Tag: eschatology

Sermon: Working Quietly

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled “Working Quietly” from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13.

Working Quietly

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 NRSV

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.

9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.
12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

A Community Within the Community

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  Those are the words of the Apostle Paul, and they sound very contemporary.  In the run-up to the recent election, lots of solutions, and lots of rhetoric was tossed around concerning government spending and the responsibilities we have a citizens of this country.

Interestingly, Lenin adopted Paul’s words for his idea of communist Russia — “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”  So, Paul sounds right at home in our 21st century political debate.  If you don’t work, you don’t eat.  That would solve a of our federal deficit problems, but unfortunately, that is not what Paul means.  Paul is not speaking to 20th century Russia, or to 21st century America, but rather to a different community, a community that itself was under attack by the government of its day.

Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica, a city he visited only briefly with his traveling companion, Silas.  As was his custom, Paul preached first in the synagogue in Thessalonica.  After all, he was proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews.  But the Jews in Thessalonica didn’t believe Paul.  Some of the Greeks did, and some of the leading women, but the Jews “became jealous” Luke tells us in Acts.

So, they gather some thugs, and the frenzied mob starts searching for Paul and Silas.  Not finding them, they attack Jason’s house.  Jason was a believer who had welcomed Paul and Silas into his home.

It’s interesting that the leaders of the mob shout, “These men who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.”  Even though they recognized that Paul and the followers of Christ had an extraordinary message that changed everything, they still sought to silence them.

The night Jason’s house was attacked, and Jason arrested, Paul and Silas were sent off to Berea for their own safety.  But the church in Thessalonica took root, and with the help of courageous believers like Jason and his family, it flourished.

A Community Looking For A Way Out

But the opposition to Paul, and the attack on Jason’s house were not the only incidents against the Christians in Thessalonica.  After Paul and Silas leave, more trouble sets in.  Now that the Christians have been identified, they become targets of both the Roman government and the Jewish community.

Remember in Acts 17, the protest of the Jews was that “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”

Caught between a political rock and a hard place, the Christians became a persecuted minority within the city.  Because of this persecution, many began to talk about Jesus’ return.  They believed the return of Christ to rule and reign, and to bring judgment on their enemies, was imminent.  They believed it much like the slaves sang the songs of freedom we now call “spirituals.”  They believed there was a better day coming, and prayed for it to come soon.

But what happened in the process was that some were counting so heavily on the immediate return of Christ, they stopped living normal lives.  They quick working, they drew their social circles more tightly around them, and were in danger of becoming what we would call a modern day cult.

So much so that the Apostle Paul feels it is necessary to write them a second letter to outline events that would surround the return of Christ.  And he warns them to “keep away from believers who are living in idleness…”

Paul isn’t warning them about pagans, or Jews, or any other group.  He’s warning the church in Thessalonica about fellow Christians who have gone too far in their anticipation of the return of Christ.

Paul has some advice to those who have quit their jobs, who roam from house to house in idleness, acting like busybodies — I’m not sure what the Greek word is for that but they had the busybodies in the 1st century just like we do in the 21st century.

Paul’s command is to “work quietly and earn your own living.”

The Gospel In Community

But Paul’s words — “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” — sound almost cruel to us today.  We hear Paul speaking to us individually because we have individualized most of the Christian faith today.  But in the first century, Christians were not believers in isolation because they would not have survived.  The New Testament knows nothing about the solitary believer, only those who follow Christ in community.

“But,” someone asks, “what about the Ethiopian official? He was alone when Philip preached to him, and he was baptized alone, and that is the last we heard of him.”  Not exactly.

Because the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship God, and because he was reading the scroll of Isaiah, we have to conclude that he was at least a God-fearer.  God-fearers were foreigners who followed the God of the Jews, the one true God.  They worshipped him in the Temple in Jerusalem when they could, and gathered at places of prayer, like Lydia, when they could not go to Jerusalem.

