PASSING AWAY

A message on the End Times
January 21, 2018
Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
Reverend David Melville

Last week in Sunday School Chris referred to the end times while discussing the book of Daniel.  As you know, the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelation are most associated with the apocalyptic warnings and promises of the end times.

I thought about that discussion this week as I reviewed the lectionary readings heard in thousands of churches throughout the world this morning.  I’d like to study those readings with you as we either worry about, look forward to, and hopefully prepare for the end time — when Jesus will return triumphantly, and in glory, when the world as we know it will be destroyed, and a new heaven on earth will reign.

St. Paul and his contemporaries assumed that Christ would return quickly … in their lifetimes.  They probably assumed this because of remarks Jesus made.  For example, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” [Matthew 24:34], and maybe because they questioned why God would want to prolong the sorry, sinful state of affairs in the world any longer than He had to.  Why wouldn’t God grow impatient and pull the trigger, as He had done in Noah’s day?

So St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth:

“What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short.  From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it was not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.  For this world in its present form is passing away.” [1 Corinthians 7: 29-31]

There Paul goes again “pooh-pooh’ing” what we call normalcy.  Marriage is overrated, emotions of grief and even happiness are wasted time, and material possessions take second place to heavenly things.  Why?  As Paul put it, “for the world in its present form is passing away.” [Verse 31]

Through the centuries we’ve psychoanalyzed Paul to rationalize the extreme and politically incorrect comments he said about marriage (if possible, don’t), women (Be quiet!) and sexuality and other topics. We conclude such pronouncements were made because he didn’t think the world would be around much longer.  Why sweat the small stuff? Why get into a tizzy about the temporary?  Paul had different priorities like we do when we face a terminal illness. In a way, the world has a terminal illness.  The world is in hospice.

I agree that the world in its present form is – in Paul’s words – “passing away,” but I want to suggest that before it does, God desires certain actions on our part other than simply selfishly making peace with Christ and building an underground bunker.  I believe the other scripture in the lectionary for today should serve as a wakeup call for Christians who too often act as if we are sleepwalking right through the centuries.

What should wake us up before the end times, when we will have plenty of time to sleep and rest?

I

First, the gospel writer,  Mark,  did not mince words, and evidently, John the Baptist and Jesus did not mince words: “The time has come.  The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15]  What part of “repent” do United Methodists not understand?  We are not very good at naming our sins and repenting; we are not very good at wearing sackcloth and spreading ashes all over our bodies.  Just see if we look any different, think any differently, talk any differently beginning February 14,  Ash Wednesday.  Just see if we truly sacrifice during Lent by giving up or adding any particular habits.  As you can predict, I’m not impressed with just giving up chocolate.

Folks, trust me:  February 14 will be known by more Methodists as the end of Mardi Gras and as  Valentine’s Day than as the beginning of forty days of growing closer to God as individuals, and as a nation … growing closer to God through penitence, through reflection, and through action. More kids in America know, or think they know and are more interested in knowing how to describe “Fat Tuesday” than care about how to describe or define or to live “Ash Wednesday.”   Both Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are equally mysterious and equally weird, but Fat Tuesday is already trending more than Ash Wednesday.

What sins do we good Methodists have to repent?  We believe we get a pass because we are not murderers, fornicators, defrauders, gluttons and the like.  But I respectfully suggest we are still guilty of the sin of placing the earthly kingdom ahead of the heavenly kingdom, and for not working hard enough to bring heaven on earth, as it is in heaven, which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday.   Placing too much emphasis upon this world is shortsighted because this world will pass away.

As often happens, God sends a secular reference to the pastor the same week he or she is preparing the sermon. Are we sure it’s a secular reference?   Out of the blue last night, while listening to the radio, John Prine, who I haven’t heard in ages, is singing something to the effect of “Some say the end of the world is coming, but that’s O.K. because I don’t live in this world anyway.”  Which world do you live in?

You may complain that I am laying a “guilt trip” on you, to which our Roman Catholic and Baptist brothers and sisters are more accustomed than are Methodists.  But maybe we undervalue guilt.  Sometimes guilt guides us to be more loving, and ultimately, happier.  Guilt can remind and reinforce our need for God.  We are much less likely to believe in a savior if we don’t even feel we need a savior.  “I’m a good person.”  Such a person, who says, “I’m a good person” –instead of “I’m a sinner” —  usually won’t grow in grace and love; they plateau. They are sleepwalking while the world is passing away.

