Sunday, November 27, 2011

Last Things First

Texts:    Isaiah 64:1-9;  Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

    WHAT IS OUR HOPE as Christians?  What is the goal and object of our faith?

    To hear some people talk, you'd think it was to make us nicer, more fulfilled individuals, with better marriages, families, and careers in this life.  And with higher self-esteem, too.  In such an understanding of Christianity, the Baby in the manger at Bethlehem is a nice encouragement, but the Son of Man coming again to judge all humanity is not to be thought of at all.  After all, in this world we're taught to put first things first.  But the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, isn't interested in the teaching of this world.  After he greets the saints, about the first subject he mentions is the second coming of their Lord and ours, Jesus Christ.  Hear what he says in verses 7 and 8:

    . . . [Y]ou do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The church in Corinth was eagerly waiting for Jesus Christ to be revealed.  And so they stood in the tradition of the true people of God, for this is the object of our Christian faith: that the great day of the Lord will surely come, when Christ will return as King, the heavens and the earth will be made new, and we will enjoy the kingdom of God in all its perfection.  These things-- The end of the age, the second coming of Christ, the Judgement, and so on-- are known as the Last Things.  And St. Mark, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, and all the New Testament writers follow their Master Jesus in urging us Christians to keep Last Things first.

        But why? 

    Because when we keep our focus on the second coming of Christ, we keep our eyes on God's goal for all creation, and when we keep our eyes on God's goal for all creation, we maintain and strengthen our hope in Christ, even in the midst of the troubles and worries of this world.

    And we need hope in this world.  Not the hope that consists in wishful thinking, but the firm and sure hope that depends upon a promise made by Someone we can trust now and into all eternity.  In our Gospel reading from St. Mark, our Lord Jesus declares that the time will come when

    . . . men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man in this discourse.  And thus the disciples know that He is the coming King the prophet Daniel saw in his vision of the Last Things in Daniel 7.  But more than that, the title "Son of Man" tells us that it will be His own human Self, Immanuel, the Child born of Mary who rose from the tomb, who will sit on the throne of God.  And He is God, for the angels are His, and it is His to command them to "gather his elect" from wherever they may be.  That's us, who by the grace of God, have been called by the Holy Spirit into faith in our crucified and risen Savior, all of us in every time and place who have been washed clean by His blood.

    But not all of humanity shares this hope.  Not everyone knows that their eternal happiness depends on their keeping Last Things first. 

    Some don't believe there will be any Last Things at all.  I heard an interview the other night with a man they called an expert on the subject of the Apocalypse.  He admitted that cultures all over the world for the past three thousand years have had prophecies and stories that someday the world as we know it will be destroyed and then made new.  But, he said, all that was false; it was never going to happen.  No, he said, all talk about the end times is just a way for priests and rulers and others in authority to keep people focussed on some future state of perfection, instead of working and maybe fighting and rebelling to make things perfect here and now.

    What do we say to such a man and those who believe like him?  Do we let him undermine our hope, so we stop keeping Last Things first?  He quoted the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, to the effect that it's only some outgrown evolutionary stage that makes people look forward to a end to this age and the birth of one that is new.  Do we tie ourselves in knots trying to prove Richard Dawkins wrong?  There are people who have the gift of apologetics, and God strengthen them as they exercise it.  But there's something even better we can show.  When we speak of the second advent of our Lord and the end of this age, we're not just passing along some gut feeling or old tribal legend.  No, we are quoting the very words of the Son of God.  This Man told His disciples that He would be crucified by the authorities during His next visit to Jerusalem, and that three days later, He would be raised from the dead.  You could say it was inevitable that Jesus would be crucified sooner or later.  But no mere man, not even the wisest and cleverest, can say that He will rise again-- and actually do it.  It is not in the power of any ordinary man to make such a thing happen.

