Strictly speaking, a sermon is not an opinion piece because it does not arise out of the opinion of its author but is written, as it were, under orders. Preaching is an act of obedience to the Word. It is the preacher’s task to wrestle with the text, be confronted by the text, and let the congregation know the results. Sermons cannot really be torn from their context of Christian worship without doing them some damage. So it is with some hesitation that I present a sermon preached on October 16 for your consideration. I do this because I think that this particular sermon is useful in clearing up some common misunderstandings about the nature of the gospel.
We Christians have to bear any number of jokes at our expense that we bear with graciousness and good humour. There are all those jokes set before the pearly gates and St Peter, those about the Rabbi, the Priest and the Minister, those about what Adam and Eve said to each other. Indeed, jokes about religion are an absolutely necessary way of bringing levity to a subject that so often becomes too serious for its own good.
One of the jokes against religion appears in cartoon form, a little raggedy man holding up a sign that says, “The End is Nigh”. There have been a large number of real life doom-sayers in our history, even famous ones like Isaac Newton, who spent years calculating the exact date of the end of the world from biblical texts and came up with the year 2060, so we still have some time left.
Well, he was right about gravity!
So many predictions have come and gone, all of them wrong. So it is understandable that anyone predicting the end of the world is greeted with some scepticism. However, in 1 Thessalonians, we get a hint that the end of the world did loom large for early believers.
For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
If we investigate further we find that this is more than a hint in the New Testament. Paul, the earliest Christian writer, believed that the end of the world was imminent.
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 1 Cor. 15:23,24
When we look at the gospels we find that they all contain this theme. One of the earliest is the little apocalypse in Mark 13.
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.
We must admit that the whole of the New Testament is directed towards the end of times and that little man with the placard cannot be as easily dismissed as a religious fruit cake. The technical language for the end time in theology is eschatology - the study of the eschaton, the last things. So we must say that the New Testament is thoroughly eschatological, thoroughly focused on the end of history.
Now this has been a somewhat embarrassing discovery in the church because it associates us too readily with the little man with his placard, too readily with the apocalyptic, too readily with religious enthusiasts waiting on mountain tops for the coming disaster. And so in most of the 18th and 19th centuries the study of eschatology was pushed to the background and was thought to be an embarrassment. But without this understanding, the New Testament, and much of the Old, is indecipherable.
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