I wonder if you remember the great storm here five years ago, when a summer sky literally turned black and the heavens deluged a month's rainfall in two hours. And the headline (in The Journal or the Metro newpaper) next day said, "We thought it was the end of the world." And people do still have this idea of 'the end of the world', don't they? And in today's Bible passage, Jesus says they're right to. Because he says one day, he's going to come a second time, to bring this world to an end. And he says the reason he came a first time was to get us ready for that. So would you turn in the Bibles to Luke's Gospel, chapter 17, where we're picking it up again this week at verse 20. And this Bible passage says two main things to us, the first of which is that:
1. We Need to Respond Properly to Jesus' First Coming (vv20-21)
Look down to Luke chapter 17.20:
"Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, [Jesus] answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold [in other words, look], the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.""
And to understand that, we need to know what 'the kingdom of God' means. So let me explain with a picture.
So the crown there stands for God – because he's King over everything. And the box underneath stands for time and space where we live – which contains a dreadful mixture of good and evil. And all the good comes from the way God made us. And all the evil comes from the way we say to him, 'I don't want you to be King – I'm going to live my own way', which is the attitude the Bible calls 'sin'. And the part of the Bible written before Jesus – the Old Testament – promised that one day God would sort out that mixture of good and evil once and for all. So here's a picture of what it promised:
It promised that he would step in – that's the big arrow coming down – and get rid of all the evil, and bring in his kingdom ('the kingdom of God'). And the kingdom of God is where everyone is living for God as King perfectly – so that there's no sin, and none of sin's consequences. So just imagine that. No keys or pin numbers or passwords – because everyone's perfectly honest. No broken relationships or broken homes – because everyone's perfectly loving. No hospitals or surgeries or glasses or hearing aids – because everyone's perfectly healthy. And no hospices or funerals – because everyone is safely beyond death forever. These Pharisees in verse 20 were asking, 'So, when is that going to happen?' And they thought – like in Picture 2 – that it was going to happen in one fell-swoop of judgment, and that just before it, God would give some unmistakable signs that it was coming – like turning the sky black or something suitably end-of-the-world-ish – so that people would get ready. So now look back to verse 20:
"Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, [Jesus] answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for [look], the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.""
And what Jesus meant was, 'Look at me.' He was saying, 'If only you realised it, I'm God's Son, and my Father has sent me to bring in his kingdom. So actually, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you – because I'm the King of the kingdom, and I'm the way that you can become part of the kingdom.' So Jesus was saying he hadn't come to bring that one fell-swoop of judgement – because if he had, it would have swept everyone away, because we're all part of the mixture of good and evil – it runs right through each one of us. Instead, he said he'd come so that we could be forgiven and start to be changed into people who, one day beyond this life, would be able to live for God as King perfectly. But for that to happen, he first had to die on the cross to pay the price of our forgiveness, before he rose again and returned to heaven – from where he will come a second time to wrap up history and bring judgement, as in this picture:
That's why the first main thing this Bible passage says is that we need to respond properly to Jesus' first coming. Because this Bible passage is saying, 'Have you realised who Jesus is, yet?' – that he's God's Son who came into this world that first Christmas time to get you back into the kingdom of God? And it's saying, 'Have you realised that you need to respond to Jesus if you're going to be in the kingdom of God?' – that what he did for you doesn't benefit you automatically. It's saying: we need to admit that we're each part of the mixture of good and evil in this world, and that we need to ask him to forgive us and come into our lives by his Spirit and start getting to work on us.
The other main thing this Bible passage says is that:
2. We Need to Live in the Light of Jesus' Second Coming (vv22-37)
In other words, we need to let Jesus' second coming shape how we live now. So look on to verse 22. The Pharisees seem to have gone. And Jesus now says more to his disciples:
"And [Jesus] said to the disciples, "The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, 'Look, there!' or 'Look, here!' Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.""
