Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!

Third in a Lenten Series on Matthew 24,
Delivered March 15, 1998 by Dr. John Murray Smoot

Sermon Text:
Matthew 24:15-28
15 "So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that
causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel–let the
reader understand–
16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
17 Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out
of the house.
18 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.
19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and
nursing mothers!
20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the
Sabbath.
21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the
beginning of the world until now–and never to be equaled again.
22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but
for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.
23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’
or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.
24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform
great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect–if that were
possible.
25 See, I have told you ahead of time.
26 "So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not
go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.
27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the
west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.
Old Testament Lesson:
Daniel 9:1-3, 24,
12:1-4
9:1 In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent),
who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom–
9:2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the
Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the
prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.
9:3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and
petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
9:24 "Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city
to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness,
to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.
12:1 "At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people,
will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened
from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people–everyone whose name is found written in the book–will be delivered.
12:2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to
everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
12:3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens,
and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and
ever.
12:4 But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until
the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase
knowledge."

We turn now to a Negro spiritual – “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (sung by Murray) “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home; swing low, sweet chariot coming for to carry me home.”

Oh, yeah! And that is where we all are – down here, looking up, waiting and longing for that call back home! All humanity has been looking up, waiting, aspiring and longing for home. They tell us that that which characterizes us as human beings, (which in the Greek is anthropos) and hints that we are not like the animals that walk around on all fours looking down, but we are made to look up.

During those terrible and wrong times of the American slave holding, the slaves found their only surcease in their plaintive songs. Many of the black writers tell us that there is many a hidden thought behind many of the Negro spirituals. For instance, in ones like “Good News, The Chariot’s Coming” it is just a cryptic way of alerting others that the Underground Railroad is about to come through and to spirit some of them up North back to freedom and away from enforced servitude.

Now today I have been given an awesome responsibility. Pastor Scates is doing a series from the 24th chapter of Matthew and the section that he was to preach on was about the Great Tribulation. And then he got called out of town and so I’ve got the great tribulation. In this brief time I’ll try to take the passage that was read to you from the book of Daniel and the passage that I will now read to you from the 24th chapter of Matthew, and you will see that this is so convoluted, so bewildering and such a variegated way of approaching this that there is only one answer. And that answer is that I am only going to talk about just one word, and that one word is “tribulation.”

I am going to start where Pastor Scates left off, namely, the 14th verse of the 24th chapter of Matthew, and I am going to run a little bit into where he’ll be preaching, Lord willing, next week.

Hear the word of God and the words of Jesus: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation’, spoken of through the prophet Daniel–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now–and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect–if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

“Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.”

We trust that the Lord will add His blessing and understanding of this reading of His Holy Word, and to His name be the praise!

“Tribulation.” If we were to read it in the Hebrew or in the Greek, its root meaning is basically “a grinding pressure.” Now if you hope to be able to understand some prophetic literature, about the only way to come about it is to understand the use of an accordion. Now an accordion is drawing air and forcing air and the whole time that it is being played it is the same tune. The tune doesn’t change, the tune simply moves from the beginning through to the end, but in the process of it, as you well know, that there is the expansion and then contraction and then expansion and then contraction, etc.. Prophesy is written that way; sometimes it is compacted and a lot is said in just a sentence or two and sometimes it is being spread way out.

Now the gospels record three major discourses by our Lord. The first one was at the very beginning of his ministry, which was the Sermon on the Mount. Near the end of his ministry is this passage, which will be considered for several weeks here at Central Presbyterian Church, from the 24th chapter of Matthew, which is called the Discourse on the Mount of Olives or the Olivet Discourse. But at the very last evening of our Lord’s walk on this earth, he gives what is called the Upper Room Discourse, where he opens up to the disciples something that they really can’t quite grasp yet. He makes it perfectly clear to them, “I’ve got many things to tell you, but you can not bear them now; albeit when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will take these things of mine and reveal them to you.” So after Pentecost we have the writings of the apostles and they are giving an explanation of many of the things that are said in a cryptic form in the Old Covenant, and indeed even in the teachings of our Lord.

So what we have here basically is the question of tribulation. You read the passage and I will read it to you again from the 24th chapter; and you must understand that this is strictly a Jewish picture, the whole thing. Not only that, but there are three fulfillments of this sense of a tribulation.

