Sermon 08-13-17: “Living at the End of the Age”

This sermon is about Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I chose to preach this doctrine because of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:7a: “The end of all things is at hand.” Does this mean that Peter expected that the Second Coming would happen at any moment? Probably not. He knew, based on the teaching of Jesus, that there were signs in history that must occur before that happened. I explore these signs and talk about the most important thing we Christians should do while we wait.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Last Christmas, in the New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviewed one of my favorite contemporary preachers, Tim Keller, who, until his retirement a couple of months ago, pastored a large, multi-campus church in Manhattan. Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on.”

So Kristoff wanted to know if he could still be a Christian if he didn’t believe “the miracles and so on.” And Keller told him, politely, no—it’s not possible. And of course that’s right. In many ways, Kristoff wanted to do what Thomas Jefferson did: remove all the supernatural stuff from the gospels and focus on Jesus’ teaching. His teaching is great, after all. Or as Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message.”

But I wonder if Kristoff really understands what Jesus’ message is. Now, he likely has in mind Jesus’ great moral teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount and in many of his parables. You don’t have to be a Christian, after all, to appreciate that Jesus is the greatest moral teacher who ever lived. But what about the rest of Jesus’ teaching? One scholar I read estimates that fully 20 percent of Jesus’ teaching has to do with events associated with his Second Coming.

If Kristoff and many others think Jesus was onto something when he taught about morality, maybe they should hear what he has to say about this other important doctrine.

So that’s what I want to do in today’s sermon: talk about the Second Coming. The reason it comes up is because of what Peter says in verse 7: “The end of all things is at hand”—and this fact ought to dictate how we live.

What does it mean that mean, though? The end of all things is at hand… Did Peter mean that he expected Christ to return soon—in his lifetime. No. For one thing, Jesus told Peter in John chapter 21 that Peter himself would be martyred—that he would be crucified on account of his allegiance to Jesus. This took place around the year 65 under the emperor Nero. So Peter knew it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. It wouldn’t be that soon. Besides, Peter also had the benefit of being a disciple of Jesus, and hearing him teach about the Second Coming. He knew that there were events in history that had to happen before Christ would return, and it’s unlikely he thought that those things would happen anytime soon.

The main place you can find Jesus’ teaching about his Second Coming is in Matthew 24—and there are parallel accounts in Mark and Luke. He’s talked about it earlier in Matthew’s gospel, but chapter 24 is his most extensive discussion. The occasion for Jesus talking about it is that his disciples are admiring the grandeur of the Temple in Jerusalem. And Jesus says, “You see this? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” In other words, this Temple—so large, so impressive—will be utterly destroyed.

And on the Mount of Olives nearby, the disciples ask Jesus a two-fold question: “Tell us, when will these things be”—in other words, when will the Temple be destroyed—“and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” So the disciples have asked about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming. And in Jesus’ response that follows, he talks about both. And it’s often hard to tell when he’s talking about one event and not the other.

And that’s intentional: He’s saying that the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple—which took place in the year 70—reflects, on a much smaller scale, what God will do on a global scale when Christ returns. So he’s using the destruction of the Temple to make a point about the end of the age and the Second Coming. There’s a near-term fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and a long-term fulfillment.

Old Testament prophets do this all the time. Let me give two quick examples: In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz, the king of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, is being threatened by the Northern Kingdom and Syria. And he’s worried about whether his kingdom will survive. So Isaiah gives him a sign to reassure him that God will save him and his kingdom: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’” And before that child is grown, in a short time, those two kings that seem so frightening right now will be dead and gone, yet the Southern Kingdom will survive. Now, we don’t know the identity of this virgin and child to whom Isaiah was referring, but he’s describing something that will happen soon—a “near-term” fulfillment; the ultimate, long-term fulfillment, of course, would happen hundreds of years later, which is described by Matthew in his Christmas narrative

Another example is the Book of Joel: He talks about God’s judgment against Israel in the form of a plague of locusts that will produce famine in the land. And he says that the people can repent and be saved. But then he pivots from this near-term judgment of God to God’s final judgment—and our hope for salvation in Christ. The two events blend together. He uses a small-scale event to make a point about a much larger-scale event.

And Jesus does the same thing when he relates the destruction of the Temple to his Second Coming. When you read Matthew 24, it seems like the Second Coming will happen at the same time as, or shortly after, the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, but as one scholar says, it’s like looking at mountain peaks from a far distance: They look like they’re close together, but when you get up next to them, you see that they’re separated by many miles.

I emphasize this because I don’t want us to get discouraged and think, “The Second Coming is never going to happen! It would have happened a long time ago!” I don’t want us to lose confidence in God’s Word.

So, I want to do something I’ve never done before in a sermon: I want to talk about specific “signs” that will happen before Christ returns. When Peter says that the “end of all things is at hand,” he would have known that these signs still needed to be fulfilled, and likely that they were  a long way off.

The first and most important sign is found in Matthew 24:14. Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Jesus says that the main reason for a delay in his Second Coming is salvation for the world. God wants the whole world to have the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel of his Son. To say the least, you and I wouldn’t have even been born, much less born again, if the Second Coming happened in the first century! So it’s no exaggeration to say that God wanted us to be with him in eternity, so that’s why he waited: in order to save more people.

Peter himself refers to this reason for the delay in his second letter, in 2 Peter chapter 3. He warns them that “scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’” Peter goes on: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

Did you catch that? With the Lord “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day.” So from God’s point of view, it’s been two days since Jesus’ resurrection. It has not been very long at all!

So where are we with this first sign? Has the gospel been proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations? It depends on how we define “all nations,” but there are still many, many tribes and cultures in the world that have yet to hear the gospel.

