Lord Shaftesbury was a great, in fact, the great 19th century humanitarian reformer. He introduced in Parliament legislation that made Britain a civilizing influence on the whole world. Shortly after his death, The Times newspaper claimed that Shaftesbury (I quote) …
"… changed the whole social condition of England."
He entered Parliament aged 25 in 1826.In 1842 there was the Coal Mines Act to stop women and girls working underground and to reduce the hours for boys. In 1845 there was the Lunacy Act that ensured humane treatment for the mentally ill. In 1847, 1850 and 1859 there were the Ten Hours Factory Acts.
And there was more. He founded the Ragged School Union. He worked on behalf of boy chimney-sweeps, flower girls, orphans, prostitutes, prisoners, and handicapped people. And he was engaged in so much church work. So what motivated him in all this? Well, not long before he died, he said the following:
"I do not think that in the last forty years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord's return."
So it is just not true that thinking about Jesus' Return and the hope of heaven acts like an "opium of the people" and stops the reform of social evils as Karl Marx once said.
For Shaftesbury was motivated by his consciousness of Jesus' return. But sadly Jesus' return is not talked about much these days – perhaps in fear of Marxist-type criticisms. However, it was central to the earliest Christians. The Thessalonians are described as those who had,
"… turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess 1.9-10)
And the Return of Jesus has over 300 references in the New Testament – on average, one every thirteen verses. So it must be important. And being so important, Jesus taught people to prepare it:
"You … must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matt 24.44).
I shall first have to refer to various parts of the Bible tonight but later on to help us with our thinking I want to look at 1 Timothy 6 and our second reading. Will you, therefore, open your Bibles and if you want to see where we are going and jot any notes you've got that on the back of your service sheet.
And you will see that my headings tonight are, first, JESUS RETURN – IS IT BELIEVABLE? secondly, THE NEED FOR PREPARATION and, thirdly, HOW TO PREPARE.
So, first, JESUS RETURN – IS IT BELIEVABLE?
Our knowledge about the Return of Jesus is limited. However, you can be confident about four things:
One, that Jesus Christ made it clear that he will return.
But, two, he made it clear that you cannot know when he will return.
And, three, all will know of the event - Revelation 1.7 says
"he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him."
And, four, when he returns that will bring in a "new heaven and a new earth" (Rev 21.1) and so the end of history as we know it – the history that began with God's creation of the world. Maybe some are already saying, "but how can you really believe all this?" That is a fair and important question, as it relates to what you believe about history. And what you believe about history has a huge effect on your life.
The basic questions that trouble so many –
'Who am I?'
'What happens when I die?'
'Is "nature" all there is or is nature under the control of something or someone else?'
'Is there a moral law that works itself out in public and private affairs?'
– are all questions related to your belief about history. Listen to Herbert Butterfield, a former professor of Modern History at Cambridge:
"Our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take; and it is clear that everyone of us as standing alone in the universe, has to take if for himself. It is our decision about religion, about our attitude to things, and about the way we will appropriate life. And it is inseparable from our decision about the role we are going to play ourselves in that very drama of history." (Christianity and History, Collins, 1957)
And that is why the Bible is so important. For the Bible, more than anything else, gives you a total philosophy of history. It goes from the beginning of Creation,to the Fall of the first man and woman; to God coming to save humankind in Jesus Christ; to his coming again when history will end and when he will "judge the living and the dead" as we say in the Creed.
This is a linear view of history with a beginning and an end. Some other philosophies of history give you an unending line, but coming from nowhere and going to nowhere, others give you a circular view of history. The Hindu sees history as a cycle of rebirths. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, spoke of history as "a sort of circle." So how do you decide between those views? On two grounds – first, by examinbing the evidence and, secondly, by understanding that the believable is not the same as the imaginable.
So, first, listen to Paul arguing with Greek intellectuals about this Christian philosophy of history in 1st century Athens:
"The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17.30-31).
Paul is arguing that the proof of the Christian view is the Resurrection of Jesus with that empty tomb, subsequent appearances to the disciples, and changed lives of the disciples.
Secondly, realize that imagining Jesus' Return relates to the teaching that time itself had a beginning. For the Bible teaches God created time as well as space. That is what the first book of the Bible and its first chapter, Genesis 1, teaches. People discuss how they should understand "the seven days of creation." At least they teach that the timeless God who is outside creation created time with its succession of days and nights. But such a beginning is beyond human imagination, as is such an end, when Jesus returns and history ends with the invasion of eternity from outside time. That is why the Bible uses analogies and visual imagery to guide our imagination about these things. So don't confuse reality and truth with what is humanly imaginable. Men and women of earlier centuries could never have imagined travelling to the moon. But now that previously unimaginable reality is believable.
So Jesus' return – is it believable?
The answer is "yes".
Secondly, THE NEED FOR PREPARATION
Why do we need to prepare?
The simple answer is that Jesus is returning to judge the world and he told us to be prepared for that event. Jesus taught in parable after parable of the folly of ignoring the reality of judgment day. Now is the time for salvation. Then will be the time for judgment. He made this so clear. Matthew 16.27:
"For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done."
"Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his [the risen and returning Jesus Christ's] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement."
Paul also taught about this "day of wrath," Romans 2.5-8:
"… when God's righteous judgement will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury."
