Bible Readings: Matthew 24: 1 – 25 & Jude: 17 – 25
Prayer before sermon
Gracious God, we delight to be your children, guarded and guided by you, on every step of our walk with you. We want to live carefully and purposefully for you in these tricky times, so please invade our hearts now with your peace and your plans for us to live well and follow your ways. Speak to us now Lord, through your Word, so that we may be obedient, enthusiastic disciples of yours every day, in every area of our lives. Open our minds and hearts now by the power of your Holy Spirit so that my words may be your words and our thoughts your thoughts, we pray in the name of our Risen Saviour Jesus Christ,
Well, the presidential inauguration has taken place in the States, and the sun has still risen since!
You need to know that it’s simply a coincidence that this sermon on some of Jesus’ teaching about judgment comes on this Sunday! This is in fact a response to a conversation that Peter and I had with a member of our church family who’d been visited quite regularly by Jehovah’s Witnesses with clear views about what will unfold in the world near, and at, the end. She commented that we in Presbyterian Churches don’t tend to touch on these issues of the end times so frequently. I’m well aware that I don’t qualify as an expert in these areas, so it is with humility and much prayer that I’m entering this territory of issues which have divided Christians for centuries, or been placed in the ‘too hard basket’ time and time again.
I’ve often thought that there are a couple of traps that Christians can fall into in regard to Biblical teaching about the end of the world. At different times in the life of the church world-wide we’ve plunged head first into both of these pitfalls – either consumed with fear and panicked by predictions, we focus on what might happen, meaning we take our eyes off Jesus and what he calls us to do and be here and now – or we neglect the many passages of Scripture, including warnings from Jesus about what will happen in the future and how we can be prepared. So let’s be balanced followers of Jesus, with eyes, ears, minds and hearts wide open to see physically and spiritually what is going on around us, and to hear God’s voice amid the clamours of competing, and sometimes crazy, voices.
Certainly, I and no doubt many of us, find ourselves from time to time in conversations where we and others despair of the mess the world is in and ask each other, how much worse can things get? What on earth is God doing? What is God doing on earth? Is this a sign that Jesus will return soon? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God loves everyone, why do people suffer so much?
Following on from Peter’s preaching series during last term on the Gospel, on the good news of Jesus, we explore some of these questions today in the light of what the Gospel is, what it means – do you remember? The Gospel is ‘Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again.’ The sort of questions we can’t help asking when we deplore the state of the world, its people, its politics, the lack of hope that so many endure – why do good people suffer? How come we weren’t born in Aleppo, or in Germany under the Nazi regime or had to survive under the communist leadership of Romania led by Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in the 70s and 80s, or we’re not living in fear of earthquakes in Central Italy or lying buried inside a hotel there, crushed by an avalanche in the mountains? It may be that when Paul opens God’s word for us next Sunday on the theme of suffering in the Book of Job, that we make some connections with Jesus’ answers to his disciples describing the signs of his second coming and of the end of the age. Then once we’re in February we’ll begin a series of sermons in which we learn to assimilate Gospel values into our daily lives, which includes, of course, preparing for whatever God has in store for us in the future, even including suffering.
Matthew presents Jesus to us in a rich, multi-faceted way. The New Testament Scholar, Tom Wright, reminds us that Jesus appears in Matthew’s Gospel as the Messiah of Israel, the king who will rule and save the world. He comes to us as the Teacher even greater than Moses. And of course Jesus is the Son of Man, the Son of God, God himself, who gives his life for the world, who rescues the world.
God had made so many promises in the Hebrew Scriptures to rescue his people from their many troubles. Their homeland of Israel had been conquered time and time again, most recently by the Romans, about sixty years before Jesus was born. So Israel, understandably was desperate for freedom. The promise from God was for God to be their king, to give them everlasting justice and peace. Those who were most fervent in this belief trusted that God alone would be king. They yearned for God, King of kings and Lord of lords, to set them free from tyranny, and to deepen their identity as belonging to God alone.
Therefore, when Jesus appeared in Galilee, and began teaching, healing and inspiring normal men, women and children in their relationship with God, questions tumbled out of them. Who are you? In whose authority do you speak? Are you the Promised One?
In particular Jesus’ disciples asked him about the temple, the ornate temple that was built in the time of King Herod.
Their questions kick start Jesus’ teaching about what will happen in the future, that is recorded in chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, some of which we’ve read together this morning.
The impressive temple was part of Herod the Great’s ambitious building programme, and was justifiably renowned as one of the most famous buildings of the ancient world. As Jesus leaves the temple he tells his disciples that the whole building will be destroyed, and then, on the Mount of Olives, they ask him, privately, when this will happen.
