Monday, March 23, 2015

A New Kingdom - It comes with Birth Pains

Preached on Sunday March 22, 2015

Scripture readings: 2 Peter 3:3-16; Matthew 24:4-31, 36-44

Various Unrelated Photos that Are Signs or Warnings
There is a friend of mine who is a faithful church elder and a great Christian and he’s lots of fun. He takes Christian fellowship, and the Christian virtues, and prayer, and the Bible absolutely seriously. He takes the truth of the return of Jesus very seriously, but he doesn’t take all the talk and the books about the return of Jesus seriously. More than once David has said to me, “What the Bible tells us is that our side wins.” I have to agree with him.

I’ve been re-reading bits of the first systematic plan of the return of Christ that I read when I was a young Christian. It is the book “The Late Great Planet Earth” and its author is Hal Lindsey. The book and the author were famous. I devoured all his published books when I was in college. I confess that I loved his ability to put so many complicated details into a comprehensive and comprehensible form.

But at the same time I began to read other similar books full of comprehensible and very detailed plans. I found that the plans were different: sometimes only in little ways, sometimes in bigger ways.

So about forty years ago, I prayerfully and studiously decided that simple was best. I believe that we have made Jesus’ answers about his coming, and the rest of what people call Bible prophesy, more complicated than it is meant to be. I believe that this is because the experts, and the people who love the experts, read so much into all of it.
The disciples asked Jesus two questions. One was about the destruction of the temple. The other question was about the coming of Jesus in glory, which will be the end of the age of fallenness: the end of the age of rebellion, and darkness, and suffering. About the coming of Jesus in glory, the disciples wanted to know the signs. They wanted Jesus to give them, in advance, some sort of warning signals, or attention signals, to give them a heads up so that they would be ready for him.

Jesus gave them a long answer. Most of his long answer is really more about what their mission and purpose should be, while they waited for him to come in glory.

It’s about our mission and purpose too, while we wait for him to return, no matter what happens in the meantime. Jesus’ answer included some details that would be clear to anyone living in the Holy Land in the first century. And that’s our problem. We’re not first century people. That is our main handicap in understanding Jesus’ answer.
But think about this. When the question turned to signs, Jesus gave them only one sign of his coming. I mean, the question was about a sign and he only mentions one sign by name. He only uses the word “sign” to describe one single thing. This is what he says: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Matthew 24:30:31) That’s the only sign of his coming, according to the simple words of Jesus.

Notice that, according to Jesus, we will all be there when that happens. When everyone sees Jesus coming, and when everyone hears the trumpet call, then all who love and trust and wait for Jesus (whether in heaven or on the earth, whether living or dead) will be gathered together to join with Jesus when he returns to change the world.
Paul wrote about his confidence of being caught up with Jesus, if Jesus came during Paul’s lifetime: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

When the Lord comes with lots of noise and glory; that’s when the dead will rise and that’s when we who are living on this earth will meet him. Paul wrote about himself and his friends, “we who are alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)

The Lord’s plan is simple. It’s all one big thing. The world is what it is and what it will be until Jesus comes. It will be what it is, but going from bad to worse until he comes. Jesus said, “Don’t be deceived. Don’t be alarmed.” That is because, in this world, as Jesus describes it, we need to beware of the dangerous and deceitful thought that says, “It can’t get any worse.”

The coming of Jesus and our being caught up with him to join him in his return to change the world will be one, single, great event. The people of Jesus, living and dead will all be part of the great victory dance: dancing with Jesus in the end zone with the whole world looking on and taking it all in. Notice that Jesus and Paul agree and they make this very basic and simple.

I tell you. I love to make things complicated. Some of you are learning about this. I do it because that is when I tell myself that I finally understand everything. But then I get all wound up and crazy and that doesn’t do any good. Then I get tired and I end up leaving lots of things untended and undone; just like Jesus tells us not to do. So I like to keep Jesus and his coming simple. It’s beautiful.

