Let me read from a poem for the millennium by Ben Okri, published yesterday in The Times - The awakening age:
O ye who travel by the meridian lineMay the vision of a new world within you shine.May eyes that have lived with poverty's rageSee through to the glory of the awakening ageTogether we can ascend to a new heightGuided by our heart's clearest light.
And it ends:
Along the line may our lives rhyme,To make a loving harvest of space and time.
Contrast that with Bernard Levin writing in The Times a few years ago:
Would my readers kindly note that when I have finished this forthcoming column, I shall be on my way to Christmas Island, never to return. The choice of Christmas Island was made in the belief that it is the most remote inhabited place in the world.. I've been told that only one ship goes there, and even that one does so only once a year. I have already been in touch with the postmaster of Christmas Island and he has promised to burn any letters (without opening them) that are addressed to me. If, when the yearly ship approaches, the coastguards have reason to believe that the ship is carrying newspapers from Britain, they have orders to fire on it immediately, giving no warning.
And what, you ask, has brought about this powerful urge to misanthropy? You ought to be able to guess by now, and many of you surely have. It is that yet another bundle of papers from Amnesty International has landed on my desk.
And after a catalogue of atrocities, he ends like this:
How much wickedness can the world stand? That is not a cry of despair, but a wish to know, because I now begin to believe that at some point the world will be drowned in evil, and evil will rule the world.
How do you 'read' human history? Are you with Ben Okri or Bernard Levin? Are we ascending to new heights? Or at some point evil will rule the world? And that millennium advert slogan - 'Just imagine what we could do tomorrow'. Does that excite you? Or does it send a shiver down your spine, when you think what unimaginable things we did to one another yesterday? How do you read history? This part of the Bible is God's view of history. And the apostle Paul wrote it to the Thessalonians because they were being persecuted for being Christians. They had enough experience of evil getting the upper hand to doubt that God was really in control of their lives and of the world. We saw last week that evil will only be ended by the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, to wrap up history and judge each one of us. And if you're just looking into the Christian faith, that may sound incredible to you. All I can say is this. When Jesus promised to rise from the dead it sounded incredible. But he did. And that promise kept is the sign that he'll keep this other promise to come again. And in chapter 2, verses 1-12, Paul says three things: First, DON'T MISREAD HISTORY (vv1-4) Some of the Thessalonians were misreading what was going on around them. They'd been taught that persecution was a sign that Jesus' second coming was imminent. They were suffering severe persecution. So some of them began to think that Jesus had already come back. That may sound a strange mistake to our ears. But here's what Paul writes in response. Verse 1:
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.
I don't often quote heavyweight theologians like Augustine. But I will here, because it's very helpful. On these verses, he writes, 'I admit that the meaning of this completely escapes me'. That should give us pause and make us humble as we approach this passage. And if you want to know the suggestions that have been made about what this means in detail, then I recommend John Stott's book on 1 and 2 Thessalonians in the Bible Speaks Today series. But Paul's main point is clear. Verse 3: don't let anyone deceive you - don't misread history and think that Jesus has already come again. He hasn't. Because:
that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. (v3)
Ie, Paul is saying: the second coming of Jesus will be unmistakable because just before it happens, something else will happen which will be unmistakable. That something else is 'the rebellion' and the appearance of a figure called 'the man of lawlessness'. I take it that the rebellion is a final world-scale turning against God and his ways. And that the man of lawlessness is a human leader who is the focus of that movement. And some of the Roman Emperors of Paul's century, and the Hitlers and Stalins of our own, remind us that that is not incredible. As men of lawlessness, they've been foretastes of the (final) man of lawlessness. Paul's point is very simple. When that climax of evil happens, it'll be unmistakable. And until it happens, you know that Jesus has not yet come back. So far, that may seem low on relevance. I've not met anyone whose problem in the Christian life is believing mistakenly that Jesus has already come back. That's not our problem. We don't misread history that way. But we do misread history. Right now, our culture is saturated with the Ben Okri reading of history: things are getting better; the human race can defeat evil. But the Bible says: not true. The Bible says human beings are not basically good at heart but basically evil. Technology has got better but we who use it haven't. I was watching TV news from Kosovo the other day with a friend who's not a Christian. He turned to me and said, 'Isn't it incredible that this is going on in this day and age?' To the person who still believes in the basic goodness of human beings, and the 'progress' of the human race, yes. But not to the Christian, who remembers what the Lord Jesus Christ said:
For from within, out of men's hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean. (Mark 7.20-23)
And Jesus wasn't just talking about the heart of the London bomber or Slobodan Milosevic. He was talking about yours and mine. Don't misread history, says Paul. And don't be deceived by other peoples' misreadings. Things may be getting better, but the human heart isn't. And it's not just Milosevic we can't bring under control. We can't bring ourselves under control. Those things Jesus spoke of - deceit, envy, greed, arrogance, sexuality - we're defeated by them. Without the inner strength that comes from a relationship with God, we can try to contain them. But we can't control them. And we can't get rid of them. Don't misread history. Mankind is not getting better. We're the problem, not the solution. Secondly, DON'T DOUBT THAT GOD IS IN CONTROL (vv5-8) God's diagnosis of human evil is alarming. And we could well end up with Bernard Levin saying, 'I now begin to believe that at some point evil will rule the world.' But Paul says: not true. God is in control - now, and all the way to the end of history. Verse 5:
Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him [ie the man of lawlessness, and this climax of evil] back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. (vv5-7)
