Sunday, November 29, 2009

Redemption Drawing Near

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-22; Luke 21:5-36

A FEW YEARS AGO I WAS at a pastors’ conference where we were doing an in-depth study of the Book of Psalms. During one of the question and answer periods, one pastor gave his opinion that the psalms where God’s people complain of hardship, trouble, grief, oppression and so on simply shouldn’t be used in white middle-class American churches. Middle-class American Christians don’t have troubles like that, he said. Such psalms are irrelevant to our lives and we shouldn’t say them.

I wondered if he really knew what went on in his parish. True, we don’t tend to undergo suffering to the extent our brothers and sisters in Somalia or India or Saudi Arabia do. But we know what it’s like to have trouble. Especially with the economy as bad as it is and the future of our country as uncertain as it is, we find ourselves subject to worry, care, and for some of us, real hardship. The Psalms are given to us for our comfort, as is our passage from the Gospel of St. Luke.

. . . Comfort? Where’s the comfort in Luke chapter 21? It begins all right in verse 5, with the disciples pointing out the marvellous beauty of the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem. Life was hard and uncertain when you were a poor Galilean peasant, and being a follower of Rabbi Jesus could make things even harder. The Temple, at least, was something solid and permanent. An ordinary Jew could rely on it and feel sure about things, even when life wasn’t so good. That’s because it was a sign of God’s covenant with His people Israel. The disciples and all the Jews could look at the temple and know that in spite of the Roman occupation and everything else they were going through, God was still with them.

So does our Lord Jesus confirm their confidence? No. He says, "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down."

What a knife in the gut! Good on the original disciples--they didn’t contradict Jesus (for once) or say, "But Lord! That’s impossible!" Instead, they asked, "Teacher, when will these things happen?" By now they’d learned to trust Jesus to know what He was talking about.

Jesus doesn’t answer their "When?" question. It wasn’t His will to give them an exact year and day and hour. Instead, He revealed to them and to us the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem with it. And at the same time, Jesus let us know how we can recognise the end of the age and the time of His coming as Judge and King.

We’re looking forward to that, right? His coming will be the end of all our trouble and the beginning of our eternal bliss. But before that Day comes, things on this earth will not get better, they will get much, much worse. Wars. Natural disasters. Pandemics. Terror. Cataclysms in the heavens and on the earth. Jesus said so, and He can be trusted to know what He’s talking about.

A lot of Bible commentators and ordinary Christians, too, get confused over this prophecy. Some say the whole thing applies to the time in A.D. 70 when the Romans marched in and destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the Jews to the four corners of the world. While others say it all has to do with events that will happen sometime in the future, and the destruction of Jerusalem long ago has nothing to do with it.

But Bible prophecy again and again is fulfilled in a layered way. God revealed His will in pictures and mirrors. One event in the short term would serve as a symbol for something to happen thereafter. For instance, God’s great salvation in freeing His people from Egypt is a picture of what God would do in freeing us His people from slavery to sin by Christ’s death on the cross.

And here in Luke 21, the terrible events Jesus prophesied for Jerusalem were a picture of what will take place someday in the future when God’s judgement descends on all humanity when the Son of Man returns as King. We know from the text itself that the two events have been put together in one prophecy, for the Holy Spirit has Luke write very clearly in verse 24 that "Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled." These events couldn’t all happen at once, in the past or in the future. When Jesus talked about the destruction of Jerusalem and about the end of the age, He wasn’t talking about the same time. Rather, He was talking about the same thing. And that thing is the process by which our sovereign God will judge unfaithfulness and evil in this world, install Jesus the Righteous Branch of David as King on the throne of the universe, and bring relief and redemption to His faithful people.

Advent’s a lot like that. It also has two parts. We look for the coming of Christ, the King. We prepare ourselves to receive Him in memory as the human Child born over two thousand years ago. But we also must make ourselves ready for His coming again in glory. We don’t know when that will happen; our Lord didn’t give us the year or day or hour. But it’s all part of God’s sovereign act of judging unrighteousness, making Jesus King, and bringing us redemption that He started long, long ago.

Let this passage be a warning to us, not to load God’s symbols with our own meanings. The Jews thought the Temple would stand forever as a sign of God’s favor to them. We humans see the Christ Child in the manger and think it’s all right to make God out to be weak and manageable and subject to our wants and desires. We sinners can cope with Jesus as a helpless baby. We can even take the grown-up Rabbi preaching woe to the Pharisees-- as long as we think "the Pharisees" are always Those Other People. But in our rebellion and idolatry we cannot take the Son of God hanging on a cross; much less are we ready to welcome the Son of Man come to judge us and rule over us forever.

None of us can accept Christ as He really is-- until God by His own unfettered will and sovereign initiative moves in our hearts by the power of His Holy Spirit and converts us into His own people. But when He does, we become a whole new people! People of redemption, people of righteousness, people of hope! In our Jeremiah passage, verse 16 says, "In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord our Righteousness." But if you go to Jeremiah 23, it speaks there as well of the Righteous Branch raised up from David, and says "This is the name by which He will be called: The Lord our Righteousness." The Jerusalem Jeremiah foretells is not the city destroyed in his day. It’s not the rebuilt city overthrown by General Titus in A.D. 70. It is God’s new Jerusalem, His new Israel, His Church, and we can bear the name "The Lord our Righteousness" because it’s the name of our Redeemer Jesus, the righteous Son of David. We now belong to Him and live in Him, and because we do, we will escape the eternal judgement that will come on the God-hating generation of this world.

