Sermon -- How the Story Ends: Living Every Day in Light of the Last Day (1 Thess. 4:9-18)

A few notes, following up on yesterday's sermon:

1. Frank Senn on the eschatological/political background of Christ the King Sunday:

"Christ the King is not a festival of great antiquity, supplying the church year with neat narrative punctuation from time immemorial. In fact, the festival didn’t emerge until the twentieth century, and at first it had nothing to do with the end of the church year at all.

Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to counter what he regarded as the destructive forces of the modern world: secularism in the west and the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Italy and Spain, harbingers of the Nazism soon to seize Germany. Pope Pius intended to oppose the rule of Christ to the totalitarian claims of these ideologies. By intention or coincidence, the festival of Christ the King also landed on the last Sunday in October, coinciding with the Protestant celebration of the Reformation.

In the reform of the Roman liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the festival of Christ the King moved to the last Sunday of the church year. Thus, it no longer served as a “Counter-Reformation Day” celebration. But the new location proved to be more than an ecumenical gesture. Placed at the end of the church year, with its traditional eschatological emphasis, the festival now proclaimed Christ as “the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of humankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations,” in short, a positive reconstruction of the festival’s original polemic against political ideologies. The three gospel readings—for the brand-new three-year lectionary—present Christ as the Son of Man coming in glory, confronting the rulers of this world, and reigning from the cross."

In Protestant churches that have adopted Christ the King Sunday, it basically functions as [a] the last Sunday of the church year, pointing ahead to the last day when Christ returns, and [b] a fifth Sunday of Advent, focused on the coming of Jesus. The church calendar as a whole tells the story of Christ, beginning with the promise of his coming (Advent) and his borth (Christmas). But that story should be allowed to fizzle out during ordinary time.  It needs to come to completion. That's why Christ the King Sunday is a worthy addition to the calendar. It is not about Christ becoming Christ, but Christ consummating his kingdom.

We do not want the church calendar to be like so many modern pop songs which lack a proper ending and just fade away. The church calendar needs to come to a proper conclusion. I agree with C. S. Lewis, Randy Alcorn, and others who have rightly suggested that the church would benefit from more, rather, than less focused teaching on the final coming of Christ and the new creation.

2. I touched on some of the problems with the dispensational rapture view in the sermon. No one before John Nelson Darby in 1830 had taught this view of the "end times." It really has no academic defenders today because it has been thoroughly discredited exegetically, theologically, and historically. But it hangs on at the popular level, thanks to movies, best selling books (I would argue fictional books), etc. It has a grip on the evangelical imagination. Think of the bumper sticker: "Caution! In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned!"

The problem with rapture theology runs deep. It really brings with it a whole worldview with several unbiblical features: [a] It creates pessimism about the future. Things have to get worse so Jesus will return. This runs contrary to God's promises about the growth and victory of his kingdom in history. [b] It makes Christians into escapists. It truncates the Creation Mandate and the Great Commission. Instead of building a God-honoring civilization and discipling the nations, we prepare our souls for heaven and try to snatch a few more souls from the tribulation/hell before the rapture. [c] It teaches Christians they will not have to go through great tribulation. I believe the Great Tribulation Jesus referred to was clearly a first century event. But we should not think the the church in our age is going to be exempt from horrific suffering and persecution. Indeed, through our suffering, the kingdom grows. [d] The rapture view tends to make Christians into gnostics. The rapture doctrine overshadows the growth of the kingdom in history, the resurrection of the body, and the renewed (physical) creation.

I could go on, but this gives a good sense of the worldview problems created by the rapture theory.

3. If there is no meaning at the end of history -- if the universe simply peters out into death in the end -- then there can be no meaning during history either. In other words, without the right eschatology, life becomes meaningless. If everything ends with the flaming out of the sun in a few million years, nothing means anything at all.

The great struggle of secularism, at least since the rise of the so-called Enlightenment and Darwinism, is find meaning in a meaningless universe. Hence, the philosophies of Nietzsche, Sartre, etc, that call on people to, in one way or another, create their own meaning for themselves. But this is a charade. It does not work. At least Camus tried to be more consistent with nihilism.

Robert Rayburn's sermon on this text does a good job capturing the meaningless of life when we lose biblical eschatology:

"The most that can be hoped for if the future remains dark and unknown is some form of manufactured courage in which an attempt is made to make a virtue out of the meaninglessness of life — and the 20th century has devoted an immense amount of its literary and philosophical energy making that attempt.

Here is Bertolt Brecht, the German writer of several generations back:
Do not be misled!
There is no return.
Day goes out at the door;
You might feel the night wind:
There is no tomorrow.

