ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 30, 2014
Isaiah 64: 1 – 5a; 1 Corinthians 1:4 – 9; Mark 13: 24 – 37
The idea of a cataclysmic end to the world has fascinated humanity since the day we left The Garden. Hollywood loves to make tension-filled films about the world ending by war, flooding, fire, asteroids, earthquakes, apes, aliens, cyborgs and zombies. The Mayans thought the world would end on May 21, 2011; Nostrodamus predicted December 21, 2012; Martin Luther said no later than 1600; Rasputin – August 23, 2013; Hal Lindsay was sure the world would end in the 1980’s, then he was sure it would end in 2000. In fact, there’s barely a year in history that wasn’t going to be “the last one ever”. Scientists are more exact – they give us anywhere from 1 – 10 billion years. Throughout history people claiming to know when and how the world would end have made a lot of money and created a lot of panic.
The Bible also speaks of the end time. From the oldest book, Job, throughout the books of the prophets, to the final book, The Revelation to John, scripture has warned of an impending era when the Messiah will come or return bringing great upheaval and destruction which will be the “birth pangs” of a new golden age in which the Kingdom of God would be realized in its fullness. Even Jesus spoke of that day, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (vs. 32)That day is a mystery sealed in the will of God. Jesus himself didn’t know when this would happen so it’s nonsense and arrogance for any mere human being to say they have it figured out.
Jesus depicted this time as catastrophic but he didn’t paint a hopeless doom and gloom scenario, he spoke of his return to earth and the victory he would bring, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:26) Jesus referred to this event as The Day of the Lord. Although the end days will be disastrous, we will not be left to face them alone as is the case in many movies. Once again we will have “God with us.” It will be “apocalyptic” not only in the common way that word is used to describe catastrophic destruction, but it will “apocalyptic” in the true sense of the original word which means an “un-covering”. All that is hidden now will be exposed in the final revelation of God when Jesus returns.
The image of the Son of Man coming in clouds and gathering “his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:27) has been envisioned in many ways. But we get a clearer sense of the meaning of it if we use the analogy of a King leaving the Fatherland to visit one of his colonies. On arrival, a local delegation would be sent to greet his ship. There would be great excitement as the people lined the streets with shouts of praise. Loyal subjects would never ignore the King, walk past him and hop the ship to the Fatherland – they’d turn to accompany him back into the city. In a similar way when Christ returns, his loyal subjects – Christians will be gathered from the ends of the earth to greet our King, who has journeyed from our spiritual Fatherland “heaven” and escort him into his earthly colony. His return will be triumphant. It will establish Jesus as the sole ruler. He’ll restore the colony to its full dignity, rescuing us by subduing local enemies, dethroning evil imposters who would reign over us, and putting everything to rights. So, while Jesus will come as a judge to purge injustice and evil, he also comes to transform that which he’s already redeemed. When that transformation is complete, the gulf we experience in our relationship with God will be healed. Suffering will end. Death will no longer exist. Everything will be whole. Peace will reign. It will be on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus return is good news! Just as it would be an insult for Colonists to be unprepared for the King, so we should be prepared for Christ’s coming. Colonists anticipated the visit of a King. We should be hoping and waiting for Jesus return with bated breath.
While we anticipate that day, we live in an imperfect world. Jesus referred to this “in-between” time as The Present Age which is marred bysin and evil. For Christians The Present Age isaparadoxical time. Jesus came, died and resurrected yet there is still inequity, suffering, war and death. So what gives? Did Jesus die in vain? Not at all. In spite of the way life is, the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Jesus are the roots of our hope. In Christ we are both saved and being saved. This in-between time is like a person who finds a dusty old violin in a pawn shop. He buys it and takes it home. The violin has been “redeemed” but it still looks and sounds terrible. Then one day the man polishes it until its beauty shines through; he replaces the strings and tunes it; he fixes the bow. Then he plays and heavenly music fills the room. Redeeming the violin made it his but not until its final transformation was complete did the instrument’s true value come to light. Or again this in-between time is like being in a ship wreck. You’re floating in the water and the life boat comes and rescues you, saving you from certain death. You are still far from shore – safe and yet headed towards an even surer safety. That’s how it is with Christ. He has redeemed us. He has salvaged us and saved us from certain death, yet we are still being touched up and delivered. So we are hopeful! The day is coming when we’ll be the masterpiece God created us to be. One day we’ll stand firmly on dry land. This is not only true for us but for all creation. Although in this Present Age we are immersed in human wickedness, evil still abounds and nature shows signs of instability – all of which cause suffering – we await The Coming Age when all will be transformed and there will be “a new heaven and a new earth”. We look forward to a new era when resurrection life will rush in everywhere to renew and recreate all things.
