I Believe: Return

I Believe: Return

Scripture Lesson: 1 Corinthians 15: 51-58

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. - 1 Corinthians 15:51-58 NRSV

A few weeks ago, when we spoke about the death and resurrection of Christ, we read the beginning of this chapter. This chapter is one of Paul’s great discourses on what the gospel is and how it transforms our lives. Paul begins the chapter by naming the work of Christ, not it’s benefits, nor how we receive them, but the work itself, as the gospel, and then set’s out exploring what the truth of the gospel means for our lives. Here, although Paul doesn’t use the words “the return of Christ” because that would be redundant, he none the less explains how the work that began in the death and resurrection of will reach it’s ultimate expression when Christ returns in glory.

As we journey through what the Bible says about the doctrines within the Apostle’s Creed, we reach the doctrine which is on one hand, both the broadest and most complex, and on the other hand, is the one with respect to which scripture has some of the most counter-intuitive things to say.  Therefore, it is best to begin by naming some of those complexities and then diving into the areas where scripture speaks most counter-intuitively.

            Often, we think of biblical prophecy as focused exclusively on the future, or even exclusively on the distant future.  But a great deal of prophecy in scripture deals with things that where happening at the moment the prophecies came. In Ezekiel 1-2, for example, Ezekiel sees a vision of the throne of God, riding on wheels like a royal chariot, so that God is with the exiles in their captivity. There are places where the prophets foretell events that are in the prophet’s future, but are in our past, such as all the prophecies that talk about the beginning and end of the exile in Babylon.  Further, when biblical prophecy does look toward the distant future it, at times, speaks on two levels, speaking both about the distant future and events that are in our past.  A great example of this is Zephaniah 3. 

            The book of Zephaniah begins by foretelling the exile, when the people of Judah where taken into captivity in Babylon, and ends by foretelling the return, but listen to how the prophet talks about the return 

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;

    shout, O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart,

    O daughter Jerusalem!

 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,

    he has turned away your enemies.

The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;

    you shall fear disaster no more.

 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:

Do not fear, O Zion;

    do not let your hands grow weak.

 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,

    a warrior who gives victory;

he will rejoice over you with gladness,

    he will renew you in his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing. – Zephaniah 3:14-17 NRSV

Zephaniah says that they will fear disaster no more.  A skeptic may read this and say “Well see, biblical prophecy is all bunk, because there was certainly a lot of disaster awaiting them in the future.”  But that only works if Zephaniah 3 is only talking about one event.  But, if Zephaniah is talking about both the return from exile and the ultimate release from captivity in the distant future, this is exactly what you would expect Zephaniah to say. 

            The New Testament does the same thing when it talks about the return of Christ.  Let’s take a look at some verses from Matthew 24. Due to the length of the prophecy, we are going to jump around a bit, so that we can see the whole picture that Jesus paints, although I encourage you to go back and read the entire passage from beginning to end.

“So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat…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.” – Matthew 24:15-17 & 30-31

Jesus foretells of a coming disaster and time of persecution and his ultimate return coming on the clouds of heaven. But then, Jesus says something shocking.

“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.” – Matthew 24:32-35 NRSV

Once again, the skeptics often say that Jesus mistakenly believed that he would return in the time of the apostles.  But that only works if Jesus is only talking about one event.  If Jesus’ words, like Zephaniah’s, speak on multiple levels, then it makes perfect sense.  Asking “is this prophecy about the siege of Jerusalem or the return of Christ?” is like asking “Is Moby Dick about religion in the industrial age, or humanity’s futile attempt to conquer nature?” The answer is “Well.. yes. It’s about all of that.” That is what great literature does, that is what great writers and speakers do: they speak on multiple levels and convey multiple layers of meaning. If Herman Melville can speak on multiple levels in a novel about a whale, then the incarnate Lord of Creation can certainly speak on multiple levels when delivering a prophecy. And we know, from history, that a lot of what Matthew 24 describes happened in AD 70.  The desolating sacrilege, which refers to when a Greek tyrant named Antiochus desecrated the temple by placing a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies, was repeated in when a Roman general desecrated the holy of hollies before destroying the temple, the Christians fled when the saw the writing on the wall, and a new age began. 