Now these disciples of Jesus are not silly. They’ve been hanging on his every word and coming to grips with who he is and his claim on their lives, so they’re really wanting to know what he’s meaning with this news of the temple’s impending destruction. They’ve taken in what Jesus has been saying about the Kingdom of God and they understand that he’s ushering in this glorious new way of living and being in God, so they’re fairly sure that they’re on the right track in thinking that this bold statement about the temple is an apocalyptic prophecy – the destruction of the temple will be a sign that God is about to come and establish His rule.
Then later, after Jesus’ resurrection and his sitting at God’s right hand in glory, many people would have been waiting for the destruction of the temple and then the Messiah returning in glory. We’re still waiting for this and meantime we are becoming further alarmed at the state of the world around us.
So this encounter with Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Olives, that Matthew describes for us in chapter 24 asks two key questions that exercised the minds and hearts of the early Christians and still do, for many of us:
- When will Jesus come again in glory, and
- What are we to do in the meantime?
Matthew, relying to some extent on material from Mark’s Gospel, the first to be written, warns that imposters will emerge, claiming to be the Messiah, wars will break out, and others will be the subject of rumour and speculation, followed by worldwide hostilities between nations, famines, earthquakes and persecution of those who believe in Jesus. Sound familiar? And it gets worse – followers of Christ will be killed, causing many others to fall away from faith in God, betraying one another as they do so. False prophets will appear, and many will grow cold in their faith.
So how are we to behave in such a context, one to which we can all too easily relate, as such values and spiritual and physical realities are all around us? Every time we read the paper or see news headlines it is tempting to speculate ‘What is God up to? Why does God let this happen? What does this mean spiritually?’ Let’s immerse ourselves in God’s Word which teaches us how to live abundantly in such times.
Firstly, we are not to be alarmed. Jesus said “My peace I leave you. My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14: 27. That peace Christ gives in a way that no other ever can is for a specific purpose – not just to make us feel better but to equip us for this period, however long it will be, of struggle and strife, prior to Christ’s glorious return. I find verse 6 of the passage we’re studying in Matthew today, chapter 24, most comforting as it clearly demonstrates that Christ is with us, that he understands as no one else ever will or can, what we’re going through – “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” As people who belong to Jesus Christ we are emboldened by him to live with vigour and courage in an uncertain world. We can be sure of Christ’s claim on us and the victory He has won for us, and this is all sufficient.
Secondly, we are to be faithful and loyal to Jesus. He is inherently and eternally faithful to us. We are to listen to his voice and obey his commands rather than being seduced by other voices and ideas. Matthew 24: 4 “Jesus answered (the disciples): ‘watch that no one deceives you.’ That’s not only wise counsel for us but it’s followed by this assurance in verse 13 – “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
Then, thirdly we are to be faithful and loyal to one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ. In his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul encourages them that even though the day of the Lord will come suddenly, like a thief in the night, they can be ready themselves and they can help one another to be prepared to live in the light rather than giving in to the darkness. “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5: 9 – 11.)
That speaks to me of urgency, of the necessity of loving each other as sisters and brothers in Christ so much that we long for each other to have the deepest intimacy with Christ, and we do everything we can to help others grow into such a relationship. Sometimes I worry that we’re more concerned when our friends, even in church, have a cold rather than a fear for what the future holds for them, or some unfinished business with God. Jude, a church leader in the early church and brother of Jesus, wrote the short letter we’ve read today to warn people away from false leaders. In verses 18 & 19 he warns the believers with this reminder ‘dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires. These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.’ An appropriate warning for today as well as for the first century.
Fourthly, we are to be familiar with God’s Word – we are to pay attention to what Jesus said about ‘the end of the age’. In both Matthew 24 and Luke 21 we read two long passages in Jesus’ own words talking about his coming again. Roger Oakland, in a book called ‘Faith Undone’, loaned to me by one of our church family points out that in these passages Jesus is saying in essence, ‘because you cannot know the day and hour of my return you need to educate yourself in biblical prophecy and take heed of my words about the end times.’.
Finally, we must be vigilant, living joyful and abundant lives, but also being careful spiritually that we don’t allow any contamination from the rest of the world to creep into our lives once we’ve dedicated them to God. Paul tells us in 1 Cor 10: 12 “So, if you think that you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” Subtle temptations to fit into the lifestyle and outlook of the rest of the world lurk and try to lure us in, so we are wise to be watchful and careful.
So my friends, we can be realistic without being pessimistic. We can be assured of our salvation not our damnation for as Paul tells us ‘if anyone is in Christ that person is a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5: 17). We can live in hope not fear for Jesus has prepared a place for us. He is the way to the Father. (John 14: 5 – 14). Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. (John 14: 6) Alleluia!