And to understand that, we need to know what 'the Son of Man' means. It's the title Jesus used for himself throughout the Gospels, and it's from that Old Testament reading we had in Daniel 7.13-14:
"I saw in the night visions,
[so God gave Daniel a vision of future events]
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
[and that's where Jesus got that title 'Son of Man' from]
and he came to the Ancient of Days
[that's God – we'd say 'God the Father']
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed."
So "the son of man" there is a human being – and yet, he's made King over everything and he's equal with God. And that was a vision, centuries before Jesus, of Jesus being raised from the dead, returning to heaven, and ruling with his Father as King forever – which includes coming a second time to sort out the mixture of good and evil in this world once and for all. So now look at verse 22 again:
"And [Jesus] said to the disciples, "The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man [in other words, the days after he's come a second time], and you will not see it." [Not yet – you'll need to wait. And, so far, it's been a 2,000 year wait.]"
And verse 22 begs the question, 'Do we desire his second coming (or another translation says 'long for' it)?' I don't think I did much, as a younger Christian. But the more I see the intractable evil in the world (like Mugabe and what will follow Mugabe), and the more I see the intractable evil in myself, and the more I see of the persecution of the church, and the more I see of suffering and death, the more I do long for it – even though I feel utterly torn by what it will mean for those who haven't responded to Jesus yet. So, living in the light of Jesus' second coming means longing for it to happen (and praying for it – which is what 'Your kingdom come', in the Lord's Prayer, is ultimately asking). So I wonder: do we long for it, and for the world as it should be? Or are we too at home in the world as it is? And then Jesus says that his second coming will be unmistakable when it happens. So that if anyone says to you on the bus or Metro tomorrow, 'Actually, I'm the Messiah and today's the end of the world,' you can safely reply, 'You're a nutter.' Because look at verse 23:
"And they [that is, nutty people] will say to you, 'Look, there!' or 'Look, here!' Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day."
In other words, it'll be a cosmic event. I can't begin to get my head round that. But the Bible says it'll be as big as creation was in the first place. In fact, it'll be re-creation of creation. And then verse 25 takes us back to where we began:
"But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation."
So that takes us back to Picture 3 (above) again – to how Jesus came a first time to die for us and rise again, to get us ready for when he comes a second time. And when that happens, those who've been forgiven and accepted him will finally be part of his kingdom. But those who haven't will be out of it forever. Because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the King and let him get to work on you. So Jesus came a first time to get us ready for his second coming. But, next he says: many people won't be ready. Look on to verse 26:
"Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day… when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all."
Now people sometimes say, 'You don't really believe there was a flood and a Noah's ark, do you?' And my answer is that, on Jesus' authority (and I take him to be God), yes I do. So there was Noah, building this lifeboat and saying to his neighbours, 'Look, God has warned me that judgement is coming in the form of a flood.' And they thought he was nutty: 'But Noah, you know the average rainfall in the Middle East, and the geography round here. That's never going to happen in a million years.' And so they just got on with the business of living. And it can't have been easy for Noah, by contrast, to get on with the business of preparing for God's judgement – because there was no sign he could point to that it was coming: no evidence of climate change, or writing in the sky. All he had to go on was God's promise.
And we're basically in the same boat. Because to most people, the idea that Jesus is going to come a second time and wrap up history and judge everyone who's ever lived and re-create creation sounds nutty. So what do we have to go on? We have his promise that he will. And we have the fact of his resurrection to back his promise up – because if he rose again and returned to heaven, and is reigning unseen right now, why should we find it hard to believe he'll come a second time to finish off the job? So, living in the light of Jesus' second coming means trusting his promise that it will happen – even when others think it's incredible. Well, look on to verse 28:
"Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed."
So that's talking about when God brought judgement on the city of Sodom, later on in Genesis. And, again, on Jesus' authority I trust that also really happened. And the 'likewise' in verse 28 says it's basically making the same point, so I won't say more on that. Instead, let's move on to verse 31, where Jesus says:
"On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back."
