Episode 1. When Jesus Returns
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Most of us are so busy getting through the day, that we’ve forgotten completely that Jesus is coming back. In fact, the reality of today, and the promise of Christ’s imminent return almost seem …
Most of us are so busy getting through the day, that we’ve forgotten completely that Jesus is coming back. In fact the reality of today, and the promise of Christ’s imminent return almost seem … incompatible.
Is Life Tearing You Apart?
Great to be starting a new series on a subject that pretty much all of us are really interested in: Hope. I don’t know how much you’ve thought about this, but having hope for the future is fundamental to our well-being today. Think about it. If you don’t have any hope to look forward to, if you have no hope for the future, then you and your life are what we call hopeless and hopelessness, if you’ve ever been there, is the place where people start thinking about taking their own lives because they’ve got nothing left to live for. The future looks so bleak that we come to the conclusion: ‘Well, what’s the point?’
I once read a book about a holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, and he makes the point so powerfully when he recalls an experience from a concentration camp. Have a listen to what he writes:
The prisoner who had lost faith in the future, his future, was doomed. With the loss of belief in his future, he also lost his spiritual hold. He let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually, this happened quite suddenly in the form of a crisis – the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends. It usually began with a prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash and to go out on the parade ground. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect: He just lay there hardly moving. If the crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick bay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up, and there he remained lying in his own excrement, and nothing bothered him any more.
What a devastating picture of hopelessness, but a lack of hope in our lives takes many different forms. Sometimes, it’s not quite as desperate as that. It’s just that we’ve had this numbness because we’re so buried in the minutiae. We worry about this and that; we worry about … well, we worry about just about everything really.
I saw a great quote the other day on Twitter that went something like this: Worry is nothing more than your imagination creating negative visions of the future. It’s true, isn’t it? We create all these negative snapshots of how things could turn out, as though that’s any way to live your life.
Hope is the complete opposite of that. Hope is about creating positive snapshots. It’s about a vision in our heads and in our hearts of having a life that’s worth living, and the sort of hope that God’s into is the sort that makes a powerful difference in the good times and in the bad. We don’t find it particularly difficult to have hope for the future when things are going pretty well. The time we struggle is when things aren’t going well, and it’s right in that place that God wants to pour His hope into your life and mine. Romans 12:12:
Rejoice in hope; be patient in tribulation; be consistent in prayer.
Did you pick that up? God’s hope is right in there, in the mix, next to, butted up against tribulation – a word which, in its original Greek language, literally means to have the life squeezed out of you. So, when you’re being squeezed and crushed, when it feels like your life is draining out of you, it’s right there that God plans to give you hope.
Our problem is that the hope that we’re all too often looking for is way too short-sighted. We hope that the pain will go away. We hope that the thing that’s causing us grief will go away: Not next month; not even next week; not even tomorrow … We want it fixed now. It doesn’t always work that way.
I can’t tell you the number of letters and emails I receive from people who’ve been suffering for a long time – some of them a lifetime, and they want to know: What the blazers is God up to? How can I possibly have the hope that you’re talking about? Those are eminently reasonable questions for you and me to be asking, so let’s lift our gaze and take a much bigger, much more expansive view of the sort of hope that God has for each one of us today. Let’s have a listen to the apostle Paul, who was going through his own tribulations on death row in a Roman dungeon. This comes from Philippians 1:18-26:
And I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me, and I don’t know which one I prefer. I’m hard-pressed between the two: My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that’s far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
So much hope does Paul have in the eternity that he’s going to spend with Jesus that instead of panicking about the consequences of being on death row, he’s actually torn – not between this and that in life, but between continuing in this life or moving on to the next.
Now, just stop and think about that there for a minute. Take a deep breath; let it sink in. Paul had so wrapped his heart and his mind around the amazing eternity he’s going to spend in the presence of God, with Jesus for ever and ever and ever, he’s completely torn between finishing the course that God’s set for him here on this planet, and letting it come to an early end so that he can be with Jesus. Wow!
So let me ask you this question: How different would your perspective on life be if you had that sort of hope within your heart right now, tomorrow, the next day? Well that’s precisely why we’re talking about this hope – the certain hope that we have in Jesus Christ for all eternity, in this series that I’ve called Merchants of Hope.
When Jesus Comes Again
Ok, tomorrow starts off like any other day. The alarm clock goes off, you roll out of bed, into the bathroom, breakfast, off to work … You look out the window, but … well, the sun’s not there. What’s the time? What’s going on? Here’s the picture that Jesus Himself paints of His return. Matthew 24:29-31:
Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 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.