Do not be deceived!
Life is very short.
Quaff it in quick gulps!
It will not suffice for you
When you leave it.

Do not be put off!
You have not too much time!
Leave decay to the redeemed!
Life is the greatest thing:
Nothing more remains.

Do not be misled
To drudgery and wasting disease!
What fear can touch you?
You die like all the animals
And nothing comes after.

It has been of course one of the most powerful arguments of Christian apologists in this century that this honest admission of the meaninglessness of life does not satisfy the human soul and does not prove possible to live with. Human beings who really have come to believe that they are mere animals with no personal future we have discovered to our terrible woe in this century, do not find meaning and freedom in life, but become like the cruelest and most heartless of animals and exact a vengeance on other human beings worse than anything we had imagined. Take away the prospect of a future, of a judgment day, of an ultimate goal for human life, and, we discovered, you take away everything that makes human life meaningful and tolerable. And, even then, no human being has ever come close to living out this philosophy of human meaninglessness. It cannot be done.

Human beings have within them a sense of eternity and of the true significance of their lives and they cannot and they do not adjust to the thought that they are merely animals with no connections before or after, that they are a piece of cosmic scrap thrown up on the shores of time. Made in God’s image as human beings are, they know they are more than that — they may not be able to explain how they know that, but know it they do.

But Christians have no such problems. They know not only that they were created by a personal God in his own image for the purpose of fellowship with him, they also know that life is coming at last to an end, to a goal toward which it has been pointing all this while. They know that there is a judgment awaiting all of mankind, a reckoning with God that makes every day that every human being lives in this world supercharged with significance, because every day will one day have to be accounted for. They know that the universal characteristic of human life in this world is sin and that left to themselves they could not escape the righteous judgment of a holy God. But they also know that God, who is merciful as well as holy, has intervened and made a way for sinners such as we all are, to escape his condemnation and to obtain in the eternal future not the woe we deserve but the joy and the fulfillment of eternal life in God’s very presence.

That way, of course, is Jesus Christ who came once into the world –as the author of Hebrews has it– to take away the sins of many people, and who is coming again a second time “not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

Now that prospect of the future gives a terrible and wonderful meaning to life. What is more, it gives exactly that meaning to life — that knowledge of right and wrong, that uneasy conscience in the face of the sinfulness of our lives, that conviction that goodness and love are true things and not mere sentiments, that instinct that our lives are important and have a true purpose, all of that and much more — I say it is the Christian view of the future that gives a basis and a foundation to all of those things that every human being knows to be true deep within himself or herself.

This is why the Christian faith never loses its power in the world — no matter that so many are offended by its doctrines and its laws, no matter that so many speak and act against it. It alone accounts for the most fundamental convictions that rest in every human soul and that alone give meaning to life.

The people who wish to believe — and there are many of them today — that they may do as they please do so on the usually unspoken and unconsidered assumption that the future holds no reason for them to act otherwise. Most people rarely consider the fact that, if that is true and the future is going nowhere in particular, then their lives now are without meaning and purpose and point and that it really matters not whether they live or they die. But, why do they believe that the future is empty of purpose and conclusion and fulfillment and judgment?

How do they know this? It is an assumption of terrific consequence. How do they know it is true? Ask a Christian how he knows the future, how he knows that Jesus Christ is, in fact, coming again to bring salvation to his people and to bring judgment to the rest, and he knows exactly what to say.

He says, as Paul says here in v. 14: we know it because Jesus has already risen from the dead, has already demonstrated his power over death. We know that this future is true because the extraordinary past of the Lord Jesus Christ is true.

What is more, as Paul says here in v. 15, we know it because Jesus taught it — and we have discovered that, unlike every other human teacher, everything Jesus ever said, all of his teachings, have been proved true and utterly reliable to us."

4. Last summer, when the TPC family was hit with several deaths in a short period of time, I send this note to the congregation, based on what 1 Thessalonans 4 teaches about the uniqueness of Christian grief:

"This has been a difficult week. The TPC family has been hit hard...Let us pray for those who are grieving:

