End Times

Fire!

Acts 2:1-21

What is this Holy Spirit, this flame igniting the birthday candle of the church?

Well, first I have to correct the question’s grammar. Sometimes we slip and say “what” or “it” when we talk about the Holy Spirit, but it’s more appropriate to say “who” or “he.”

The Holy Spirit is God, expressed in a way we can sense directly, and as we might expect, the experience is overwhelming and mysterious. The Holy Spirit is deeply personal, touching us in ways that are provocative and emotional.

Even though God is more than biologically male or female, we use the traditional pronoun “he” because it keeps us in that great, long-running scriptural metaphor of the husband wooing and pursuing his errant, adulterous bride. In the metaphor, God is the husband or groom and we of the church, men and women, are his bride. At Pentecost we see a deep spiritual ravishing, our souls exposed one to another and known in full.

The Holy Spirit transforms. The Spirit sounded like wind and looked like fire on the day of Pentecost. When wind and fire sweep over a place, everything is changed. When we think of natural disasters, the image is frightening. And yes, let’s go ahead and admit it—the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping over us frightens us as much as the idea of being in the middle of a firestorm.

When we are transformed by God, we may do strange things. We don’t like the idea of seeming strange, of looking different to the world.

If we’re transformed, we may demonstrate a kind of enthusiasm and excitement people haven’t seen in us before. “Nuts!” people may say. “Drunk in the morning!”

We’re liable to find ourselves capable of doing things we did not imagine possible, and with that capability, we may find new demands upon us. Again, the possibility of sudden change is intimidating.

When the Spirit, recognizing our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, gives us gifts, he doesn’t expect us to tuck them in the closet, however. We should get those gifts out and use them!

The ability to declare who Jesus is, the insight to discern and declare what truth is, the deep desire to help others—We should wear those gifts out! It’s okay to use them up. The Holy Spirit honors faithful use of our gifts by replenishing them.

And besides, left sitting in a closet of the soul, those gifts dry up and crumble. They become useless.

Speak the truth of who God is, of what God is doing through Jesus Christ. Engage with people you never saw yourself among before.

For example, if you’re called to go among youth or children, God will give you the words and actions you need. Or if you find yourself mixing with a crowd that used to frighten you, fear not—God will make you attractive and understandable to them.

The Spirit will not burn you as it sweeps over. The Spirit will refine you, for once you know Jesus Christ, you do have the potential to be holy. Let the Spirit touch you long enough, and you will shine like the purest gold.

The Holy Spirit is power. Sometimes as Christians, we talk about power as if it is a bad thing, as if wanting power is inherently evil. We’re thinking of worldly power when we criticize such pursuits. Seeking God’s power is a different matter entirely.

The latest Star Wars story comes out Friday. I remember seeing the very first Star Wars movie when I was 12, entranced by all those light sabers and this talk of “the Force.” These are not the droids you’re looking for. Oh, to be able to wave my hand and say, “This is not the student who forgot his homework.” And if I could just get my hands on a real lightsaber, swinging it with the power of the Force in me!

George Lucas based the Force on the impersonal energy of certain Asian religions, an energy that supposedly binds all things together, flowing through them. It took me a few years to figure this out, but the Holy Spirit is the real Force, one capable of touching us more deeply than Asian religions or George Lucas ever imagined.

Christians believe in a personal, loving God. His Holy Spirit is the personal, loving Force. When we are open to the Holy Spirit, God’s creative power goes to work in us. The Holy Spirit works in us so that we help accomplish God’s eternal will. Go into the world with power, you Jedi Knights of Christ.

This Holy Spirit marks a new era, one in which we now live. Properly attuned to him, we all are supposed to have a sense of the times, our dreams and visions revealing what is coming. What is coming? A remaking of all things, of course. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross triggered a new order to creation, visibly seen first in his resurrection.

Satan, wielding sin and death, used to be the power broker, but no more. With the Holy Spirit in us, we can tell Satan, “Be gone!” We move through time toward the full, visible return of Jesus Christ. His kingdom is present now, and we make it more present each day by declaring the kingdom to be real, living as if it has fully arrived.

Let us follow Peter’s exhortation. Let us call on the name of the Lord and be saved, and let us be sure all those around us have the same opportunity. The Spirit will sweep over us as a church once again, the fire will burn, and we will be comforted and strengthened for eternity.

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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.”

——

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.

Fire, Angels and the Great Beginning

 

"Angel of Revelation," William Blake [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Angel of Revelation,” William Blake [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)

When you read the explanation provided by Jesus, “The Parable of the Weeds” is pretty straightforward. Question is, do we live as if his teachings are true?

In the parable, there is good and evil—Jesus vs. the devil—and we as human beings choose sides. For a time, good and evil are allowed to co-exist, so the good can spread and grow to its fullest. But only for a time.

Ultimately, we’re told, evil will be separated from good and cast away to a place where it seems there will be something of a paradox, total destruction and ongoing anguish. Dare we call it hell?

Such concepts used to inspire people to a deeper consideration of how they lived. Certainly, Christians took such teachings very seriously, using them as a vision of the future to shape their lives in the present. But I wonder how serious we are now about rooting our lives in these ancient teachings telling us where the world is headed.

Here’s the basic problem for a Christian who doesn’t let this particular teaching shape his or her life. Such a person is paying no more than lip service to our faith. Jesus is talking about the core of Christianity, the very reason he came to die on the cross—to end evil’s reign in this world, making possible for us a glorious, holy, eternal life with God.

Maybe it’s all that picturesque language that makes some people uncomfortable. The language I’m talking about is not in the parable itself, but in Jesus’ explanation of the parable. The parable is a simple agrarian story, very familiar to its audience. But when Jesus explained the parable to his disciples, it became a story of angels gathering “all causes of sin and all evildoers” and casting them into what must be a very large “furnace of fire,” language designed to evoke the stories and end-time prophecies in the Book of Daniel.

Try to imagine it; huge angels roaming the planet, gathering up everything and every person opposed to the will of God. I think of the angel in the 10th chapter of Revelation, “coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded.”

It all can seem far-fetched to modern ears. We make ourselves more comfortable by saying, “It’s somehow symbolic.” But even if it is symbolism, we have to remember an important point about symbols. They stand for something larger, something harder to grasp.

In other words, if you take Jesus’ explanation literally, something astonishing is going to happen when God brings an end to evil. And if you take Jesus’ explanation symbolically, something astonishing is going to happen when God brings an end to evil.

Either way, we want ourselves aligned with God. We may not be perfect, but we want to be certain our sins have been forgiven through a belief in the work Jesus Christ did on the cross. We want the Holy Spirit to continue working in our lives day after day.

We want to be sure that we’re not so entangled with evil that the reapers will have difficulty distinguishing us from what must be burned. As we heard last week, we want to be sure we’re producing the kind of fruit that benefits the coming kingdom of heaven.

And of course, we should be enthralled by the upside, the Good News. This opportunity for us and those we love to shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father is the underlying desire of all our prayers. Again, we can look to Revelation, this time in the 21st chapter, for an expansion of what we can expect: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Or this, in the 22nd chapter: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be their foreheads.”

For those who stand with God, the time of reaping and sorting is not an end, it is a great beginning. When evil is vanquished, Paradise is regained. If you have ears, listen to Jesus’ words.