Monday, November 11, 2013

Getting Ready for the End

Grace Bible Church
10 November 2013

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

The Promised Glory of the New House

In the second year of King Darius, 1 on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The Man of Lawlessness

1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? ….

Stand Firm

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

I find preaching just before Memorial Day more of a challenge than some people do. I was drafted to serve in Vietnam, but served with my church instead (three years in Zimbabwe) as a Conscientious Objector). But perhaps those who serve in the military and I are closer than we think. Certainly it is true that the American President who has been the most peaceful since World War Two was also a general in the army. Eisenhower knew war well, and knew the military well, and knew that all of us are searching for peace. So we remember all those who served in war, knowing that for most of them their great desire was for peace. As is mine.

We have two texts this morning—from the Minor Prophets (or The Twelve) as we sometimes call them, and from the letters Paul wrote to the young churches of his day. A note common to both of them is a focus on the End of time, so this morning we ask of these passages: How do we prepare for the End of all things?

Haggai 1 and 2
Chapter 1, Verse 1: The introduction dates the events precisely (520 BC), as part of the return of the Jews from exile in Persia (where they had been taken from their exile in Babylon). God speaks to Zerubabbel (the Jewish leader) through Haggai.
Verses 2 to 6: The people have returned from exile, built houses and planted their fields; but the crops are poor and the economy struggling. They have not rebuilt the Temple.
Verses 7 to 11: God identifies their problem as their failure to build his Temple: Because they have focussed on themselves and not on him, they have received his curse and not his blessing.
12: Zerubabbel and the people respond in repentance, turning to God and his Temple.
13 to 15: God speaks through Haggai to the people: “Now I am with you [and so you can receive my blessing]. They began the process of rebuilding the temple.

Chapter 2, Verse 1: About seven weeks later the Word of the Lord came again through Haggai.
Verses 2 to 5: God speaks to Zerubabbel: Things look bad, and life is hard; but be strong because my Spirit is with you.
Verses 6 to 9: The Lord says, “I will shake the earth and turn everything upside down. The wealth of the nations will be given to my Temple, and I will give peace to the earth.
You notice the phrase, “in a little while”. This phrase reminds me of phrases such as “that great and glorious day of the Lord”. It points us to the End of all things, when all is made right and evil is finally destroyed completely. Handel gets it right when he links this passage with Malachi 3:1 in his aria, “I will shake all nations … and the desire of all nations shall come, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in …”

2 Thessalonians 1 and 2
Chapter 1, Verses 1 to 2: Greetings from Paul, Silas, and Timothy to the Church of the Thessalonians. [Written, at a guess, about 50 AD from Corinth.]
Verses 3 to 4: We thank God for your faith and love, and perseverance while being persecuted.
Verses 5 to 10: Your suffering shows that you belong to God. God judges all people justly, and will do so when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire”. He will punish those who oppose him and reward those who believe in him and persevere in their belief.
Verses 11 to 12: Therefore we pray that you will continue in faith and good works.

Chapter 2, Verses 1 to 4: This great day [when God will judge the earth] has not yet come. Some people say that it has, but it has not! The marker of the End will be that “the man of lawlessness” will set himself up in God’s temple.
[Verses 5 to 12: The “man of lawlessness” is already at work, held back by Christ so that his work is hidden. Christ will let him loose at the End, when he is ready to destroy him. You must choose, then, whether to follow Christ or the Man of Lawlessness.]
Verses 13 to 17: What to do while we wait for the End: Meanwhile God has chosen you and called you through the work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. So stand firm and hold fast to Christ’s teachings. Jesus himself will give you the strength to do so.

Synthesis through Patterns
Pattern 1: Go through the past 100+ years. The first decade of the last Century was a time of great optimism (compare the motto of Edinburgh 1910: “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation!”), which gave way to conflict and despair in the next decade. The 1920s were known as the Roaring Twenties for their vitality, and were followed by the Great Depression and a second world war. We think of the 1950s as a golden age in North America, but the 1960s, which opened with the hopes of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”) were the transition to the 1970s, a time of searching and struggle. Reagan proclaimed that the 1980s were “morning in America”, and the 1990s continued a time of optimism. But following 9/11 we entered a phase of struggle and searching for meaning that we have not yet exited.

Pattern 2: A Chinese Christian perspective on Chinese history pictures 6000 years of history through the cycle of: Prosperity >>> Corruption >>> Chaos >>> Powerful New Ruler >>> Prosperity >>> ….

Pattern 3: The OT has a similar pattern, which we can see also in the NT: God’s grace >>> Human rebellion >>> Divine judgment (which contains within it the seeds of new grace) >>> Human repentance and return to God >>> New grace >>> ….

The Pattern in our passages: Similar to these, in its movement between hope and judgment, salvation and rebellion, but portrays the end of the cycle: God’s grace >>> Met with weakness (Haggai) and persecution (Thessalonians) >>> Which sets the stage for God’s final victory over evil. The Thessalonians misread the cycle and thought that they were at the very End. Paul reminds them that he had told them before in 1 Thessalonians that the End is coming, but has not yet come.