           All of this is to hammer home that he fact prophecy is complex.  Be careful.  That which is most important should be done with the most care.  Interpreting scripture is one of the most important things we can do.  We should be careful not to jump to conclusions or settle for easy interpretations, but read and interpret scripture slowly, allowing it to break our preconceptions and speak against our intuitions.  In those places where scripture speaks most counter intuitively that it can speak most powerfully into our lives.  There is perhaps no better example of this than the return of Christ.

Often we think of the return of Christ as a time when creation will be destroyed and then replaced by a newer, better version.  Sometimes Christians even say things like “Who cares what happens to this world, since God is just going to destroy it and start all over.”  But let’s take a look at Romans 8. 

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. – Romans 8:18-21 NRSV

Notice what Paul does not say.  Paul does not say that we await the day when Creation will be destroyed and God will create a better world for us.  He says that creation itself awaits the day when it will be freed from captivity. 

Yes, scripture does also speaks of the new heavens and new earth coming but also also speaks of our old selves dying, being crucified with Christ.  When it does so it does not mean that we were destroyed and replaced by a different model, but that once our chains have been broken, we have been given a new identity.  Even in 2 Peter, which speaks of God burning the world with fire, the elements melting and the heavens being dissolved, says that the result will be that “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” (2 Peter 3:10b) Peter compares the fire at the return of Christ to the waters in the days of Noah (cf 2 Peter 3:3-6). While the waters of Noah’s flood did destroy sinful humanity and civilization, they did not cause the creation to be replaced, but to be born anew.  The fires of the return of Christ will be the fires of the phoenix nest, out of which God’s good creation will be reborn, and and the goodness of creation which human sin has marred will be unveiled. Creation is like a beautiful painting which has been thrown into the dirt and trampled . One day the painter is going to come, pick it up out of the dust, clean away the grime, and reveal the beauty that lies beneath. When Christ returns he will not only undo all that sin has wrought within ourselves, and our cultures, but will undo the damage sin has done to His good creation.

As I was preparing this semon, two songs have been on my mind.  In the 9:00am we often sing

 “All I know is I’m not home yet.  
This is not where I belong. 
 Take this world and give me Jesus.”  
- Where I Belong by Building 429

This is true.  We are not home yet.  We do not belong among the chains of a world broken and bound by sin.  Yet, another song echoes through my mind, a song by Phillip Phillips, which I doubt was written about the return of Christ but which resounds with the message of the eschaton, none the less.

Settle down, it'll all be clear
Don't pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you're not alone
'Cause I'm going to make this place your home.
- Home by Phillip Phillips

When Christ comes for he will come as creator and king to set the world right.  With this in mind, we return to where we began. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) Remember that to live a Christian life is to both to proclaim the Gospel and to obey the commands of God.  Whenever whatever we do to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves is to labor in the Lord. The doctor used by God as an instrument of healing, the social worker working tirelessly to protect vulnerable children children, the teacher instilling wisdom and kindness into the hearts and minds of their students, the scientist who dedicates their life to to loving God with all their mind through the study of God’s good creation, all labor in the LORD. Reflecting on this, in his article Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree, N.T. Wright says this…

I have no idea precisely what this means. I do not know how the painting an artist paints today in prayer and wisdom will find a place in God’s new world. I don’t know what musical instruments we will have to play Bach, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there. I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that will be in God’s recreated world. I don’t know how my work for justice for the poor, for remission of global debts, will reappear in that new world. But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning:

N.T Wright, Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/environment/jesus-is-coming-plant-a-tree

I do not know what it will look like. I do not know how our labors of love for God and neighbor will relate to God’s renewed creation, where the shackles of sin will be melted away. Yet, I do know that when we labor in the Lord, whether we labor to heal the sick, or rescue those in danger, to feed the hungry, or to care for God’s good creation, we do not labor in vain, for when Christ comes he will not come to destroy this world and the fruit of our labor along with it, but to break the chains that bind, and and to undo all that sin has wrought, for us and for all creation.  Let us labor in hope, knowing that the king is coming and He will make all things new.

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