Friday, March 25, 2011

A Warning From Jesus

The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan, on top of widespread political unrest and economic uncertainty throughout the world, have fueled apocalyptic speculations among many. The following is from another sermon (this one back in 1999) which could have been written yesterday....

Matthew 24 is one chapter in the Bible where Jesus himself tells about the last days and the end of the world as we know it. (Actually, Matthew expands what Mark reports in chapter thirteen of his Gospel.) This is fascinating reading, partly because it is clear enough to be partially understood and yet vague enough to be mysterious. It is unfortunate that many well-intentioned believers have taken what Jesus says here and sensationalized it so that the main point Jesus makes is forgotten or even overlooked.

The setting is the temple. Jesus, responding to the disciples' awe of the building that represents the God of Israel, says that the whole building is to be destroyed. In the minds of the disciples, this means the end of the world; they are the ones who put the two ideas together in their question to Jesus (v3): when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?

Then Jesus begins by talking about "wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes." This has led many believers to think the end of the world was imminent whenever disasters, either major wars or natural catastrophes, seem to dominate the news. It is crucial to hear what Jesus is actually saying. Some translations make it plainer than others. As he so often does, Eugene Peterson casts a clear nuance to Jesus' words when he puts them this way:

When reports come in of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history; this is no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Famines and earthquakes will occur in various places. This is nothing compared to what is coming (24:6-8, The Message).

This is not to say, though, that horrible happenings have no spiritual relevance. Certainly we are aware of horrible things. Natural disasters seem to abound more than ever. Then there is the context of humanly-motivated atrocities. Alongside the large-scale issues of race, religion and politics are the local neighborhood calamities in our own country. Los Angeles reports that more than four people a day are killed by guns (most of them drug related). And while some form of strict gun control may eventually need to change the freedom granted by the Second Amendment, guns really are not the problem. Guns have been part of American society for 200 years, most of those years with hardly any restrictions. Current public criticism and safety awareness have probably restricted the availability of guns in the average household far beyond what it was a generation ago... and yet public schools did not worry about guns forty years ago. What has changed? The "times."

Does this mean we are living on the verge of the end of the world? As more than one person has unwittingly observed: "We are nearer to the end of the world than ever before." That, it should go without saying, is not saying a whole lot!

The truth is, both natural disasters and rampant human evil are often symptoms of God's judgment on societies which have ignored his ways. This is not new. The Old Testament both teaches and models this over and over. The prophets called attention to natural disasters and human-based atrocities as signs of God's judgments. (Note, for example, the first chapter of Amos, which chronicles the sins of Israel's neighboring nations and the promise of God's judgment.) Another example is the list of curses which God promised Israel if they broke his covenant and spurned his commands. Deuteronomy 28 says God will send blight, plague, disease, enemies and more on the society which goes its own way in defiance of God.

We do not need to jump to end-of-the-world hysteria to take seriously the awful things which happen in our world today. The person who is sensitive to God will see in the horrible happenings a warning from God –– a warning that is always an invitation to repentance.

Do any of us discount that? Do we doubt that God has reason to send some startling wake-up calls to this society in which we ourselves live? Have you seen (or at least heard of) the billboard campaign meant to spark a bit of God-awareness? One of them says:

"Keep taking my name in vain and I'll make the rush hour even longer" - God

And that is actually quite mild compared to the kind of message God sent through his prophets. Have we become so accustomed to foul language that we just don't care when we invite such a thing into our homes through television programs? Do we merely resign ourselves that movies directed at our young people are making a mockery of morality even as they encourage sexual promiscuity? What kind of culture allows –– much less enjoys -–– something like The Jerry Springer Show?

Can we not see that something is wrong when the focus of life in our society is almost totally on ourselves? In a popular context, there is little concern for the past (which means there is no perspective and no wisdom). There is little hope for a future, especially when there is a sanctioned urgency to live life now. So we focus on our bodies: physical fitness (which is good in a limited context; even Paul said physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things ––1Tim 4:8), but preoccupation with a "perfect" body is an empty and foolish thing. But that is one thing our culture is captivated by, as further evidenced by bodily ornamentation (piercings and tattoos) and sexuality for its own sake. And rooted in that is the now common practice of abortion for birth control.

It is obvious that there is no basis for respect of human life. Even the culture is beginning to see that maybe it is sick. Our society is truly perverted in its fascination with violence. What has happened when almost any expression of spirituality is allowed –– even encouraged -–– except that which is rooted in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures? New Age... paganism... the occult... witchcraft... Wiccan... satanism... all are fair market.

The whole message of the Bible warns that God allows judgments to fall on societies which brazenly embrace the very things he hates. When awful things happen in the world, the remedy is not found in treating symptoms. Notice carefully the preamble to that great verse in the Old Testament which invites repentance:

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locust to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2Chron 7:13,14).

But when God's people point out that the problem is sin, all hell breaks lose. Jesus warned his disciples: you will be hated by all nations because of me (v9b). That is happening today. Tolerance" is the ultimate value, except there is no toleration of true Christianity because commitment to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has no tolerance for those things which are an abomination to the righteousness of God.