The End is what gives the cycle meaning. Throughout the whole of history—in good times and in bad—God is at work to bring his kingdom in fullness and power. Like the Thessalonians (and like the Jews of Haggai’s day), we want to take a shortcut to the End; but Paul and Haggai called on them—and on us—to be strong, to persevere, to continue to live rightly today. The Thessalonians were so ready to skip to the End that they had stopped working and living for today. Paul said, “If you don’t want to work, you don’t get to eat!” This is not a general rule, but a reminder that we are to follow Christ faithfully in the day that we are given. We live in light of the End (with the truth that God is in final and complete control), even while we wait for the End (in times when God’s control is not so visible).

Some Basic Truths
From this quick overview we note several basic truths about life waiting for the End of all things.

1. God is Love, and God is Fire! Haggai’s phrase (1:8) is echoed in the way that Paul tells us Jesus will destroy the Man of Lawlessness with a breath. God’s love and God’s wrath go together. They express his holiness and his all-consuming care for us, bound together in one God. The truth of God’s wrath is actually good news. Do you hate the evil that is in the world? Good! So does God! If the spectre of oppression around the world bothers you, remember that God also hates it. God hates the way that wealthy upper caste Indians use their privilege and power to enslave those we sometimes call the Dalits—keeping them in degrading occupations with no opportunity to build any kind of better life. God hates the way that some businesses profit from other people’s misfortunes. God hates the way that some husbands (and some wives) abuse their children. God hates evil; so should we.

This image of God’s wrath is one we sometimes overlook. Think of it this way. God is the spiritual air that we breathe. If you want to live beyond this life, you must live in the atmosphere of God’s holiness. What would happen is you left the air of this world and sailed into space without a space suit. You would blow up! Not because space hates you, but because we are not made to live in space without any pressure around us to hold us together.

Similarly, if you try to live beyond this life with God, but refuse to take on God’s nature, you will experience God as fire, burning you up. Because God is love, he has made a way for us to approach him. Haggai called on the people to place God first in their lives. Paul called on the Thessalonians to continue to trust Jesus and to live in the Spirit of Jesus. When we do so we discover the truth that God is love—eternal, everlasting, infinite love.

2. Don’t Try to Predict the End. Every so often someone comes along and says that Jesus will return tomorrow or the next day. They point at the place we are in the cycle of history and read some passage of Scripture, and then they tell us when the End will be. Paul in our passage is almost as sharp as Jesus in Acts 1: “It’s none of your business when the End comes!” said Jesus. Paul says, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction… . Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?” Or, to put it more briefly, stop listening to those people! We already dealt with this issue! One of our local preachers is telling people that the End will come before he dies. Such speculation is wrong—forbidden in Scripture.

The trouble with this kind of speculation is that it so often leads to people giving up trying to change what is wrong and do what is right. In Haggai’s day, people wondered if the End was real. Haggai reaffirms it: “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the dry land, and the desire of all nations shall come!” In Paul’s day, people thought that the End was already there, and so they stopped working or trying to do anything other than wait. Paul told them to get back to work and live for God.

3. That last part is the point. Paul tells the Thessalonians to obey Jesus and to trust God, filled with the Spirit of Jesus. The best way to get ready for the End is to live rightly in the present. Someone has asked, “What would you do differently today if you knew that you would die tomorrow?” The answer should be: The same thing that I plan to do now. You don’t wait until the End to start to live rightly. Live for Jesus today.

In both passages you notice references to the Spirit. In the OT such references do not have in mind the developed understanding of the trinity that we have today; rather it means that God himself energizes someone. In the NT the term is developing, and when Paul refers to the sanctifying work of the Spirit, he means that God himself is fully present in the believer to help us live the way he is calling us to live.

Sometimes we describe this presence as “the fullness of the Spirit”. I like the way that Charles Price describes what it means to have faith—a description that fits the fullness of the Spirit as well. Price uses the example of his first airplane flight, going from London to Johannesburg as a young man. On one side of him in the plane was a woman who was terrified of flying. She had just enough faith to get on the plane, but was full of fear. He himself was a bit afraid, but knew the statistics that show flying to be safe. On the other side was a businessman who had made the flight many times. He was full of faith and hardly even noticed the takeoff and landing.

In a similar way, to be full of the Spirit means to trust fully in the Spirit. We have God’s Spirit as a result of conversion: repentance and forgiveness opens the door to God’s Spirit. But throughout our lives we learn to trust him more and more—that is being filled with the Spirit: Relying on God at every step for all that we do. That is how we prepare for the End of all things. Rely on God at every step for all that we do.

A Closing Word
I have wondered sometimes how people in dreadful situations continue to live. How do people in Haiti continue to live? How do people who come out of abusive families make a family of their own? How do survivors from the residential schools break the cycle of generational pain they have experienced and build a new life? I think it has to do with understanding the End. We know that at the End God will come in power and fullness. God will shake the world and turn everything upside down—or rather right side up. The world is upside down now, but we know that whatever is wrong, whatever is bad will come to an end. It cannot survive when God comes. As the words from James Lowell’s great poem puts it:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.

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