So, while the Ethiopian is alone, he is headed back home.  After his encounter with Philip, he goes on his way, presumably back to Ethiopia, rejoicing.  One must believe that the Ethiopian takes news of his encounter with Philip back to his homeland, and gathers around him a group that also comes to follow Jesus the Christ.  The evidence of this is the survival of one of the most ancient forms of Christianity in the world.  Legend has it that the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Jerusalem, and is hidden in Ethiopia.

But back to my point.  Christianity began with a band of 12 disciples who followed Jesus.  It grew to the point that over 500 saw at least one appearance of the risen Christ.  It exploded at Pentecost into a community of 3,000 persons.  It flourished as daily these new believers moved from one house to another, eating, praying, singing, and worshipping together.

This community cared for its own, the widows especially.  They fed them, and the forerunners of those we know as deacons today were charged with managing the daily distribution of food.  They had all their goods in common, they sold their property and gave all the money to the community to help others among their ranks. In short, the beginning, growth, and establishment of Christianity all was centered around the community that worshipped Jesus.

Paul Wrote To Strengthen The Community and Accomplish Its Mission

When Paul hears that some in the community at Thessalonica have stopped working, and are idly waiting for the return of Christ, he writes to strengthen the community and get it back to its mission.

Paul tells those who have quit doing what he, Paul, taught them to do, to get back to work.  His specific instruction to them was to “work quietly” so they could “earn their own living” and not to be “weary in doing what is right.”

In other words, the Christian life is lived in community, and the community must continue to function until the heavens open and Jesus sets foot again on the earth.  We are to be about “doing what is right” in the face of opposition, persecution, and discouragement.

We are not to fold our hands, quit our jobs, and live off of the kindness of others who are working, and doing what is right.

The question was not, “Is Jesus coming again?” The question was, “What do we do until he comes?”  For the Thessalonians Paul’s answer was to “work quietly, earn your living, don’t get tired of doing good.”

That’s pretty good advice for the church today, too.  While we might seek to understand the return of Christ, we cannot do like Willie who lived in Irving, Texas.  I’ve told you about Willie before.  Willie was a member of our church, and Wilie quit his job with NASA because he believed Jesus was coming back on a specific day.  He wrote some books about the return of Christ, and expected others to support him by buying those books.  And when Jesus didn’t come back when he predicted, Willie’s only response was that somehow he had missed the date, but he knew he was mostly right.

Our mission is the same as that of the first century apostles.  It is the same as that which Jesus taught us to pray in a prayer we will pray again in a moment.  Our mission is that God’s will would be done on earth as it is being done in heaven.  Which means until the last moment, until our last breath, we are to work quietly, and do good faithfully, until God’s will is done here in God’s creation, just as it is being done in God’s presence.  And we do that as a community gathered around Jesus Christ, whose table we feast from today.

Sermon: I Believe In Jesus The Coming Judge

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed
I Believe in Christ The Coming Judge

Acts 10:34-42
34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

Where We Are In The Apostles’ Creed

We now have arrived at the part of the Apostles’ Creed that states —

From there He shall come to judge the living and the dead…

This is the final statement about Jesus, after the statement about God, and the statements about Jesus, that precede it.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell. [See Calvin]

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Remember we are using The Apostles’ Creed as an outline to address the major doctrines, or teachings, of the Christian church.  And, while we as Baptists do not use a creed in our corporate gatherings, that does not mean that we do not believe in the statements contained in the Creed.

But, back to today’s topic — the return of Christ and the judgment of everything.  So far in our look at The Creed we have had an event to hang on to each statement about Jesus:

  • For “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” we have the angel’s announcement to Mary and Mary’s response; and, of course, we have the entire nativity story and the celebration of Christmas;
  • For “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” and including the phrase “He descended into hell” (which requires a whole discussion all to itself, but is nonetheless a part of the Passion of the Christ), we have Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
  • For “The third day He arose again from the dead” we have the resurrection of Christ and Easter;
  • And for “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” we have the Ascension of Christ and the Sunday that celebrates that event.

All of those affirmations are statements of belief rooted in a past reality.  Jesus was born.  Jesus did suffer and die.  Jesus did rise from the dead.  Jesus did ascend back to the Father in heaven.

