Will the World End?

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It’s that time of year when people start asking, ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ And, as usual, I haven’t even begun to think about it. Whereas up at the North Pole I guess Santa’s preparations are in full swing. In particular, the elves will be doing their yearly maintenance reports on the sleigh. And I wonder if they’re anything like the ones recently published by the airline Qantas - which show that even engineers have a sense of humour. Each Qantas report sheet has a section for the pilot to fill in, headed ‘Problem’ and then a section for the engineer to fill in, headed ‘Solution’. Here are a few examples (I’ll leave you to imagine the Australian accent):

Problem: Aircraft behaving funny after take-off
Solution: Aircraft told to be more serious

Problem: Evidence of leak on right main landing gear
Solution: Evidence removed

Problem: Test flight OK, but auto-land very rough
Solution: Autoland not installed on this aircraft

Problem: Mouse spotted in cockpit
Solution: Cat installed

And I’m sure Santa would approve of that kind of merriness among his staff as they get ready for Christmas. But getting back to the real world, the irony is that millions of people will spend the next 28 days getting ready for Christmas, while completely missing the point of Christmas. Because the point of Christmas is that it was all about God getting us ready for the end of the world. That’s why, if you saw an invitation card to this Advent Carols service, the title on it was, ‘Will the world end?’ Now you might be thinking, ‘Surely Christmas is all about looking back to the birth of Jesus.’ Which is true. But the reason God sent his Son into the world back then was to get us ready for the future - for the day when, like we say in the creed, Jesus ‘will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ Now it might be a new thought to you - and a strange one - that the Jesus who lived 2000 years ago will come again to wrap up history and judge everyone who’s ever lived. So we’re going to look at some words of Jesus where he himself claims that’s what’s going to happen. We heard them in our second Bible reading from Matthew 24.36-44.

These words are from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew begins with Jesus’ supernatural entry into the world – the virgin birth. And it ends with his supernatural exit – his death on the cross and then his rising again from the dead. And here, just before his death and resurrection, Jesus is speaking about the day in the future when he’ll come again. Let me read from verse 36. Jesus says:

36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, [ie, Jesus] but only the Father [ie, God the Father].”

(v36)And his great concern is that we may not be ready. Read on, v37:

37 “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man [which was one of the titles that Jesus used for himself].” (vv37-39)

Now you might be thinking, ‘I thought Noah and the flood was just a story – like the owl and the pussycat going to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. Surely you can’t believe it really happened.’ But it’s pretty clear that Jesus did. And since he rose from the dead to put it beyond reasonable doubt that he is the Son of God, I bow to his authority. And he taught that God his Father really did create the world and us in it. He taught that we really have brought ourselves under God’s judgement by saying ‘No’ to his ways and living our own way – by our sin, as the Bible calls it. And he taught that the flood was a sign in Noah’s generation of the way God will judge every generation – when Jesus comes again. Which is why Jesus came a first time to get us ready. Look down to v42 of the Bible reading:

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (vv42-44)

Now I realise that talk of judgement drops like a lead balloon in the festive season – or in any other season, for that matter. And you might be thinking, ‘Surely Christians believe in a God of love.’ But the answer is: we believe in a God of love and judgement – which are not opposites. I know a family whose boy came back from school one day very upset. And they asked him what was wrong. And he said, ‘It’s Miss Whatever-her-name was (his teacher).’ And they said, ‘What about her?’ And he said, ‘She doesn’t care.’ And they said, ‘What do you mean? Are you being bullied or something?’ And he said, ‘No. She never marks my work.’ You see, marking – judging - is a loving thing to do. It’s not judging that’s the careless thing to do - that says that nothing we do really matters. It would be a dreadful thing to live in a universe where, at the end, God pronounced that nothing really mattered. So it’s a loving thing that God will send his Son again to judge. And it’s an even more loving thing that he already has sent him that first Christmas - to warn us and to get us ready.

Now we don’t like warnings. I sometimes drive out for day-off walks in Northumberland and the main roads have signs along them saying things like, ‘17 people killed in the last 3 years.’ You drive on a bit more and there it is again, ‘17 people killed in the last 3 years.’ And I don’t like those warnings. They spoil the countryside. They dampen my day-off spirits. But they’re loving. Because they’re meant to save me from becoming fatality number 18. And what Jesus says here is equally loving, because it’s meant to save us from not being ready when he comes again.