Paul is talking about the present: 'And now' (v6), 'the one who now holds it back' (v7). And he basically says the powers of evil are being held back. And God is the one who's holding them back. Verse 7 says 'the secret power of lawlessness is already at work'. I take it that's a reference to Satan and his behind the scenes work in the psychology of each of us. Again, if you're just looking into Christian things, that too may sound incredible. In which case, bear in mind the famous quote from Ronald Knox. He said: 'It is so stupid of modern civilisation to have given up believing in the devil when he is the only explanation of it.' According to the Bible, Satan is real. And he puts into our minds the idea of being lawless. Ie, throwing off the restraints of living God's way, and becoming a law unto ourselves. And that's as good a definition of sin as you'll get: 'Being a law unto myself.' Pushing aside God the wise and loving Lawgiver and saying, 'Thanks for the life. But I'll live it my way.' The secret power of lawlessness is already at work. Not just among the people we read about in the papers. But among us. But, says Paul (v6), 'you know what is holding him back.' I don't know whether you've seen the latest trend in dog leads. The thing today is that you now treat dogs like kites. You let them out on these enormously long leads. I think with some of them, they're so long, the dog can actually walk all the way round the block without you moving and you just unclip it when it gets back. I mean, near me I occasionally see this little old lady at one end of the street and this little old Yorkshire terrier at the other end, and the lead in between, and it's not entirely clear how the two are going to be reunited. Because the dog's been through the hedge and under a few cars and around three lamp posts. And either she's going to have to wind him back in like a fish, or she'll have to do the assault course of her life. The point is: however free the dog appears, he's not. He's on a lead. And, verse 6, so is Satan, and all human evil. How God holds evil back, ie what the lead is, Paul doesn't say here. But elsewhere he talks about the state as 'God's servant and as the 'authority God has established to do you good' and 'to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.' (Romans 13.1, 4). And the state is certainly one lead he uses. But there are two 'buts'. One 'but' is that the state itself can become lawless. The state itself can dismantle the very structures designed by God to restrain evil. As we know from current events. And the other 'but' is this. All the rule of law can do is to restrain our evil, like putting a tiger in a cage. But it can only restrain the tiger of human nature. It can't tame it. Only God can change us. Rules never changed anyone. But relationships do. Law isn't life-transforming, whereas love is. And the only thing that can change our hearts is to come back into relationship with God. By admitting the evil in our hearts and actions; and asking him for forgiveness; and asking him to come into our lives by his Spirit. Christians would say that's what changed them. Finding after all you've done wrong that God still loves you, and is willing to forgive you and come back into your life and help you live his way, and stick with you through much failing. And the great demonstration of that love is the way God sent his Son to die so we could be forgiven - which is what we remember and give thanks for at this communion service. But to come back to 2 Thessalonians: this side of Jesus' return, the world needs the restraint of evil. Verse 7:
For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.
God is in control now - restraining evil. And when Jesus comes again, he will overthrow evil once and for all. He'll separate everyone that's against God from everyone that's for God. So that those who are for God will finally experience existence free from evil. That's why you can't have heaven without judgement. Heaven is only heaven because all evil is removed - where only God's will is done, as we say in the Lord's Prayer. And evil can only be removed if there is a judgement. Don't misread history. We're the problem, not the solution. Don't doubt that God is in control. Evil will be removed when Jesus returns to judge. But that means people will be removed. There will be a population in hell as well as in heaven. And that's a hard truth for believers to bear. And if you're not yet a believer, please don't think we believe it because w want to. We believe it because the Lord Jesus Christ says that is the truth. So Paul ends with a third point: Thirdly, REALISE THAT THOSE WHO DO GO TO HELL CHOOSE TO (vv9-12) Verse 9:
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing.
That's talking about the generation who'll be around right at the end. But what Paul says next applies in general. Mid-way through verse 10:
They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
It's their responsibility. They refused the offer of forgiveness and a fresh start with God back in his rightful place. You may have seen the story in the papers recently about two fishermen on the rocks around South Shields. The sea conditions were incredibly dangerously, but they were happily fishing away on the rocks when a rescue helicopter arrived. And this winch man came down and explained that someone had seen them and dialled 999, and he was here to save them. And they said, 'But we don't want to be.' They refused to be. And he ultimately left them where they were, on the rocks. They refused to be saved. And, sadly, so it is with people who at the end of time are still on the wrong side of God's judgement. God has 'let down' his Son from heaven, to die on the cross for our forgiveness. Salvation - forgiveness and a change of sides - is on offer. But, verse 10:
They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
And God grants them their choice. Verse 11 (hard words to take in):
For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (vv11-12)
If we believe the lie that we can live without God, and without any consequences, God will give us over to that lie (cf Romans 1.18-25). He takes our choice about him in this life, and sets it in concrete for the next. But if you're not yet a believer, you need to realise that the concrete is hardening even now. Which is why the time to investigate the Christian message is now. The time to respond to Christ, if you've done all the investigating and thinking you need, is now. The time to come back to the Lord if you've been drifting is now. The time to sort out issues of obedience as a believer is always now. Every time we hear Christian truth, we're either hardening more against God or softening more in our walk with him. There is no neutrality, no standing still. How do you read history? Ben Okri hopes goodness will rule the world. But he's wrong about the human heart. Bernard Levin fears evil will rule the world. But he's forgotten God. The Bible says: God is ruling the world, and Jesus will come again to judge. And the question of life is simply this. Which side of that judgement will you be on?