I was visiting with someone this week who is a long-time recovering addict, went to a support group for years, but had gotten out of the habit during a lengthy illness.  Now that the illness is over, she isn’t sure she needs to return to weekly meetings; she feels strong and is not worried about relapse.  She presently doesn’t have a sponsor, but she is sponsoring two people, and she feels that is helpful in itself. I strongly advised her to resume meetings and to get a sponsor.  For many, meetings are a life-long need, even though things appear to be safe.  And I recall the time at one church I served when I agreed to a request by a recovering addict to facilitate a small group study.  He wound up relapsing himself, and the group meetings were no longer possible. He didn’t think he needed any help, and after all, he was the leader.  There is something meaningful about regularly standing in front of a group, confronting your demons, and saying to God and country, “I am a ______.”  It’s also good for Christians and church-goers to regularly verbalize, “I am a sinner,” as long as you can name your sins.

The Bible speaks a lot about the spiritual benefits of forgiving and being forgiven.  How can we reap the benefits of forgiveness if we can’t even name where we have failed God?  We can name where others have failed God, but not ourselves.  I agree that we’re not to become mired – stuck —  in guilt; rather, we are to grow into grace … God’s “amazing” grace.  Guilt starts the story, but grace completes it.    No guilt, no grace.

Asking for forgiveness from our sins can be so liberating, reminding us of God’s desire and willingness to welcome us back – just like the father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son – no matter what we’ve done or not done, and if we are truly sorry.  The emphasis in confession needs to be not on how bad I am, but on how good God is.

II

The Old Testament lectionary reading takes us back to the story of Jonah being asked by God to tell the citizens of Nineveh to repent.  Jonah didn’t feel like it and boarded a ship headed to Tarshish.  A storm led to the ship’s crew tossing Jonah over the side, and his being swallowed by a whale.  After some soul-searching and prayer, Jonah is spat out. Jonah 3: 1-5 and 10 reveal what happened next:

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’  Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.  Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days.  He proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’  The Ninevites believed God.  They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”

The good old story of Jonah and the whale reminds us of another act by Christians which needs more urgency if, in fact, the world might pass away at any time:  evangelism, or telling others the Good News.   Again, we United Methodists are better writing about it, preaching about it, singing about it, than we are telling others about our Lord.  We simply talk more to others about our work, our favorite sports team, music, dress styles and our favorite grandchild than we do about Jesus.  So many of us protest that religion and our relationship with God is such a personal, private thing, and we don’t  wish to intrude … especially if others do not seek or welcome our intrusion. Well, that’s a polite-sounding policy, but if someone doesn’t talk one-on-one to another about Jesus Christ, then the church will pass away before the world passes away,  as it has in Western Europe.  Even though the organized church is dying, perhaps Jesus is in as many hearts as ever, but we’ll never know: after all, it’s a private matter, right?   Is that what God intended when he sent Jonah to Nineveh?  Is that what Jesus intended when he gave us the Great Commission:  “Go and make disciples of all nations.” [Matthew 28:19]

Thanks to Veggie Tales and other animation, and thanks to some good, faithful Sunday School teachers, at least some children are learning the story of Jonah.  God instructed Jonah to go quickly to the large city of Nineveh and tell them to repent and start worshiping God or face destruction.  Jonah ran in the opposite direction and wound up in the belly of a whale.    The takeaway is that disobeying God can lead to awkward circumstances, like being swallowed by a whale.    I’ll give it to modern culture on this one: probably more Americans are familiar with the biblical whale than they are with the whale in the great American novel, Moby-Dick.

Most of us probably place more stress on disobedience and its consequences than upon what God was asking Jonah to do, but what Jonah did not want to do: go and tell the sinful citizens of Nineveh that they needed to repent and follow God …  and then to be joyous when Nineveh repented, rather than resentful, like Jonah was.    God expects us to go to Nineveh before the world passes away.  Be we have a less-than-passionate desire to do that, and so we don’t.  God understood the importance; so should we.  God felt the urgency; so should we.

A week ago thousands of Hawaiian islanders experienced something you and I probably haven’t: a near-death experience, or so they thought.  Since we were together last Sunday, passengers on a Dallas-bound jet were told with urgency by stewardesses: “Assume the position; we are going to prepare for a crash landing.”  Smoke was coming from the cockpit.  Those who were on the plane said many thought their world was coming to an end; many were seen using the sign of the cross.

Perhaps many in those two situations are now thinking differently about the end times than you and I are … with more urgency.   Only they know what flashed before their eyes in Hawaii and in the sky above Dallas as they – in their minds – thought the world was passing away.    I hope you and I don’t need such an experience this week to give a little thought about what God is asking of us for however long the present world exists: Don’t worry about the date of the end time;  worry about what we are to be doing each and every day until that time.   The devil is in the details, while we miss God’s big picture.  God is asking us to practice and preach repentance. That’s where we find John the Baptist and Jesus at this stage in their ministries, and that’s where God wants to find us.

CLOSING HYMN:  Rescue the Perishing