Sunday, November 16, 2003

Twenty-three Pentecost
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

End times imagery can be quite frightening. Visions of fire, blood and destruction fill our hearts and minds with terror. Will we persevere? How can we survive? There are those who take advantage of this imagery to shock people into faith. "Believe," they say, "or you will face the suffering of that time. Believe and Jesus will keep you from harm." Fear provides a very powerful motive to confess Jesus as Lord.

I was once in a bookstore and I overheard a young couple discussing a certain series of novels. "We need to get a copy of this book for so-and-so. She needs to be saved, we wouldn't want her to be left behind." Though the author claims that he never intended for the books to be used for anything but entertainment, they have become popular evangelism tools. The problem with this type of evangelism is that it is faith built out of fear rather than the promises of God. It is a shallow faith and self-centered - it is belief that is built on the desire to avoid pain rather than on trust for God.

For generations - since the beginning of Christianity and even before - people have tried to predict what it will be like at judgment day. They have tried to interpret the prophets and have expected the end to come for their generation. It is easy to look around at the world and see the death and destruction, to see the immorality and unfaithfulness. The same has been true throughout history, and when we see these things we are certain that now must be the right time. If it isn't, we pray to God that He will come anyway to end the rebellion and make things new again. The words in today's Old Testament lesson from Daniel are frightening, but they are also filled with hope.

When we lived in England, we could still see the affects of war, in the landscape and in the memories of those who had survived. They knew what it was like to live with bombs falling all around, wondering who or what will be the next to be destroyed. It is understandable for those who have been there to want to avoid the firestorm that awaits. Earthly war and troubles are nothing compared to battle described by the prophets that exists in the spiritual realm. Though Satan has already lost, he refuses to let go without a fight and will do everything possible to take as many with him as possible. This battle wages constantly around us, but when it crashes into this world it will be a most horrifying time.

However, in Christ we do not tremble at the suffering and evil that is all around us in this world or live in fear of what is to come. The antichrist seems to have a hold on the world and our future, yet Daniel assures us that a day will come when God's people will be delivered. In that day we will see the resurrection of the dead - some to eternal life and others to shame and everlasting contempt. What is the difference between the two? The difference is the one who they call Lord.

Last week we heard Jesus call the disciples' attention to a poor widow giving everything she had to God for His work in the temple. He compared the rich who gave a small portion to this woman who gave it all. She relied on the grace of God and the kindness of others for her daily bread, while the rest kept plenty for themselves so that they could live a comfortable life. As Jesus and the disciples walked out of the temple, the disciples were awestruck by the magnificence of the temple buildings. "Teacher, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings!" I am sure it was a sight to see. Herod did not skimp when he rebuilt the temple, using the best of everything. The disciples had not heard the lesson Jesus was teaching them about worldly wealth.

He said to them, "Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down." The things of this world never last. The great temple, with its massive stones that appeared to be indestructible, would be destroyed. Today, the only part that is left standing is the Western Wall, otherwise known as the Wailing Wall, and even that is crumbling from the affects of time, weather and war.

Jesus took the disciples to the Mount of Olives, which was opposite the temple, to continue teaching. They recognized in Jesus' words the prophecies from the ancient prophets about the end times, so they asked Him how they could know it was coming. Even then, with Jesus at their side, they sought to understand what would happen in the future. While Jesus did tell them what they would see, He also taught them to keep their eyes on the right things. "Take heed that no man lead you astray. Many shall come in my name, saying, I am he; and shall lead many astray." They were to keep their hearts and minds on Christ so that they would not be deceived.

It is interesting that in this passage, the signs of the times are things that have always been throughout time and space. Jesus says that there will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. These things signal the beginning of the end. Has there ever been a time when there were not wars and rumors of wars? The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Earthquakes have plagued the landscape of the world since the beginning of time. Whole civilizations have suffered from famine and plague. The righteous ones have always suffered the evil of the wicked.

Though the text ends at verse eight, we should read beyond to see that Jesus is not giving us an excuse to give up. That's what many people do, isn't it? They think the end has come so they give up on life and they focus entirely on the end. Modern prophets predict the time, place and people that will be involved in this battle. They preach fire and damnation, scaring followers into some sort of faith. Instead, Jesus teaches the disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations. Daniel puts it this way, "And they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever."

The wise are not those who put their hope in buildings, or live their lives in expectation of the end. Instead, the wise are those who trust in the Lord. Persecution will come; it has been a part of Christian faith since the beginning. Men and women have suffered martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, killed by those who put their hope in all the wrong things. Jesus comforts the disciples in the midst of this talk of the end. "And when they lead you to judgment, and deliver you up, be not anxious beforehand what ye shall speak: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye; for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Spirit." They are to trust in God when they see these things, for He will be with them through it all.

We have seen these signs throughout every generation because the end times began with the work of Christ on the cross. In the Old Covenant, the priests offered sacrifices regularly to bring forgiveness for the people. Jesus offered Himself as a final, perfect sacrifice. The old ways were not lasting, the priests returned year after year. Jesus died once to forgive all our sins and He awaits at the right hand of God for His enemies to be made into His footstools. He promised that things would be different, that our hope is in nothing less than Himself and in Him we are being made perfect and holy.

Jesus focused the disciples on the hope of the promise rather than the fear of the prophecy. He taught them to trust in God, not in the things of this world. Buildings will fall, people will make mistakes, but in Christ we have the Holy Spirit who testifies to the promises of God in our hearts. "This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, saith the Lord: I will put my laws on their heart, And upon their mind also will I write them; then saith he, And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more."

The words from the writer of Hebrews are filled with such hope and promise, how could we live in fear? "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh."

The scriptures are indeed filled with awesome images of the end times, of the battle that rages in the spiritual realms all around that will come into the world one day. The chance to avoid the fire, blood and destruction is certainly a motivating factor in bringing people to faith in Christ. Yet, Jesus would have us focus on the hope of His promises, the truth of the Gospel, so that we will trust in God rather than human interpretation of the signs of the times. Faith built on fear will live in fear, but faith built on the Gospel will live in hope and peace. We have nothing to fear, we have the assurance of the faithfulness of the Lord God Almighty. We are encouraged to live in that assurance, to love and encourage one another, keeping our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus, even more so as the day of our Lord draws nearer.

The Psalmist understood the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. He knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world. "Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore."

As we look around our world today, we will see signs of the times. There are indeed wars and rumors of wars, famines and persecution wreak havoc on the lives of millions. Prophets give words of warning daily. Even the crumbling Western Wall of the temple in Jerusalem is seen as proof that the end is near. Many Christians live daily in the expectation of tomorrow, looking for the death and destruction to come, rather than trusting in the life and hope we have in Jesus Christ today.

May we live in the joy of the presence of our Lord, for He has promised that He will be with us through all we will face in this world. Thanks be to God.

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