Wow! So is that good news to you, or bad news? Is that something you’re looking forward to, or not? And what about this? Going on in that same chapter, Matthew 24:36-44:
But about that day and the hour, no one knows. Neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying, given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in a field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming, but understand this. If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake, and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Are you looking forward to that with a sense of anticipation, or not? Because it could happen anytime. When? Well, we don’t know. We’re not meant to know. It could be today; it could be tomorrow; it could be next Thursday, or it could be in another few thousand years’ time.
But are you looking forward to Jesus’ return? I have to tell you something: I am. I love labouring in His field to play my small part in bringing in the harvest. I love doing what He calls me to do. Sure, some days it’s hard. Some days you groan, right? But by and large, it’s a joy for me to be doing what I’m doing, but the more I read and think and pray about what it’ll be like to be with the Lord for all eternity, the more I yearn to be there with Him, despite how much I’m enjoying this life. Does that make sense? And let me tell you, God has a lot to say in His Word about the return of Jesus.
Here are some interesting facts. One verse in thirty in the New Testament relates to the return of Christ. One in thirty! For every prophecy in the Old Testament about Jesus’ first coming, there are eight in the New Testament about His second coming. In fact, there are three hundred and sixteen references in the New Testament to the second coming, so as much as we get lost in the present, God truly wants us to focus on what is to come because when we actually know what’s coming, when the wonder of spending eternity with Jesus fills your heart, can I tell you? This world, this life, and all its riches and all its tribulations, look completely different.
Have you ever been exhausted at work? It’s been a long year, and you could really use a break? Your nerves are frayed; you’re snapping at people at work; just the smallest thing sets you off and you get home, and you’re grumpy at home with your family too. It’s because the pressure of it all is getting to you, but then you remember: Hang on a minute! I’ve got a holiday break coming up, and all of a sudden, all your anxiety melts away because it completely changes how you face today and the next day, because you know something good is coming.
Well as much as this works on the micro-scale, knowing your destiny with Christ for all eternity, it completely changes how you look at your life from a big-picture perspective as well. Just listen to these words that Jesus spoke while hanging on that cross to a criminal who was also hanging on his cross beside the Lord. Luke 23:42-43:
The man said to Him, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’
And Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise.’
Just think. In the middle of that extreme suffering, that man hanging there on a cross next to Jesus, and the Lord (the miracle-working Jesus) – the same one who’d healed lepers and blind men and demoniacs and who’d walked on water and stilled the storm – that Jesus says to this suffering criminal, who by the way deserved every bit of his punishment, that Jesus says to him: “Truly, today, you will be with Me in paradise.” Do you think those words pierced his heart with love and hope amidst his suffering? You bet they did, because Jesus spoke those words into the little that remained of his life on this earth. And when Jesus was telling His disciples (fearful and suffering as they were before the crucifixion) about heaven, He said this to them. John 14:1-3:
‘Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me, for in My Father’s house, there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you to Myself, so that where I am, there you also may be.’
Friend, those words are for you as much as they were for the disciples back then, and remembering right at that point those disciples were suffering. They were afraid for their lives and yet Jesus said to them: “In My Father’s house, there are many dwelling-places. If it wasn’t so, do you think I would have told you that I’m going to prepare one for you?” As you take up your cross and follow Jesus every day, He is already preparing a room – a room just for you.
Making What’s Wrong, Right
When Jesus comes again, something that I for one am really looking forward to, one of the things that’s going to happen is that we’re each going to have to give an account of our actions. Like it or not, it’s exactly what’s going to happen. Here’s how Jesus tells it. Matthew 25:31-46:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will put the sheep at His right hand and the goats at His left. Then the King will say to those at His right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw You hungry and gave You food, or thirsty and gave You something to drink? And when was it that we saw You a stranger and welcomed You, or naked and gave You clothing? And when was it that we saw You sick or in prison and visited You?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to Me.’
Then He will say to those at His left hand, ‘You are accursed! Depart from Me, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome Me, I was naked and you didn’t give me clothing, I was sick and in prison and you didn’t visit Me.’
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we didn’t take care of You?’
And then He will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do this to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
So, how does that make you feel, knowing that Jesus will judge you one day? A little nervous? A little uncomfortable, perhaps? Course it does! We’ve all done things wrong. We’ve all rebelled against God. Even though He gave His very life for us, we’ve rebelled. See, the idea of judgment really makes us feel … twitchy. So, what am I doing talking about judgment in the middle of a series of messages that I’ve called Merchants of Hope? What does judgment have to do with hope exactly? Well I’ll tell you: The answer is, everything.
