Living in the latter days

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Let’s pray:

Father we thank you for your word, which is now in our language, and makes us wise for salvation. We thank you for your Spirit who gives us life. We pray your word and Spirit may be active among us to accomplish your good purposes. Amen.

“I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” It was a long time ago that my Dad took me to see Lord of the Rings at the cinema, but I remember that line very well. Frodo Baggins is a hobbit. He has lived a quiet and peaceful life in the shire when suddenly his uncle disappears and leaves behind his old Ring. Upon receiving that Ring, Frodo is dragged out of his quiet home, and dragged into a war amongst men, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, trolls and other terrifying monsters. “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” He says to his friend Gandalf. “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Well we don’t have powerful rings, and not many of us will need to make a perilous journey to a volcano. But none of us gets to choose the times we live in. All of us are given the responsibility of what to do with the time that has been given to us; in the circumstances we are in, with the resources that we have to hand. So what times do we live in? And what will we decide to do in the time that is given to us? This end note to the Colossians from Paul will help us.

If you go to money saving experts to choose whether or not to have a fixed term gas tariff; or to a financial advisor to decide where to invest your savings; or to google to decide what new smart phone to buy – you know how important it is to try to understand the times you’re in so that you can make right decisions in life. Will gas prices go up, and for how long, determines what kind of tarif we choose. What interest rates and tax are forecast determines where we put our savings. What the latest smartphones are being designed to do determines what we choose to buy. We need to know the times that we are living in. And Paul is writing to the Colossians knowing that he, and they, and we are living in what our Old Testament reading called: The Latter Days. That is, it is now coming to pass Isaiah 2.2-3:

…that the mountain of the house of the LORD is being established as the highest of the mountains…And the nations are flowing to it…[Many people are coming and saying] “Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob…For out of Zion the law is going forth…

Isaiah spoke in Old Testament language and images about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and about the Gospel going out to all the world. And he said that the latter days would be marked by people of all nations hearing and responding to this Gospel and receiving eternal life. So, let’s remember what Paul wrote about the Colossians in Colossians 1.5-6:

Of this [hope] you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.

So if those are the days we live in; how ought we to live. These closing words are written on the faith that the Gospel of Jesus Christ turn hearts back to God. We’ll look at them in two headings: 1. Work to get the Gospel to the nations. 2. Work to get the Gospel in our Church.

1. Work to get the Gospel to the nations:

Colossians 4.2-4:

Continue steadfastly in prayer; being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in chains, that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

All of us have been given meaningful work to pray. Our prayer lives reveal our values. Many of us know how easy it is to be distracted from praying, how easily we turn to other things. So Paul writes: continue steadfastly in prayer. And the special thing he asks the Colossians to pray for is that God would open a door for the word to declare the mystery of Christ. There is one over arching strategy – get the Gospel to the nations. If we can get the Gospel to the nations, God promises there will be people who respond. Isaiah says they will flow like rivers up a mountain. So Paul says – I just want opportunities to clearly tell people what God has done for them in Christ. Pray for an open door to do that! Not all of us will live lives like the Apostle Paul, set apart for evangelism in places where people haven’t heard of Jesus. But, all of us are called to pray for those like Paul who are doing that. One of the most moving examples of that I have heard is told by John Paton, who himself was a missionary to the Pacific Islands in the 19th Century. Paton tells the story about how he desired to go to the Pacific Islands, but everyone discouraged him. They said he’d be eaten by cannibals. They said he was throwing away his life and abandoning fruitful gospel ministry in Scotland. So he went to his parents to ask what they thought. And they said:

[up to now] we feared to bias you, but now we must tell you why we praise God for the decision to which you have been led. Your father’s heart was set upon being a Minister, but other claims forced him to give it up. When you were given to them, your father and mother laid you upon the altar, their first-born, to be consecrated, if God saw fit, as a Missionary of the Cross; and it has been their constant prayer that you might be prepared, qualified, and led to this very decision; and we pray with all our heart that the Lord may accept your offering, long spare you, and give you many souls from the Heathen World for your hire.[John G Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides; an Autobiography, 2013 edition, p.570].

