Learn the Lesson of Christ’s Coming (Matthew 24:23-35)

“He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Apostles’ Creed

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather.

“Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
    and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (New Revised Standard Version)

I live in the upper Midwest of the United States. The summers can be brutally hot and humid. The winters can be incredibly frigid and full of snow. Having worked with college students for many years, every Fall there’s always at least one international student, or a student from the South, that has never experienced a Midwest winter and snow. 

I can tell them over and over again that they need a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies. But, having never known sub-zero and sub-freezing temperatures, it’s difficult to imagine such cold when the weather is currently warm. I, or someone else, usually have to help them get a suitable coat. And even then, they shake all winter and never take their scarves off.

It might be difficult to imagine that someday Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead. Having never been through an apocalypse, it’s hard to imagine that everything will change.

That’s why Jesus told his disciples to learn a lesson from the fig tree (fig trees were abundant in ancient Palestine). When you see the tree beginning to change, know that something is about to happen. The tree will become altogether different than how you see it now. 

Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through so many hard winters, it is incredible to know that the weather and landscape as it is right now will be completely different in January and February.

The trees, the grass, the mountains, the valleys, the waterways, the oceans, the sky, and the earth won’t last forever – as it now exists. Yet, the words of Jesus Christ will endure for all time. 

Whenever circumstances are a particular way for so long, of course it’s hard to believe that seeing everything as it is right now is not how it is going to be forever. However, know that a time is coming when it will all cataclysmically change. If we are attentive and alert, we will be ready. And we won’t be left out in the cold with no warm winter coat. 

We are to be ready for Christ’s return. That means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate, and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. 

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Ephesians 4:22-25, NIV)

Concerning the great change that is about to occur with the entire earth changing…

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:11-13, NIV)

Learn the lesson of Christ’s coming. Winter is nearly here. Are you ready?

O God our King, by the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, you conquered sin, put death to flight, and gave us the hope of everlasting life. Redeem all our days by this victory; forgive our sins, banish our fears, make us bold to praise you and to do your will; and steel us to wait for the consummation of your kingdom on the last great Judgment Day, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Grace Changes Everything (Isaiah 12:1-6)

In that day [to come] you will say:

“I will praise you, Lord.
    Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
    and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (New International Version)

The Bad News

The reason prophecies are made about better times ahead is because the times now are not so good. That was true of Isaiah’s day, and still remains true today.

It’s easy to identify what’s wrong in this world, especially during a political election cycle! It’s not so easy to recognize the ways we keep ourselves as Christians in bad times. A big reason why, and I unabashedly state it, even though I say it much to my chagrin:

Christianity in our day has mostly failed at spiritual transformation because we have not identified and named the real evils we face, thus leaving us largely irrelevant to a world desperately in need of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, speaking to religious folk who should have known better, said:

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV)

The tragedy of our age, which was the same tragedy of Isaiah’s age, is that there are so many godless followers of God. They fuss about trifles while ignoring more serious matters. Many Christians’ faith is not much more than conforming to cultural Christian norms while mostly ignoring the realities in front of their faces.

We say we need God but then turn to Google for answers and solutions.

We bemoan the lack of righteousness in the nation, then obnoxiously argue with others and create unnecessary relational wedges.

We decry the injustice of our cities and our world, then do nothing to address the problems and change it.

We talk about the need for others to change rather than first looking in the mirror. Yet, even when we do that, we walk away and forget what we look like.

“For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

The Good News

However, judgment is not the last word. Even though the prophecy of Isaiah is thick with it, and I started out with less than uplifting words, there is one word that transcends every word: grace.

The grace of God is remarkable! The Lord made promises to Israel in Isaiah’s day not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radical and scandalous grace. It wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal, with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.

I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace.

Because God is Love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we can live up to being the sort of people our dogs think we are already.

If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives. 

If grace isn’t the answer, we aren’t asking the right question. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is wildly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives. 

Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. 

That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.

The Bible is an extended drama of redemption; and Isaiah’s prophecy is an adventure of God’s steadfast love toward unlovable people – which is why Isaiah is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. 

Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected. 

Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort of justifying and validating ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of grace, we are forever undone by God’s mercy.

Grace leads us to praise God

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us… In love he predestined us… to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, NIV)

Grace causes us to trust God

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31, NIV)

Grace results in our comfort and satisfaction in God

Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17, NIV)

Grace creates in us thanksgiving to God

“We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15, NIV)

The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you. And if that isn’t something that gets you expressing gratitude to God, then you have failed to see God in your dog. We make known among the nations what God has done because God has really done something in our lives worth babbling our thanksgiving over to everyone. And grace helps us to do it.

Grace causes us to sing together to God

When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! We need times of both silence and contemplative worship and times of becoming unhinged with some noisy worship to the God who has saved us and given us something to sing about. 

Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. (Psalm 98:1, NKJV)

Conclusion

The world mostly ignores God. Some Christians take God’s grace for granted. The greatest sin of all is the sheer absence of grace – because where there is no grace, there is no God. God is the expert in transforming apathetic people into caring, compassionate, and concerned citizens of the kingdom who raise their voices and declare the works of the Lord.

Isaiah’s entire prophecy is about returning to the Lord. And the upcoming season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.

Let us, then, return to the Lord… be captivated by grace… renew our love for Jesus… lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.

Let us worship Christ the King and proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything and everyone.

Gracious God, we come with nothing but ourselves and our baggage of sin. Forgive, cleanse, renew, revive, refresh, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted through us, to your glory and honor. Amen.

From Desolation to Restoration (Jeremiah 33:1-13)

While Jeremiah was still locked up in jail, a second Message from God was given to him:

“This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: ‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

“This is what God, the God of Israel, has to say about what’s going on in this city, about the homes of both people and kings that have been demolished, about all the ravages of war and the killing by the Chaldeans, and about the streets littered with the dead bodies of those killed because of my raging anger—about all that’s happened because the evil actions in this city have turned my stomach in disgust.

“But now take another look. I’m going to give this city a thorough renovation, working a true healing inside and out. I’m going to show them life whole, life brimming with blessings. I’ll restore everything that was lost to Judah and Jerusalem. I’ll build everything back as good as new. I’ll scrub them clean from the dirt they’ve done against me. I’ll forgive everything they’ve done wrong, forgive all their rebellions. And Jerusalem will be a center of joy and praise and glory for all the countries on earth. They’ll get reports on all the good I’m doing for her. They’ll be in awe of the blessings I am pouring on her.

“Yes, God’s Message: ‘You’re going to look at this place, these empty and desolate towns of Judah and streets of Jerusalem, and say, “A wasteland. Unlivable. Not even a dog could live here.” But the time is coming when you’re going to hear laughter and celebration, marriage festivities, people exclaiming, “Thank God-of-the-Angel-Armies. He’s so good! His love never quits,” as they bring thank offerings into God’s Temple. I’ll restore everything that was lost in this land. I’ll make everything as good as new.’ I, God, say so.

“God-of-the-Angel-Armies says: ‘This coming desolation, unfit for even a stray dog, is once again going to become a pasture for shepherds who care for their flocks. You’ll see flocks everywhere—in the mountains around the towns of the Shephelah and Negev, all over the territory of Benjamin, around Jerusalem and the towns of Judah—flocks under the care of shepherds who keep track of each sheep.’ God says so. (The Message)

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a large and rather difficult biblical book to read – not because it’s hard to understand, but for the continual words of divine judgment. Jerusalem, the center of the world and the jewel of Judaism, would be destroyed by a pagan army.

This was a very unpopular message in the city of Jerusalem. It was the sort of message which landed Jeremiah in prison, more than once. No one, in any age, wants to hear a steady stream of how their society will be crushed by enemies they despise.

Yet, consistent with all the prophetic books of the Old Testament, judgment and destruction never have the last word. There are rhythms of grace and restoration that move imperceptibly underneath the black crud of worldly injustice. And those movements will eventually create a wave of renewal which can wash away the apathy, anger, and avarice around us.

We, as readers examining the prophecy a millennia and half later, may fail to notice that God’s judgment is no spur of the moment thing. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians was centuries in the making.

The patience and continual wooing of the Lord for the people to return to fidelity of worship and practice of justice is what dominates the prophecy – and not some capricious deity who spontaneously flares in anger and scorches the earth.

All we have is now. This present moment is the one we are living. So, instead of worrying about the future – either of getting to heaven, or of avoiding hell – we are to love and serve the Lord in the now, and love our neighbor, in this present time we have to do it.

God will take care of the future. We can trust God to do what is right, just, and fair for ourselves and everyone else.

For the Christian, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a life to be lived, not just a set of rules or rituals to observe or doctrines to believe.

Every spiritual person since the dawn of time has struggled with the temptation to bifurcate the inner and outer self. That is a path of disintegration. It ends in destruction.

Jeremiah’s prophecy is an acknowledgment and naming of doing outward religious practices, while possessing an inward disposition which is very far from God.

The people were practicing “rabbit’s foot” religion, that is, believing that as long as they kept certain observances in place, then that would inoculate them from any harm – and they could do whatever they wanted.

Indeed, their hearts became hardened to the voice of the Lord and the cries of the oppressed. Yet, judgment never has the final say; grace and mercy do.

As bad as things may get, our circumstances are never too deep for God to turn them around. Restoration and renewal are divine specialties. And if a heart becomes so hard as to be petrified, the Lord is able to replace the heart of stone for a heart of flesh.

