Eschatology…Gesundheit!

First in a Lenten Series on Matthew 24,
Delivered March 1, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Matthew 24:1-3
1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples
came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.
2 "Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I
tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every
one will be thrown down."
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples
came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will
this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of
the age?"

Well, if we were in China right now, I ‘d be thrown in prison for what I am about to do–and that is to preach a sermon series on the return of Christ. Because that is the one doctrine of the Christian faith that is officially forbidden to be preached by pastors in the church in China. You see, the communist officials understand something that a lot of Christians don’t understand, and that is that the doctrine of the return of Christ is not a peripheral, tangential doctrine; it is not optional, it is not one of those take-it-or-leave-it fringe doctrines of the faith. No, because you see, if people really believe that one day the end of history is going to occur and Jesus is going to return in all of his glory and victory and establish his kingdom above all other kingdoms, well then, people are not going to take the powers, principalities, governments and political systems of this world all that seriously. We are going to take them with a grain of salt. You just can’t have people both looking for the return of Christ and taking the Chinese communist government seriously. So you ban the preaching of the return of Christ. It is a core doctrine of the Christian faith.

Over three hundred times in the New Testament alone reference is made to the second coming of Christ; that is one out of every thirty verses. A Scottish pastor has said that the doctrine of the return of Christ is “like a lofty mountain that dominates the entire landscape of the New Testament.” If you and I read the New Testament cover to cover, that mountain jumps out at us almost at every turn in the way; and so it is an important doctrine. But I have to ask the question this morning: Why then do we hear so little preaching or teaching on the second coming in the church today? Perhaps it is because we don’t want to be thrown in with Hal Lindsey and “The Late, Great Planet Earth” crowd. Or maybe it’s because we have seen that throughout history men and women have tried to predict when Christ was going to return and we have seen them fail. Did you know that Christopher Columbus actually wrote a book called The Book of Prophesy and that in that book he predicts that the world is going to end in 1656? Or how about respected radio preacher Harold Camping a few years ago? This was a much esteemed man, a good solid reformed biblical scholar who suddenly became fixated on the return of Christ and predicted that it would happen in late 1994 and has since been sort of discredited. Or maybe it is because we don’t want to be seen as being like, you know, that perennial guy in the New Yorker cartoons with the beard and sandals and the clapboard sign that says “Repent! The End of the World Is Near!”

For whatever reasons, we seem to shy away from it; yet a recent U.S. News and World Report survey showed that two-thirds of all Americans say they believe that Christ is going to return one day. Sixty-seven percent of them said they believed that the world would come to an end at a certain time in history. U.S. News and World Report did that same survey three years ago, and in the three years since then the belief in the return of Christ has risen 5%. Well, what happens when you’ve got a lot of people out there expecting the return of Christ, interested in the return of Christ, but the church is pretty much silent in its preaching and teaching on it? Well, back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the church was virtually silent on preaching and teaching on the second coming of Christ and what happened was that a theological vacuum was created and into that vacuum rushed all kinds of false teaching. Then by the mid-19th century you have the rise of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and the Mormons. They all center around the end of the world and the return of Christ.

All of this gives rise to the story about the priest who comes rushing into the Pope and says, “Holy Father, Holy Father, I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” and the Pope says, “What, my son?” “The good news, Holy Father, is that the Lord Jesus has returned!” And the Holy Father says, “That’s great! Praise be to God! What’s the bad news?” “The bad news is that he landed in Salt Lake City.”

Well, we are not going to have that theological vacuum here at Central. Over the next six weeks, for the Sundays in Lent, we are going to take a rather in-depth look at eschatology. No, I didn’t sneeze; that is the theologically precise term for the end-times, the last days of which the return of Christ is a part. You see, we Christians believe that history is moving toward a final consummation. We believe that there is meaning and purpose in human history because God is active in and through human history. In fact, human history is really his story and we are going to see in Matthew 24 that Jesus is going to become our teacher, that he himself is going to tell us how all of these things are going to take place. So let’s begin this morning and if you have your Bible with you, turn with me and keep your Bibles open during the sermon to the 24th chapter of Matthew and look at Verses 1 to 3.