Grant, O Lord, to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in thankful remembrance of your great goodness, and in the joyful expectation of eternal life with all who love you. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray, with all who mourn; that, casting all their care on you, they may know the consolation of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
Heavenly Father, help us to entrust our loved ones to your care. Though sorrow darkens our lives, help us to look up to you, remembering the cloud of witnesses by which we are surrounded. And grant that we on earth, rejoicing ever in your presence, may share with them the rest and peace which your presence gives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The death of a Christian is a time of both sorrow and joy. There must be space for grief, for recognizing that death is an enemy, and for acknowledging that a loved one has been taken from us. We live in a culture of death — but precisely for that reason, our culture tries to hide and sanitize and naturalize death. We must not do that. As Christians, we have a different view of death. We know that people die because we are sinners, living in a fallen world. But we have no need to hide death or pretend as if death is not an enemy because we have a hope that conquers death. We can look death squarely in the eye without blinking because we know Christ has overcome death.
Death brings great grief. But it is a grief that is bounded by, and ultimately gives way to, an even greater joy. Death as we know it is an invader in God’s good creation. Death tears apart body and soul, and tears loved ones away from those who love them. But because of the gospel, death never gets the final say. Thus, there must also be joy, because death is a defeated foe. We know the loved one has entered heavenly glory. We have the hope of resurrection life and the reunion of all believers as our promised inheritance on the last day.
Words cannot capture the grief we endure when a loved one is lost, especially in tragic circumstances. But neither words nor imagination can capture the glory that awaits us through Christ our Lord. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
Pray for these families as they grieve the departed."
5. A major theme in my sermon was the connection between the last day and today. We have to learn to connect our daily lives with the glorious future promised to us. We have to look at Monday morning in light of Christ's final coming. We have to approach each day with the final day in mind. David Scott's sermon on this text brings out another important connection (which I alluded to in my exhortation before the worship service), namely the link between the way Paul describes eternal life in God's presence, and our enjoyment of God's presence in prayer/worship right now:
"This is really the thing I want us to take with us into the coming week. It is this: we can take great comfort and great encouragement from this passage, not only in the face of death, but in everyday life, hour by hour, minute by minute. The kingdom of God that will come in fullness on that day has already been inaugurated. The Lord Jesus already reigns; he already sits at the Father’s right hand with all authority and all power.

The only difference is that on that final day, what is true of Jesus the King will be visible to our eyes, whereas right now it is seen only with eyes of faith. But the tremendous glory and splendor and the authoritative voice of the King – all those elements we see Paul grasping to describe here – those things are true of the King, even now! We can take great comfort in knowing that about our King, as we face the trials and the choices and the circumstances of our daily lives.

This takes us back to an interesting point that I mentioned in one of our previous sermons on Thessalonians, a point that Pastor Rayburn drew my attention to is this phrase “before our Lord” (or before our God…), or as the NIV has it, “in the presence of the Lord.” You find this phrase 4X in Thessalonians, 2X in the context of prayer (1.2; 3.9), 2X in the context of the 2nd coming (2.19; 3.13).

In other words, that we are before the Lord, in the very presence of God, when we turn in prayer to our great King – the same exact language is used to describe prayer that is used to describe his glorious coming! Even now, we have access to our great King. We can draw near to him, we can meet him, and we can experience his presence. We can live every day in light of the Lord’s glorious coming."
6. Finally, I was asked by several people at my comment that Jesus is probably not coming back soon. I do not have time here to defend my view completely (including addressing all the objections that come up), but here is a thumbnail sketch of some of the reasons for my claim:
[a] The near-coming texts in the NT are referring to Jesus' coming in judgment in 70 AD.
[b] The Great Commission should be fulfilled before Jesus returns, and this requires not merely a gospel witness in every nation, but fully discipled nations.
[c] In multiple places Scriptures says God will be faithful to a thousand (or even thousands) of generations. Deuteronomy 7:9 is an example. Moses wrote those words about 1500 BC -- about 4500 years ago. If God was faithful to only 1000 generations, we'd still have 36,500 years to go.
[d] To say that all Christians should believe in an imminent, "any moment" final coming is to say that that many Christians have been required to believe a lie -- and it is the truth, not lies, that sanctify us. To say with Hal Lindsey, as he put it a generation ago, "we should live like people who do not expect to be here much longer," is simply misleading at best, outright false at worst.
[e] Historically, Christians have done the most good when they have thought long-term about the future. For example, Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease on a piece of land when he started his brewing company, which went on to become a model of Christian entrepreneurship. Early versions of the Book of Common Prayer had a table to calculate the date of Easter out to 8400 AD. The Christians who started work on the great cathedrals knew they would not live to see their completion -- but they also knew anything worth doing would take more than one generation to complete. Finally, while I cannot verify its authenticity, I love this story about the oak beams at New College, Oxford:

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was probably founded around the late 16th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be eighteen inches square, twenty feet long.

Some five to ten years ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that caliber nowadays?

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be on the College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him about the oaks.

And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for four hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story. That’s a way to run a culture.