The transformation between The Present Age and The Coming Age will take place on The Day of the Lord. For those of us who have known and loved Jesus here, his coming will be like meeting someone we’ve only known by email. It’s not uncommon today for people to meet over the internet and fall in love. Imagine the excitement of meeting that person for the first time. You’d spend a week preparing and anticipating. You wouldn’t be able to sleep. In the same way Jesus told us to “Keep awake!” (vs. 37) as we wait for his return. We are to wait with expectancy. We are to stand on tip toes anticipating the moment when we’ll be in the presence of Jesus, our King. While we feel the excitement of that, The Present Age wears us down. We continue to endure personal loss and pain; we witness the endless evil of our fellow human beings; we watch helplessly as so many suffer. Waiting isn’t easy. It’s hard to keep up our expectancy when time drags on. Craning our necks to watch the sky for Jesus’ return is tiresome work. How do we “keep awake”?
In a documentary on WWI, the troops were shown receiving letters from home and the narrator commented on how important those letters were in maintaining morale. A letter from a loved one was cherished, shared and kept to be read over and over. While we’re “in the trenches” of The Present Age, scripture is our letter from home. Reading it reminds us of the God who loves us. The promises within it give us hope. They sustain us and give us reason to continue. We stay awake by reading scripture.
Frequently Jesus told his followers to “watch”. This summer we did a tour of Old Fort William. As we climbed the tour and I envisioned soldiers watching for enemies who might attack the fort. Watchmen have really boring jobs because most of the time they watch in vain. More days than not, there’s nothing to see. In spite of the importance of their job, it would be pretty hard for the guard not to drop off to sleep. Then I learned Fort William wasn’t a “fort”; it was a trading post. The watchtower wasn’t build to locate enemies, it was built so that when the trappers came up the river loaded with furs there would be a welcome party, extra hands to help them unload, buyers ready to do business and a cold beer waiting at the pub. Watching for them wasn’t tense or boring; it was exciting and filled with anticipation. We watch in the same way – happy to see the one who is coming.
Along with watching comes listening. Do you remember as a kid, lying in bed on Christmas Eve and listening intently for reindeer hooves on the roof? Listening feeds our anticipation and keeps us focused. In The Present Age we listen for Christ’s word to us. What is our present calling – what does God want us to do right now? Where are we to serve? How might we repent and change. What will help us grow in faith? Who do we need to forgive? How can we best follow Jesus? Listening for the Spirit helps us to live in the in-between time we live in and to be ready when Christ returns.
We also stay alert by asking. We ask that we, and our brothers and sisters in Christ, “will be strengthened to the end, so that we will be blameless on the day of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1: 8) As a kid my siblings and I had chores to do every night. Many nights we’d watch TV, checking to see when our Mom was coming up the street – then we’d spring into action and start cleaning. More than once, we got caught in the middle of cleaning up or worse, watching TV with nothing done. Then we’d do what kids do and blame each other. Waiting can bring out the thoughtless laziness in us. Wouldn’t it be great to be found “blameless” when Jesus returned? And we pray not only for what we need or want and not only for the needs of others, we also ask for The Day of the Lord to come. We pray that the suffering of The Present Age will end and Christ’s glory will be fully revealed. Do we have the courage to pray with Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heaven’s and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and causes water to boil!”? (Isaiah 64:1) The Day of the Lord will be a terrible time of great upheaval and destruction but it is the “birth pangs” of a new golden age in which the Kingdom of God will be realized in its fullness. It is an awesome, joyous day which we await with hope. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!