The first one happened right away. What Jesus said in the Scripture I just read to you was for those who were living in his day. In 70 AD, the Roman armies circled Jerusalem. In the Luke passage, which is the same as that in Matthew, Jesus says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that the desolation has come.” Christians heard Jesus and responded, and instead of staying in Jerusalem they fled probably to Petra, and thousands of Christians were rescued from the terrible tribulation which came upon Israel at that time, when over a million Jews were crucified and about two million others were carried away captive. However, many of the Christians believed what Jesus said here and they fled without pausing for a moment, but they fled Jerusalem and were spared.

The second way of looking at tribulation is the future fulfillment: to spread it out, as it were. Here we are told in Revelation, Chapter 7 –and I would ask for you to turn with me there, please, to the book of Revelation–where we see a future fulfillment of this great tribulation. First of all, in heaven is seen (in the 7th chapter of Revelation) the sealing of one-hundred and forty-four thousand. These are all Jewish evangelists, who will become flaming messengers of the gospel; and thousands and thousands of people, during this time of great tribulation, will turn to God. We read in Verse 9, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God.'” Jump down to verse thirteen: “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?’ I said to him ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘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. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night.'” We see that there will be a future fulfillment of this time of great tribulation, which will eventuate in the return of our Lord for his own.

This reminds me of a very sophomoric freshman. When I was a freshman at Wheaton College, Herb Muller and I had our place to live furnished because we did some work around the house. The owners of the house went away for a week and so we had a high old time. We got a football game going out on their clay tennis court, which we were digging up pretty much, and so we came inside. We pushed some of the furniture aside in this lovely home in the living room and kept on with our football game. Right in the middle of the football game we heard the door of a car slam. The owners had come back a day early! So pretty soon we were out on the street looking for a place to stay. What a sophomoric thing to do!

Jesus said in this whole context, “I am going to come back when you don’t expect me;” and Saint Paul says, “We must not be ashamed at His coming.” The Daniel passage tells us that, yes, there will be great pressure, terrible pressure, but out of it will come the end of all sin. Three different Hebrew words for sin are used in that Daniel passage. It tells us that sin and transgression will be taken care of through this great pressure, but really I want to share with you the tribulation right now–fulfillment right now.

In the adult Sunday school class we were considering the passage in the fourteenth chapter of Acts, when St. Paul is stoned in Lystra and left for dead. Later he writes to Timothy and says to him, “I want you to be steady and remember this, that we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of heaven.” During the time of the Boxer rebellion in China, Hudson Taylor, who had been so concerned about the interior of China hearing the gospel, that he had been responsible for getting dozens and dozens of dedicated couples trained in evangelism, trained in the Scripture and sent them to the interior of China–only to suffer the time of what we call the “Opium War.” Telegram after telegram would come back to Hudson Taylor saying, “this couple, this couple, and this dear couple are dead and have been slain.” Finally Hudson Taylor, enduring this tribulation or pressure upon him, made this discovery. He said, “It matters not how great the pressure is, but where the pressure lies–whether it comes between you and God or drives you closer to His breast.”

Annie Johnson Flint has left us a memorable poem:

He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase.
To added affliction He addeth His mercy;
To multiplied trials He has multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half gone,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
His love has no limit, His grace has no measure,
His power has no boundary known unto man.
For out of His infinite reaches in Jesus
He giveth and giveth and giveth again.”

Let me read to you from Paul’s letter to young Tim. At the very end of his ministry, in 2nd Timothy, St. Paul writes this in the 4th chapter , “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” Jesus had warned the same thing. He said, “There are going to be false prophets. There are going to be crazy prophets that tell people to commit suicide in order to get in a spacecraft and find yourself in the tail of a comet. Anybody will believe a lie.” “But as for you, always be steady, endure suffering and do the work of an evangelist and fulfill your ministry. For I am already at the point of being sacrificed and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race and I have kept the faith and henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which God the righteous judge will give me in that day and not to me only, but unto all them also who love his appearing.”

Two words for the Lord’s coming: one of them is Epiphany, which means a shining forth of his glory, and the other is parousia, his royal presence. Oh, it’s great to be in church, it’s great to read the Scriptures and it’s great to pray, but none of that, dear friends, can possibly take the place of being in the royal presence. Someday we are going to look upon him and see him face to face. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Father, that is our prayer: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”