I find this extraordinary for two reasons – first I imagine the disappointment Paton’s father had when other circumstances forced him to give up his desire to be a minister. Which makes his wife and his decision to consecrate their first born son to missionary work all the more moving. Paton’s father never left Scotland but he prayed that his Son would, and that he would take the Gospel to cannibals living in the Pacific Islands for the glory of God and for their eternal salvation. I just wonder how I would feel for God’s plans if my plan A didn’t work out. Paton’s Father is an encouragement and example to me of continuing steadfastly in prayer for the Gospel to reach the nations. By the way, according to Operation World, the country of Vanuatu where Paton ministered is now 94% Christian and its motto is “In God we Stand.” So, Paul wants us to pray for an open door for others, and also to take opportunities we get for sharing the Gospel too. Colossians 4.5:

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Someone with better Greek than me says that the phrase making the best use comes from the verb ‘redeem’ or ‘buy-back’. The image is like an investor who sees something precious and buys it up while they can. The times we live in are precious. We may think we’re stuck in a rut; that there is no useful meaningful work for us to do. All the action is being done by others and we’re just left on the sidelines. But, remember we live in the latter days. We may feel like our friends and family are impossibly resistant to the Gospel. We may feel like nothing we do really matters. Paul reminds us that these latter days are marked by precious opportunities for all people to hear the Gospel which saves.

I’ve mentioned Darlene Diebler before; she was a missionary to Papua New Guinea in the 1940s until Japan invaded and she and her husband and all their team became prisoners of war. She was separated from her husband and treated brutally by her captors. And in those circumstances, who wouldn’t forgive her for thinking “What is God doing? Why has he allowed fruitful missionary work to be interrupted and for my life to be ruined in this way?” In 1943 she received news that her husband, Russell, had died in a different POW camp, due to the harsh treatment of his captors. The same evening she was summoned to the camp commandant’s office who tried, in his way, to comfort her by saying: “This is war, these things happen”. Listen to how she responded:

“Mr Yamaji, I don’t sorry like people who have no hope. I want to tell you about Somone of Whom you may never have heard. I learned about him when I was a little girl in Sunday School back in Boone, Iowa, in America. His name is Jesus. He is the Son of Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He died for you, Mr Yamaji, and He puts his love in our hearts – even for those who are our enemies. That’s why I don’t hate you, Mr Yamaji. Maybe God brought me to this place and this time to tell you he loves you”.[Evidence not Seen, Darlene Diebler Rose, 1988, p.102].

What was God doing? What is God doing with you? Where has he led you? Among whom has he placed you? What opportunities are there that you can buy up, with gracious speech, seasoned with salt? Remember we are in the latter days – the time when the Gospel goes out, and causes people to willingly turn back to God. So Paul wants to work to get the Gospel to the nations. We’ll pass briefly over Colossians 4.7-15. Just to notice that Paul wants to connect the Colossians with other Christians who are working to get the Gospel to the nations. So Tychcisus will tell them of Paul’s activities. Onesimus will come back with him; and we can read more about Onesimus in the letter to Philemon. Aristachus, Mark and Jesus called Justus also say hello; these guys have been helping Paul in his ministry and Mark may be passing by and the Colossians have already received instructions on how to help him. Epaphras continues to pray for them so that they will gro in maturity and assurance. Luke and Demas, other co-workers also send greetings, and Paul greets the church Loadicea and the church in Nympha’s house. All is to say; the Colossians are part of a great enterprise that is taking place in the latter days. They are involved with Christians throughout the Middle East and Asia. And we too are involved, 2000 years later in our little corner of Europe, in England, in the North East of England. All Christians are connected in the work of getting the Gospel to the nations. And we’re to offer help, and to pray for one another. But let’s move on to look at the last words Paul says: Which is:

2. Work to get the Gospel in your Church.

Colossians 4.16:

When this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.

We are not just to get the Gospel to the nations, but we are to live by the Gospel at home. Paul was an Apostle of God; he was one of a few people whom God had authorised to provide the foundation for the church. What is the Gospel? Who is Jesus? What does it mean to follow him? These are questions that many people today have an opinion about. But Paul and the other apostles were set apart and commissioned by God to define these things through the Holy Spirit who inspired them. The church today is NOT free to move on from Paul and the other apostles. And it is wonderfully heartening to see in one of the founding articles of the Church of England such a clear recognition of that. Artcile 20 of the Church of England says:

THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

So may I end in with a plea: We live in the latter days. God has given us a wonderful promise that if we get the Gospel out to the nations, people will hear and respond and receive eternal life. We can see encouraging signs of that happening all over the world, as Paul could in his day. Please can I plea with us to work to keep the Gospel in our church? In particular, please can I plea that none of us think: “well I know enough to tell someone about Jesus – so everything else is extra.” You might have recently become a Christian, you may have been a Christian for decades. What has God been showing you from his word recently? What have you been learning? Can I urge you to make it your ambition to grow in your knowledge and love of God from his word, which defines the Gospel that saves. So let us decide what to do with the time we have been given. We live in the latter days – with the promise that God will make peace between nations as his Gospel is made know to all people. Let’s work hard to get the Gospel to our nations, and to keep the Gospel in our church. Let’s pray:

Father we thank you for your word which defines the Gospel which saves. We pray, that as we have received Christ, we may continue to walk in him, rooted and built up, and strengthened in faith as we have been taught. For Jesus’ honour. Amen.
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