Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
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Prepared for the End

Mark 13:24-37

 We have come full circle.  We have returned again to the beginning of our Christian year.  The Christian year is a useful tool for forming our worship.  Through its six seasons, it retells the story of our faith and God’s work of salvation, and we are back to the first:  Advent.  Advent means “coming.”  

In the context of our Christian calendar, it has a dual meaning.  On the one hand, it most certainly refers to Jesus’ first coming as a baby in Bethlehem.  It’s a season of preparation for Christmas.  But that is not the only meaning, and I would argue it’s not even the most important meaning.  Advent is also a season of preparation for Christ’s return in glory, the day the Scriptures call as the Day of the Lord.  

Our Gospel lesson this morning is part of the Olivet Discourse, named because Jesus was speaking to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, which is a hill to the east of Jerusalem, looking out across the Hinnom Valley toward the Temple.  Earlier that day, the disciples, who were mostly from small villages in Galilee, were awestruck by the sight of the Temple, which was far and away the most impressive structure in Judea.  But when they tried to point out the magnificence of it to Jesus, he told them that very soon it would all be destroyed to the extent that not one stone would be left on top of another.  

This startling prophecy leads to a discussion about the Day of the Lord, Christ’s return, and the signs that would accompany it.  The signs are very typical for what one would expect as signs of the end:  Wars, earthquakes, famine, persecution, betrayal, sacrilege, false prophets and false messiahs, your typical end-of-the-world kind of stuff.

You know, I have a certain reluctance to preach on the “end of the world.”  Not because I don’t believe in Christ’s return, but because I worry that preaching on it makes me look like some kind of “religious nut.”  I guess the image that comes to my mind when I think about preaching on the end is the disheveled sidewalk prophet with his “The end is near” sign.  But it’s not as if Christians are the only ones who believe that the world is going to come to an end.  Obviously, there’s all the nonsense out there about the Mayan Calendar and the prophecies of Nostradamus and such.  But even many people who firmly believe in science and a scientific view of the world agree that someday, somehow the world is going to end.  It might be a new ice age or global warming.  It might be a polar shift or a massive volcanic eruption. It might come from

outer space:  A comet or asteroid or a “coronal mass ejection.”  Or it could be as simple as nuclear war.  

I think most people believe that one way or another, at some time or another, the world is going to end, at least the world as we know it.  What’s different about us is our understanding of what the “end of the world” means.  We don’t really believe in the “end” of the world.  We believe in the return of Christ.  And we believe that when he returns, this world will not be destroyed, but it will be renewed.  It will be transformed into a new creation.  That’s what sets us apart from everyone else in our understanding of “the end.”  It’s not an end; it’s a new beginning.

Jesus said that his return is an absolute certainty.  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not.”  To Jesus, it was more certain than the sun coming up tomorrow that one day he would return.  And if it’s that certain, the only wise thing for us to do is to be prepared for it.

Now the first question most people ask is When?  And there are no shortage of people who have opinions about when.  Back in May, that Harold Camping fellow told us all that Christ was coming back on May 22nd.  It didn’t happen.  So he told us it would be on October 22nd.  Again, it didn’t happen.  And plenty of others have weighed in with their opinions.  And so far, they’ve all been wrong.

Not that it should be any surprise.  Jesus told us that even he did not know when it would happen.  That might seem odd to think that Jesus, God in human flesh, did not know something.  But the Bible makes it clear that when Jesus took on human flesh in the Incarnation, he laid aside the unlimited use of his divine power so that he might truly be human.  And part of that means that there is at least this one thing that he does not know.  

And it wouldn’t be good for us to know.  If we had a “roadmap of the future,” that would only hinder our faith.  It would be tempting to “take it easy” if we knew Christ’s return was very far off.  And it would be equally tempting to just “make a show” of faith if we knew it was soon.  

Jesus did give us one positively identifiable sign:  The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  And just as Jesus said, “this generation,” the generation he was speaking to, lived to see that destruction, only forty years later in 70 AD.  

That may seem like a problem to some.  After all, if a sign of the end is the destruction of the Temple, and that was 2000 years ago, shouldn’t the end have come by now?  Some people even think that the Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt and destroyed again before the end.  But one of the things to understand about prophecy is that prophecies are often linked by type, not by sequence.  The destruction of the Temple was emblematic of the kind of things that would happen before the end. 

Many of the signs Jesus mentioned:  wars, famines, quakes, persecution, etc, are things that happen very frequently.  And I think they are meant to serve as constant reminders that the return of Christ is always imminent.  I think Jesus identified the destruction of the Temple as a sign so that we would know that from that moment on, his return was always imminent.  It could happen at any time.

The only reasonable response to that knowledge is to live each day as a day of preparation for meeting Jesus, our King.  Jesus told us a little parable here to that effect.  It’s like a man going on a long trip.  He leaves his servants in charge of his affairs and tells the gatekeeper to be watchful.  

“Don’t let the Master find you sleeping when he comes back!”  “Sleeping” was a way of saying unprepared or living according to the ways of the world rather than the ways of God.  Be watchful at all times, even if he comes back in the evening, or at midnight, or before dawn, or at daybreak.  Those were the four watches of the night.  In the first century, traveling at night was very dangerous.  No one would expect a person to arrive at night.  Maybe that’s Jesus’ way of giving us another warning:  His return may come at a time when it is not expected.  Every time we hear about war or an earthquake or some such thing, there’s always someone saying it’s a sign of the end.  Maybe there won’t be any such warning before Jesus’ return.

But while he’s gone, we have important work to do.  We are the stewards, the caretakers, of the Kingdom of God on earth.  It’s up to us to see that the work of God is happening in this world.  We must be vigilant about doing the work of the Kingdom.  

That’s not easy to do.  It’s not easy to be diligent.  It’s not easy to be watchful, especially when we have no idea when Christ is returning.  If you were at work, and someone said, “I just talked to the boss.  He’s down the street.  He’ll be here in less than 10 minutes.”  It would be pretty easy to “look busy” for 10 minutes, right?  But what if they said, “He’s stuck in traffic.  Who knows how long he’ll be.”  Then it would be a lot

more difficult to “look busy.”  There is nothing easy about being vigilant, especially when we don’t know if Christ will return in a week, a year, or 1000 years.  

But maybe it’s better to look at it from a different perspective.  Even if “the world” doesn’t come to an end for another 1000 years, this much is certain, “our world” will come to an end much sooner.  Human life is fragile.  I can’t begin to count the times when it seemed that death came too quickly.  People didn’t have time to get ready.  Loved ones didn’t have time to prepare themselves for it.  We simply don’t know how long we have in this world.  

So only vigilance will do.  Some people see the vast uncertainty of the future as a reason to fear.  Others see it as a reason to forget about it all and live it up right now.  I don’t think either approach is wise.  I think the only wise approach is to be diligent, to do all we can to finish each day’s work.  

We should not put off the things that matter.  We should not put off having a right relationship with God.  We should not put off having right relationships with each other.  We should not “let the sun go down on our anger,” as the Scriptures say.  And we should not put off sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  If we truly believe that the gospel is a message of peace and salvation, we should not put off sharing it with our neighbors.  Who knows when their world might end?  

We have to live with uncertainty.  We have no other choice.  We are not able to see the future, no matter what Nostradamus or Harold Camping might lead you to believe.  We can only treat today as the most important day we have to be right with God and right with each other.  We can only treat today as a day to be awake, to be busy with the work of the Master, and to be ready for his return.

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