This is the word of God. “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?'”

Join me as we pray. “And now, Father, as my words are true to Your Word, may they be taken to heart; but as my words should stray from Your Word, may they be quickly forgotten, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Well, will the world really end with the return of Christ? The story is told of Jesus one time appearing to Bill Clinton and the Prime Minister of China and Bill Gates, and he says, “You men are the most important and powerful men on the face of the earth and so I wanted all of you to be the first to know that I am returning tomorrow.” So Clinton holds a press conference and tells America, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Jesus thinks I am one of the most important men on the earth. The bad news is that he is returning tomorrow and I won’t be able to finish out my Presidency.” Then the Prime Minister of China calls a press conference and he tells the Chinese, “I’ve got some bad news and some worse news. The bad news is that there really is a God and the worse news is that Jesus is coming back tomorrow.” Well, Bill Gates throws a party for eight thousand intimate friends and he says, “I’ve got some good news and some even greater news. The good news is that Jesus is coming back tomorrow and the greater news is that it means we’re not going to have to fix Windows 95 for the turn of the century.”

Well, seriously, I want you to think for just a moment: what is most important, most sacred, what is most precious and wonderful and valuable to you in this life in this world? What if I were then to tell you that one day whatever that one thing is, no matter how wonderful or powerful or holy it is, it is going to be taken from you and utterly and completely destroyed?

That is exactly what Jesus tells his disciples in the text before us today. Look at Verse 1 of your text. Jesus and the disciples have come out of worship there in the temple in Jerusalem. Now the temple was the most magnificent, awesome, holy, sacred, God-centered thing in the life of any good Jew. The temple was an awesome, magnificent building. It was constructed of polished white marble stone; some of the stones were forty feet long and were hundreds of tons in weight. Some of those stones were plated with gold and when the sun hit the temple at a certain time of day you couldn’t look at it because it glowed so brightly that you had to shield you eyes. It was truly one of the magnificent wonders of the ancient world. As they come out of the temple, the disciples call Jesus’ attention to it and they say, “Look, Lord, isn’t this the most awesome sight in all of creation?”

Jesus floors them in Verse 2 when he says, “Yeah, well, one day this is going to be just a pile of rubble.” They are shocked and you and I are somewhat surprised that Jesus would say such a thing. And yet we’re not, down deep inside, are we really? I mean that there is in each one of us that hunch down in there that all good things must come to an end – right! So Jesus tells the disciples that the temple is going to be destroyed. The most valuable and precious and most holy thing to them is one day going to be a pile of rocks.

What’s most important to you? Whatever it is, one day it will be completely and utterly destroyed. Well, come on, Lord, why? Well, Jesus and his disciples make their way down from the temple mountain through the valley of the Kidron and on up to the Mount of Olives and as they finally arrive up there, the disciples just can’t hold it in anymore and so in Verse 3 they ask the questions that are on all of our minds here today. Lord, when will all of this happen? What will your second coming be like? When will the world come to an end? Jesus then spends the rest of Chapter 24 in Matthew pretty much answering those questions.

You see, we Christians believe that one day Jesus will personally and visibly return to this planet, that he will bring history to an end and that he will bring his kingdom to fulfillment. So here today on the first Sunday in Lent, we stand not only at the beginning of the season of Lent, but you and I stand smack dab in the middle of another season–a season called the Second Advent and we wait for the second coming. If Christmas, the Incarnation of the First Advent, was D-day, when the victory was really won, then the return of Christ, the Second Advent is “The-Day”, when there will be consummate victory. However, that is yet to come and so we are here in between time waiting, waiting for Christ’s return.

So we ask the question, when is this going to happen? What is it going to be like? Well, you will have to come back over the next few weeks to find out those answers. I want to close this morning by zeroing in on “The” critical point that Jesus is trying to make in these three verses before us. It is a point that if you and I miss it, we are never going to understand the return of Christ, we are not going to understand the season of Lent, we are not going to understand this table that God so graciously invites us to, and we are not going to understand the meaning and purpose of our own lives. So we’d better get it!

