Stories engage our senses and captivate our thoughts. Come and listen to a story about a time when people were waiting for something and expecting someone who would change everything.
John, the last living apostle of Jesus of Nazareth had only been back in Ephesus a few days before he fell ill. At first it was simply a fever for which he was administered cold compresses and local medicinal herbs along healthy doses of prayer offered up by those in the town that he had ministered to over the last several decades. Considering all the trials and tribulations that the man had encountered during his life, no one including John himself were too worried. But when the fever did not break after the first week and the seizures began, those around the aged apostle became much more concerned. In the days that followed there was always someone close to check in on him.
It was during those days that the apostle began to feel something that he had never felt before. It wasnʼt only the physical symptoms, there also seemed to be a shift in his heart and in his mind. There was a kind of general letting go. It seemed to begin with his will which he just couldnʼt seem to muster to do much of anything. Although he welcomed all his guests with the same love and generosity that he had throughout his life; all of his guests commented on how tired he seemed. It was so unlike the man whose constant call to love one another was always filled with such an intense but quiet passion. Now the apostle just seemed quiet. His mind also became more unreliable. He would not be able to recognize old friends, and on one occasion he mistook a saintly old man for a prison guard and began to witness to him about Christʼs death and resurrection. At other times he would be in the midst of conversation and he would just stop talking and look away as his mind wandered back to his younger days. He was cold all the time and continually asked for blankets even in the hottest parts of the day when the house baked in the hot Mediterranean sun. It was during one of these afternoons that the apostle in a blinding moment of clarity realized that this feeling of letting go was the slow and steady approach of death.
At this realization, Johnʼs mind began to spin. He had been forced to prepare for death before, but each of those times was different than this one. Those other times were for the sake of Jesus his master; and would be a witness to all those who saw it. And so often they were, because he had miraculously survived. He had managed to come through every single attempt made against his life. But this time would not be a public witness, he would simply pass on as his old body finally just gave out.
John let out a small sigh of disappointment as his mind began to drift over this new reality, but it wasnʼt long before his thoughts began moving backwards through time as the haze of fever overtook him once again. Out of the murkiness of his memory he began to hear a voice which John recognized almost immediately as the voice of the Master. The voice of Jesus said “Itʼs all going to be torn down…It will lie as a pile of ruins.” As the memory became clearer John found himself sitting on a hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem in a private conference with Jesus. His dead brother James, his friends Peter and Andrew were also there, each one listening intently to the Master who was telling them about the day that Jerusalem would be destroyed. John remembered that they had all been to the temple that day and it was as they were leaving that another follower of Jesus, Nathanael, had commented on how beautiful the building was. Jesus had responded by saying that it was all going to be torn down. Peter and James began to talk about what Jesus could have meant and eventually John and Andrew had joined. So when they stopped to rest, the four approached Jesus and asked him when and how the destruction was going to happen.
Jesus seemed to heap calamity upon calamity: wars, persecution, death. “And after all this human suffering,” he told the four, “you will be able to look up into the sky and see the whole universe rent open as the Son of Man comes to invade earth. His angels will travel the globe gathering everyone who belongs to God.” John remembered that they all sat there shocked for a few moments before Jesus continued and said “If you really want to know when end is, just look for the signs that I told you. Everyone knows that summer is coming when new leaves grow on the fig tree. Itʼs the same thing with the destruction that I was telling you about, just watch for the signs. Itʼs coming and this generation will not die before they have seen it. Heaven and earth may pass away and be forgotten, but my words are sure and will never end.”
In Johnʼs current state of delirium, these last words were difficult to understand. “How could that be?” John thought, “I am the last one. Peter, James, Andrew they are all dead. The temple has come down. There have been wars, there has been much persecution, but the Son of Man has not returned.” There were signs it seemed and yet there was John lying on a mat in the corner of a small room in Ephesus, the last living apostle, the final member of that generation knocking, well maybe more like pounding on deathʼs door. His confusion was palpable and almost overwhelming as it swirled and mixed with feelings of betrayal and the natural fear that his life might be snuffed out at any moment. An image of Jesus coming back in the clouds mingled with another image of Johnʼs own final breath; as the aged apostle struggled to sort out his predicament.
John was going to be forced to wait for something that he knew was coming, but was going to come at a time unknown to him. Whether it was his own death or Jesusʼs return he was stuck in the same position. !
! It was then that Jesusʼs final words to him and others that day came back to his mind. “Know one knows exactly when all this is going to happen.” Jesus had told them. “You think you can know? The Father hasnʼt even told me. What is most important is to be aware, stay alert, and wait for it. Donʼt be that servant who doesnʼt do what they are supposed to do because the master is away. He may return at anytime, and you donʼt want to be caught sleeping on the job. You all want a secret knowledge that no one else has. You want to be on the inside but my advice to you is the same as it is for everyone else. What is going to happen in the end is not as important as how you wait for it. Stay awake!” With this final comment Jesus revealed the foolishness of Peter, James, John and Andrew and saw through their questions about when and how to their real desire to be better than the other disciples. John thought he could know how things were going to end as a young man. It turns out he still did…even as an old man.
John heaved a sigh as he thought about the ways his expectations were still being shattered by the man who had changed his life as a young man. The hot sun rose and set, Visitors came and went, John moved in and out consciousness and eventually his breathing became more and more shallow but he continued to wait for the one he always waited for, who he wished to see again either in this life or the next.
We leave this story here and return to our own time and our own place to watch and prepare for Jesus, who has come to change everything and will come again.