Read Luke 21:25-36
Christians, throughout history, have been concerned with both the afterlife and the end times. What happens when we die? When will we be resurrected? When will Jesus come again? What will it be like when that happens?
Some take a literal view of prophecy and apocalyptic writing in scripture whereas others take a symbolic view. There are premillennialists, postmillennialists, amillennialists, dispensationalists, those that believe in the rapture, those that believe Christ will return in their lifetime, those that believe in a spiritual resurrection, those that believe in a bodily resurrection. It’s a minefield! What are we to believe?
I once heard a well-known preacher say, and I quote, “It is okay to trash the earth because God’s going to make a new one anyway.” Is that right? We can do what we like to the environment and this world doesn’t matter?
I once heard an old preacher, when I was young, say he believed Christ was coming back in his lifetime. This week, on the radio, I heard a minister say the same thing. How do they know? Did I miss the memo?
Not so long ago Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins made a lot of money, and I mean, a LOT of money through their ‘Left Behind’ franchise which even included a film starring Nicholas Cage – a series of books where airline pilots were raptured (taken up into heaven) leaving the non-raptured passengers to plummet to their depths. I read a few of the books. They were an exciting read. Will God really do that? Will God really let people die in horrific ways to let the ‘elite’ ascend to their spiritual bodies? Some certainly think so. In one of the congregations that I led, a married couple wrote letters to all their friends to read after they had been raptured so that all their non-Christian friends would know why and where they had gone. Really? People do that?
Many of our hymns have a specific view of the return of Christ. For example, take the hymn, How Great Thou Art, where we sing in the final verse:
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art!
I heard, only this week, the commonly held view that this world in which we live is only temporary and that our ‘real’ home is a spiritual heaven. So our home is not here but somewhere else? I don’t remember reading that in the Bible. Jesus was resurrected with a physical body; different, but physical. Surely it will be the same for us? Won’t it?
My own theology
Since becoming a Christian, as a teenager, my own faith has changed. My faith has been a journey and my ideas and thoughts about Jesus and the Kingdom of God have developed over time. You see, as a baby Christian, my faith was built on all sorts of things – on doctrines or teaching, on ways of doing things. But these were all signs – things that pointed to who Jesus was.
For example, my faith was in the Bible; it was based on specific ideas about life and the afterlife; it was formed in a specific church context or style of worship. All these were bricks in the wall of my faith, and I defended them, sometimes vehemently. I was worried that if you knocked out those bricks then I would lose my faith. But they weren’t God. It was as if they were the sign to a place but not the place itself. For example, imagine standing under the sign that says “Welcome to Smith’s Parish” and defending it, protecting it, keeping it clean and polishing it, and not experiencing all that Smith’s Parish has to offer?! That would be bonkers wouldn’t it? Well, it can be the same with faith.
It took a long time, finally ending in trauma, for me to let go and let every brick in the wall of my faith be knocked down. It was scary. I was scared that if you took those bricks of my faith away then I would lose my faith completely, however, the opposite was true, because what was left was Jesus Christ and I – as many have before me and bear witness – discovered, that he is my fortress, my rock, and that my faith can never be shaken. Praise God!
However, things can creep back into our lives to retake centre stage to become things on which our faith depends. It can be buildings, services, doctrines, traditions, structures, anything! We humans like to lean on such things, and I confess that, thinking and reflecting on this talk, I wondered (as we will discover) if I hadn’t, again, in my views about God’s Kingdom, been building a new wall on which I was trusting.
So where do we go from here?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent means ‘arrival’ and in our annual re-telling of the Story of Jesus, we spend four weeks awaiting the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem, but we also await the full arrival of God’s Kingdom – known as the second coming.
Our Bible Reading today was an excerpt from a longer discourse by Jesus about the second coming, interwoven with the imminent destruction of the temple. Jesus uses a special kind of speaking called prophetic or apocalyptical language – drawing on apocalyptic imagery from the prophets – such as one like the Son of Man in the book of Daniel.