Now the problem we all have by nature is that we think we can get ourselves ready. And I’ve had people say to me the most amazingly self-confident things - like, ‘I’ve never done anyone any harm.’ Or, ‘I’ve always tried to live a good life.’ And with as much gentleness as possible, I’ve had to say, ‘That’s not true - at least, not by God’s standards of harm and good.’ Eg, one of God’s standards is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Well, can you or I really say we’ve treated every person on every occasion as we ourselves would want to have been? And that’s only one of God’s standards. There are more. And they don’t come like the exam paper that says, ‘Attempt not more than 7 out of 10 questions.’ So you can only be self-confident about the day of judgement if you don’t know the standards God is going to judge you by. Whereas if we take the trouble to find out from the Bible what God is really like, it’ll convince us that we are totally unready - and cannot get ourselves ready.

But the heart of the Christian message is that Jesus can get us ready. The question is: how? Well, to answer that, we need to understand what Jesus is going to do when he comes again. And he gives us an idea of that in v40 of the Bible reading. Let me read that to you again. Jesus says:

40 “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (vv41-42)

I.e., he’s going to separate the human race into two groups. Now some people imagine he’s going to separate us into those who’ve kept God’s standards and those who haven’t. Thankfully that isn’t true – because we’d all be in the group who haven’t - and all be condemned. Other people imagine that he’ll separate us into those who’ve lived above a certain standard – like 70% good - and those below. But God can’t compromise justice like that He can’t say 30% wrongdoing or even 1% wrongdoing doesn’t matter. He must judge sin where he finds it.

What Jesus is actually going to do is to separate people into those who’ve accepted him as King and those who haven’t. Because God’s whole plan is to create a place, finally, where everyone says ‘Yes’ to him as King and lives by his ways all the time. So there’ll be no more sin and none of the consequences of sin. Just imagine that. No keys. No locks. No alarms going off. No lawyers, no police, no doctors, dentists or nurses (no practising ones, that is). No broken hearts, no broken homes; no cancer, no wheelchairs, no funerals; no goodbyes.

And the way Jesus will bring that about is to separate people into those who’ve accepted him as King and those who haven’t. So if in this life we’ve said ‘Yes’ to him as King over us, he’ll recognise us as his subjects and welcome us in beyond this life. But if we’ve said ‘No’ to him – ‘I don’t want you ruling over me,’ then with no pleasure at all he’ll leave us outside. Because you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King. So the way to be ready is to become one of his subjects now. Which means we need to admit that up until now we haven’t been, and to ask his forgiveness.

Now so far, I’ve only talked about whether we will accept Jesus. But the far bigger question is: will Jesus accept us? Because forgiveness is the very last thing you can assume of God. Because when you think about it, a very great deal of forgiveness has to be involved. Eg, I first accepted Jesus as my rightful King 24 years ago, aged 16. Up to that point I’d lived as if God wasn’t there. I’d lived 16 years in God’s world, lapping up God’s gifts - and had made no conscious effort to please him. So there’s 16 years of that offence to forgive. Then since becoming a Christian, even though I’ve been trying to please him, I’ve continued to fail to. So there’s 24 years of those failures to forgive – plus however many more lie ahead in the rest of my life. And the question is: how can God forgive me all that? Or to put it another way, on the day Jesus comes again, how can he let me off the judgement I deserve? How could that possibly be just? And the wonderful answer of the Christian message is that he can let us off – without compromising justice - because he took our judgement in our place when he came a first time. Let me try to explain that using an illustration.

One Christmas my parents bought me the four volume Collins Children’s Encyclopaedia of Knowledge. It was intended to broaden my education. Whereas my main interest was to broaden my methods of attacking my brother Niall. And what was immediately obvious to me about this Encyclopaedia was that it would fall very heavily on my brother’s head if I balanced all four volumes on top of his bedroom door and then lured him through. So I got the door booby-trapped, left it ajar just enough to squeeze out of his room, and went to lure him. Now Niall didn’t like me using his toy cars so I found him and told him I was going to grab some from his room. There was the usual pantomime ‘Oh no you’re not’, ‘Oh yes I am’, and then I headed upstairs for his bedroom with him in close pursuit. And what I’d forgotten of course was that if you try to lure someone through a door with an Encyclopaedia balanced on it by running in first, what happens is that the Encyclopaedia falls on your head, not his. Which it did. And by the time Niall got there, he could come safely through.