In the 1996 African Methodist Episcopal Church Book of Discipline, there is a typographical error, and it’s under the section about what ministers of the Gospel can be brought to trial for, and it says one of those things is for charges of immortality. Now it was supposed to say charges of immorality, but you know that is not really a typo for you and for me here today if we really understand what Jesus is getting at in these three verses. You see, probably a lot of us ascribe immortality to a lot of important and wonderful and maybe holy things or people. I will bet that most of you here today or listening to my voice on the radio pretty much think of yourself as being immortal. I am an immortal being. When I die I am kind of automatically going to go to an afterlife. Well, if you think along those lines, then I want to bring you up on charges of immortality this morning, because that is erroneous. It is false teaching, it’s heresy, and it is not biblical at all.

The Scriptures make clear that there is nothing in all of creation that is immortal except God himself. That means that no building, even our new building going up outside, no person, no government, no political system, no economic system, no nation, no nothing in all of the universe is immortal except God. God is the only one who has an innate eternal life within him. When you and I die, we die. We are not immortal; only God is immortal. That means that if you and I are betting all our money on something else, if we are putting all our eggs in another basket, if we are investing our lives and our highest hopes, dreams, and resources in something else that we think is immortal other than God himself, then I am sorry, but we are holding a losing ticket. That’s why it is good that Lent rolls around this time every year, because it reminds you and me of who we really are; that we are mortal, not immortal. One day you and I are going to die. Folks, I have yet to do a funeral where the hearse is pulling a U-Haul. There is nothing that you and I can take with us, nothing from this world. We are mortal and we are going to die.

That’s bad news, but that is why God so graciously and lovingly places this table before us this morning. At this table you and I are reminded that though there is not one speck of innate immortality in us, that Jesus, God Incarnate, came to this world, lived a real life, died a real once-for-all sufficient, perfect, sacrificial death on the cross to break the bondage–the eternal bondage of death over your life and mine, and not to make you and me immortal, but to raise you and me, to resurrect you and me from the grip of death and into resurrection of eternal life.

You see, this table is a reminder that Christ comes back for you and me–either at the end of the world when his feet once again touch terra firma or at the moment of our death, when Christ in John 14 says, “I will come back and receive you unto myself, that where I am, you will be also.” So the promise of the gospel, folks, the good news of the gospel, is not immortality. None of us are innately immortal. The promise of the gospel, the promise of Christ’s death on the cross, the promise of his presence here today, the promise of the hope of his sure return is that you and I will be raised, resurrected to eternal life. The right way to this table, and the right way past the finality of the grave, and the right way through Lent on into Easter, and the right way not to immortality, but to eternal life, is all one in the same, and it is through a personal relationship with this Jesus whose words we have read this morning. So do yourself a favor, don’t go through one more Lent and then finally bump up into Easter wondering what all the fuss is about.

If the resurrection power of Jesus Christ is not alive and active in your life, then your death–and my death–is going to be as final as that squirrel we saw crushed in the street this morning. Oh, if that were only true! That actually would be good news. The truth of the gospel is that every human being will one day be raised. Those who have received Christ and fallen in love with Christ and have surrendered their lives to Christ will be resurrected to eternal life and those for whom Christ is something they have rejected and blown off or been at best indifferent to will be resurrected to eternal death–hell!

So your only hope and mine past the end of the world, past the end of our lives, all hinges on the return of Christ, that same Christ who lovingly and graciously meets you and me at this table this morning. As you and I come and receive his body and blood, listen–listen for his voice, listen for his promise to you and to me. Not a promise of immortality, but a promise of eternal resurrection life. For in this sacrament we proclaim that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again!

Join me as we pray:
Lord God, thank you for blowing apart our illusions that maybe we are or at least border on being immortal. Help us to face the reality, Lord, that we belong to you and you will raise us to eternal life. Lord, as we come to your table this morning, feed us, encourage us, open our eyes to your real presence, that we might give you all glory and honor, that we might stand fast until you come. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.

© 1998, Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org