Several times in the Gospels, Jesus warns us to take heed of or beware of something. It's a little tricky finding all of the instances of Jesus's warnings because there are three Greek words that are often, but not always, translated into English as 'take heed of' or 'beware of.' Following the New King James translation, there are seven things Jesus specifically tells us to beware of:
- Doing righteous works in front of others in order to be seen by them (Matt. 6:1).
- The leaven [teaching] of the Pharisees and of Herod (Matt. 16:6 and Mk. 8:15).
- Despising or offending the little ones (Matt. 18:10 and Lk. 17:3).
- That the light inside us not really be darkness (Lk. 11:35).
- Of covetousness (Lk. 12:15).
- Of what or how we hear (Mk. 4:24 and Lk. 8:18).
- Regarding the End (Matt. 24:4; Mk. 13: 5, 23, 33; Lk. 21: 8, 34).
I'd like to look at Jesus' warning concerning the End.
I got my start as a conscious follower of Christ in the 70s under the influence of a Charismatic Christian ministry in California called "Melodyland." At Melodyland, they talked a lot about the Second Coming of Christ. In fact, for the next twenty-five years in the various Charismatic churches I attended, I heard hundreds of sermons on the end times. I knew the first half of Matthew 24 by heart. I knew all of the signs. I read the newspaper with the Bible in my hand seeing everywhere confirmation that Jesus' return was just around the corner.
I was aware that Jesus warned against setting an exact date for his return, but I was certain that rough guesses were encouraged (at least that was implicit in my church culture). I knew from Matthew 24 that Jesus warned us to beware of those who claimed to be the Christ or who claimed to know where on earth one could find the already returned Christ (in the deserts or in the inner rooms). But somehow in all those years and in all of the fervour, I never noticed these lines from Luke's account of Jesus' warning regarding the last times:
"And He said: 'Take heed that you not be deceived. For many will come in My name, saying "I am He," and, "The time has drawn near." Therefore, do not go after them.'"How could I have missed that? The warning was not only to avoid those claiming to be Christ, but was also not to "go after" those who claim "the time has drawn near." Oops. I missed that one.
Submitting myself to endless preaching that the End was near did significant damage to my spiritual life. End times preaching (at least as I experienced it) stirred up emotions ranging from fear to excitement, and from confident self-assurance that I was "saved" to anxious concern for those who were damned. (Although I must confess, that this anxious concern was not very altruistic because the version of end times preaching I was exposed to also posited that the sooner everyone "hears" the Gospel, the sooner Jesus would return and pull us saved ones out of this mess). For years I associated these feelings of fear, excitement, confident self-assurance, and anxious concern for others with the nearness of God.
Part of the spiritual damage caused by "going after" those who stir up emotion preaching that "the time has drawn near" is that it makes it difficult to learn how to be with God in silence. I'm not talking about mere outer silence, although that is often where the journey to inner silence begins. I am talking about the inner silence of a meek and gentle heart, the silence of a heart that does not think on things too high for herself, the silence of a heart that is both broken and contrite while remaining secure in the love of God.
At the end of the warnings about the last days in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that the way they can be ready for the End is to watch, watch and pray. The word, 'watch,' literally means, 'stay awake' or 'stay alert' or 'pay attention.' In the Orthodox spiritual tradition, this watchfulness is specifically understood as guarding our mind/heart, or our nous. That is, the house that we are to watch so that it is not robbed (Matt. 24:43 ff) and the house that we are to manage until the Master returns (c.f. Mk. 13:34 ff) is our nous.
We prepare for the Second Coming of Christ (and our own death—which is functionally the same thing) not by watching what is going on outside us. Jesus told us that these outer signs mean that "the end is not yet." We prepare for Christ's coming by attending to our nous. But learning to attend to the nous requires quiet, inner quiet; it requires that we learn to hear the voice of silence and to notice the movements of stillness. These are paradoxes, I know. But only by means of paradox can we talk about that which is beyond words.
In the Divine Liturgy, we speak of the Second Coming of Christ as something to be remembered. All eternal realities exist right now, even those that have not yet taken place in time and space. Those who are ready for the Second Coming are those who have already come to remember it, not emotionally, but quietly in their nous. Getting ready for the coming of Christ has nothing to do with reading newspapers, but has everything to do with stilling our minds, watching and praying.