Sunday, November 18, 2012
Sermon for 11/18/12
Sermon: The Confidence of the End Grace, mercy, and peace to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. There are some people in this world who are obsessed with different things. Do you know any of them? Some people aren’t satisfied unless they know all the stats not only for their favorite football team but for all the football teams. Some people are focused on keeping that lawn free from weeds and mown smooth like a carpet. Some people have perfectionistic tendencies, some even say I do. And someone recently remarked on my terribly messy office, saying I must be obsessive about keeping it tidy because it was so neat. Sometimes we see our obsessions and sometimes they are more visible to other people. Does our world have an obsession? I think it does. I think there’s one within the Church as well. It’s an obsession with the end times, the things of the last days, the fear of God’s final judgment. If you want to make a lot of money as a Christian author, write a book about heaven. Write a book about the transition from earthly life to eternal life. Write a book about the end times. Would you like to have a full church building? Hold a multiple-evening seminar on who the Antichrist is. Would you like an empty church building? Hold a multiple-evening seminar on who the Christ is. That shows the obsession our world has. And today, as we move to the end of the Church year our Scriptures look to the time of the end. In just two weeks we will start the new year, with Advent, the time for both mourning and eager anticipation of the coming Christ. But for now we are bringing the year to a close. We are looking at the end times, the last days, the coming of Christ at the end of the world. From our very brief passage in Daniel I’ve pulled three critical points. 1) Eternity is for everyone. 2) Those who are “wise” are those who stand firm trusting Jesus. 3) All who trust in Jesus will be delivered in perfect safety during the last days. First, eternity is for everyone. In the resurrection, at that last day, all the dead will be raised, all the living will be taken. Everyone will be judged. Some will have what the Bible calls life, others will have what Daniel calls “shame” and “contempt” that will last forever. All people are ushered into an eternal existence. Everlasting death is pictured in the Bible as conscious punishment, pain, grief, suffering, agony. Unlike the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say that unbelievers will simply cease to exist, the Bible teaches an eternity of conscious torment for those who die outside of Christ. Sadly, in 1995 the Anglicans took an annihilationist position as well, becoming the first mainstream Christian group to take an official stand in favor of it. We have to ask ourselves what death looks like in the Bible. God told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die. How did they die? They became subject to separation from God. They became subject to the kind of pain that we endure because we are not in unity with our Lord. This is death. And in eternity those who are dead, dead to Christ, dead to God, live on and on with all the pain of the curse of God. They have shame, they have bitterness, they have hatred, and they have nothing at all to do with it. They are described as being in a perpetual burning with no hope of relief. Eternity is for everyone. We don’t just cease to exist. There should be great fear in approaching death outside of Christ. So I’m going to pause for a moment and sound a little less like a Lutheran. I trust you’ll be understanding. The Bible calls us to trust in Jesus. The Bible tells us that we can be raised to glory as we are looking to Jesus in faith. Maybe you are someone who has just come to the Church recently, or maybe you are someone who has been around Christians for a very long time. But being around the Church doesn’t always mean you are looking to Jesus in faith. Do you believe that Jesus is, as the book of Hebrews describes him, the author and finisher of your salvation? Or are you someone who may be unprepared for eternity, who is not trusting in Jesus? Don’t be taken, don’t be raised to shame. Believe that Jesus is here for you, full of grace and truth, full of forgiveness, the one who will give you eternal life in his glory, in his presence. Trust in him. And whether you are just now trusting in him or have believed him before, turn to him, daily hoping in his mercy and his forgiveness. He is faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Eternity is for everyone. Trusting in Christ we are raised to glory. This brings us to our second point, which will be very short. Those who Daniel presents as “wise” are the people who have “the brightness of the heavens” (Daniel 12:3, NIV1984). Who are the wise people? Those are the people who stand firm, trusting Jesus, as we read in our Gospel passage today. Whom do we trust? What do we trust? Do we remember that Jesus is the one who is presenting us to God the Father as his perfect bride, dressed all in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness? This is our Lord’s promise. He will awaken us to him. We have no reason