Theological Reflections on the Current State of the World
Pastor Tim Oslovich
We live in challenging times. We finally seem to be coming out of the worst pandemic to hit the world in more than one hundred years, but things don’t seem to be getting any better. The pandemic may be ending (we pray that there won’t be yet another terrible variant), but many people are still getting sick and dying, and now we also have to face a major war in Europe. This is a war that threatens all of us because Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine is not only killing many Ukrainians and destroying their country, but Russia’s aggression makes the whole world less safe.
Over the last few days several people have told me that they are scared. I’ve been asked (or told), “Is this a sign of the end of the world?” What happens if Russia attacks a NATO country like Poland or Latvia? What happens if the United States and Russia start fighting? Those are troubling questions. We have not had to worry about the United States and Russia engaging in a war with one another for a long time. Many of us remember the days of the Cold War when just about every school building had black and yellow signs in the basements indicating where the “Fallout Shelter” was in case of a nuclear attack. Some people are wondering if we are back to those days.
The theological questions are, perhaps, more answerable than the political questions. (At least I have more degrees in theology than I do in Political Science.) If you want to discuss either the theological or the political questions, give me a call. This article will focus on the theological questions. Perhaps the place to start is to look at the rest of the verse that so many people partially quote whenever there is a major conflict in the world. People point to “wars and rumors of wars” and predict that the end of the world is near based on that phrase in Matthew 24. Let’s take a look at the context of those words:
3 Later, Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives. His disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?”
4 Jesus told them, “Don’t let anyone mislead you, 5 for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. 7 Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. 8 But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come (Matthew 24:3-8, New Living Translation).
I think the key point in this answer from Jesus is “Don’t panic,” often translated as “Don’t be alarmed” or “Don’t be afraid.” There are always wars and rumors of wars. There are always earthquakes and famines. These things are horrible, and we should do all that we can to alleviate the suffering that comes from human-made and natural disasters. But we do not have to panic. Jesus invites us not to be afraid.
But why shouldn’t we be afraid? After all, Jesus is telling us that terrible things will happen, and, even worse, these terrible things are just the beginning. We need not fear because we know that Jesus is with us in all circumstances, even the worst circumstances. Jesus is with us, not to magically protect us, but to encourage and strengthen us. Also, even though the way to the Kingdom of God includes some very rough patches, the destination is better than we can imagine. God’s victory over evil and death is certain. We can be encouraged and hopeful because we know that God loves us and because God promises healing and life for this whole broken world (see Revelation 21 and 22).
There will be people who try to deceive us. Perhaps no one will appear claiming to be the Messiah, but there will be many who will try to mislead us. There are people who are trying to make us fearful. There are people who are trying to convince us that we are helpless. There are those would have us think only of ourselves and hoard what we have and not use our blessings to help others. These are some of the false voices that Jesus warned us about. Jesus always invites us to love our neighbors and even our enemies, and he encourages us to make use of one of the most powerful forces in the universe: prayer. We are not helpless. We can pray for peace. We can pray for justice. We can pray for healing for the wounded. We can pray for leaders to act in ways that end the war in Ukraine. We can pray that people in our own country and around the world be committed to peace and justice.
St. Paul encourages us to pray for leaders, even for terrible leaders, so that the world will not be as violent. “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf and give thanks for them. 2 Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. 3 This is good and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Remember, Paul lived in the Roman Empire under rulers who were hostile to Christianity and who were often corrupt and violent. People in the government imprisoned and beat Paul. Still, Paul tells us to pray for people in authority. Paul urges us to pray so that the world will be more peaceful. How does this work? I have to admit that I don’t know, but I trust God’s promises, and I have seen prayer be effective many times. Prayer is powerful.
And as the theologian Thomas Jay Oord said, “If you hear me say, ‘I’m praying for Ukraine,’ I DON’T mean I’m crossing my fingers and hoping God singlehandedly intervenes. It means I’m asking for insights and ideas from God on how I might be part of the solution.”
There are ways that we can make a difference in the world. We can encourage our friends and neighbors. We can donate to help Ukrainian refugees. We can encourage our leaders to do the right thing.
God is at work in the world, and God is at work in us.
I pray that God will give you peace and encouragement. May God give you strength and wisdom to be part of the peacebuilding that is so necessary in these days. May God give inspiration and courage to the people of Ukraine. May they feel God’s presence. May God open Vladimir Putin’s eyes and heart so that he rejects violence and stops the invasion. May God bring peace and justice to Ukraine. Amen.