eschatology

Day of Adoption

It is Pentecost Sunday, and we of course should not gather on this day without hearing the story of the Holy Spirit falling upon a small group of Christ’s followers, birthing our Savior’s church in the process.

The Spirit’s falling that day had immediate, obvious effects, of course. There was an ongoing miracle, the miracle that Christ’s followers could declare him Lord and Savior regardless of the language spoken by the audience. The Spirit also filled Peter so he could preach the first full, great Christian sermon. If you keep reading in Acts, you hear much of that sermon, and you see the results—more than 3,000 in the crowd accepted Jesus as Savior that day.

With that story in mind, I want us to continue our Romans series, where Paul talks about life in the Spirit. What he writes illuminates what we celebrate today and hope to live out every day. We’re going to work our way through our Romans text, Romans 8:15-30, a little at a time.

It begins:

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.

My brother and his wife adopted a boy from Haiti a few years ago. They were in relationship with the boy well before the adoption; Chad met the boy we now call Nathaniel while doing medical missionary work in Haiti. Chad and his family continued to visit him and remain in contact with him in other ways while the long adoption process proceeded.

The day the Haitian judge signed the papers changed everything, though. Nathaniel had a new home, one very different from the little orphanage where he lived. He even had a new language to learn. And he had two new people to call Mom and Dad.

The nature of the relationship had changed dramatically. Think of the Christian Pentecost this way: It marks the day of adoption for all believers. Our relationship with God changes because of the Spirit’s very active presence in our lives. We are now on affectionate, familial terms with God as we experience him as the Holy Spirit.

It is not just a matter of knowing by way of creeds and Scripture we are saved. We are now so close to God that the Holy Spirit can whisper directly to our spirits, giving us assurances of salvation. We have been taken into a new home, and the good, perfect Father draws us close and says, “You are mine, and all will be well.”

But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

This can be troubling. No one likes to suffer. We are part of a new family now, though. Holy families stick together and work together. There is work to be done in a broken world, one where sin and death still have a lingering hold, causing continuing suffering.

Our older brother in the family, Jesus Christ, suffered mightily in this work to defeat sin and restore all things. We know his death on the cross is enough to restore us to God in full! His resurrection proves it!

We also know his work will be made complete—the astonishing thing is we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are invited to play a role in this family business.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Have you seen those ads on the internet that say, “This will make your jaw drop!” The ads are never for anything very exciting, but this text, properly understood, should make your jaw drop. It asserts something rare in Scripture.

Creation—not just human beings, but all things made, the animals, the grass, the oceans, the stars, everything—longs for the completion of Christ’s work. Everything is broken; everything is suffering because of human sin.

Restored by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been adopted into a powerful task. As we let the Holy Spirit move us toward the time of full renewal, the world is literally watching, straining toward the day of remaking and resurrection.

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.

Do you believe the promise and trust the promise enough to feel the longing Paul describes?

Oh, for that day of resurrection renewal to come! Oh, to see the glory we know we have been granted as children of God! The idea is so powerful, so beautiful, that we can find ourselves at a loss regarding how to pray for such a thing.

But it’s okay. The Spirit senses our longings, and when we let him, he can plead our emotions and desires to God when we cannot put them into words.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

Sometimes these ideas get abused. People read “God causes everything to work together for the good” and interpret it to mean God makes evil occur so some good can come of it later. That is not what Paul means.

Instead, Paul is saying God will take the results of sin and use even the worst horrors to the benefit of the kingdom. That must drive Satan crazy. Can you hear him complaining? “Every time I think I’ve got those humans whipped and beaten, God comes along and turns my work against me.”

Our dear Father, Abba, wins, and through the work of our dear older brother, we as co-heirs in the family win. The horror of the cross has turned into resurrection glory. The terrible things we see and suffer will dissolve into glory one day, too; they will be completely reversed, undone, and every tear will be wiped away.

That is the promise the Holy Spirit whispers to us every day as we work with his guidance and strength in us.

A Universal Work

First in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 2:1-5 (NRSV)

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
   Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
   and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!


For thousands of years, God has been visibly at work to save us from sin and restore us to holiness. During this Advent season, we’re going to use prophecies from Isaiah to understand that work a little better.

To me, the key word in today’s text is Zion. Until we grasp Zion in full, we cannot see the magnitude of what God promised through this great prophet.

At its simplest, Zion might be seen as a synonym for Jerusalem, the center of worship and governance in ancient Israel. There is nothing simple about the concept of Zion, however. When we say “Zion,” we capture all the promise and potential of God’s work.

Somehow, Zion is raised high. Somehow, Zion becomes a place of instruction for all the world, a means for the word of the Lord to spread globally. Somehow, that word is so powerful that even war is brought to an end.

It is a beautiful idea, isn’t it? God’s truth becomes so clear that people of all cultures stream to it. It is forced on no one; people simply are drawn to it, look at each other and say, “Come, let us go.” Such truth would have to be intensely attractive, it would seem, if it were to reach people from all cultures, languages and places.

From a human, modern perspective, Zion in its fullest frankly can also seem impossible. Division is our norm; world peace has never seemed remotely possible.

Even modern-day Jerusalem is divided. The temple mount that once was the center of worship for the Jews is now occupied by a Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock. If there is no unity in Jerusalem, how can we trust Isaiah’s words? How can such a divided place be the basis of Zion and bring unity to all of creation?

To answer these questions, it helps to understand the deeply symbolic nature of Zion, and to remember God works in very surprising ways. Despite the seeming impossibility of it all, we Christians continue to share this vision that dates back more than 700 years before Christ. We share it because we know that Jesus Christ shared it, taught it, and ultimately lived it. He showed us the path toward what seems impossible.

