are living in a time of darkness and gloom.
Listen to what Paul has to say about those situations.
“You, beloved, are not in darkness,” he says. “For you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
“Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
Followers of Christ are children of light, not darkness.
But what does that mean? Certainly not that we will never experience dark times in our lives.
As Paul says elsewhere, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Being a Christian is not a vaccine against sickness, death, and hard times.
But, he says, children of light are not overcome by the darkness. Faith in Christ, assurance of God’s love, and the hope of salvation are always there illuminating the dark.
Theologian Douglas John Hall says one of the great problems in Christianity today is that we too often try to avoid the darkness.
We pretend that problems don’t exist, or don’t affect us. We ignore the prophets who try to warn us of the dangers of the pandemic, of what we are doing to the environment, of the growing desperation of the poor, of the consequences of war and violence around the globe.
We often ignore warning signs of trouble in our own live — in our health, our finances, our relationships.
If we ignore the problems long enough maybe they will go away. Or we are so overwhelmed or afraid we cannot face reality.
But children of light, Paul says, need not fear the darkness. The light of the Christ willingly enters dark areas.
Children of the light know that the only way to dispel the darkness is to enter into it, and shine into its deepest corners.
Bringing light into the darkness means speaking out against injustice. It means offering compassion to — not avoiding — those who suffer.
It means listening to — not denying or ignoring — the stories of victims of abuse and oppression. It means reaching out to those in need. It means facing the truth, not avoiding it.
Bringing light into the darkness means not letting fear prevent us from taking risks for the sake of the gospel.
One of the great children of light in recent times was Nelson Mandela, who spent more than a quarter of a century as political prisoner during the darkness of apartheid in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela knew the darkness. He knew gloom and despair, not only in his own life, but in the life of his people and nation.
But his faith in God’s love gave him hope that light could dispel the darkness and courage to speak out against injustice. When he was finally released from prison he emerged not filled with bitterness and anger, but as an agent of hope and reconciliation.
Nelson Mandela knew the darkness. But he also knew the power of the children of light. In his inaugural address as president of South Africa, he encouraged his people to put away their fears and let light shine in their country.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” he said. “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
“Actually, who are you not to be?
“You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
“And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same,” he said. “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
As we prepare to enter into the season when the light of God comes to dwell among us, may God’s lamp of compassion and truth and justice burn in us.