But what does it really tell us about the end times?
Now and not yet
As human beings we don’t like ambiguity or paradox. We want our faith to be firm, solid, undoubting, and unshakeable. If our faith is tied up with traditions, structures, leaders, or even specific doctrines then when those get shaken, it shakes our faith. Our faith must not be in the things we know about Jesus Christ, it must be in Jesus Christ. The problem is, those things about Jesus, look like Jesus.
So, regarding the end times, I suggest we hold lightly to doctrines, ideas, and traditions and hold on to what we actually know. For example, we know we live in what we call the ‘now and not yet’.
Firstly, we know that we can meet Jesus in the here and now. In the midst of suffering – “the kingdom of God is near” and we currently “stand before the Son of Man” and we are able to be “redeemed” now? But, secondly, we know that God’s kingdom has not fully come. We still pray, “Your kingdom come.” We wouldn’t need to pray the Lord’s Prayer if God’s kingdom had come in all its fullness; and we look forward to the day when God’s kingdom will fully come.
Now and not yet.
I am an optimist. I am a glass-half-full kind of person. I still hope that the world will be fully redeemed, fully restored, and renewed; and I know that through Christ, I am personally called to be part of that redemption, restoration, and renewal of the world, however, the world doesn’t seem to be becoming a ‘better’ place. In the last century we’ve had two world wars and right now we are in the grip of a world-wide pandemic. And in the face of Coronavirus and the potential threat of Omicron (the new variant) the words of Jesus ring with a new chill in my spine:
“For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.”
So, perhaps my theology needs to change again. Does the coming of God’s kingdom need to match the world becoming a better place as I once believed?
Was that idea a brick in the wall of my faith I had been re-building?
God’s Kingdom is coming!
What if God’s Kingdom is not dependent on the world becoming a better place? I certainly believe that somehow, when God’s Kingdom fully comes, it will be a time when, as John writes in the Book of Revelation:
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
And we know and can see that God’s kingdom is coming. We see it in the lives of people that are turned around and transformed, however, God’s Kingdom doesn’t only come when things are good and right with the world; God’s kingdom comes in the midst of suffering and pain, and somehow, when that suffering and pain increases, so does God’s kingdom. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “where sin increases, grace increases” (paraphrased). Perhaps this applies to the world too?
For example, think about Maximillion Kolbe. You may have heard the story of the catholic priest in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. After the escape of a prisoner, ten men were to be punished – executed – by being locked in a bunker and deprived of food and water. They were to suffer a horrific and painful death. When this was announced, one of the men called out, “My wife! my children!” Maximililon Kolbe took the man’s place.
That is an example of God’s kingdom coming, right there, in the most hideous place of pain, death, and destruction imaginable. The light of Maximillion Kolbe shone bright against the backdrop pure evil.
Today, we find ourselves in a broken, broken world, but God’s Kingdom is coming. Jesus is coming and the good news is that you can meet him in the here and now, however, the truth I’ve come to realise is that when the brokenness increases, God’s healing increases; when the pain increases, the comfort increases; when the evil increases, the good increases.
Therefore, when the things of this world feel overwhelming, hold onto the words of Jesus from today’s Bible reading:
“Stand up and raise your heads!”
“Be alert, praying that you may have strength!”
We don’t know when God’s Kingdom will fully come. We don’t know when or how, but we won’t give up preaching it, and bringing it, and living it, until it does come. We are first and foremost the people of Jesus Christ, his ambassadors, his agents, his church to a broken and pain-filled world – called to bring his light and hope, to introduce people to the one that can change their lives now and forever.
We don’t know what we will face over the coming weeks and months. Right now we’ve come up for air and life feels normal again. But for some of us, we are already feeling the pain of this new variant. It’s very real; very close to home; it’s touching our lives.
Therefore, we must stand up and raise our heads. We must be alert and pray for strength. Why? Because God’s kingdom is coming.