Each event was witnessed by real people and each were profoundly affected by the event they witnessed. From shepherds and wisemen, to disciples and followers, to those who saw Jesus alive, each event was verified by numerous eyewitnesses who continued throughout their lifetimes to speak of what, in the words of John,

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.”  1 John 1:1-3a

But when we come to today’s affirmation — “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead” — we have left the events of the past, and are now affirming one final event that will take place in some future time, unknown to any except God the Father.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

Okay, you’ve probably all heard this one, but it makes a point about this business of the second-coming of Christ and the judgment of everything.

One of the Pope’s assistants rushed into him and said, “Holy Father, I’ve got good news and bad news.”

The Pope said, “Okay, what’s the good news?”

The assistant replied, “The good news is that Jesus has returned and wants to talk to you on the phone.”

“Great,” the Pope responded.  “But what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is, he’s calling from Salt Lake City.”

Okay, that’s an old and silly joke, but it kind of captures our ambivalence about the return of Christ and the judgment of the world.  We’re not sure if we want to hear it or not.  Frankly, we’re not sure we even believe it anymore, although there it sits, in the middle of The Apostles’ Creed.  Of course, even if we abandon the Creed, there are longer versions affirming that we as Baptists believe that Jesus will return to the earth bodily and visibly, and that Christ will judge the earth as the final act in God’s great drama of creation and redemption.

Our scripture passage today is almost a word-for-word match to the words of The Creed, probably because early Christians took much of what they used to compose The Creed from the words of Scripture itself.

So, the good news is this is a belief of the Christian church from the first century and the original apostles.  The bad news is that after 2,000 years this statement has lost some of its practical punch.

Why This Statement in The Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed was a concise statement of the commonly held beliefs of all Christians.  It started in very simple form, in a version known as the Roman Creed.  Over the centuries as controversies arose, The Creed was amplified, tweaked, and clarified to address specific heresies, or false teachings.

One of those was a Gnostic teaching that God was unconcerned with mankind’s actions.  The idea of Christ returning to judge the earth was a counterpoint to the teachings of the Gnostics that all matter is evil, that what we do in our physical bodies doesn’t matter, and that it is only the spiritual that is significant.

Other heresies denied the physical resurrection of Jesus, and his transformed body.  Others said that Jesus had already returned, and that now believers were left to their own devices.  So, this statement in The Creed, because it comes directly from scripture, pushes back at many of those false teachings.

But, rather than being just a reply, or a response, this statement in The Creed is a positive affirmation of a long-held belief known as The Blessed Hope — the confidence that Jesus would return to the earth, vindicate his followers, and judge the earth.

Here’s the importance of the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth — without this final chapter, without Christ’s return and judgment, God’s salvation history is incomplete.  The story of God must have an ending, and this is the beginning of that ending.

Let me say it this way — from the creation of the earth and mankind’s place on it, all the way through the events of the Old Testament, down to the coming of Jesus as the Christ, God has been on a mission to redeem his creation.  Theologians call this the “missio Dei” — the mission of God.

The story of God and His people is not complete unless and until God sets everything right.  Everything cannot be set right until Jesus returns as he rightfully deserves, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  And, everything cannot be set right until Jesus gives his opinion, his judgment, about the world, its systems, and its people.  In other words, the setting right of everything awaits the return of Jesus and his judgment.

So, its not enough to say, “Well, Jesus gave us a wonderful example to live by, and that’s all that we need.”  Nor is it enough to say, “We need to work for God’s kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven.”  That is true, and we do need to do just that, but the only reason we need to do so is because one day, God’s will is absolutely going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

What’s the Return of Jesus About?

First, Jesus will return.  The apostles believed that he would, because Jesus himself told them that he would.  In Matthew 25, Jesus says,

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” — Matthew 25:31-33 NIV

So, by Jesus’ own words, he states that he, the Son of Man, is coming again in glory, and to judge the nations.  Several times in the gospels Jesus speaks of his return, and so this idea that Jesus is coming back is not on the disciples made up, or the church invented to keep people in line.  Jesus himself spoke of his visible, bodily return.