In verse 28 Jesus says, "Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Interestingly, this word "redemption" doesn’t mean "ransom"-- for the payment that bought us out of slavery to sin was the blood He shed long ago on His cross. Rather, the word means "release" or "deliverance." When all the world is melting in terror and hiding from the wrath of almighty God, His people can stand on their feet like free men and women liberated by Jesus’ blood and expect to be freed from the persecutions and hardships of those last days. Be of good hope, Christian people! No matter how terrible things may get, God is in control and will bring you through. You may give your physical body as a witness to Christ and His gospel, but as to your soul, not a hair of your head will perish.

However, this is no time for complacency, Christian friends. As our Lord says in verse 34, both pleasure and hardship can weigh down our hearts so we lose faith in the goodness and saving power of God. At this season of the year, it’s doubly heart-breaking to hear someone say, "I’ve lost my job; at our house we won’t have any Christmas." Oh, no, no! You’ve lost your livelihood; does that mean you’ve lost Jesus the living Lord as well? You say you can’t give your children any Christmas this year? But my sad friend, God has already given Christmas to your children and to you as well! Tell them the story of the Son of God who became flesh, who died and rose for their salvation, and you’ve given your children more of a rich and blessed Christmas than most of the richest households will get around this fallen world!

Or there are hearts touched by tragedy, who say Christmas has been destroyed for them because of the grief that has torn apart their lives. If that is you, I beg you to see that this is the time for you to lift up your head, for your redemption is drawing near! Sorrow may have invaded your life, but the Son of God has invaded this world of sin and pain and death; His arm is stronger than the worse that can happen to any of us, and by His cross the victory is already yours.

The Devil wants us to be distracted and not be watching for the second coming of our Lord. He wants us to stop being faithful to Jesus in our everyday lives. For what is it for us to be on the watch? In every other place in Scripture where the return of Christ is described, keeping watch means to keep doing the work He has given you to do, cheerfully, in His name and to His glory. To watch means to endure the ordinary hardships of human life gracefully, drawing always on the power of your Lord Jesus Christ, so that when the greater trials come we’re used to depending on Him. And always, always, to watch means for us to seek and enjoy the means of grace-- reading His word, hearing it preached, praying in Jesus’ name, celebrating and sharing the sacraments He has given us, assembling and serving with His people, the church. In this way Christ Himself will prepare you to be a witness to Him, both in times of peace and in times of persecution and hardship.

After our sermon hymn, we will administer the sacrament of holy baptism to D---, daughter of S--- and L--- and granddaughter of C--- and J---. Do not be deceived: You may see only something being done to an adorable baby. But baptism is a sign of the great conflict between heaven and hell that Jesus describes in the Gospels. War is waged over the souls of little ones such as this, and by baptism we signify that we claim her for Jesus Christ. Greater than that, in baptism God claims her for His own, that she might not be in terror on the Day when Christ comes as Judge, but lovingly look up and hail Him as Her Redeemer and King.

This is God’s promise to us in all our baptisms. If King Jesus comes soon, we will undergo a baptism of fire we never could endure on our own. But our God is strong. He is in control. And just as He brought us through the waters of baptism to new life in His Son, He will also bring us through the deathly fire of that Day to eternal life and peace with Him.

Be of good hope. Your sin was judged and destroyed on the cross of your Lord Jesus Christ. In this Advent season, prepare yourselves to relive the coming of your King as the Babe of Bethlehem. And at the same time, keep watch and live prepared to welcome Jesus your King when He comes to receive you into His glory. In His name and by His power, you can stand and look up, for your redemption is drawing near.


Anthony said...

Very VERY good article.

Just happen to come across it by accident. Liked everything you said. I know you have a relationship with our Lord Jesus

I have a web site called"Daniel". Feel free to use what God has shared with me.
God bless

St. Blogwen said...

Hi, Anthony, I tried to leave this comment on your blog, but the word verification feature seems to be broken. So I'll put it here, instead.

I visited your Daniel blog due to your kind comment above, but now I'm a little confused. In today's post you question today's popular Rapture teachings-- as do I, if you're talking about typical Left Behind ideas. And you quote 2 Peter 2:1 against false prophets. Again, this is a much-needed warning for today's Church. But then you link to my sermon on Luke 21:5-36, which you yourself praised. Did you want people to read it as an example of something GOOD to say on the subject of the Last Days? Or, have you changed your mind and decided that what I wrote is false prophecy, tantamount to denying the Lord who bought me? If you think I'm being unfaithful to Scripture in any way, let me know so I can examine my writing and myself in the light of the Word and be corrected. But if you meant my work to be an antidote to false Rapture teaching, I would like gently to point out that putting my link in among the dire warnings is ambiguous and could lead your readers to a wrong conclusion. Not want you wanted, I hope?

Yours in Christ,
St. Blogwen