Monday, November 23, 2009

Sermon on Mark 13:24-37, for the Last Sunday in the Church Year, "From Survival to Salvation"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is the Last Sunday in the Church Year, a day on which we particularly focus on and remember the promised return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead. The text is the Gospel of Mark. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

If the popularity of Hollywood disaster movies is any indication at all, the spectacular and terrifying end of the world and/or civilization as we know it is a topic that fascinates a lot of people. Several times a year we’re treated with the newest scenario for the end of the world/judgment day. Humanity is alternately wiped out by aliens, giant asteroids, killer diseases, rampaging robots, vast computer intelligences, nuclear holocausts, global warming, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. What’s popular this month is the movie 2012, which says the Ancient Mayans ended their calendar in that year because they predicted doomsday then. Of course this kind of entertainment isn’t ever expected to stimulate anyone to deep thinking. Quite the opposite. But anyway it’s worth noticing a common theme in all of these movies is the survival of some of humanity against overwhelming odds. The main objective of the people in the movie is to rescue, escape, hide, fight back, or otherwise extend their survival so that they can somehow live on in the post-apocalyptic world. Depending on how dreary the movie is, the existence of the survivors after the disaster is usually quite bleak, but at least they have life,
love, and freedom.

Now behind all the preposterous special effects and absurd story lines, there’s a grain of truth buried under the fiction. The truth is that the world will come to an end one day, and that there will be a deliverance. But that’s about where the comparison ends. Unlike the movies, where some part of humanity always survives, and the earth is brought back from the brink of disaster—the real destruction of the earth will be total and complete, with nothing left. While we can’t take such movies and entertainment seriously, there’s a real judgment day awaiting us and all the earth, and we do need to know about it and be prepared. All attempts to pinpoint the date of that judgment are futile, as Jesus said: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Jesus foretells the end of the world in a way that’s at the same time very simple and yet also dramatic. The sun will be darkened, the moon will no longer give it’s light—a darkness much like that at His crucifixion will shroud the earth. The stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. While it’s difficult to envision exactly what all this means or how precisely it will happen, the picture is of a catastrophe on a universal scale—not just our home planet Earth. When it says the “powers in the heavens will be shaken” it’s truly a “cosmic-quake” we’re talking about. Nothing on the order of the earthquakes we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, which are localized and last for a few seconds or minutes. The apostle Peter records it this way: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:10).

On the one hand, this could all be very terrifying news. The whole universe will literally be falling apart at its seams. It used to be that scientists thought that matter and the universe were eternal and would always be here. But with the advent of modern physics and the understanding of the atom and the forces that hold it together, we know that physical matter isn’t indestructible or eternal. Nuclear power can literally tear matter apart at its foundation. The fabric of the universe really can be torn apart and the “powers in the heaven be shaken.” It will be a frightening experience for sure, except for those who know it’s coming and know where to look for deliverance.

Notice the contrast that Jesus describes in the midst of this chaos and destruction. He says the “powers in the heaven will be shaken.” All the physical forces or powers of nature will have gone haywire, the spiritual powers or forces of darkness will be trembling at their coming judgment, all earthly powers and authorities will be bowing their knees to the One King. But amid all this quaking chaos and instability descends the Son of Man, riding on the clouds with what? With great power and glory. All the powers in the universe will be shaken to their core; will prove weak and empty on that day. But there is One power that will be unshakeable, unstoppable, and eternal. And that’s the power of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. If we look to Him and trust in Him, we will be sheltered in the Mighty Fortress that is our God. “We will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Ps. 46:2). We’ll attach ourselves to Him, because though the “heaven and earth will pass away, [His] words will not pass away.” Christ and His Word are the eternal power we grab hold of.

So for us, there’s no reason to fear—for we know that if we survive till that day, that we are Christ’s and that we’ll be caught up with the Lord. The Son of Man will send out His angels and gather His chosen, His elect, from the four winds or corners of the earth. No believer in Christ will remain isolated, lost or hidden, but all will safely be gathered to Him. The Lord has His eyes set on us for our good (Jer. 24:6) and He knows our address—He watches over all our steps. Though there’s no reason to fear, there is reason to be sober-minded and to be alert to the signs of His coming. He gave us this warning and knowledge beforehand so that we wouldn’t be caught unprepared for His coming. For it’ll happen suddenly, and at an unexpected time.