For some reason the multiplication of signs and details make the other versions sound very knowledgeable and convincing. If it takes so much study and so many brain cells to spell out the plan we are tempted to think it must be right. When I was reading these books (in 1971 through about 1973) I knew of quite a few guys who were planning to go to seminary, but the timing of the plan in “The Late Great Planet Earth” clearly suggested to a lot of us that Jesus was coming forty years after the founding of the nation of Israel, which happened in 1948. That would set Jesus’ return at 1988. Subtract seven years from that for the rapture, if the rapture happened before Jesus returns and not during his return (the way Hal Lindsey and many others teach), and that would make 1981 the end of our time as Christians on this earth.

At least a couple of these guys decided that it wasn’t worth it, spending so much time preparing for the ministry, when there would be so little time left to serve in the ministry. So they gave up their sense of calling, and maybe they were right to do so. Maybe the Lord wanted them to serve him another way.

Jesus didn’t call anything else a sign: only his actual appearance. He said that no one knows when it will happen, except his Father. It’s as if God is very humble, and childlike, and loves surprises. He even likes to surprise himself and to be surprised by himself.
In the Trinity, the Son is a servant and a servant is willing to be surprised. It’s the job of a servant to never be surprised by surprises. In the life that the Son gives to us, we are servants. It’s not a bad thing to be surprised. And God enjoys it so much, so why don’t we just let him do it that way?

There was the question about the destruction of the temple. I believe there is a relatively simple way to look at this: a simple way with a long answer that I will give you now.

It has a relationship with the idea of birth pains. How many birth pains does it take to birth a baby? Do you think a mother has ever successfully counted her birth pains? I wonder: how many birth pains should it take for God to complete his purpose for this world; before he makes a new world?

Peter, in his second letter, said that people will make fun of how long it takes. They will use the delay as an excuse for not believing.
The destruction of the temple is something oddly like a birth pain, especially if we expand it slightly to apply to all the desecrations of the temple: every crisis that made the Temple unholy. Jesus only hinted at the destruction of the temple, but he did talk about a strange thing from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, called the “abomination of desolation”. (Daniel 9:27) Eugene Peterson calls this the “monster of desecration”.

For us, the shedding of blood in a church would desecrate it. That church would have to be rededicated, or re-consecrated, or re-blessed. Desecration makes the holy unholy.
The Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt for the first time when the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon and Persia. A couple hundred years later, the Greeks conquered the Holy Land, and one of the Greek kings decided to make the Jews into Greeks, and he decided to make them worship the Greek gods.

This king’s name was Antiochus, and he actually claimed to be the incarnation of Zeus, the king of the gods. He conquered Jerusalem in 167 BC and set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple. The statue looked a lot like Antiochus. Antiochus tried to make the Jews sacrifice pigs on the altar of Zeus. The Jews rebelled and rededicated the Temple and, after a lot of fighting, they beat the Greeks. The abomination of desolation was undone.

The Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC, and the victorious Roman general Pompey insisted on going inside the holy of holies, the inner room that represented the presence of God. Only the high priest could enter that room (and only one day a year on top of that) without making it unholy, so there would have been the need to rededicate the desecration and the desolation of the Temple after that.

When the Jewish radicals rebelled against the Romans and started the war that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, again, they started their rebellion by killing the high priest, who was too friendly to the Romans. That was in the year 66 AD.
They killed him inside the temple. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about this and he called it the abomination that makes desolate. The holy place had been made unholy again. The Temple had to be reconsecrated.

The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. They took their military standards that held the image of the divine Caesar into the remains of the temple, and they offered sacrifices to Caesar there: worshipping a man as a god in the Temple. This time the Temple was not reconsecrated.

In the second century, the Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city. The emperor Hadrian had his people build a temple dedicated to Jupiter, the king of the gods, on the Temple Mount. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the temple of Jupiter was torn down, and the Temple Mount was used as a dump. When the Muslim’s invaded they hauled the trash away and built the Dome of the Rock.

Between the prophet Daniel and the disciples, the Temple had been desecrated, more than once, by humans who claimed to be stronger than the God whose Temple stood in Jerusalem. Since then, this has happened on the site of the Temple quite a number of times. Each time it has happened, it has caused someone, somewhere, great distress and anguish. Many times it has happened in war and with a staggering destruction of life, and hope, and beauty.

