Text: Mark 13.6.15 Zeph 3:14-20; Isa 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7; Luke 21:25-28
Preparing this sermon has stirred up a level of perplexity that takes my mind back to some events decades ago; more of that later. But when I first saw the lectionary readings for today I was excited because they are so tremendously uplifting; “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will rejoice over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17); v.3“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. v.4 And you will say on that day: Give thanks to the Lord…v.6 Shout aloud and sing for joy…for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Isa (12:3, 4, 6); v.4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. v.6 Do not worry about anything (Phil 4:4-6); v.26 “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken….v.28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Luke 21:26, 28).
All positive; but a famous theologian once said we should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The newspapers will tell you a depressing story about street crime, sex abuse, domestic violence, bushfires, sharks, economic woes, islands sinking through rising sea levels, and the constant threat of terrorism.
One of my emails this week asked:
WHAT MIGHT THE PERSECUTED HOPE FOR THIS CHRISTMAS?
“in Nigeria…Thousands of Christian families will be tearfully hoping for the return of their captive children and…hoping for a return to homes, churches and communities. Across Syria and Iraq, hundreds of thousands…displaced by Islamic jihad will be hoping for the same. Meanwhile, Christian prisoners…in Iran….on death row for alleged blasphemy in Pakistan and…in ‘black jails’ in China will…hope that they might be reunited with their families.” Finally the writer comments; “For the first time in my lifetime Christians in the largely post-Christian West may well be hoping their worship services and festivities will not be targeted by terrorists.”
When people look at our lives which news source seems to be triumphing, the good news of the Bible or the bad news of the day?
Australians once were interested in being “good people” today
We mostly want to be “happy people”.
This is why more and more Australians see the services of the Church as irrelevant because how could Christianity possibly make life more pleasurable?
This common frame of mind reflects a:
THE JOY OF THE END
The famous theologian who told us to hold scripture in one hand and newspaper in the other also said; “the theologian who has no joy in his work is no theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thinking and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science.” (Barth). When the person on the street hears the word “theology”, “Christian” or “church” they usually don’t think “joy”, but the God of the Bible is essentially a God of joy.
When Paul tells the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Phil 4:4) he is exhorting us to share in the radiant joy of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s eternal plan is so radically different from the way people normally think about religion because it is a plan for pleasure; v.5 “God predestined to adopt us…by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This…gave him great pleasure….v.9 he has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfil his own good pleasure.” (Eph 1:5, 9). God created us in joy; v.30“then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, v.31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Prov 8:30-31). When I think about my delightful grandchildren I have an insight into the infinite delight the Lord had in creating us to be his children. But how many grandparents make this connection?
Continuing this theme of God’s plan for joy, the Bible teaches the climax of history is a wedding celebration; “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isa 62:5); “Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honour to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself.” (Rev 19:7). We are the Bride and the Lord is preparing us to enjoy Messiah’s wedding banquet; v.6 “the Lord…will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. v.7 There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. v.8 He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.” (Isa 25:6-8 cf. 1 Cor 15:54).
Jesus said ““The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,” where all are called to join in the celebration (Mat 22:1-10 cf. 8:11). Followers of Jesus are to be big picture people. Sadness and sorrow might seem to reign in the world for a few thousand years but everything will end in joy. This was the experience of the early believers.
VITA, VITA, VITA.
In the catacombs under Rome is a Christian inscription; “Vita, Vita, Vita.” “Life, Life, Life”.
Whoever wrote this was bursting with the joy of the new creation in Christ (Neh 8:10; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).
Paul saw his ministry in terms of joy; he said to the Corinthians, “we don’t mean to dominate you by telling you how to put your faith into practice. We want to work together with you so you will be full of joy” (2 Cor 1:24).
Everything the Church does must be directed towards God’s great End-goal, a universe full of joy. Yet when non-believers look at us they usually don’t think of Church as an extraordinarily happy place.
My favourite atheist philosopher challenged the Church of his time; “They would have to sing better songs for me to learn to have faith in their Redeemer; and his disciples would have to look more redeemed!” (Nietzsche).
To answer this challenge our lives need to be impacted by Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading for today.
The End through a Shaking
According to Christ things would get so bad “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26).
The word for “fainting from fear” is the word for such a severe panic attack that a person literally stops breathing and thinks they are about to die; unfortunately the people I know who have had such attacks are Christians!
When circumstances are outwardly dire Christ prescribes;”‘Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is drawing near.’” (21:28).
When things seem to be going bad in the world this should be a confidence booster for the people of God to go forward in confident hope that Jesus is coming back soon.
We are called to live in the spirit of the psalmist; “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” (v.7). As we lift our hearts towards Jesus in prayer and praise our heads will lift up too. Joy on the inside of a Christian, whatever the troubles on the outside, is a sign to a perishing world of the triumph of Christ’s life in us.
James boldly says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (1:2) n.b not just persecution.
This joy is not ordinary circumstance-dependent human happiness, it is the supernatural joy of the approaching End.
It is sharing by faith in the joy which motivated Jesus to go to the cross; Hebrews says, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:2).
Jesus knew that the more severe the shakings that were coming on his life the closer he was getting to returning to his Father.
At the End of the Day he knew that his final experience would be the joy of his heavenly Father’s perfect presence.
We are called to share in the shape of Jesus life experience.
A little later in the same chapter of Hebrews the writer says, v.26 “ (God) has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This v.27 …indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” (Heb 12:26-27).
Looked at through the lens of the cross the shaking of this world and its suffering are accelerating everything towards the End (cf. Rom 8:17-39).
