Welcomed by fighter jets

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I will never forget what happened in 2018. Just the thought of it sends shivers through my body. Something good and exciting.

You may recall an important sporting event that happened in 2018: the FIFA World Cup. 

From June 14 to July 15, 64 football (soccer) matches were played in 12 venues across 11 cities between 32 teams—of which 31 came through qualifying competitions before the big event, while the host nation Russia was automatically in. 

Only 31 out of 209 countries who applied to enter the qualifying process that started three years prior made it to this event. In the soccer world, this is a BIG DEAL.

For Croatia, to play in the World Cup was already a big achievement. Together with Wales, Uruguay and Qatar (and especially Iceland who qualified for the first time), Croatia was one of the smallest countries represented in the World Cup. 

I have been a soccer fan since my youth, enjoying this beloved sport in my home country of Croatia and playing a game or two myself. But I had never experienced anything like this before. 

My wife and I were holidaying on the island of Rab in Croatia, escaping the Australian winter the week the finals were being played. The whole place was alive and animated. Anybody you talked to only had one topic to discuss. When the final was being played, Croatia met France and everybody was glued to the TV screens in great anticipation. Although Croatia lost to France in that game, it was our great joy that Croatia won second place and played for the first time ever in the FIFA World Cup finals. We also heard the announcement that there would be a special welcome event when the Croatian team returned to their homeland. 

Everyone who was in Croatia at that time felt the excitement in the air. It is indescribable. Even the little children were enthusiastic. The euphoria was palpable. 

On Monday, July 16, more than a quarter of a million people flooded Zagreb, the Croatian capital city, wearing red and white chequered colours and waving Croatian flags. Over a hundred thousand were crammed in its main square, Trg Bana Jelacˇic´a, and 300,000 lined the streets between the airport and the square to welcome the winners, making their 20 kilometre journey five hours long. 

I was observing all of the fanfare from the hotel lobby, together with others. What made the biggest impression on me was the following. 

The Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Croatia decided to make it extra special for the winners as they returned to Croatia from the World Cup. The “Wings of Storm”, the aerial display team of the Croatian Air Force, performed a fly-over of five Pilatus PC-9M aircraft. But the two MiG-21 fighters were even more spectacular. 

While I was sitting in a hotel, I could see the two MiGs taking off together, not one after the other, but together. The jets of fire blasted as they took off, burning the fuel as pilots revved up their machines and thrust upward. Their destination: the edge of Croatian air space. The moment the Croatia Airlines, carrying the winners, “The Fiery”, as they were dubbed at home, entered Croatian airspace, the MiGs made their approach to the incoming plane and positioned themselves on each side of the Croatia Airlines plane. 

I was watching this event, trembling in excitement. 

The MiGs were aligned with the plane, and the voice was heard from the MiGs.

“The victorious Croatian army salutes The Fiery. Welcome to Croatia, the land of the victors!

“The Croatian Air Force is grateful for the honour of being the first to welcome The Victors on their return to their homeland!”

I was shaking from excitement. My eyes teared up. 

Other people in the hotel around me were watching. One woman, seeing my tears, came over and gently touched my shoulder to comfort me. 

“It is not that I’m crying because of what we are seeing,” I managed to explain. “I’m crying because I remember another very special event. I’m thinking, how will it be when Jesus comes? Will I be one of those MiGs excitedly welcoming to greet Jesus first?” Those people who were waiting at the city square were asking the question: “Where are they?” They had been waiting for a while.

Then the loudspeakers announced, “Here they are! They have arrived!” They looked up to the sky and saw the Croatia Airlines plane, escorted by two MiGs on each side, flying over the main square. The crowd erupted in cheers. 

For me, and for the whole of Croatia, this was a fantastic moment, an unforgettable experience. 

More importantly, what kind of moment will it be when we see Jesus coming in the air?

Matthew 24:27,30 reminds us, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.”

These verses tell us that Jesus is coming. Amen! Amen! Amen!

Have you ever wondered what it will be like when Jesus comes in the clouds of glory? Will you welcome Him?

Nikola Rogulic is a  member of St Albans Croatian church in Melbourne, Vic.

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