Thursday, November 16, 2006

End of Days 2 - 1 Thess. 4

(wma audio download link)

[As always, beware the typos!]

Reformation. All Hallows. And now… the end times.

The end times. It’s a popular topic in today’s Christianity. It’s a popular topic outside of today’s Christianity. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, as a Muslim, is waiting for the long awaited “righteous man” to come and bring peace to the earth. He said so to the UN assembly several weeks ago. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? You might almost think he was waiting for Jesus. But he’s not. He’s waiting for a “prophesied” warrior who, according to, I believe, Sunni tradition, bring peace to earth by conquering all non-Muslim nations and forcing them to either submit the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed or die.

Of course, that kind of radical end times stuff is usually off our American radar. But Tim LaHaye and Hal Jenkins aren’t. Do you know those names? Tim LaHaye and Hal Jenkins are the coauthors of the infamous “Left Behind” series. Twelve plus fictional books, millions of dollars in royalties, several movies, all about how “the end” will take place, and all, as they claim, according to biblical prophesy.

It’s really one big propaganda movement pushing a system of biblical interpretation, created in about the 1840’s and called, are you ready?... “premillenial dispensationalism.” Pre-mil-len-ial dis-pen-sa-tionalism. Don’t worry about remembering that. All you need to know is that they think they can read the Scriptures in such a way as to figure out when Jesus will come back, and, go figure, they say it’ll be in the next few years. Now, ignoring the fact that there were sectarians and schismatic heretics making the same claims in the 3rd century, the 8th century, the 12th century, the 15th century and the 19th century, they know that this time they’re right.

Yeah. Well…I’m not sure. And I know without a shadow of a doubt that their premillenial dispensational system is seriously flawed, because, any system which sees the cross of Jesus as a mistake in God’s plan, just can’t be right.

But not everyone who believe LeHaye and Jenkins knows that or thinks that. Usually, they’re just hyped about how they’re living in the end times. I had a conversation the other day with a neighbor of mine. She said, “Oh, you’re a Pastor. I don’t go to church myself, but I’m a Christian and I read my Bible. And I believe we’re living in the end times.” “Probably,” I said. “Ever since Jesus left we’ve been living in the end times.” “Oh no,” she corrected me. “I mean we’re really living in the end times.” “Maybe,” I said.

After all, it’s really kind of hard to know. What does the Bible say about the “signs of the times?” Let’s see. There will be wars. Check. Rumors of wars. Check. Earthquakes. Check. False teachers. Check. Godlessness. Check. Yup. We’ve definitely got all those things, so, for all we know, the end might be tomorrow, or even this afternoon. But here’s the nugget most people prefer to ignore. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, false teachers, godlessness…all these things existed in the 1st century too. And they haven’t really ever gone away. They just keep on happening. That’s why Jesus said, in these same texts of Scripture, ‘These are the beginnings of birth pains.” But “no one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will return.” “He will come like a thief in the night.” “As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” People will be working in the fields, and bam, boom, bang. It’ll be over. The elect will be caught up to meet Christ in the air. The dead will rise to find themselves clothed with new flesh. And then, the great Judgment will take place, when the books will be opened, and all that you have ever done. All of it, every thought, word and action will be laid bare and judged.

Like a thief in the night. It’s frightening stuff. Really. Jesus said, “Watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” “Watch.” “I am coming soon.” “I am coming soon.”

The end times. Here we are, living in them. Will it be tomorrow? I don’t know. Will it be five hundred years from now? We don’t know. Will it happen? Absolutely. And so we wait. We are an advent people, a people waiting for the coming Lord. And while we wait, we pray kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy. We pray, Maranatha, Come, Lord, come.

We wait, we work. We serve our neighbors, we love our families, we hear the Word preached, we receive the Sacrament, and we wonder, “How long, O Lord? How long, until you come and avenge yourself upon the earth, bringing your righteousness with you?”

We don’t know when it will be. But neither do we want to forget, for the Scripture tells us plainly. Jesus tells us plainly, “Watch!” And so, while we don’t run around screaming like chicken little about every bit of breaking news in the middle east, it has become the custom of the Church in her liturgy to remind us, her people, of this marvelous, frightening, amazing reality.