for fear. We have no reason for doubt. It is not our own works, it is not our own righteousness, but it is Jesus’ perfect life which he applies to us as we trust in him. Would you like to be perfectly good, perfectly right, perfectly holy? This is what Jesus does for you when he forgives you and presents you to God the Father. Eternity is for everyone. Those who are wise, trusting in Christ, are presented to God in Christ’s holiness. And now our third point, all who trust in Jesus will be delivered in perfect safety during the last days. When are these last days? That brings us to another doctrinal difficulty in the Church, and it’s one that has taken hold of this country in a very serious way, the doctrine of the millenium. For almost two thousand years now, the view of the vast majority of the Church has been that we are in the last days, as Peter proclaimed in the second chapter of Acts. By faith in Christ we are in that time period presented in Revelation chapter 20 as the “millennial” or “thousand-year” reign of Christ on earth. The idea of the millennium, which means “period of a thousand years” seems to be taken from a simple bit of symbolic math which the author of Revelation presents. The trinitarian number three plus the number for completion and perfection, seven, equals ten. This is why there are so many threes, sevens, and tens in the Bible. Now I’m no expert at biblical numerology, nor do I want to be one. Many people try to find symbolic number patterns throughout the Bible and miss the fact that the Bible is all about Jesus. Yet this number, ten, when cubed, ten times ten times ten, see the “three” coming back, adds up to a thousand. When used outside of actual counts of people, such as in military actions, the idea of a thousand is intended to indicate as much perfection, as much completion, as you could have. So here we have a thousand year period. It’s a time period nobody could live through, a time period nobody could completely count systematically. It’s the time period of the last days, Christ’s gracious rule on earth, the time of the Church. Some people have decided to look forward to a coming thousand year reign. They find it makes Revelation 20 relatively easy to explain. But it makes it impossible to explain many of Jesus’ statements in the Gospels without having to twist his words about his kingdom being present, his believers seeing his kingdom, all sorts of statements which he makes to comfort us. When confronted with the millennial views of the more radical parts of the Reformation there are two directions they take us. One of them, held by many Presbyterians, is called “postmillennialism.” In this picture, by working diligently for social change we will bring the Gospel to all nations and usher in a period of Christ’s rule on earth. This pushes our Calvinist brothers and sisters to enthusiastic missionary activity. While the emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel is something we should all learn from and embrace, the Bible doesn’t picture us as bringing a time of peace. It says Jesus brought that peace when he died for the sins of the world. The other direction millennialism can take us is more common among Baptists and the more broadly evangelical people in our culture. They say that the world will reach a crisis point, Jesus will come, and at that point he will judge the world and usher in his thousand year reign. This “premillennial” view still can’t explain the time of the Church that we are in. Both views are full of difficulties. That’s why the historic Church says we are in the millennium now, but that it is not necessarily limited to a literal thousand years. What’s at the heart and center of these views? It is that Jesus is working to deliver his people, and they will be brought to him perfectly safely. There is no fear in the love of Christ. We see in Revelation that the throne of God is surrounded by a great multitude of people who have trusted in Jesus. The people who have been killed for their faith, the people who have died of natural causes or in accidents or from cause of warfare not related to their Christian faith, all who die trusting in Jesus are perfectly safe in the resurrection. Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, is able to bring all who trust in him into the presence of the Father. We will all be perfectly safe. One of my historical heroes, Stonewall Jackson, when asked how he seemed perfectly at ease on the battlefield with bullets and cannon balls flying around him, said that in the arms of Jesus his savior he was just as safe there as he was at home in his bed. His Lord and Savior would protect him and bring him home as a partaker of the resurrection no matter the circumstances of his death. Eternity is for everyone. Those who are wise trust in Christ. Those who trust in Christ are perfectly safe both now and for eternity. Let us then trust in our Lord as we join with the multitude of saints who have gone to their eternal rest and with those who are still laboring on this earth, confessing our common faith together, trusting that Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith will make us shine in the heavenly realms forever. Amen.