And in 2 Corinthians 5.10 Paul underlined that judgment was for everyone.
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil."
You say, "isn't this idea of God's wrath (or hell) so cruel and not loving?" The answer has to be "No!"
For God's love is absolutely proved by Christ suffering hell for us on the Cross so that we can be delivered from God's wrath, if only we will accept his forgiveness. Again we have to confess our human limitations in understanding. For these problems will only be fully resolved for us, when Jesus returns. Paul said in that great chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13):
"now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (verse 12).
What we know in part, however uncomfortable, are three things -
One, the reality of hell;
Two, the certainty of hell for those who choose it by rejecting Christ and his offer of eternal life; and,
Three, the justice of hell as utterly fair, for God is utterly fair.
And remember we know that God has announced the day of judgment before-hand so we can repent and escape hell. We have already heard that Paul told the Athenians:
"God commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world."
And those three uncomfortable truths lead to three very important further truths.
One, hell teaches that God's love is holy, not sentimental, love. So the true and living God is not to be imagined as a divine Father Christmas.
Two, hell teaches that God respects human freedom in allowing us to reject him. So how we must respect human freedom in this life.
And, three, hell teaches that evil is so pernicious that it will not self-destruct. So God has to take action to rid it from his presence. All that is why, in a positive and understanding frame of mine you need to prepare for Jesus' Return.
That brings us thirdly, to HOW TO PREPARE
The first thing is to repent, if you have never done so.
And it needs to be true repentance.
Repentance means changing your mind and seeing the folly of rejecting the life that Christ offers you, both for now and eternity. So then you trust Christ and receive his offer. And the life on offer is life lived in accordance with the makers instructions. And you don't need rocket science to expect that that is the way to true happiness, fulfillment and enjoyment.
I acquired a small nearly new car over the summer that is so electronic and all into economy of fuel. I can assure you from painful experience, for true happiness, fulfillment and enjoyment, you need to read and follow the car-makers instructions.
How much more so is that true with God.
This is how Jesus famously puts coming to terms with the divine maker's instructions (John 3.16-17 and 36):
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him"
So if you truly repent, if you truly believe in Christ, yes, you will have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ. However, you will be there to receive not condemnation but the reward that he judges to those who trust him. And from that judgment seat Christ will be judging what is true and what is sham faith.
How will he judge the difference?
By the life that has been lived.
It is not that good done will qualify you for heaven.
For believers in Christ this side of heaven are never good enough. Rather you are acquitted on the basis of the perfectly good life of Christ, who you identify with by faith. But an entire absence of obedience to Christ is evidence of a sham faith. So Jesus said in the Sermon the Mount:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt 7.21)..
Yes, if you trust Christ, you must be confident and assured of heaven, as Paul was.
Just before he died Paul could say,
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing." (1 Tim 4.7-8).
So Paul was sure of eternal life and heaven for true believers.
He told the Roman Christians that …
"… [nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8.39).
But, and this is an important "but", Paul never presumed that he was saved regardless of how he lived.He wrote to the Corinthians, "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (1 Cor 9.27).
So - the first preparation then for Jesus' Return is repentance and faith in him with the wonderful hope of heaven.
And when you repent you need to do something about it, namely be baptized.
So do see Jonathan Pryke about baptism, if that is for you.
But secondly once you are trusting Jesus Christ, 1 Timothy 6 and our second Bible reading is a useful summary of how you are to prepare, "until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ".
So look now if you will at 1 Timothy 6.14 where Paul writes that Timothy is,
"to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ."
And what Paul has been commanding Timothy is highly relevant for us, this vision weekend at JPC as we look to the future.
In 1 Timothy 6.11 Paul has said, "flee these things".
He first has to be negative for "these things" (as the previous verses show) are false teachers and false teaching in the Church, and materialism and the love of money in individual lives. And Paul defines a false teacher in verse 3 as …
"anyone [who] teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness."
As Jesus words are found in the Bible that is teaching contrary to Biblical teaching. Then Paul picks up these warnings and repeats them in the last part of this chapter. He wants to hammer the message home. Look at the second warning about money in verses 17-19, Paul says the rich (and relatively that is most of us in the West) are,
"… not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life."
And then there is a second warning about false teaching in verse 20-21, where the command is to,
"avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have swerved from the faith."
That is all negative and what you are to "flee" - false teaching and materialism. However, positively there are things you are to "pursue" in verses 11-12 namely,
"righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses."
You are to cling to the basics of the faith you were baptized into – that is possibly the reference here – and courageously live in the light of your faith. And you do that to counter all the pressures of the world, the flesh and the devil, against basic Christian beliefs and morals.
So how are you preparing for Jesus' return which might be at any time? Are you resisting false doctrine and false teachers, such as those in the churches advocating sex outside heterosexual marriage, and denying fundamental biblical doctrines? And in the light of the needs of our multi-site future and St Joseph's, are you resisting the seduction of wealth and the temptation to set your hopes on uncertain riches?
And, more positively, are you seeking to cultivate those virtues of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness, as you fight the good fight of the faith, and live vigorously for Jesus?
For we must believe in Jesus' Return.
So we need to prepare for it.
And that must include taking heed of what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6.
Let us pray.