Year after year, as Pentecost and Trinity seasons draw to a close, as Advent draws near, we enter the Last Days in word, in song, and in practice. We are admonished by tradition to watch, and we are reminded by the shifting of colors and the new tones of music that the End Times are indeed already here. We live in them every day. The hearts of many have grown cold. Men no longer put up with sound doctrine. False christs and prophets perform many wonders and lead astray those who would claim the name of Christian. And our Lord has warned us before hand that where the corpse lies, there vultures come to eat the flesh. When you see the abomination of desolation, when the lies of false teaching rear their head, do not look back, but flee for the hills. Flee to the Lord.

Beware! He says. Remain in me! He says. And so, having believed this, the Church sings from the past to us of this great tribulation. And the by words of our songs, those who have lived this end times life before us, encourage us onward.

“Wake, awake, for night is flying! Awake Jerusalem! Christ is surely coming. Bringing his reward. Alpha and Omega, first and last and Lord. Hear the certain promise from eternal home; “Surely I come quickly” Come Lord Jesus come! The clouds of Judgment gather, the hour is growing late. Be sober and be watchful, our judge is at the gate. Christians, this Lord Jesus shall return again in His Father glory with his angel train; for all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow and our hearts confess him king of glory now. Rejoice! Rejoice believers, and let your lights appear. The evening is advancing, and darker night is near. The Bridegroom is arising and soon is drawing nigh. Up! Pray and watch and wrestle; at midnight comes the cry!”

Crazy stuff. To keep this kind of season, this kind of festival, one almost really has to believe it’s true. To get excited about the second coming, to give up your Wednesday evenings and come to prayer at 7 oclock, from now through December. To take joy in the fear of it all, to relish the need you yourself have for mercy from the Lord in this great tribulation, to truly want this world to end so that the next one may begin, you almost have to sit yourself down and say to yourself out loud, “No. You’re not insane. You just really believe what you’ve said week after week in that creed for so long.” He will come again to judge the living and the dead. And this is the culmination, purpose, point, meaning and goal of all things! This is the only hope of the Christian life! Our King is coming to us, righteous and having salvation. What else is there but this? What do I want with work that is nothing but toil, and the pursuit of pleasure that is nothing but let down? What do I care for a life that lasts only a few days and is full of trouble, and a body that is like a flower that withers, and a world that chases me into a shadow from which I can’t return? What do I want with a place where death brings each one of us low, and not in some noble, peaceful way, but in torment, and drawn out pain? What do I want with that?

Like a river that wastes away and dries up, so a man lies down and rises not again…

EXCEPT FOR THOSE WHO ARE IN CHRIST! For those who are in Christ, though they dry up like a brook, there is a greater river, a better water, that will fill them to overflowing once again, will fill you to overflowing once again…And this will happen when he comes again.

Even the saints in heaven, who are pictured under the altar of God in Revelation chapter 6 cry out, “How long! How long, O Lord?” And so the Apostle John writes the last words of his Apocalypse, the last words you read in your Bible, “Amen! Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen!”

The Church, who is our mother, the saints who have gone before, without whose testimony we would never have heard at all, those who love us as the body of Christ would not have us forget this profound and central reality. And so, as I have said, and as you will see, we have entered the Last Days of the Church year. In readiness for Advent which is coming, we have dressed our altar in the blue of preparation and watchfulness. And for two weeks, this week and next, the last two weeks before the end, we will fast from the Lord’s meal, in order to symbolize how we live without him, even now, waiting for his return. We will do this in order to focus on repentance, in order to pray, and in order to concentrate on preaching and song. But in two weeks, all of that will change. In two weeks the Day of Judgment will arrive. We will celebrate the final Sunday in the Church year, the Sunday of the Fulfillment, the Day of Christ the King. And then, as it will be when he truly does come with clouds descending, we will again feast on the Lamb who was slain. On that day, we will once more see our sanctuary dressed in white, even as we will all be clothed in white on that great Day to come.

That is something to look forward to. Something to anticipate. Something to hope for.

But for now, for today and for next week, we yet wait. We yet are dispersed in the tribulation where it is the Word which is preached and the consolation which is sung that are so often our food, sustaining and encouraging our faith, our community, our life.

All of this is in keeping with the teaching of the Apostles and the Church which they have founded on the proclamation of Christ, even as he sent them to do so. They did not want us to be uninformed either of the times we live in, or of what will come at the end. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring to life again all who have fallen asleep in him. For the Lord himself, Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, will descend from heaven with a loud cry of command, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord, and so we will always be with him forevermore.

And these words are given to us as encouragement, as promise, as hope. Let us not forget them. Let us sing of them. Let this word of Christ dwell in us richly through song and hymn even now. For the grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord stand forever. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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