I was watching a news item on TV recently. They were interviewing a young woman who’d been deliberately set alight by some people who were drug-addicts. They’d poured flammable liquid all over this woman and set her alight. This beautiful young woman now had burns to most of her body. Even her face was covered with one of those body stockings. All you could see were her eyes moving around, and her mouth moving.
The perpetrators were given, wait for this, only thirteen years in prison. I was outraged! I mean, these people had laughed at her, when they set this beautiful young girl alight and ruined her life. I mean, they should have been given life, as far as I’m concerned. Someone should lock them up, throw away the keys, and never let them out. Would you agree?
There are many, many evil things done in this world on a daily basis: Extreme things like that; men beating their wives; women cheating on their husbands; people being enslaved; abused; tortured; demeaned. On the same night as that news item, they showed the trial of a union official who had embezzled over a million dollars from the members! None of that has escaped God. None of it! And all this evil going on in the world, evil that people seem to get away with, is not going to go unpunished. Listen to what God says. Proverbs 11:21:
Be assured, the wicked will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will escape.
And then Romans 12:19:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’, says the LORD.
See, one of the great hopes that we have for the future when Jesus returns, when He judges the nations and their peoples, is that finally, finally, finally, justice will be done. I get great comfort from the system of justice in my country which, as fairly as possible, punishes people for their iniquities. And I get a huge amount of comfort knowing that God will one day punish the wicked, on that day of judgment; not because I’m a mean person, but because I (like you) have in me an innate sense of justice. Why is it there? Because you and I are made in the image of God and God is a just God.
Now, so far as I know, I’ve never done anything particularly wicked in my life. I’ve never poured petrol over someone; I’ve never set them alight; I’ve never embezzled union funds; I’ve not committed any crimes, but can I tell you something? I have fallen so short of God’s perfect ideal for my life. In fact, I fall short pretty much every day, so on God’s scale of justice, I deserve to be punished on that day of judgment. Truly I do, and chances are, so do you. The difference is for me, (I don’t know about you) but for me, and anyone who puts their trust in Jesus, the difference is this. 1 John 4:10:
In this is life: Not that we love God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
See, my hope for justice is my hope in Jesus. I know that He’s already paid for all my wrongs, past and present and future, and whilst justice will be done, I am forgiven because in my case, through my faith in Jesus, justice has already been done. It was a done deal when Jesus died on that cross to pay for my sins. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? I get off Scott-free when others will have to suffer. You’re right; it’s not fair – it’s grace, and grace is never fair.
My hope on that day of judgment is in Jesus, and that’s something I’m looking forward to. How about you?
So when was the last time you fell for the devil’s age-old lie that you’re not worthy of God, therefore by clear implication you never will be? When have you worried about this? Well, now you’ve heard the truth: Perhaps again, perhaps for the first time; and knowing that truth, you are totally, totally set free from any condemnation the moment you believe in Jesus.
Martin Luther once had a dream in which he stood, in the day of judgment, before God, and (surprise, surprise) Satan was there to accuse him. And when the books were opened, he pointed to transgression after transgression of which Luther was guilty. Luther’s heart sank in despair, but then he remembered the cross, and turning on the devil he said: ‘There is one entry which you have not made, Satan.’
“What is that?” asked the devil.
“It’s this,” answered Luther. “The blood of Christ, His Son, cleanses me from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
That’s the truth – the God-honest truth. If you’re one of those people who has given their lives to Jesus, I want you from this day forth to hope in the day of judgment, when justice will finally be done by God. And as you hope in that day, know that your faith in Jesus means that your justice has already been done.
But if you don’t believe in Jesus, and if you haven’t yet put your trust in His hands, then I don’t want us to part ways today without giving you the opportunity to pray this prayer of faith with me and to put your life in His hands. This is just too important to leave until tomorrow, so let’s pray now. Pray these words with me right now:
Father God, I’ve heard the truth today that You will judge the living and the dead, and I realise I’m in serious trouble. I confess to you today that I’ve sinned against You in thought, in word, and in deed, and I come to You today Lord God to declare that I believe in Jesus. I believe that Jesus is Your Son: That Jesus died for me, to pay for my sins; that He rose again to give me the gift of eternal life. Please forgive me through what Jesus did for me. I turn away from all that I know to be wrong, and I give my life to You. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit today, and give me the power to live this new life – this eternal life, completely for You. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.