The Future - what should we know?
A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent by Nathan Nettleton, 15 December 1996
We can face the unknown future with confidence because we know that the one who holds the future loves us and can be trusted.
On the road to Warburton, there is a little place called Wesburn. Does anyone know Wesburn? Well the thing that most people remember about Wesburn is the Baptist Church. They remember it because of the sign out the front. It reads, Wesburn Baptist Church - Independent, Pre-millenial, Fundamental. If ever there was a sign designed to put you off coming to church, its that one. Ive certainly never been game to go there. The only bit that gives me any comfort is the Independent line because it means they are not a member of the Baptist Union, and I suspect that if I ever went there Id be very glad theyre not!
In an obscure sort of way, the sign reminds me a bit of a song. Ive heard versions of it by Judy Small and Greg Champion, but Im not sure which one wrote it. Its called the French Song, and it is just a collection of familiar, but randomly sorted French words, sung with mock seriousness, and its very funny. You know, Gendarme, de-ja-vu, escargot, bon-appetite, vol-a-vent, that sort of thing. And when I see that sign out at Wesburn I think we could do another funny song full of weird theological words that nobody understands. Pre-millenial, fundamentalist, eschaton, propitiation, perichoresis, exegetical, glossolalia. There you go - the first verse written!
Now, why am I taking the mickey out of the good folk at Wesburn. Well, mainly because of the second line on their sign: pre-millenial. Just as a matter of interest, how many of you are confident that you know what pre-millenial means? It is a term that refers to a particular view about the details of what happens at the end of the world. And if you happen to be into these debates, you can be a premillenialist, a post-millenialist, or even an a-millenialist, and it all centres around whether you think that the thousand year reign of the saints mentioned in the book of Revelation is going to come before or after Jesus returns, or not at all. Personally Im an I-havent-got-the-foggiest-idea-alist.
Now if any of you think that that question is so important that wed better sort it out and put up a sign out the front about it, then I suspect youre going to be rather annoyed by the rest of my sermon and somewhat disgusted that our only plan for a new sign out the front is one that says Hall for Hire.
Each year, at the beginning of Advent, the set Bible readings bring us these images of the coming end of the world as we know it and the establishment of the eternal reign of Jesus Christ. In the evocative apocalyptic language we hear of the moon dripping with blood, the stars falling from the sky, and the Son of Man riding in on a cloud with power and great glory. And every year when faced with that, most of us who dont know much about pre-millenialism or post-millenialism cringe a bit, and wonder whether there is anything we can say about it all that doesnt sound like it belongs on a sign at the Wesburn Baptist Church.
Bizarre speculations about the end of the world tend to come in waves, and we are certainly facing a rising wave of it, with the year two thousand - the end of a millennium, approaching. For some strange reason those who like to make confident predictions about these things tend to think that whatever this thousand years in Revelation is all about, it is likely to start at the beginning of a new calender millennium.
Now on the surface you can see the way such thinking works. One thousand years after Christ. Two thousand years after Christ. A new thousand is about to start. But you dont have to look at it very hard before it all falls apart. Having made so many statements about how it would all happen at an unexpected time when no one was looking for it, Jesus is hardly likely to kick it all off on his two thousandth birthday is he? And even if he was, historians are pretty much unanimous now that we stuffed up the start of the calender and Jesus was probably born in about 4BC, which would meant that the world as we know it ended last year, and I dont know about you but unless it was the election of the Howard Government I didnt notice it. Or of course it could be the two thousandth anniversary of the crucifixion, in which case the millennial fever is about twenty nine years ahead of schedule. The more you think about it the sillier it looks.
You dont have to look too far to see what happens to people that get too caught up in fervour about the end of the world. Groups like the Heavens Gate cult with their UFO suicide pact and the Branch Davidians dying together in the Waco Texas inferno make the Wesburn Baptists look quite sensible and mainstream.