So he's saying: imagine that day when he comes a second time – and think what will matter and won't matter then. And he says if you're up on the flat roof – which back then was the equivalent of the patio – don't go down into the house to get your iPad or jewellery or CD collection or any of your other stuff. Because it just won't matter then. And he says if you're in your field – which back then was your income: that crop equalled thousands of pounds – then, don't give it a second thought. Because money won't matter then either.
Jesus says: cast your mind forward to that day, imagine what will and won't matter then, and bring that attitude back into your life now. For example, see necessary stuff as just stuff. Like your house: don't worship it, just live in it. Or like your car: don't polish and pamper it, just use it and let it get dirty. And see unnecessary stuff as unnecessary: don't covet it and clutter your life with it. And see money as to be used for the Lord, rather than the maximum being saved up uselessly. Of course we need some level of savings. But if Jesus came back right now, would you look at your savings and think, 'Why didn't I put more of that to use for him, for the spread of the gospel and doing good in his name?' So, living in the light of Jesus' second coming means: seeing what matters now by asking what will matter then. That's the attitude to have. But then in verse 32, here's the attitude not to have:
"Remember Lot's wife. [As in, 'Don't be like her.' Because, verse 33:] Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it"
So as Lot and his family were fleeing Sodom just before God's judgement fell, Mrs Lot hesitated, looked back and stopped. Which betrayed how her heart was still really in Sodom, and how she was thinking, 'I can't face losing all this… my home, my stuff, my friends, my way of life.' So ironically, she lost it all – including her life – as the judgement fell. And Jesus is saying: that's the attitude not to have – the attitude that says, 'I can't face losing… whatever it is… to have Jesus as King.' Instead, he says: cast your mind forward to when he comes a second time, and ask, 'How much will... whatever it is… matter then?
So, for example,I know someone who came to church and made Christian noises for a while. But he then got involved with a woman who wasn't a Christian, ended up living with her, and forgot about Jesus. So he obviously decided she mattered more. But the question is: how will that decision look when Jesus comes a second time? What will matter most then? (I don't even think they're together any more.) And Jesus answers that question, 'What will matter most then?' in verse 34 – so look down to verse 34 to end with. Jesus says:
"I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed [I take it, husband and wife]. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together [work colleagues, and friends]. One will be taken and the other left."
So Jesus is saying: there will be a final division between people – and it'll all depend on how we've responded to him. If we've accepted him, we'll be taken to be with him in his kingdom. If we haven't, we'll be left outside. Which sounds hard. But in the end, we'll each be given what we wanted – whether we wanted life with God back in his rightful place as King, or whether we wanted to keep living our own way, without him.
Now I realise that can set us thinking about where other people might stand, either side of that division – including loved ones who've died. And if it concerns you that someone might have been on the wrong side of that division, it's important to say that none of us can say we know that for sure: we don't know how things finally ended up between that person and God. So we shouldn't let that colour our own decision about responding to Jesus. And, similarly, there may be people close to us whom we love and respect who've responded negatively to Jesus – but, again, we shouldn't let their response colour ours. We each have to make our own, individual decision for or against Jesus.
Well, I realise this passage may not be what we wanted to hear. But it's a bit like the signs you drive past in Northumberland. You know, there you are enjoying the countryside – and suddenly up comes a sign saying, '17 Fatal Accidents in 3 years'. And you drive on a bit more and up pops another: '17 Fatal Accidents in 3 years'. And it's not what you want to hear, and it rather spoils the moment. But the people who put those signs up are not out to spoil your life, but to save it. They're a loving warning. And so is this passage. It's a loving warning from someone who loved you enough to die for you – to see you forgiven and brought back into his kingdom, if only you'll come. And he's saying that we need to respond properly to his first coming, so that he can get us ready for his second coming.' And that if we've done that, we need to help others do the same.