Sunday, January 1, 2017

Beginning with the End in Mind



The following is the manuscript from my sermon this morning at Camp Hill Church of God.
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Good morning, family, and happy new year!  It is the beginning of a new day, the start of a new year.  Some of you will remember, the first time I was up here to read Scripture, and Pastor Shover had to get a stool so you could see me over the lectern.  Now I’m going through seminary, and I stand before you where he so often stood.  His recent passing, and of other loved ones this past year, make us gaze toward eternity and our reunion with the brothers and sisters who have gone before.  We can grieve, yet we do so with hope, as the Apostle Paul encourages.  We are pained by the loss we feel, and we miss them.  And yet in Christ, we rejoice not only in the gift that they have been to us, but that there is a sure and true hope of life everlasting beyond the grave.  They have gone before to be with Christ, and we long to follow after.
               So I think it appropriate this Sunday, this first day of a new year, to begin with the end in mind.  It’s a principle I learned in my engineering classes, and you see it in books on leadership and parenting and do-it-yourself projects, that it’s important to know where you’re going, so that you don’t just barge ahead aimlessly.  It’s good to begin with the end in mind.
               And so today we have read together just a few of the many passages that speak to us of the end of all things, which is really just the beginning of eternity.  As Craig read, God declares that He will make all things new, new heavens and a new earth.  No more of the evils with which we are beset in this life.  No more pain, no more sorrow, because God has made all things new.  And there’s something even better than that: God Himself will dwell among His people.  As Tim read, there won’t be any more temples or church buildings, because Christ Himself will be our meeting place with God.  The glory of the Lord will shine so brightly that it says we won’t need a sun or moon anymore!
               I love in chapter 22, verse 4, it says we will see God’s face.  You might remember, back in Exodus, chapter 33, where Moses begs to see God’s glory.  And God says that Moses can only see God’s back as He passes by, because no sinful man could see God’s face and live.  But we will get something more than Moses did; we, as those who have been redeemed by Christ’s blood and made holy by faith, will see the face of God forever.  That is a marvelous thing to think about.
               God will walk with us as He did with Adam and Eve in the garden, with an intimacy we can’t begin to comprehend.  The Bible calls us (as God’s people) the Bride of Christ, and just before our reading it speaks of the wedding supper of the Lamb of God, where we are joined with Christ.  Now is like being engaged, and I remember oh so well how I longed for that engagement to end and for marriage to begin.  We will be with God and know Him more deeply than ever, the very purpose for which we exist, and the highest joy we could ever experience.
               John’s Revelation, the last book in our Bible, is but one place that we can catch a glimpse of what God has in store for His people, those who trust in Him.  We read another together, from 1 Corinthians 15, about the hope of our resurrection.  Just a quick side note, but you know we won’t be on clouds with harps for all eternity?  God creates a new physical earth, and we get new physical bodies, to live in a new creation as it was before sin ever entered the world, and even better.  Adam started in a garden, but we will dwell in the city of God.  Adam started alone, but we will forever live and worship with all God’s people, from every ethnicity, every language, every area of this present earth, together and united by our Lord.  Adam could rejoice in his creation, but we get to praise God for not only creating us but also for redeeming us, re-creating us, through Christ’s work on the cross.
               So this is indeed something to look forward to.  But is that all that God intended when He wrote these passages?  Surely we are to be awed by the glory before us, and it is certainly right to long for that day.  Indeed, the book ends with cries of “come, Lord Jesus!”  But is there more for us in these passages?  How should our day-to-day be affected by what we learn of the destiny of all things?
               Part of this is laid out directly in these texts.  Rev. 21:6 says that Jesus is one to give life, “from the spring of the water of life without payment.”  He alone gives true life, so if you are thirsty for meaning, for significance, for something more than the trinkets the world has to offer, come to Him.  If you are after more than chasing the corporate ladder, keeping up with the Joneses, and a comfortable retirement, come to Christ.  If you are weary, beaten-down, feeling the weight of a broken world, come to Jesus.  He is worth living for, and He gives us true life.
               Verses 7 and 8 contrast the two groups of people that matter in the end.  The latter group are those who are faithless, who do evil unrepentantly and constantly reject God, and their end is rightful judgment, getting exactly what they have earned.  And don’t be fooled, that is everyone who does not put their full trust in Christ.  The Spirit includes liars and cowards with the sexual immoral and murderers.  There is no big and small distinction in sin there.  There is repentant and unrepentant; those who trust themselves and those who trust Christ. 
And on the other hand are those who conquer, who persevere through the trials of this world. I’ve heard that several members of the persecuted church, who had been ostracized and threatened and beaten and imprisoned for their faith – they were asked what their favorite books of the Bible were.  To a man they said Daniel and Revelation, the books that most deal with end times.  Their reason?  Because they call for and give hope for enduring hardship.  They show that in this world Christians will have trouble, but Jesus wins in the end.  I was in Ecuador teaching New Testament to several pastors down there who can’t get away for seminary, and my fellow teacher explained that if you really want to get the point of Revelation, it’s two words: Jesus wins.  That enables us to press on no matter what circumstances befall us now.  No matter what the world has to offer to entice us, no matter what it throws against us, Jesus wins, so we stay faithful.  That’s why Paul could say things like, “this light and momentary affliction is not worth comparing for the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