So what do we need to know about the eschaton, the last things, the grand finale of all time. Well, I reckon there are only two things that you need to know for sure about it, and these two things seem to be what all the Biblical writings about the subject are saying. The first thing you need to know for sure is that it is all in the hands of Jesus Christ. And the second thing you need to know for sure about it is that there arent any more things you can know for sure about it. Thats it, plain and simple.
You dont need to know when its going to be - Jesus said he didnt know himself - you just need to live your life so that youll be found living faithfully when the day comes. Jesus warns, towards the end of the passage, against living life in wastedness and weighed down by the worries of this life, for that day could catch you unexpectedly like a trap.
If you are dancing to the tune of Gods Spirit and the day comes, you will be found strong of heart, healthy of mind, full of life, just as you were created to be. If not you could be found wasted, shallow and listless, the life you were gifted with squandered.
If you are living life as a gratefully received gift, you will be found full of integrity, free of greed, anxiety or compulsion. If not you are more likely to be found weighed down by the cares of this world, preoccupied with climbing to your next promotion, finding the right accessories to go with your new suit, or getting the stain out of the upholstery in your car.
No, you dont need to know when the end is coming. Whether it is tomorrow or in a thousand years, live today consciously, honestly, simply, mercifully in gratitude for the love you have been given in Christ.
The craving to know the details of course, comes only partly from curiosity, and mostly from insecurity. Having seen so may dreams shattered and hopes come to nothing we long for confidence about what the future will hold. We want to see the details in advance to inoculate ourselves against further hurts and disappointments. So why does God withhold them from us? It seems a reasonable enough desire. Well, although we might not get the details, God does not withhold grounds for confidence.
All you need for confidence in the future is to know the one who holds the future in his hands. Think about it for a moment. Picture the people who turn up at Tullamarine Airport for one of those Qantas mystery flights. There is a great deal of uncertainty about their immediate futures. They are about to get into a large tin can, hurtle through the sky and end up who knows where. But do they lack confidence in the future. Not at all. They are excited and expectant, confident that they are going to have a good time. The uncertainty about the destination is part of the fun and they have no fear because they trust that the people who organise these things can operate planes safely and are not going to drop them off in the middle off a Bosnian battle or leave them in the middle of the Simpson desert with a map and a litre of water to walk home.
But how different would it be if the mystery was who was going to fly the plane. If you knew that part of the mystery was that there was only a fifty percent chance that a qualified pilot would actually be on the plane and even then only a forty percent chance that shed actually be in the cockpit, how many of you would be willing to turn up for a Qantas mystery flight then?
The gospel is not good news because it predicts a bright shiny future where all the details are secured in advance and nothing can alter them. The gospel is good news because it promises that the future is in the hands of Jesus Christ, because it promises a future based on the faithfulness of God.
In Jesus Christ we have seen the human face of God. We have seen the human God who will embrace us when we thought we were untouchable. We have seen the human God who will heal us when we had given up hope. We have seen the human God who will soften our hearts when we had lost faith in our own ability to love. We have seen the human God who will point out pathways of peace and reconciliation even in places as intransigent as Bosnia, the Middle East and Canberra. We have seen the human God who will not let even death have the last say, but breaks free of its clutches, blazing a trail on which all may follow from tragedy to newness of life, full of love and hope.
When we hear in the Bible that we will see the Son of Man descending on a thunderous cloud with power and great glory, it need not sound like a threatening image to us, because we are the ones who know that the one who comes is the one who has blessed the earth in the past. This glorious all-powerful Son of Man is also the suffering servant who went to the cross rather than sell out Gods love and mercy for us.
That is why we are able to live today with confidence and not fear. Not because we know what tomorrow will look like, but because we know that, in Jesus Christ, God does not give up on the world. Because we know that there is nothing that can happen to us that can separate us from the love of God and nothing that we can do that is beyond the reach of Gods mercy. Having come to us as Jesus of Nazareth, God promises to come among us as the great Son of Man, seated on clouds to rule the world. The one who comes on the clouds, that strange, powerful, cosmic Christ has a face which is none other than the face we saw on a baby at Bethlehem.
We do not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. We have a future, and it belongs to Christ. Thanks be to God.