    But Jesus our Lord foretold His resurrection and it did happen, not in myth, not in legend, but in real history, under the authority of a Roman bureaucrat named Pontius Pilate.  When Someone like that tells us that He certainly will return and that by His power death and hell will flee away, you can believe Him.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but His words will never pass away.

    But others, while they may believe this world will end someday, aren't looking forward to it in hope. They can't imagine a better existence than they might achieve in this present age, and the idea of living in fellowship with the Son of God means nothing to them.  Why would they keep Last Things first?  Any second advent of Christ would ruin their whole day!

    And indeed, when we think of our sin, and the judgement to come on the world, how should creatures like us hope and pray for the day of the Lord?  In Isaiah 64 God's people plead that He would come save them in their day of distress.

        Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
               that the mountains would tremble before you!

They look forward to the Lord taking vengeance on His enemies and theirs--

        [C]ome down to make your name known to your enemies
           and cause the nations to quake before you!

But there's a problem.  God's people have been acting like His enemies themselves.  True,

        [the Lord] comes to the help of those who gladly do right,
        who remember your ways.

But Israel has not gladly done right.  They've continued to sin against Him.  "How then," Isaiah asks in behalf of the nation, "can we be saved?"

    What do you do when the One who is your only hope is also the One you most need to fear?  Not because God is some kind of abusive father, but because we have been like adult children who have taken advantage of and robbed and harmed and disgraced Him.  For know this, this passage in Isaiah is not simply about an incident in the history of ancient Israel, it also describes our position before God when we forget Him and go our own way.  In our selfishness and idolatry even our attempts at righteousness are like filthy rags.  How can we who neglect to call on the name of the Lord, who fail to lay hold on God and His goodness find hope in the coming of Christ?  Why should we want to put Last Things first?

    Because the Lord our God is our Father.  He is our Father because like a potter He has formed and made us.  But even more, He is our Father because He has remade us in the image of His Son Jesus Christ.  To cite St. Paul in 1 Corinthians again, thanksgiving can be made for us because of the grace that has been given us in Christ Jesus.  In our sins we were ragged and filthy, we blew away like dried-up leaves.  But in Christ we "have been enriched in every way."  Perhaps not in the material ways this passing world values, but in speaking and knowledge, in ways that build one another up in the faith of the Gospel of Christ.

    Or have we?  This was true of the Corinthians.  Whatever problems they may have had in other areas, they recognised and used the spiritual gifts God had given them.  Paul is saying that God the Father will keep them strong and faithful in the use of these gifts, so they might be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus.

    God has given us gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve Him in the Church as well, till Christ comes.  You do not need to take a spiritual gift inventory to find out what yours is.  Whatever the Holy Spirit is urging you to do, and you know it's the Holy Spirit's urging because it is confirmed by the Word of God, do it!

    This is what our Lord means by saying in Mark that we're like servants a master going on a trip has put in charge of various jobs to do while he's away.  So let's do them!  Let's put Last Things first by loving our neighbor with food and clothing and shelter.  Let us tell them that Jesus died for them just like He did for us, and invite them to church where they can hear the saving good news of eternal life in Him.  Let us do our daily work in ways that benefit others and glorify God, the Master Workman over all.  Let us live holy and gracious lives in the midst of this perverted and wicked world, so that when Jesus comes again we will have no cause to feel ashamed.

    Jesus says, "Keep watch!"  So live the life He has given you on earth to His praise and glory, always with an eye open and an ear tuned to His footstep at the door.  He may come tomorrow; He may for His good purpose delay another thousand years.  But it is the promise of Christ's second advent that gives all our work in this world its meaning and gives our earthly existence its hope.  This life is not one endless grind of things going on the way they always have; it has a purpose and a goal.  Christ came into this world as the Baby of Bethlehem to bear our sins and keep God's righteous commands for us the way we never could.  He will come again as the glorious Son of Man to gather His own that we may be with Him forever.

    Live in this blessed hope.  By His Spirit's power, serve Him in all you do.  And always remember to put the Last Things first.

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