But, we are skeptical.  Two thousand years have passed, and still no Jesus.  Maybe we don’t need to believe that Jesus really will return because it seems like a fading possibility.

Okay, let me ask you this:  Do you believe that Jesus came in the form of a tiny baby?  Most of us here today, if not 100% of us, would say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus came as a tiny baby.”  But what’s harder to believe — that God can limit himself, come down from heaven, enter the womb of an unmarried woman through some mystery of conception that we cannot understand, be born as a baby by totally natural means, and then grow up to save the world from its sin;

Or, that God comes with lightning, angels, and glory to the earth?

Frankly, I think it’s easier to believe God will come with lightning, angels and glory, than that God was born a baby.

Okay, but that’s not the only reason.  As I said earlier, if Jesus doesn’t return, the story is incomplete.  Jesus came first as the Suffering Servant found in the prophet Isaiah; he returns the second time as the recognized Messiah, God’s Anointed One.  The first time many, most as a matter of fact, missed who he was.  The second time no one will miss who Jesus is.

Let’s look at my favorite passage about Jesus one more time:  Philippians 2:5-11.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what happens at the second coming of Jesus:  everybody and everything — every knee and every tongue — in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

So, the first time most don’t get it; the second time everyone gets it.

I’m Good on Jesus Return, But What About This Business of Judgment?

We’ll all be happy for Jesus to come back someday, I’m sure.  But the thing we really have trouble with is this business of God’s judgment, or more accurately, Jesus’ judgment of everything.  But let’s take a close look.

Our big problem with the “day of judgment” is we have a picture of wrath and destruction in our heads.  And to be sure there is that element of purging with fire that we’ll talk about in a moment.  But here’s the picture of judgment that we need to focus on.

Psalm 98:8-9 says —

8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.

The psalmist calls on nature, God’s creation, to rejoice, to clap and sing, because God comes to judge the earth.  God’s judgment is the final act of God’s salvation.

A quick personal story:  I traveled to Mexico several times on business before tourists had to show American passports.  To cross the US-Mexico border a tourist only had to show some type of US identification to go over and back.  Of course, all that has changed now, but even in the late 1990s and early in this decade, business travelers to Mexico had to have a business visa.

This visa was a separate green booklet that had to be stamped on your entry into Mexico, and then stamped on your exit from Mexico.  Well, the first time I crossed over into Mexico after receiving my visa, I had it appropriately stamped upon entry.  We went in, met with our customers, and then made our way back across the border.  The rep I was with forgot to have us stop and get our exit stamp, which neither of us thought was a big deal.

But, six months later when I tried to re-enter Mexico, the immigration official pointed out that I never “closed” my last visit. I did not have the stamp that said, “Salida”  with the appropriate date of my exit.  He refused to let me enter the country again.  And, he pointed out that the fine for failure to obtain an exit stamp was close to $800 US dollars, because several months had passed.

I was stunned.  First, I didn’t have $800 US dollars on me, so that was out of the question.  Second, my customer was expecting me, so I had to make my appointment.  So, I asked very politely, “Is there some other way we can solve this problem?”

The immigration official looked at me, and smiled.  “Well, of course, if you could pay some small fee, say $25, we could stamp your visa.”  Of course, this small fee was paid in cash, and I received no receipt for it, but the official took his “Salida” stamp from the drawer and properly stamped by visa.  Then, he took his “Entrada” stamp, and stamped it again with the current date to give me legal entry into Mexico.

My point in telling that story is this — we have to have an exit, an ending to God’s story.  And that ending is the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth.

But, judgment isn’t in itself destructive or vengeful.  Judgment is God’s opinion.  So, when Jesus returns, he returns to give his opinion of all the world’s systems, nations, and people.  Matthew calls it “separating the sheep from the goats.”