We see this same call to perseverance again in 22:7, “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”  Jesus wins, God will make all things new, so we obey now.  We see it in 1 John 3, where the Apostle says, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”  When we have the hope of eternity in Christ, we live differently in this present age.  We live with a citizenship in heaven, as what Peter calls “elect exiles.”  Hebrews chapter 11 says that all the people in the Old Testament who had faith in God turned to Him and away from worldly pursuits, away from building up their own little kingdoms. They “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Why? Because “they desired a better country, that is a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”  That city we just read about in Revelation 21-22, God prepared it for those who live as though earth is not our home.
Now I want you to notice a few things that are not in these passages about eternity.  There are lots of things that stop being terribly important when you have an eternal mindset.  A lot of our preferences fall by the wayside, because we realize that what we’ve valued so highly won’t last.  My wife and I just bought a new car, and we wanted to make sure we got one that would be reliable and safe to drive Abigail around in.  But our hearts aren’t set on that car, because sooner or later it’ll end up in a junkyard.  We spend our time and money and care on all sorts of things that will one day be in a yardsale or a garbage dump.  Now don’t get me wrong, we should see things as blessings for which we should be grateful and that God has given us to enjoy now.  But it is so easy to be like that third kind of ground in Jesus’s parable of the sower, where the cares of this world choke out the Word of God in our lives, so that we look just like the unbelievers around us and don’t live for Christ.
There are other things of the world that call out for our attention and divert us from Christ, things that you won’t see or care about on the other side of eternity.  There are no factions in these texts.  All rivalries, as big as they seem now, are petty in comparison to allegiance to our Lord and King. One day there won’t be denominational lines, because Jesus will rule over all His people.  We won’t be waving the banner of a particular church or nation or any such thing.  And in the end, so many things we fight about are more due to personal preferences than substantial difference, which end up hindering us from following our Lord Jesus and loving other people and telling them about Him.  Jesus called us to die to ourselves and our little causes and to live for Him and His Kingdom.
Another thing missing: there are no political parties.  There were those who delighted in the results of the election last year, who felt pride and vindication.  There were those who felt defeated and despaired at the prospect of years to come.  And there were, of course, many in between.  But we must let these truths put all of that in perspective: regardless of how you reacted to the news, we will not get truly good government until the day King Jesus comes back to take His throne.  Our hope will never be fulfilled or dashed with any earthly government.  And whomever we support now, let be careful that our hope is not too entangled with the things of this world.  In the end, there will be no Republicans or Democrats or anything else.  There will be those who pledge allegiance to the Lord, and those that don’t.  Let us take care that we walk now, in this time, in such a way as to beg the question, what is this other-worldly hope that you have?  Then we obey Peter’s command to be ready to answer for the hope that is within us.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, that someone is so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.  I’m here to tell you this morning that there is nothing further from the truth.  The one who is heavenly minded, who is focused on God’s kingdom and not their own, will not be an escapist. Instead, when we set our minds on things above, as the Scriptures call us to do, we will work harder than any here and now while the harvest may still be gathered.  Because that’s one thing you can’t do in heaven: evangelize.  We will care more about people, because as C.S. Lewis said “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”  We will “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” as the prophet Micah commends.
We saw these same things at the end of our responsive reading this morning, from 1 Corinthians.  Why is the hope of the resurrection so important?  What does it matter now that death shall one day lose its sting?  And just a side note, the sting of death is here now.  We’ve felt when we’ve lost someone close to us, because we are left behind and miss them dearly.  But one day that sting will be no more.  So as Billy Graham’s friend Francis Sheaffer used to ask, how then shall we live?  Paul answers in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”  In other words, be faithful to Christ and His Kingdom, working until the end, so when the Master returns or calls you home, He will find you working faithfully.
The first song we sang this morning, "Another year is dawning," I had never heard before.  It has some great lyrics, of both working for and resting in Christ.  Perhaps swap out "another year" for “another day” and sing a verse every morning as a reminder of our commitment to Christ and our hope in God.  Because they go together.  We are not just called to work and press on and obey without reason.  God Himself is our reason.  We press on to know Him more, to see more of His glory, to have more people with us to praise Him for eternity, to watch Him at work in and through and all around us.  Jesus is the true author of joy, and even as He went to the cross, Hebrews says He was motivated “by the joy set before Him.”
Let me summarize in closing.  Scripture's pictures show glorious final new day in paradise, a renewed creation where all is made right.  We long for this, and we should.  These passages also call us to persevere, to work, to keep in the faith, to "seek first the Kingdom", as we just sang.  That work is motivated by our hope, by the worthiness of our Lord and the joy that can only be found in Him.
So for anyone who does not know Christ, I urge you to come to Him today.  He has more for you than the world can possibly offer, and though the Christian life is not always easy, Jesus is worth it.  For those of us who feel our consciences pricked by this message, as mine has been in preparing it, let us seek Jesus for His mercy, repenting of our old ways and trusting in His grace, so that our priorities change, letting go of this world that is passing away and seeking after Christ and His Kingdom more and more.  For all of us, let us think on these wonderful truths of what is coming for all who trust in Christ and His Gospel, and may they move us to greater trust and greater desire for Him, and let us work that out in our lives this day, this year, and until He makes all things new.  Amen.

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