SERMON: Things may get tough, but it’s not the end of the world
Prayer of the Day
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a] and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
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My sermon today is called, “Things may get tough, but it’s not the end of the world.”
For about the past 200 years, there has been a thriving industry in the church and in Christian theology. It involves a focus on the end times. It includes teaching about things like the return of Christ, a coming period of tribulation that will fall upon the earth, the Antichrist, the millennium, the final judgment, and the final states of heaven and hell.
People have been attracted to these teachings and to those who have said that the Bible is clear about all of these matters — that if we read it correctly we will discover that God has revealed many details about the future and the end of the world as we know it. It is part of our human nature to be curious about the future, and these teachers have taken advantage of that by developing whole systems of doctrine, elaborate end times schemes, charts and outlines detailing exactly what is going to happen and when and to whom.
There has been a fascination with the book of Revelation, with prophecies, and with trying to figure out how current events might fit into God’s plan for the end.
This became extremely popular around the time I had a spiritual awakening as a teenager. A man named Hal Lindsey, for example, wrote a book called “The Late, Great Planet Earth” that purported to explain how God’s prophecies were being fulfilled in the 1970s. I attended a Bible college that was well known for holding a view of theology called “dispensationalism.” This theological system teaches that the Bible reveals that world history is made up of several different ages, and that God works in special ways in each age to accomplish his will.
Dispensationalist teachers believed that we in our day were coming to the end of what they called “the church age” and that the next thing on God’s clock was an event called the “rapture” of the church, when Jesus would come back and take believers home to heaven while the rest of people would remain here on earth to endure seven years of tribulation. After that terrible time, Jesus would return in power and glory, defeat the Antichrist and the kingdoms of this world at the battle of Armageddon, and set up a thousand year kingdom called the millennium. Satan would be bound during those 1000 years, and there would be universal peace. At the end of the 1000 years, Satan would be set free, there would be a final battle that Jesus will win, and then God will create a new heavens and new earth where we will be with God for all eternity.
A popular series of fiction books called the “Left Behind” series imagined how all of this might take place, and the teaching of dispensationalism became even more widespread.
I abandoned dispensationalism a long time ago. Ultimately, I found that its teaching is not really true to the biblical record. If you ever want to talk about that, I’d be happy to have that discussion. I only bring it up today because our Gospel lesson for today is one of the passages that those who focus on the end times bring up when they teach.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray Jesus teaching about things to come during the last week of his ministry. One day Jesus and his disciples were near the Temple in Jerusalem and the twelve were admiring it. In response, Jesus told them that some days of trouble were coming in which the Temple would be destroyed. Jesus goes on to talk about how he will come on the clouds and he says that’s when the disciples should lift up their heads, for their redemption is near.
Without going into detail, let me just say that, in my view, this passage is not about the end of the world at all. It is about the first generation of Christians, who went through a time of trouble that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in the year 70AD. Jesus foresaw this coming, and he warned his disciples to be ready and he encouraged them to be faithful during this season of distress.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. After all, the world has been filled with times of trouble ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, and the words of warning and encouragement he gave to the twelve that day are words that can help us in our own seasons of distress.
The disciples, like all good Jewish people, were proud of their Temple. It was the center of Jerusalem and Jewish life. It had been destroyed once by the Babylonians, but now it was rebuilt and more glorious than ever before. It was the great monument to God’s presence in their midst and they built their very identity around it.
This is natural to all of us as human beings. We build institutions to order our lives and give meaning to them, and we treasure and rely on them. This past week we saw our American system of government in action, and regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the election, for over two centuries now we have put our trust in the system to keep our lives stable and secure. This church building and the history of this congregation is an institution upon which many rely. Whatever institution we’re talking about, we depend on them to give structure, order, continuity, and stability to our lives generation after generation.
Second, even the most solid of this world’s institutions change and may even come to an end. (21:6)
Jesus’ next words must have shocked the disciples: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” He was warning them of something that must have seemed inconceivable: soon this sturdy, magnificent temple would lay in rubble. If that could happen, then the whole foundation of their life must be shaky!
Things like this do happen don’t they? Just fifteen years ago, we witnessed the terror attacks on 9/11, when two of the tallest and most majestic buildings in the world came crashing down, and in many ways life has never been the same. The economic collapse of 2008 shook the ground under many people’s lives. They lost their jobs, their homes, their security, life as they knew it. We never know, do we? We always pray for God’s protection and hope for the best and do the best we can to guarantee the stability and security of our lives, but sometimes the earthquake shakes the ground beneath our feet, sometimes the floodwaters overwhelm us, sometimes the tornado blows our lives to pieces.
Third, Jesus warns us that deceivers will try to convince us that these troubles portend the end of the world. (21:7-8)
Back in the mid-1800s, at about the time this congregation was founded, a prosperous farmer in northeastern New York who was also a Baptist lay preacher and student of the Bible named William Miller became convinced that Jesus was going to return in or near 1843. His teaching spread, and eventually over 5 million copies of his publications were distributed. Thousands of people began to look for these things to take place. Many dates were proposed and finally Oct. 22, 1844 became fixed as the day when Jesus would come back and the world would end. When that day came and passed like every other day, it became known as the “Great Disappointment.” The Millerite movement shattered into a thousand different sects.
My brothers and sisters, whenever we go through troubles, especially on a large scale, that’s when the prophecy teachers come out of the woodwork. Jesus warned us about that. Don’t listen to them! They’ll lead us astray.
Instead we need to listen to Jesus, who tells us these three things we must remember:
- This age will be characterized by ongoing trouble and distress (9-11)
These verses describe what the world is like in every age, all the time. There are times when these troubles intensify, as during a world war or a widespread economic collapse, but this world is always facing trials, and that has nothing to do with the end of the world.
- Followers of Jesus will not be immune from these troubles (12-19)
Christians suffer just like everyone else. The disciples suffered along with all the Jewish people in the troubles of the first century, and it has been the same ever since. In these verses we read about persecution, troubles with family members and friends, as well as the natural disasters and wars that characterize the world.
- God will be with us and we must look to him for wisdom and strength to endure (12-19)
God, does however, promise to be with his children and to help them as they go through these troubles. We read here about how he will give us wisdom. He will give us the right words to speak when we need them. He promises protection and the strength to endure.
One of the great heroes of the faith in the 20th century was a little Dutch woman by the name of Corrie ten Boom. Corrie’s family were devoted Christians who loved their neighbors, and their home became a refuge for Jewish people and others fleeing the Nazis during WWII.
One day they were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo. Corrie and her sister Betsy spent ten months spent 10 months in three different German prison camps, the last being Ravensbruck concentration camp near Berlin. Betsy died there, but Corrie survived.
Realizing her deliverance was God’s gracious gift, she dedicated herself to telling her story and the truth that Jesus is the Victor no matter how much we suffer for his sake. She became known around the world for her faith, her spirit of forgiveness, and her testimony of the love of God. Her book, The Hiding Place, became a bestseller and was made into a movie.
Corrie ten Boom once said:
If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest.
She also said:
With Jesus, even in our darkest moments the best remains and the very best is yet to be…
These weren’t just clichés to Corrie ten Boom. These encouragements may sound clever, but they came out of great suffering. She suffered much and watched others suffer a great deal also. She knew the darkest moments and in those moments God gave her the wisdom and strength to persevere.
May God grant us the same blessing. Amen.