Other gospel writers use similar analogies as in “separating the wheat from the weeds.”  The point is, Jesus is going to give us his opinion of what is useful to the Kingdom of God, what is faithful to the Kingdom of God, and what will endure within the full-arrived Kingdom of God.

Things like “sheep” and “wheat” represent those things and people that are useful to, faithful to, compatible with, and obedient to the Kingdom of God.  Remember in Jesus’ early ministry, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news.”  Well, the good news is judgment made plain.  The good news is Jesus opinion of the world.

Judgment is both good and bad.  The good is some are sheep, some are wheat, some are received with a “well-done good and faithful servant.” The bad news is some people and things are judged to be “goats, weeds, and bad servants.”

And the criteria for Jesus’ judgment is Jesus himself.  Jesus is the incarnation of God, and how people, nations, and systems received Jesus is judgment in itself.

In John 3:16-17, Jesus said,

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” — John 3:16-18 NIV

Okay, but here’s the disclaimer:  Jesus is the righteous judge.  In other words, he doesn’t judge like we would.  Our job is not to figure out how Jesus is going to judge, our job is to live in light of Jesus love for the world.  To live as he lived. To see the world as he saw it, as sheep without a shepherd.  To love God and love others.

Jesus’ judgment is not just about going to heaven when we die, it’s about God’s opinion of everything here on earth, including us.  Whether we are among the living or the dead when Jesus returns does not matter.  What does matter is whether we are among the faithful.

“Physicists like to scare the pants off people”

 Okay, the truth is out.  Physicist Michio Kaku says, “Occasionally, physicists like to scare the pants off people.”  I am not making this up.  So, the big joke for today is the Large Hadron Collider, which many feel will create black holes and suck the entire earth into some other dimension.  Hence the name of my post on Monday, “World Ends This Wednesday?”.  

But, it gets worse.  Professor Kaku says that there is this bizarre theory (if it’s so bizarre, why is he telling us about it?…the truth is out there…) that the LHC will produce strangelets.  These are not the same as people who attend your church, although there may be some resemblance.  Strangelets are weird hunks of matter that are, well, strange.  And, if you touch it, you become a strangelet yourself.  Which is just what some people will do.  I can hear it now — “Really?  This little thing?  I’ll just touch it once.”  (See what I mean.)  Anyway, this sounds a lot like the apple in the Garden of Eden thing all over again.  We didn’t do so well on that test the first time around, who’s to say we’ll do any better this time.  

So, the next time you’re looking for some rollicking entertainment for your next Halloween party, call a physicist.  After all, they like to scare the pants off people.

World ends this Wednesday?

 Okay, Hal Lindsay missed it when he predicted it, too.  But, on Wednesday, September 10, the Large Hadron Collider will collide its first particles.  Of course, CERN, the group that has waited 20-years for this event, says it’s safe.  Which is also what the US government told us about nuclear energy, but hey, who knew?  Anyway, a lot of folks are really nervous that the collider will create the first manmade black hole and we’ll all be sucked into it.  However, I wouldn’t plan to call in sick in Wednesday, just in case this doesn’t happen.  Of course, if it does there will be no need to call in…  Anyway, enjoy your week!

An Opportunity To Testify

An Opportunity To Testify

Luke 21:5-19 NRSV

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?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”* 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.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there 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. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words* and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Our Fascination with the Future

Jesus is in the Temple during this time, probably from the opening of chapter 20 in the gospel of Luke. In the first part of this chapter (21:1-4), Jesus is watching people — rich people — put their money in the collection vessels in the Temple. These collection vessels were 13 chests shaped like inverted trumpets where rich and poor, male and female deposited their offerings as they came for Temple worship and ceremony. This is the occasion for the story of the widow’ mite — the poor widow who put in two small copper coins. Jesus said that she put in more than all of the rich people because they gave out of their abundance, but she gave all she had to live on.

That’s the scene in the Temple in Jerusalem as Jesus and the disciples and others were standing and watching all the activity in the Temple compound. But to get an idea of the splendor of the Temple, you need to walk with me away from the Court of the Women the smallest eastern court. We will walk down a bank of 22 marble steps, down into the Court of the Gentiles. If we look back over our shoulders as we leave the Court of the Women, we will read the signs that warn non-Jews not to venture any further into the Temple or face death. They were serious about preserving the ceremonial purity of the Temple building.