Now what I did unwittingly for Niall is an illustration of what Jesus did willingly for us when he came a first time. Imagine the day we finally meet him will be like going through a door from this life into his presence. For each one of us, over that door is a judgement that ought to fall on us. And when God sent his Son that first Christmas to be born as one of us, it was so he could then go through that door of death ahead of us and have the judgement we deserve fall on him, instead of us. That’s what happened when Jesus died on the cross. So that if we put our trust in Jesus, God reckons our judgement to have been taken, so that we can then come safely through that door ourselves – as safely as my brother came through his bedroom door after me.

So that’s how Jesus is able to forgive us. But forgiveness isn’t the only thing we need to become one of his subjects. We also need to be changed into people who want to be his subjects, who want to live for him. And that happens through the work of his Spirit in our lives. Because the Christian message is not just that Jesus died for our forgiveness, but that he’s alive: that he rose again from the dead; and that he’s back with his Father in heaven; and that although he can’t be with us physically as he was with those first disciples, he can be with us spiritually. And the last book of the Bible – the book of Revelation – records some words of Jesus spoken after his resurrection that talk about that. The risen Jesus says this:

20 “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3.20)

So he pictures your life, my life, like a house, with all its different rooms – the room of work, the room of money, the room of our future ambitions, the room of our leisure time, the room of sex and relationships and marriage, and so on. And the picture starts with him on the outside - because we don’t by nature want him as King, we don’t by nature want to let him tell us how to arrange each of those different rooms. But then the Bible tells us this person we’re so rudely and wrongly keeping out died to forgive us and rose again; and that he’s saying to us, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in...” Which is a promise that if we’ll accept him as King, he won’t just forgive us and then sit in heaven at a distance expecting us to change under our own steam. It’s a promise that by his Spirit he’ll come into the house of our life, just as it is, with all its dirt, with all the hidden corners we wouldn’t want anyone else to know about, and he’ll start to help us clear it up and rearrange all those rooms the way they should be. And countless millions of Christians could testify that they’ve experienced Jesus in that way - that he’s not just someone we could have met if we’d lived 2000 years ago in Palestine, and that he’s not just someone we will meet when he comes again. But that he’s someone who can come into our lives by his Spirit today and change us and help us to live as is subjects.

Let me read v44 of our Bible reading one last time. Jesus says:

44 “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (v44)

And the Christian message is basically this: that we’re not ready; that we can’t get ourselves ready; but that Jesus can – by forgiving us and by coming into our lives by his Spirit – which is what he longs to do for each of us.

So at this time of year when people start asking, ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ God through these words in the Bible is asking us, ‘Are you ready for the far bigger thing – for the end of the world?’ If Jesus were to come again at midnight, and it was the end of the world, would you be ready? Or if you die before Jesus comes again, and head to the end of the world that way, would you be ready?

I guess some of us will still be thinking, ‘I’m really not sure there is anything to get ready for. There may be no God, and death may be the end.’ If that’s you, can I say: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead says otherwise. And can I urge you to give the Christian message more of a look. And one way to do that which thousands of people across the country have found helpful is to join this course called Christianity Explored – we run it here; you’ll find details on a leaflet on the Welcome Desk.

I guess some will still be thinking, ‘I’m ready as I am – without needing any help from Jesus. I’ve never done anyone any harm. I’ve always tried to live a good life.’ If that’s you, can I say: Jesus’ death on the cross says otherwise. If you could have got yourself ready, would God really have sent his Son to do that for you?

But I hope some will be thinking, ‘I’m not ready, but I want to be. In the words we heard from Jesus a moment ago, I’d like to ‘open the door’ to him and accept him as my King.’ Well, I’m going to end with a prayer that would be a way of doing that. Let me read it out to you first and you can decide if it would be an appropriate prayer for you:

Lord Jesus Christ,
I confess that I have rejected you as my King, and deserve your judgement.
But I believe that through your death there is forgiveness for everything.
Please forgive me and come into my life by your Spirit to enable me to live for you from now on.

You may already have accepted Jesus like that. Or you may be much further back in your thinking about all this, and not remotely ready to take that step. But if you’d like to, you could become a Christian by saying that prayer to the Risen Lord Jesus in your mind now.

If you have prayed that prayer and meant it, rest assured that God has heard and answer it. And in order to get some help with where to go from here, can I encourage you to let another Christian know you’ve taken that step? On the other hand, if you haven’t prayed that prayer but you know you need to make your mind up about these things, please do join us on our next Christianity Explored course.

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