Keeping the idea of Zion in mind, look at some of the stories of Jesus and how he ministered. For example, whenever Jesus went to a mountain, it was as if he created around him a bubble of holiness, a place freed from worldly division, set apart even from the ongoing effects of sin. We know the people were drawn to him to learn; this is obvious in Matthew 5-7, the account of the Sermon on the Mount.

More happened at these mountain gatherings, too. The sick were healed. Ultimately, in Matthew 15, the hungry were fed. The miracle was broader than the feeding of the 4,000 men and their families, however. On that mountain, in the presence of God’s pure word, there was no room for pain or hunger of any kind.

Our great Christian hope is simple, and fully aligned with Isaiah’s vision. As God’s word spreads—as person after person and nation after nation seeks God’s word—these mountain miracles of teaching and healing continue. Jesus lived among us to affirm the promise of Zion.

Yes, complete fulfillment of the promise remains to be seen. There is some waiting involved. It is expectant, active waiting, like a mother who knows a child will arrive any day. Preparations are made. People begin to live as if the great change has already happened.

In contemplating Zion, I will first go this far: Christ is Zion, the fulfillment of that great promise made centuries before his birth. On the cross, he was lifted so high that the world continues to see him. In his death he exposed a truth about God’s love that continues to attract people of all kinds from all points around the globe.

And I will go further: In his resurrection and ascension, Christ resumed his place as part of the Godhead, but God also continues to reside in us through the Holy Spirit. The universal church also is Zion, meaning we as its members are already citizens of a timeless, holy realm.

Do you live as such? Do you understand God’s truth as revealed in Scripture? Do you carry God’s word to those who need it? Do you do all that is humanly possible to let God’s truth create those bubbles of holiness and unity around you?

Don’t wait for Zion. Be Zion, live Zion, until the day we find ourselves visibly in Zion. Oh house of Christ, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!


The featured image is “The Prophet Isaiah,” Lorenzo Monaco (circa 1370–circa 1425) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Out of the Fire

2 Peter 3:8-15a (NRSV)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.


The Apostle Peter, the head of the church after the resurrected Jesus’ ascension, paints a cataclysmic picture of Christ’s return. It is an image of the universe melting away in an unimaginable heat.

The stars and the planets spun out of them “pass away with a loud noise,” a kind of theological Big Bang announcing the end of creation rather than the beginning. Not all is destroyed, however. The earth remains, stripped bare, with it and all its people exposed before God, their inner holiness and evil undeniably on display.

Peter gives us perhaps the starkest scene of judgment in the Bible, one that grows in audacity as our scientific understanding of the size and design of the universe expands. When I read his words, I see an ash-covered earth hanging in the darkness, with all the people who have ever lived on it looking up, put in a position where we recognize our complete dependence on our creator. We see only with whatever light God chooses to provide from his throne. We become actors on a barren stage, no costumes, no props. At this point, nothing matters but our relationship with God.

Peter’s words could be just fantastic symbolism, of course. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, symbols are a simple way of understanding a more complex reality. If we believe the Bible is communicating God’s truth, then we have to acknowledge the experience of judgment will be at least as overwhelming as what we see here, and likely more so. We will come face-to-face with our holy maker, stripped bare of our pretenses and self-delusions.

Peter’s letter is a call to ready ourselves, to undergo our own personal purifying fire now. It should help us to know this: What comes out of the fire is far greater than what went into the fire.

Peter would have been familiar with Malachi’s Old Testament prophecies of a day when one would come to act as a “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” purifying what has been tainted by sin. The prophecy is not so much about the refining process as it is about what comes out, gold and silver in their purest forms.

After his images of fiery destruction, Peter also alludes to the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” We submit ourselves to purification by God’s Holy Spirit not out of fear, but in joy, knowing God’s purifying work on the universe through Christ will establish a greater way of living. We ready ourselves for a place in the new creation.

So,how do we submit?

Many of you have made that first step, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. Those of you who have not—well, Peter makes clear God is patient. He has provided a path to holiness through belief in Jesus Christ, and has stayed the end for nearly 2,000 years, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” When the time of patience ends, however, it will end quickly, either in Christ’s return or your departure from this life.

Acceptance of Christ as Savior certainly is enough to save us. Even a sincere deathbed confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is enough. Those of us blessed to come to Christ earlier in our lives are called to something more, though. We’re given a chance to undergo the refining fire in this life, anticipating the life to come.

The early Methodists had a simple set of rules to live by as they pursued holiness. They are just as instructive for us today.

First, do no harm. What are we doing that damages others? How do we stop doing those things? These usually are actions large and small that are easy to identify, although often hard to stop. Ask any recovering addict.

Second, do good. Again, the principle is very simple. Do we do good in every way we can, whenever we have the opportunity? There’s a lot of evil in the world, and it takes a lot of goodness to push back against it. We cannot earn our salvation, but once we find ourselves part of Christ’s contingent, it’s nice to help the kingdom grow. In fact, that’s a good way to measure if an act is good—is it a victory for God’s kingdom over the ruler of this world, Satan?

Third, stay in love with God. I’m borrowing Rueben Job’s paraphrase of John Wesley’s more elaborate statement, “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” By this, Wesley meant taking those actions we know will keep us in a relationship with God: public worship, study of God’s word, receiving communion, prayer, and abstaining from activities that can be a distraction from God.

When we follow these rules, we open ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And we do not miss the dross that is burned away.