As we descend into the Court of the Gentiles, we have our choice of gates from which we can exit. We cross through the Royal Porch with its 4-rows deep of pure white marble Corinthian columns, each 40′ feet tall — 162 columns in all in this porch alone. We come to Solomon’s Colonade, the eastern porch, and we head for the gate, which is really a massive entrance. We choose the eastern gate, the gate that faces the rising sun. This is the gate through which the Messiah will come when he comes to save Israel. This gate is called Beautiful and it is just that. Plates of solid gold face the eastern gate, so that when the sun rises in the east, the light of the sun is brilliantly reflected back into the Kidron Valley below, making it appear that the sun is rising in the west at the same time. Travelers approaching Jerusalem see the Temple from a distance and mistake it for a snow-covered mountain, it is so dazzlingly bright and massive.

It is this Temple Jesus and the disciples are standing in. This temple built by Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet king who began the restoration and expansion of the Temple in 19 AD, and would not live to see it’s completion in 64 AD. Six years after the magnificent structure is finished, with its tons of gold, its massive entrances, its wide porticos, and its immense cost, the Temple will be torn down to its foundations by the legions of Rome. No stone left standing, sacked of sacred treasure and leveled to the ground. Today all that is left of Herod’s Temple is the western retaining wall, known as the Wailing Wall. As precious as the Wailing Wall is, the Temple was a thousand times more glorious.

To get some idea of the magnitude of loss, it would be as if the United States Capitol were completely destroyed, leaving only the retaining wall around the base. Or if the White House were leveled to the ground, leaving only the foundation. The loss of the Temple was incalculable, and the thought of its loss was unspeakable in the first century.

So, in verse 6 when Jesus says, “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” — those who hear Jesus press in around him in horror and ask, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ They wanted to know what the future will hold.

Our curious concern is not much different now. The popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books, with over 10-million sold is 21st century evidence that we are as concerned and as curious about what the future will hold as those in Jesus’ day. If you can remember our horror at the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, and the deaths of over 3,000 of our fellow citizens, you can imagine the concern for the future of first century Jerusalem.

What We Can Know About The Future

The destruction of the Temple, in Jewish thought, would herald the beginning of the end. Jews in the first century understood time in two eras — this age and the age to come. Many then felt, as many do today, that this age is hopelessly bad and unredeemable. God is surely going to destroy this world, they thought. That destruction will usher in the age to come or what we would now call the Kingdom of God. But, in between this age and the age to come, was the day of the Lord. Jews understood the day of the Lord to be a time of judgment, of refining through fire, of purification of this world. Non-Jews, those not God’s people would be judged and destroyed. Unrighteous Jews would be judged and punished; only righteous Jews would survive this terrible appearing of God.

In that context, Jesus tells those gathered around him what they can know about the future.

  1. Other voices will call to us. Jesus warned them that these other voices would be bold in claiming authority for themselves, saying “I am here” and “the time is now.” Jesus said, don’t go after them.
  2. Conflict will sweep the globe. Wars and rumors of wars is how Jesus puts it. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. The end is not yet.
  3. Natural disasters will overtake us. Earthquakes, famine, plague, signs and portents in the heavens — all of these things will indicate something eschatological is taking place. The combination of all these events will signify God at work.
  4. God is not in the Temple, God is present in Jesus.  Jesus also mentions in another gospel that the Temple will be destroyed and in 3-days he will rebuild it.  An incredible claim considering that the Temple he and the disciples are looking at isn’t finished and this is now 24-years after Herod has begun his expansive renovation. 

Sounds very modern, very today, doesn’t it. It only takes a casual observer to see that global crises, and the competing voices of  pluralisitic, post-Christendom socieity are swirling around us today. But before you quit your job, sell everything you have, and move to a mountain top to await the coming of the Lord, keep listening.