These are all birth pains. In our fallen world it takes a long, long labor of birth pains before the time for a new world comes. And yet, Jesus says, “Keep watch!” (Matthew 24:42)

It’s very simple. There is harassment, persecution, evil, lovelessness, danger, injustice, cruelty, violence, humans setting up humans and governments higher than God, and it goes on and it gets worse, until Jesus comes, for all the world to see and hear. Then Jesus will bring the new world.
Jesus’ warning about the abomination tells us that the church will be around to see people and governments setting themselves up in the place of God many times. The lesson about getting away from the places where people are playing God is that, no matter what outrages are committed in this world, if we listen to Jesus, if we are faithful to him, we will get through it. He will take care of us, and we (and the church) will survive to stand and see him come in glory to make the earth new.

Each birth pain is outrageous. Each one hurts. Each one may hurt millions and tens of millions of people, and more. Jesus says: “Don’t be alarmed. Don’t panic! Don’t act like it’s the end of the world.”

I remember my dad telling me many times: it’s not the end of the world.
To avoid being alarmed, when Jesus warns us against being alarmed, Christians seem to have created the ability to combine two strange substances: joy and calculation. Christians live in a state of joyful calculation so much of the time. I believe this comes from reading too much into what is relatively simple. Some people count earthquakes, and wars, and calculate their increase, or their rate of acceleration, in order to create a sign that Jesus is on the threshold.

When Jesus said not to be alarmed at the birth pains, we manage to make our calculations into a sign, even though Jesus didn’t say that the elements of our calculation were a sign. We claim we are not alarmed, but we make our joyful calculations, and so we get around the warnings of Jesus.

I recently heard about some cases, in the Pacific northwest, where school kids have been told not to wear crosses to school. We are living in America, where we have freedom of religion and freedom of expression. We have the right to resist, and go to court, and have our representatives make laws to remedy stuff like this. But I sense outrage and not love in this.
It can be done in love and it should be done in love. Where cross wearers are outraged they are not acting like Christians. They are showing alarm at the birth pains just as Jesus told us not to do.

Jesus said, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) Jesus warns us not to be deceived. (Matthew 24:4) But here is a case where the world is deceiving us and making us not the people who stand firmly in the love of Jesus. And then, again, it also proves that we have not really stopped being alarmed. We have only disguised our alarm.

Sometimes Christians will talk about being taken up to be with Jesus before the trouble gets too tough. But why should any Christian want that? Why except for the fact that we don’t want to get hurt. We don’t want to suffer.

Some of the families of the Egyptian Christians whose relatives were recently killed in Libya were thankful for one of the things that the ISIS executioners did. The people who recorded the execution did not mute the shouts of the Christians, about to be killed, praising the name of Jesus. Their families at home were thankful for this.

That is real Christianity. What we call “The Great Tribulation” will be a great honor. Paul would agree, because this is what he wrote to his friends in Philippi, “It has been granted to you, on behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29)

Remember, this was on behalf of Christ, who suffered for our sins on the cross. His suffering is our salvation. It also “leaves us with an example that we should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21) Of course it is a gift to suffer for Jesus.

I don’t think I’ve made this too complicated. But I’ve said more than enough for now.
We live in a world full of birth pains. Those pains have been going on for a long time. It is a long, long labor. It is not a labor for one child, but for a whole new world where everyone will be there by patience, and by repentance, and by endurance. It will be a safe world at last, shaped by the timing of the Father, and by the servanthood, and the cross, and the resurrection of the Son.

Don’t be alarmed. Don’t grow less in love. Don’t let your love grow cold. Don’t be deceived into losing your Jesus-way of thinking. Don’t lose your Jesus-say of responding to the world, and to others, in patience and love.

Keep reading Jesus’ long answer to the end and see the simple way he wants you to be ready. Be ready to wait. Be ready to put what Jesus gives you to good use. Be ready to live in a world that doesn’t love you and makes it hard for you. And especially be ready to care for the people who seem to count the least, because those are the people whom Jesus calls his brothers and sisters.

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