We are quickly coming to the end of the church year. Yes, it’s that time of year again when thoughts turn to the end of all things and the destruction of the world as we know it. Oh, wait a minute! You weren’t thinking of those things, were you? You were probably thinking about Thanksgiving plans or getting an early jump on Christmas shopping or getting things in order before the busy December days hit. But the end of the world as we know it? That seems so 2012, doesn’t it? It all came and went with Harold Camping and the Mayan calendar, didn’t it?
There is a coming day. Burning like a blazing, fiery furnace. A day of fire and wrath. A day when the arrogant and evildoers will be reduced to stubble. It will be a day when the heavens will be shaken, the seas will roar, the sun, moon, and stars will fail, the nations will be in upheaval, and people will literally faint with fear and dread over what is coming. Typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires – these are nothing compared with what’s coming at the end. We simply cannot imagine it. It’s really too much to comprehend. The destruction in the Philippines is more than enough, and that’s only a tiny portion of the earth. Global destruction, cosmic destruction is really way beyond our grasp.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The people in Jesus’ day thought Jerusalem was bulletproof. It was God’s city, the place of the temple, God’s footstool, the place from which He ruled over the earth. How could He let His city and temple be destroyed? Yet Jesus predicted it within His own generation. He even warned His disciples what to do when they saw invading armies surround the city. He predicted that Jerusalem would be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles. The Jewish war of 66 to 70 AD was precisely the fulfillment of that prophesy by Jesus. And it spared the church. They knew to flee to the mountains when the Roman armies surrounded the city. They knew to flee instead of fight. Jesus was preparing His disciples for the hard times ahead and for things that no one would have conceived possible.
When Jesus spoke these words, the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt by Herod. It was a massive public works program at huge costs. Enormous stones had to be quarried and moved. All sorts of craftsman and artists were employed to make the temple into something grand and glorious. For Jesus to say, “Not one stone will be left on another” would be like someone saying in 40 years, the United States won’t exist as a nation or that Los Angeles will be wiped from the map. It’s simply inconceivable.
If all this talk of the end leaves you a bit nervous and apprehensive, it should! As Luther pointed out, the times of the end will be as terrifying for Christians as for unbelievers. Even more so. Jesus warned His disciples that they would be persecuted, arrested, hauled before religious and civil tribunals. They would be imprisoned and brought to testify before kings and governors. He assured them that they did not have to worry about what they would say, “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t spare them from persecution and testing, but He promises to see them through it, to supply them with words and wisdom for witness. There is no notion in the Scriptures of believers being spared the tribulations of the end. There is no concept whatsoever of a “rapture” in which all the true believers are whisked off before the distress of the end comes. Christians do not get a free pass and an exemption.
Jesus tells His disciples that they will be betrayed by friends and family. They will be hated by all for His name’s sake. We worry about how Christianity seems to be targeted in the public square. Why should we worry or even be surprised? Jesus Himself said it would be this way. I would worry if Christianity became popular, the religious flavor of the year. In fact, in the history of the church, it’s precisely when Christianity is popular and the flavor of the moment that it goes wrong.
The Christian faith has a cross at its center – Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Suffering, hardship, and loss all go hand in nail pierced hand with the cross of Jesus. We are baptized under the sign of the cross. We are forgiven under the sign of the cross. We are fed the Body and Blood under the sign of the cross. We arise and go to sleep and do everything in between under the sign of the cross. Christianity isn’t so much a way of life as it is a way of death. It is to die with Jesus in order to be raised with Him. It is to live as dead to Sin and Self but alive to God in Christ.
Jesus warned His followers “some of you, they will put to death.” It still happens today, people martyred for being Christian. And yet notice the very next sentence – “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Did you catch that? You’re going to die because of me. You’re going to be martyred. They’ll crucify you, cut off your head, feed you to lions, burn you at the stake, but not a hair of your head will perish. Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. Though you die, even die a martyr’s death, not a hair of your head will perish. By the endurance of faith you will gain your lives.
That’s the hidden comfort in these last Sundays of the church year and the end of the world as we know it. The end is also the beginning. For those who fear the name of the Lord, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” The destruction of the old brings the revelation of the new. “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus says. Imagine scaffolding around a building that’s under construction. It hides the work that’s going on in, with, and under that scaffolding. When the work’s done and the building is complete, it’s time to tear down the scaffolding and reveal what’s been going on. Or in the words of Extreme Makeover – Home Improvement edition, it’s time to “move that bus!” so we can see the completed house.
The destruction at the end is a destruction of the things temporal so that the things eternal might be revealed. Jerusalem is precisely like that. It had a purpose in the scheme of salvation. It was the place of Israel’s temple, the dwelling place of God with man until the coming of the Christ. Until the Son of God took on human flesh and dwelt among us. And then the scaffolding could come down. The temple was no longer needed. Not only was the curtain torn in two from top to bottom at the moment Jesus died, but forty years later, not one stone of the temple was left standing. And while you can still weep at the outer wall today, there’s no point in weeping over scaffolding that has been taken down.
The same is true for the things of this age – nations, structures, institutions, all the things we build, everything in this temporal life is a scaffolding of history, in, with, and under which God is making all things new in His Son. So when the nations are in turmoil and the whole creation seems to be groaning in earthquakes and floods and famines and disasters, when even the steady sun, moon, and stars are shaken, those are all the tearing down of a temporary structure to reveal the permanent, eternal kingdom of God, what the Bible calls Zion or heavenly Jerusalem, the city that comes down from above.
It’s even like this with each of us. The saint is hidden inside the sinner. The sinner must die in order for the saint to be revealed. The scaffolding of old adamic flesh must be torn down in order for the new man in Christ to be revealed in the resurrection of the flesh. God doesn’t kill for no good reason. He kills in order to make alive. He brings down in order to raise up. He tears down what is temporal in order to reveal what is eternal.
Whether it’s the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the end of the world on the Last Day, or the day you breathe your last breath, whenever that is, that’s the work of God using Death to destroy Death, tearing down the temporal, the sinful, the unholy scaffolding of this life to reveal the pure and holy of eternal life that is ours already in Christ. The apostle Paul considered himself dead already, even while he was alive and writing to the Galatians. “I no longer live, but Christ who is in me lives.”
So when you see signs of the end, when you experience the groanings of the old creation in labor pains, when it seems as though the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket and the church appears weak and persecuted, then “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Watch for the sun of righteousness to rise as the world goes dark. He comes with healing in His wings. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said. “Whoever believes in me lives even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will not die forever.”
The end of the world is God’s way of saying, “Move that bus!” Get that old, broken down, temporal kingdom out of the way. Remove the scaffolding, take away the curtains, roll up the covering. Your redemption is here. Your Jesus is here. And the sight is glorious.
In the name of Jesus,