Before The End Comes, The Opportunity to Witness

Verse 12 is very important — ‘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.’

So it’s not just false prophets, war, and disaster. We the followers of Jesus will be persecuted. Now this is the part not many books are written about. This is not the attractive part of the day of the Lord. This is not what we want to hear and it was certainly not what Jesus’ followers wanted to hear either. That’s why the disciples were in keeping a low profile in a room in Jerusalem before Pentecost.

Luke who wrote this gospel also wrote the book of Acts. Luke opens Acts chapter 4 with the account of Peter and John’s arrest. And so it begins. Christians arrested, persecuted, handed over to religious leaders, brought before kings and governors. Jesus goes on to say that we will be betrayed by relatives, friends, parents and siblings, and some will be put to death.

Oh, wait. That’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, ridiculed, tried by religious leaders, brought before the governor. Killed by the government of Rome. So now the term “follower of Jesus” takes on new meaning. We are following him — through persecution, accusation, ridicule, and death.

But, then Jesus says something very odd, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

To what are we testifying? The apostles in the book of Acts would testify to what they had seen. John, in I John1 says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

The New Testament Greek word for witness — one who testifies — is martys. It is the same word from which we get the English word, martyr. So, a witness is someone who tells what he or she knows. A witness for Christ is someone who tells what he or she knows about Christ even if it means their life. And for many it did. The martyrs of the early church were those who refused to worship the emperor, or renounce Jesus, or give up their faith. And so they died because of what they had seen and told.

But then Jesus says something really strange —

“So make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

We are not on our own in the face of persecution. Jesus is still with us. And he gives us words-and-wisdom so overwhelming that no rebuttal is possible. Which doesn’t mean they won’t kill us, but it does mean that they will do so knowing the truth. Knowing the irrefutable truth of God. Acting out their hate, their arrogance, their own will in spite of knowing and hearing and seeing the truth of God standing before them. But they did that to Jesus, too. And Pilate could only ask Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate knew he was face-to-face with the truth. Pilate knew that what he heard was true. Pilate realized that Jesus was not a criminal. Pilate had the opportunity to embrace the truth, to respond to Jesus, to love God. But in the face of overwhelming words-and-wisdom, Pilate could only resort to a weak question, “What is truth?”

But here is our assurance. Jesus says not a hair of your head will perish. Now usually we think that phrase means a person will survive, live, come through. But Jesus has just said that many will be put to death. So what does he mean here? Well verse 19 holds the clue — “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Not your lives as some translations have it, but your souls. In other words, you will die to this life, but you will not perish in the life to come.

Which to us is not much comfort. Our lives are lives of ease. Our faith costs us nothing. But to millions of followers of Jesus, this promise has real meaning. It had great meaning to those a few years later under the persecution of the Emperor Domitian. John writes about them in Revelation. Listen to Revelation the seventh chapter —

1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3″Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

Then verse 9 continues —

9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” 11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying:
“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

14I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
16Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For 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.”

— Revelation 7, NIV

The future, whatever it holds, will be our opportunity to testify. To be a witness to what our eyes have seen, our ears have heard, and our hands have touched — that we proclaim.

In the ancient Celtic Christian world, there were three types of martyrs. Because Christianity came to Ireland without bloodshed there were no red martyrs — those who gave their lives for Christ — at least initially. The Irish Christians designated other acts as acts of witness or martyrdom. The green martyrs were those who gave up friends, family, and their community to live in the hills or caves as hermits. The white martyrs were those who left friends, family, community, and their country, setting sail in tiny boats called coracles. Sailing into the white morning light, these martyrs left everything familiar for their witness. St. Columba, who founded the abbey at Iona, was a white martyr. Later, the red martyrs would also be added to the list, as those who gave their very lives for the cause of Christ.

Our Witness Now 

Jesus said the events of the future will be our opportunity to testify. But what about now? What about here? What do we have to tell or need to tell? And are we so dependent upon the presence of Christ in our lives that we are confident that Jesus himself will give us the words-and-wisdom that cannot be refuted.

