It should go without saying that our prime concern should be to pray for and, where possible, assist those affected by such traumas. It is, of course, a Christian responsibility to love one’s neighbour. This means we must defend and rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed and set them free; oppose injustice; provide food, shelter, clothing for the needy, hungry and oppressed (Psa 82:2-4; Isa 58:6-10). All this includes the foreigner (Zech 7:9-10). See also what Jesus says in Luke 12:33a and 14:13.
However, there is another reaction we should have to these traumas. The disciples asked Jesus: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). Jesus replied at length but he first of all mentioned wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilences and he called them “the beginning of birth-pains.” This is a technical term meaning the birth pains of the Messiah, i.e. the traumas which will herald his return. He made it clear that they were early signs. Some Christians regard them as irrelevant but Jesus didn’t and, as you will expect, I’m going to agree with Jesus!
Someone will say: “But these things are always happening and have done throughout history. They will get worse just before Jesus returns (Luke 21:25-28) and it’s only at that stage they will be signs.” However, Jesus makes another very significant statement. He urges us all to keep watch – not at some time in the future but now – day by day.
He says: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matt 24:42-44). He goes on to tell the parable of the ten virgins to confirm his command to watch.
Mark reports him as saying: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:32-37).
How do we keep watch for the Lord’s return? I have noted elsewhere that Jesus wants us to think and live eschatologically. We are to pray regularly “Your kingdom come.” We are to celebrate communion and so “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We need to live our lives in the light of the coming judgment (a very neglected truth today) and redemption.
Part of this keeping watch is to note the signs “the beginning of birthpains” which Jesus mentions in the immediate context of his command to watch. We must avoid naivety – thinking these very early pointers mean the Lord will come imminently, because many more things need to happen. But we are to see them as reminders of the Lord’s coming. They jog our memory. They help us to keep watch. This would not work if we only think of future signs. The signs will grow in intensity in the future. But we need to notice the lesser signs now.
The Lord’s command to us is to keep watch. Are we doing so, and, if so, how?