From the first parable of the fig tree, Jesus teaches us the lesson that His return shouldn’t catch us by surprise, because we should be able to recognize the signs that He’s near. He’s told us these signs—wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, etc will all precede His return. From the second parable of the master leaving on a journey and leaving His servants in charge, each with their work—we’re to learn to be alert and watchful of His coming. He has assigned us each our work and tasks, and we’re not to remain idle. His coming could be at any time, so His command to us is “Stay awake.” Obviously it doesn’t literally mean that we shouldn’t sleep; but that we should be alert and spiritually watchful for His coming. Living lives that are godly and pleasing to Him, and praying for His return (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

Briefly back to the movie comparison, you remember that all these disaster movies are about survival, and that the survivors live on in the world that has been ravaged by disease, warfare, or catastrophe. Their survival is bittersweet. But when Christ returns and gathers us from all corners of the earth and rescues us from the great destruction of the heavens and the earth, we’re not looking forward to a bittersweet survival in a ravaged world—but we’re looking forward to the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). We’re not looking for survival—we’re waiting for the fulfillment of salvation! Our deliverance from the faltering, dying, perishing world that has reached its last breath will be a deliverance of total rescue into the heavenly mansions and the new creation that God has prepared for all believers. No more fear or threatening, or any danger to harm us.

The story of our survival…no…of our salvation, and of the strong deliver who rescued us from overwhelming odds surpasses all the bland and mediocre disaster stories that man can invent. The overwhelming odds were stacked in this way: every one of the billions of human beings that have lived on earth had one clear and deserved fate—eternal death in hell because of our sin. The threat of that existence is one of unimaginable terror. No one was destined to survive, no one had the strength to overcome the powers and authorities of darkness in this present age (Eph. 6:12). Then one man, the Son of Man, the promised Messiah and hero, stepped in against the enemy, faced the enemy…and died. The hero of the story died! And there were no other heroes to step in and carry on the fight!

It was the last hope of all humanity that died. But the remarkable twist in the story was that His death became the stronghold of life for us. His death blindsided the devil and all evil with that marvelous unraveling power that Christ will put to work again in the day of His return. The marvelous power by which He holds all things together (Col. 1:17) and by which He can pull all things apart. By His innocent death, and passing through the portal and into the stronghold of death, He burst open the gates of hell and shattered the chains that kept us in bondage to sin. Forgiveness and life unraveled all the works of evil, all the power of the devil that held us captive. Life triumphed when Jesus rose. Salvation came in the most unlikely way.

On the last day, at Jesus’ return, the survival…no…the Salvation from the end of this world will be by clinging to Him who alone will stand firm and unshaken on that day. The devil has no more ammunition, no more venom that He can attack Christ with, because all the guilt of sin was unraveled in Jesus’ cross. That stake in the ground on which Jesus hung marked the battle line which God drew upon the earth. All the forces of evil can and did crashed against Jesus on that cross, and like a Mighty Fortress He remained immovable, till His innocent death raised an invincible stronghold around us. That invincible stronghold is the perfect righteousness or innocence of Jesus—the glory of the Son of Man who gave His life for ours. By repenting of sin and trusting in Him, we remain inside that invincible stronghold, and will be kept safe from all evil through the day of His coming. His salvation will be forever and His righteousness will never be dismayed (Is. 51:6b). In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What makes “end of the world” disaster movies so popular? Why is it futile to try to place a date on the world’s end? (Mark 13:32).

2. What information does Jesus give us about the end of the world? The apostle Peter? (2 Peter 3). What are the warning signs? (read all of Mark 13).

3. What does it mean that the “powers in the heavens will be shaken?” What power remains unshaken on the Last Day? How does Jesus stand as a refuge for all believers on that day? (Psalm 46; Isaiah 41:6; Mark 13:26, 31).

4. What do each of the two parables in our reading teach us about Jesus’ return and how we are to be prepared for it? How are we to “be on guard, stay awake?”

5. In what way are we expecting much more than mere survival, but a total and complete salvation? On what does our hope rest? What odds were against our salvation?

6. How did Jesus, the hero of our story, save us? How did He put His almighty power to work in His first coming, and how will He put it to work again in His second coming? How’s the real story of salvation superior to all the earthly stories that echo it? What’s the conclusion? Where do you fit in?

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