A dry and inhabitable soul can turn to a lush garden. A desolate life can be transformed to a habitation of justice, righteousness, and peace. The ire and irk of God can change to divine blessing and holy joy.

All spiritual restoration begins with silence… humility… repentance… return….

Renewal is a process, not an event. It is slow and tedious, pedantic and pedestrian. Restoration takes time. It is living one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, making daily choices of trust and faith which eventually add up to a beautiful life.

And along the way, the steadfast love of God never fails – always there, always supportive. Like earthly gravity, heavenly love is constant, continually keeping us grounded, even when we don’t acknowledge or understand it.

So, may today, and every day, be for you a walk of faith, trusting in the restorative presence of God to heal and transform pain and hopelessness to peace and well-being. May all desolate souls be restored. Amen.

Psalm 10 – Backstabbers

Why are you far away, Lord?
Why do you hide yourself
    when I am in trouble?
Proud and brutal people
    hunt down the poor.
But let them get caught
    by their own evil plans!

The wicked brag about
    their deepest desires.
Those greedy people hate
    and curse you, Lord.
The wicked are too proud
to turn to you
    or even think about you.
They are always successful,
though they can’t understand
    your teachings,
and they keep sneering
    at their enemies.

In their hearts they say,
    “Nothing can hurt us!
We’ll always be happy
    and free from trouble.”
They curse and tell lies,
and all they talk about
    is how to be cruel
    or how to do wrong.

They hide outside villages,
waiting to strike and murder
    some innocent victim.
They are hungry lions
    hiding in the bushes,
hoping to catch
    some helpless passerby.
They trap the poor in nets
    and drag them away.
They crouch down and wait
    to grab a victim.
They say, “God can’t see!
    He’s got on a blindfold.”

Do something, Lord God,
and use your powerful arm
    to help those in need.
The wicked don’t respect you.
In their hearts they say,
    “God won’t punish us!”

But you see the trouble
and the distress,
    and you will do something.
The poor can count on you,
    and so can orphans.
Now break the power
    of all merciless people.
Punish them for doing wrong
    and make them stop.

Our Lord, you will always rule,
but every godless nation
    will vanish from the earth.
You listen to the longings
    of those who suffer.
You offer them hope,
and you pay attention
    to their cries for help.
You defend orphans
    and everyone else in need,
so that no one on earth
    can terrify others again. (Contemporary English Version)

Nobody can go through life without having to deal with evil in the form of two-faced people. It’s just part of the human condition to experience it. 

The O’Jays sang about such persons in their 1972 song, Backstabbers: 

(What they do!)
(They smile in your face)
All the time they want to take your place
The back stabbers (back stabbers)
(They smile in your face)
All the time they want to take your place.

The psalmist knew first-hand about such people, all too well. He experienced their lies and their constant thoughts about cruelty to others and doing wrong. He watched their schadenfreude, that is, their delight in seeing others harmed and hurt. Outwardly, such devious people feign friendship; but meanwhile, they inwardly sneer and plot how to destroy. 

Schadenfreude: satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune.

However, there is a God who sees all of it, both the outward calloused deeds, as well as the inward plotting of insidious works. And, what’s more, God will act.

The problem for most of us, the victims of the backstabber’s blade, is that the time between God seeing and God acting is sometimes far too long. We cry out for justice, and rightly so. God sees and hears. And God acts when it is time to act, without being on our schedule to do it.

Meanwhile, during this awkward in-between time, until God dispenses the divine will on both the evil and the good, the righteous person remains hopeful and confident that their cries are being heard and that divine protection will prevail. The psalmist assures us that the Lord listens to the longings of those who suffer. God offers them hope and pays attention to their cries for help.

Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Romans 12:21, MSG

The way to face down the presence of hard-hearted people is to be both active and passive in the right ways: 

  • Actively cry out to God in prayer
  • Actively work for good
  • Take a pass on exacting revenge
  • Take a pass on nursing grudges and hate

If we can encourage one another to persevere in being consistently good, even while in the teeth of evil, it will go a long way toward spreading God’s benevolent and gracious kingdom and seeing God’s moral and ethical will done in our families, communities, and world.

Unfortunately, backstabbers will always be with us, no matter where we go, this side of heaven. Stay calm, don’t let the evil stick to your soul, and step back to see the big picture that vengeance belongs to the Lord… and maybe listen to some O’Jays while you’re at it.

God of justice and righteousness, you defend those who are vulnerable and in need. You will act so that no one on earth can terrify and harm others again. Shoo the bullying and belligerent ways of Satan away so that your heavenly kingdom may take root in the church and the world for the sake of Jesus our Savior. Amen