Next, Jesus warns in Matthew 24:10-12 that there will be widespread apostasy, which means that many people will fall away from the Christian faith—abandon their faith in Christ. Is this happening now? Of course. But Jesus says we should expect that it will get worse and worse before Christ returns.

You know what else will get worse? The suffering and persecution of Christians. This is often called the Great Tribulation. Jesus describes this in Matthew 24:9: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” A few years ago, Pope Francis himself said that given that Christian persecution is worse today than it’s ever been in history—including the first few centuries of the church—this could be a sign that Christ will return soon.

Finally, there will be an Antichrist. Now, even in the first century, there were what the apostle John in his letters refers to as antichrists: One of them was surely the emperor Nero himself—who opposed Christianity and did unspeakable evil against Christians. In the twentieth century, many Christians identified rulers like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao as antichrists. I don’t think they were wrong, so long as they understood that none of these men represented the one main antichrist that Paul refers to as “the man of lawlessness” and the “son of destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 2. Paul says that through the power of Satan he will work “false signs and wonders” and deceive many people. He’ll likely be a great religious leader who, Paul says, will proclaim himself to be God.

So these are four signs that will be fulfilled before Christ will return: the gospel will be proclaimed to all nations; there will be a widespread falling away from Christian faith; the suffering and persecution of Christians will intensify; and there will emerge one great Antichrist, empowered by Satan to lead many people astray.

Have these signs been fulfilled? I would say no, which isn’t to say that they won’t be soon. We don’t know. And this, I think, is what Peter means when he says “the end of all things is at hand.” To say something is “at hand” isn’t to say it will necessarily happen soon; it’s to say that it will happen next. The return of Christ is the next big event in God’s salvation history.

And with this hanging over our heads, Peter says, we need to be “self-controlled and sober-minded.” Why? “For the sake of your prayers.” Isn’t that an odd thing to say? In light of the impending Second Coming of our Lord, your top priority is prayer. What’s that relationship? Why is prayer so important in light of the return of Christ?

Well, first, it reminds us that God has fixed a point of no return, after which people won’t have an opportunity to repent and be saved. Time is running out on our world. Our mission is urgent. So we pray. We recognize that we can’t convert anybody; we can’t make anyone be born again. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. So we pray. Jesus makes a similar point when he says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Notice he doesn’t say, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore roll up your sleeves, go out into the fields, and get to work!” No he says, “therefore pray!”

There is no challenge our church faces that won’t be solved first by prayer. There is no challenge we face as individuals that won’t be solved first by prayer. Yet I find it easier to roll up my sleeves and get to work than to pray. I need to do something, I think to myself. And I forget… I forget… I forget… that prayer is doing something. In fact, prayer is the most important work of all.

Does my life reflect this fact? Does yours? The problem with prayer, as I’ve found, is that it’s something that all of us can fake. No one sees us pray, except when we pray in public. We can fake sincerity when we do that. We’re not going to get “graded” on our prayer life. No one’s going to give us a raise based on whether or not we pray effectively—that’s true for pastors, too, by the way. No one knows what’s going on in our hearts. It’s not that we don’t want to pray, but we’re really busy. We’ve got this deadline to meet. We’ve got to go take our kids to this extracurricular activity—we’ve got to go do this and that. And all of a sudden prayer is something that falls to the bottom of our to-do list for the day. This happens to me, and I’m sure it happens to you, too.

In fact, one of the best things about my recent vacation is that I brought my Bible and some devotional material. I always do, but often I find myself so busy and time-consuming on vacation that prayer become harder to do than when I’m at home! But praise God, I made time to sit down with my Bible every morning before we began that day’s adventure sightseeing in Washington, D.C., or New York, and I made sure I prayed and read scripture. And that made the trip even better than it otherwise would have been. I hope that reflects some kind of Christian growth on my part. Because now that I’m a little bit older, for my own survival, for my own mental health, I know that I need to spend time with God in prayer! I feel desperate to do that, and I hope all of you have that same sort of desperation for God.

But in order for us to believe that prayer is our top priority, we have to believe this: that prayer changes the world. We have to believe that prayer changes things in our world. We have to believe that not praying also makes a difference in our world.

In general, my experience with prayer agrees with William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury from the 20th century. He said, “When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don’t, they don’t.”

We often have this terrible bumper-sticker theology that says, “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes me”—as if the only reason to pray is what happens inside of us! That’s an absolute lie! How can we listen to Jesus’ parables and hear his teaching on prayer and believe that prayer only changes us? No! We have to believe that the God of the universe will do things in response to our prayers that he wouldn’t otherwise do! God will graciously do something in response to “little old me”—this speck in the universe—that he wouldn’t otherwise do… because we pray. Not because God has to! Not because we’ve said this magic incantation that forces God to do something. No, it’s because God is so gracious, and he wants to be in a relationship with us, and he wants there to be give-and-take in the relationship, so he graciously lets his children make petitions that God will grant to change things in the world.

This also tells us, by the way, that God is in control of history. The Second Coming means that God has set a fixed date at which history as we know it will come to an end. But in the meantime God wants to collaborate with us between now and then. So by all means pray!

We’ve had a difficult week this week with all the saber-rattling going on with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Nuclear war seems like more of a threat today than at any point since the mid-’80s, at least… or maybe the Cuban missile crisis. But Jesus also talks about wars and rumors of wars. These things happen, but they don’t derail God and his plans. History will come to an end at a time that God has determined. Yet between now and then—whenever that will be—God has given us the opportunity to change the world, and the first and most important way we do that is through prayer!

One thought on “Sermon 08-13-17: “Living at the End of the Age””

Leave a Reply