Christ’s Return

The End

Mark 13:1-8

I frankly don’t like preaching about what we sometimes call “the end times.” When a Bible text like today’s comes up in the regular readings, I am tempted to avoid it.

The subject is terribly complicated for a 15- or 20-minute sermon. When I have a group of people who really want to study what theologians call “eschatology,” I prefer the reading time and lessons to stretch over eight weeks in a small group or Sunday school setting.

The subject also has been muddied to the extreme, particularly in American religion, by people with some strange ideas about how to read the Bible. The most troubling of these authors and preachers fail to heed Christ’s words that come a little later in this chapter: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

A lot of these charlatans not only want to predict the timing of “the end” and tell us exactly what must happen on earth before Christ returns, they also want to sell us books explaining their theories. If they are sure the end is near, why don’t they live their convictions, going deep in debt to print their books and give them away? Why do they need the money?

That said, people regularly come to me and ask, “Pastor, are we living in the end times? With everything happening around us, it sure seems like it.” I’m sure a lot of you had that feeling of end-time foreboding after the horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris Friday.

So let’s consider the matter, at least a little. If you want to consider it more deeply in a different setting, I’m always glad to help.

Here is the short answer to the question, “Pastor are we living in the end times?” Yes, we are. Yes, we have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit arrived to guide the church.

Jesus warned us that all sorts of terrible things would be happening around us, “wars and rumors of wars,” and natural disasters, and famines, and so on. Such events were happening even as he spoke.

From a global perspective, they continued to happen nonstop up to present day, but they do not represent the end; as Jesus said, they are merely the “birth pangs” of what is to come. Evil was defeated by the cross, but evil will continue to snap and bite, to try to take as many of us down with it as possible, until Christ destroys evil forever.

Many of the earliest hearers of Jesus’ words lived long enough to think the world was coming to an end in A.D. 70. Remember, Jesus started this passage by prophesying the glorious Jewish temple and the great buildings around it would be destroyed. In the year 70, the Romans did just that, razing everything on top of the Temple Mount in response to a Jewish rebellion. The historian Josephus claimed that 1.1 million people were killed in this destruction.

There have been other times people have been convinced the end must be near. In fact, I would assert there has been no definable period in history where someone somewhere wasn’t justified in thinking, “This must be the end of everything.”

Just imagine being in the midst of the Black Death, when plague killed anywhere from one-third to one-half of Europe’s population in the 14th century.

Or think of the 20th century, when two world wars left people with the sense that everything was crumbling around them. Those wars gave us nuclear bombs and were followed by a Cold War during which it seemed most of us might die at the push of a few buttons.

It’s depressing stuff to think about. And maybe that’s really why I don’t like talking about the end times. When we do so, we are missing the true message Christ is trying to give us. We are missing the glory of what is to come.

As long as evil remains, we are going to have huge, scary messes before us, with those events taking innocent lives needlessly. Islamic terrorism is the great evil before us now. Maybe it will be the last great evil in the world we confront before Christ returns. Maybe not. I don’t know.

But I do know this. It all comes to an end one day, and that could be any day. And we need to live our lives as if Christ could return in a flash, in the next few seconds. There is enough evil in the world already; let’s not let evil creep into our lives.

I want all of us to live with a sense of immediacy. Let’s live as if we are going to see Christ with our next breath! When we live this way, evil cannot truly touch us, not even if it takes our lives. Even if we are killed, we are sheltered with Christ, destined to return with him on that great day.

Carry in your hearts Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:35-37: “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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Featured Photo Attribution: By ERIC SALARD [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. Gathering in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015, following Charlie Hebdo attacks.

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All Eyes on Christ

Even Christians who practice the season of Advent sometimes have trouble explaining exactly what Advent is.

It is not the Christmas season, despite what Kmart, Walmart and all the other retailers would have you believe. In the church, Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve, and stretches through Epiphany on Jan. 6. Thus, the song “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

I realize I’m probably fighting a losing battle on the issue of when the Christmas season begins. Commercialism has overwhelmed the church calendar, and by the time Dec. 25 arrives, most people want to say, “I’m done.” I’m just concerned that Advent gets squashed in all of this.

Advent by itself is a special time, one where we reflect on anticipation and promises. We do think and talk a lot about the birth of Christ. His birth was, after all, the fulfillment of thousands of years of hopeful waiting by the Jews for a deliverer, a reconnection to God. So Advent does appropriately lead to Christmas.

It leads somewhere else, however. During Advent, we consider our present-day anticipation, our own desire for Christ’s return. Once we take on the moniker “Christian,” the concepts surrounding Advent should be one of the key drivers in how we live our lives.

Along with the declarations about Jesus we make in the Easter season, the Advent season has embedded in it the concepts that make us obnoxious to people of other faiths and nonbelievers. If you really understand the biblical texts around Advent and their related texts, it’s hard to be a universalist—to say that basic goodness or the underlying concepts found in all religions somehow restore us to God.

In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of a time when God would re-establish control over all creation. In the New Testament, we understand Jesus as the path to this event. By going to the cross as a sinless man, Jesus broke the power of sin so we can stand with God and, appropriately, bow before our creator and worship in holiness, just as we were originally made to do. We understand Jesus to be God among us, at work even today through the Holy Spirit, another manifestation of God.

A handful of Christians try to make negotiable this idea of belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation, but most do not. I certainly do not. Again and again, the Bible gives us images of Jesus as the ultimate focus for creation. In the end, all eyes are upon him; every knee bows in his direction.

This concept becomes a driver for our lives because the Bible also describes the arrival of Christ as sudden and complete. The timing is a complete mystery; “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” we are told in Matthew 24:36.

Don’t believe it when people tell you certain events have to occur before Christ’s return. Such ideas lull us into a dangerous complacency. We should live as if Christ could return before you finish reading this column.

When we live in such a way, we live as people filled with excitement. This is joyous anticipation! As believers, we do not cringe in fear of a smiting—we await the one who saves us, the giver of grace, the one who frees us from pain, death and all the other shackles of sin.

Rejoice that Advent is here, and that for all we know, the risen Christ may arrive even before the Christmas season.