The world cannot stand to hear about a Jesus who will come to judge the world. A Jesus who "loves" –– and leaves people as they are –– is fine. Yet, that is not the Jesus of the Bible. There is no Jesus other than the one who is revealed in the Scriptures... the Jesus who came to reveal God to a world who otherwise would never know who God truly is. And look what Jesus goes on to say.... the theme of chapter twenty-four is continued into chapter twenty-five, and chapter twenty-five concludes with the separation of the sheep (the righteous) and the judgment on the goats (the wicked): Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (25:46). And note, too, why the goats were "wicked." It was not because they were mass murderers or pornographers or vicious tyrants. It was because they did not love "the least of these."

To bring it to today, it's the people who are trying to develop perfect bodies or furnish the perfect house or give their kids perfect opportunities who are also too busy to be able to give any attention to the things God cares the most about. How can I say that? Listen again to Jesus:

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away (Matt 24:37-39a).

In other words, they were just living life –– life, as understood in a "here-and-now" context. That's all it takes to incur the judgment of God.

Now I want to come to the main point of this sermon. Jesus did not tell his disciples these things so they could know the future. There's little detail of the future here. The Holy Spirit did not preserve these words of Jesus in the Scriptures so we could read the newspaper and figure out what God was going to do next. Jesus was as blunt as he could be about "the end of the world" when he said: No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (v36).

So if we cannot know whether we are living in the critical time of earth's history, what is Jesus saying here? He is saying that his people should be able to recognize when their time is a critical time. Any time that sin runs rampant is a critical time. Any time society is upset by moral chaos and violence is a critical time. Any time that natural disasters loom large on our consciousness is a critical time.

And yes, it can be argued that in an age of electronic communication we are more quickly and easily made aware of disasters. On the other hand, sensationalists can try to say all of this means the end of the world. It can be a mistake to make either too little or too much of these things. What we need to do is listen to what Jesus actually says.

As I’ve meditated on these words of our Lord, it seems that verse twelve sums up the heart of what Jesus wants his followers to hear: Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.... This warning comes to us on at least two levels.

The first is more obvious. Wickedness itself pulls people's hearts away from God. It can be overt wickedness like the occult or immoral sensuality. This is the appeal of immediate gratifications like power and pleasure. This is the in-your-face kinds of attitudes and behaviors often modeled on MTV. Or, it can be subtle wickedness. Subtle wickedness is that which doesn't appear wrong. Maybe it's not intrinsically wrong. Subtle wickedness is the "good" thing becoming an idol because it supplants God. That was the tone of Jesus' warning about the ordinary person living in Noah's day: eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Here were people who allowed life-in-this-world to be more important than God. But God's judgment fell on them, and it was too late.

A second way this warning can be applied is more subtle yet. This warning is for those who are actually trying to heed the warning, but in doing so, allow fear to destroy hope. That is one of the worst things about "sensationalist" interpretations of prophecy. If our first loyalty is to Jesus and his kingdom, then God's judgments are just as much signs of hope as they are incidents to be feared. We can know in our hearts that if catastrophe strikes close, it is still not the ultimate tragedy. True faith gives the awareness that this world in its present form is passing away (1Cor 7:31). If we lose property, health or even life, true faith knows the most important thing is being able to say, "it is well with my soul." That is not to say we do not fear at all; we are human. But maintaining a vigilant spirit through our commitment to Jesus will balance our fear with the hope that God gives to all who truly belong to him.

Am I saying, then, that faithful Christians should not have nice possessions? that faithful Christians should not listen to any secular music? that faithful Christians should not plan for the future? that faithful Christians should basically withdraw from sinful society? No. Jesus himself prayed, My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one (Jn 17:15). But at the same time, Jesus also said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21). When the world is falling apart, a person can easily identify his treasure. When bad news comes, where is your heart focused? On the horrible thing itself or in the assurance that God is still in control?

In this verse in Matthew 24:12, Jesus is warning that all the things which happen in an evil world –– both the evil itself and God's judgments on it –– can cause a person's heart to turn from God. A heart can be enticed by the evil; a heart can be turned selfishly on itself in self-protection.

I do not know what certain catastrophes and other events mean in terms of the end of the world. No one does. If we believe Jesus, we won't try to say "here" or "there." But, if we truly believe Jesus, we will let increasing wickedness and calamity and fear drive us all the more to the One who is a refuge and strength to all who know and trust him.

Further in chapter twenty-four Jesus says, Therefore keep watch... (v42). We are to keep looking.... not just (or even mainly) at all the "stuff" going on in the world, but we are to keep looking to Jesus. We start each day by telling Jesus all over again that we want to be his... that we want him to go with us through our day... that we do not want to say anything, do anything, go anywhere that would make him feel unwelcome. We invite Jesus to live his life through us... to love people, serve people and witness to the Father through us just as if he were in our bodies –– which he is, in us who believe. And when things happen (and of course, things happen every day), we ask Jesus to let us know what he is wanting to do in us because of those things. That is what it means to live with faith in Jesus.... and that is what it means to keep watch.

The warning that Jesus gives is for all who do not live unto him in this way. The warning is not to allow other things to pull our hearts away. The end of the world could come personally for any of us in a moment's tragedy. On the other hand, it doesn't matter when the final end of the world will come if we are keeping watch in our souls and living in faithfulness to Jesus. People who do that will be ready –– no matter what. So hear again what Jesus says to his people in this context of last things: Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

Are you responding to Jesus each day so that you will stand firm to the end? Or has the wickedness of our days caused your love to grow cold.... for whatever reason? This is a warning from Jesus.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Most helpful to read during this time of so many natural disasters...

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