We, like the martyrs of the first century Roman empire of whom John writes in Revelation, have something to tell that is at odds with this world and its system. That is why many will hate us, persecute us, arrest us, ridicule us, turn against us, and even kill us. There are systems of power and greed and corruption and consumerism in this world that are at odds with the world to come — the kingdom of God. While it is not our intention to create enemies, cause conflict, arouse suspicion, or incite reaction, simply by living Kingdom lives — following Jesus — we will do so. We will not have to wait for the future, because the future is now. Before all the signs of the eschatological work of God, Jesus said we would face persecution. If we’re not facing it now, we might want to examine how much of our lives are lived in contrast to this world and in harmony with the world to come.

Three Stories Of Witness

Our opportunity to witness now lies in the way we align ourselves with the values and actions of the age to come — the Kingdom of God.  Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  And living kingdom values is often in direct opposition to the values of this world. 

John Wesley prayed that when he died, he would die penniless and he did.  Wesley could have accumulated a vast amount of money as the Methodist movement spread.  Just on his writing alone, Wesley could have made a fortune even by our standards today.  But Wesley’s values were not of this age, but of the age to come. 

The story is told that John Wesley had a meager amount of money one day and used it to buy a couple of small paintings to brighten up the room in which he lived.  Later that day, Wesley encountered a woman who needed food and, realizing that he had spent the only cash he had on decoration, he vowed never to do that again.  When I told Debbie this story, she said, “He should have bought more art.”  So, obviously everyone is not called to live the spartan existence of John Wesley.  But Wesley was living Kingdom values as he understood them, rejecting the call of consumerism that existed even in the 1700s.

The second story reminds us that living by kingdom values now often places us at odds with the rest of society.  White pastors like Paul Turner who supported the rights of African-Americans during the civil rights movement were often fired, ridiculed, or both.  Turner believed that all people, regardless of race, were God’s children.  And so he took the hands of little black children and walked with them into the school building in Clinton, Tennessee.  Then, after moving to Nashville, did the same thing as pastor of Brookhollow Baptist Church.  For that Paul Turner was beaten, ridiculed, harassed, belittled, and criticized.  Kingdom values stir up both passionate support and violent opposition.  This is the kind of persecution that Jesus was speaking of.  This is living the values of the age to come, not of this present age. 

Taking the cause of the poor, the ignorant, the marginalized is often difficult but always God’s work.  Until Rick Warren, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, submitted to an HIV test, the whole subject of HIV-AIDS was not on the agenda of the evangelical church.  Warren has been criticized, not by the world, but by fellow Christians for coming to the aid of those with AIDS.  This is the kind of ridicule is that of which Jesus spoke. 

The third story brings this conflict between this age and the age to come even closer.  It’s a story about bananas.  Chiquita, the banana people, entered a guilty plea in federal court in September to paying right-wing paramilitary groups in Columbia for “protection” of their banana plantations.  Chiquita was fined $25-million by the Justice Department, for this illegal act.  While Chiquita was paying the paramilitaries, over 4,000 people in that region of Columbia were killed, and 173 deaths were directly attributed to the AUC, the group Chiquita gave over $1-million to.  USA Today reported Chiquita’s guilty plea, and you can visit the Chiquita website where they acknowledge their misdeeds and fine. 

I wrote an article about this, and a friend of mine replied,

We’re being hit from all sides. Shocking injustice lives in my sock drawer and in the crisper in the fridge. Who’d have thunk it? My old value was frugality – finding a good price. Now I’m having to embrace a new value – seeking to use my money in ways that foster justice.

But isn’t it cool that so many people are getting this all at the same time.

So, at our house, at least for a while, we’re buying brands other than Chiquita.  These stories are examples of this age versus the age to come. 

So, we don’t go looking for trouble, but we do go looking for places where Jesus is at work.  And we join him there.  In the process, we find ourselves with Christ — in ridicule, in persecution, in criticism, and in death.  But, this is our opportunity to witness to the work of God in this world, and it comes with a price and a reward.