Statue at the United Nations
During the year when I was serving as an interim pastor in Madison, Wisconsin, I and a friend were shopping at the huge farmer’s market on the square surrounding the state capital building. Farmers came from miles around to sell their produce. We noticed a man standing on the steps leading to the capital building holding a large sign announcing that the world would end on a certain day of the following month.
My friend tried to engage the man in conversation but he clearly didn’t want to talk with us. Instead, he gave us a pamphlet explaining his biblical calculation for when the world will end. My friend, in turn, handed the man his business card and said, “When the world doesn’t end next month, call me and I’ll tell you why you were wrong.”
History is full of people trying to figure out when the world will end or when Christ will return. I remember our youth group reading The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey soon after it was published in 1970. He claimed that Jesus’ lesson of the fig tree blossoming referred to the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and predicted that Christ would return within one generation of that date. He didn’t set a specific date but got pretty close.
What do we make of Jesus’ apocalyptic imagery of the coming of the end of the age (Matt. 24)? Storm clouds were gathering in Jesus’ day and it was fairly obvious that this would get ugly. The threat came true thirty years after Jesus’ death when a full-scale Jewish rebellion erupted. Roman armies brutally put down the insurrection, completely destroying Jerusalem and the Temple.
We all live with such uncertainty but it’s more immediate in places like Syria where people are forced to flee their homes on short notice. When I was a boy the big worry was of a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. I remember the drills to prepare for a possible attack. The siren at the local firehouse would start sounding and continue for several minutes. We school children were instructed to hide under our desks. It put real fear into us.
What does our faith tradition teach us about living with such realities? In Jesus’ words, we watch mindfully and learn how to “read the signs of the times” (Mat. 16:3). It includes the hopeful anticipation of God’s coming in our midst right here, right now—not just some far-away future date. Theologians describe this as “already” and “not yet;” God has come, God is coming, and God will come.
That’s what’s missing in the popular speculation about Christ’s second coming. It keeps us from seeing hopeful signs of God’s continual coming, sometimes in unexpected places. One example is the bronze statue of a man with a huge hammer beating a sword into a plowshare on the grounds of the United Nations building in New York taken from the prophet Isaiah’s dream of world peace (Isaiah 2:4). It was donated by the Soviet Union in 1959, right in the middle of the Cold War. It would have been immensely reassuring to know that the Soviets had given that statue expressing their desire for peace when I was a boy participating in those nuclear attack drills. But nobody told us about that.
How do we “read the signs of the times?” Can we see that statue on the UN grounds as a hope-filled sign of God’s coming in a way that none of us could anticipate?