Hardship is transformed into joy through mature faith.
I was talking to a returned missionary from Kazakhstan last Sunday, a nation where the church grew explosively in the 90’s, but then persecution came.
Those who thought following Jesus would increase ordinary earthly happiness fell away (Mark 4:16-17), but the mature believers in that country responded like the early apostles, who after being beaten “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name (of Jesus).” (Acts 5:40-41).
Donna and I were at a prayer meeting for the persecuted church earlier this year and there was a video clip of the congregation in Cave Church Cairo.
She spontaneously remarked, “You can see the depth of joy in the faces of the people.”
It’s not easy to follow Jesus in Egypt, you will experience discrimination at every level of society, Christian girls are kidnapped and at times churches are bombed.
However it is suffering for Christ that gives the believers there a sense of the joy of eternal things through the triumph of the cross and the Lord’s soon Return.
Paul’s exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord always” is undergirded by his reminder “The Lord is near.”(Phil 4:4-5). Likewise, his words to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thess 5:16-18) reflect an end-time attitude that God’s triumph over evil in Christ is experienced most powerfully, not in the best of times, but in the worst of times.
The sort of supernatural unconquerable joy in the midst of the shakings and terrors of this world is a powerful testimony to lost people whose only hope is in this perishing world (Eph 2:12). Zephaniah’s prophetic words in our first reading today; “The LORD your God…will rejoice over you with singing” (3:17) are true for us because the Father’s heart sings over Christ living in us.
Our meetings in Jesus’ name need to overflow with delight. The word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving”; something happy people do. The Lord’s Supper is the fulfilment of the Last Supper which was a prophetic pointer to the banquet of Messiah.
The grace of the Supper is meant to joyfully empower us as we travel to the eternal feast of the kingdom of God. Australians love parties, let’s invite them to the party that never ends.
I remember talking with someone who was involved in setting up men’s sheds in aged care facilities. He told me about meeting this old man who seemed to have nothing left living for.
But when he “invited him to the banquet” he became a Christian (Matt 22:9). One crucial reason why Alpha has been so successful is that it is accompanied by a free meal; which is a prophetic sign of the joy-filled banquet of the Messiah.
In the increasingly dark and scary days that lie ahead for our world (terrorism, water crises, refugees from Pacific islands) churches baptised in End-time joy will have increasing power to lead people to Christ.
Where is the Joy?
Mockers in Isaiah’s day offered a taunt that could be spoken by many sceptics of Christianity today, “‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy’.”(66:5). I remember radical R.C. theologian Matthew Fox speaking to a packed audience in Christ Church Grammar chapel.
When he quipped, “The worst thing you can do to people is to invite them to church and bore them.” the whole place spontaneously broke into applause and shouts of approval because so many present felt that this was their own experience.
I am not asking whether you and I find church boring, but why mainstream society, and young people in particular, think this way!
The people of God are often fossilised, not primarily because our music is antiquated our liturgies incomprehensible and our preachers passionless, all of which is sometimes true, but because we lack Christ’s gift of End-time joy.
The Body of Christ lacks the joy that cannot be conquered by any evil circumstances because we are too attached to the things of this perishing world. (This can include religious forms cf. 2 Tim 3:5.)
Jesus speaks bluntly, “Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:25 cf. 2 Pet 1:4).
Let me use on illustration.
When Donna was first diagnosed with her cancer I said to her, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to you? The worst that can happen to you is that you die and go and be with Jesus.”
No doubt at that time Donna was thinking of her loving hopes and attachments to children, grandchildren and even to me!
Faced with death Paul is more spiritual than any of us, “I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me…But for your sakes I will remain alive for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1:23, 25).
Even Islamic State has something to say about here and hereafter. In a decree published after the Paris bombings they said, ISIS ‘loves death like you love life’.
Their point was that those who truly seek God turn away from idols and are willing to sacrifice their present lives to get to the pleasures of Paradise (Sura 3:14; 14:3; 75:20; 76:27).
Christ’s way to convert the world is not through violence, but by manifesting a holy End-time joy that shows to people that there is something far more valuable than the passing affairs of this life.
The perplexity induced by preparing this sermon took my mind back to my reluctance to minister in the Spirit’s power in a traditional Anglican Church 30 years ago.
In the end I did however obey the Lord and that church experienced tremendous spiritual renewal and salvation.
Today the Lord is calling us all to a major change of mind.
We need to think about Christ’s Commission to bring the gospel to everyone from a new angle.
Before Nehemiah told assembled Israel, , “the joy of the LORD is your strength.”” he commanded them ““Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing.” (Neh 8:10).
Only if our hearts are overflowing with End-time joy can we persuasively communicate good news to a world full of bad news (Ps 23:5; Isa 66:10-11).
This is a great challenge to me personally.
I remember times of being in Church as a young Christian when my experience of the presence of Jesus made my heart feel like it was going to burst through joy and I would find myself in heaven.
Since then too much of life, especially too much of church life, has gotten on top of me.
Today I sense the Lord calling me/us to make a faith decision about the triumph of the cross; has Jesus really conquered all those dark and depressing things of the world which would rob us of his joy (Gal 4:15).
SINCE HE HAS CONQUERED WE ARE LEFT WITH BUT ONE CHOICE.
To seek a new awareness of Jesus that will concentrate, surpass and sustain all our past experiences of his presence so that we might become his triumphant joy-givers to a world that has no other hope.
This is his clear call today. Will We Obey Him?