Living in the End Times audio (4MB)
Repent! The End is Near! It’s one of those cheap laughs that people get at the expense of Christians. Some Christians at least. You see it in cartoons, usually on a sign-board held by a man with a long beard wearing a white robe and sandals. And of course there are many variations of the mad man predicting the end.
But in fact it’s no laughing matter is it? We don’t believe the end is coming because we’re out of touch with reality. On the contrary, we believe that God is involved with the world in a real way, that God is in control of his creation. We believe that He’s revealed his intention to bring judgement and justice on this world and to bring in a new creation at a time that he’s set.
And we believe that if the end really is near then we’d better get ready for it before it’s too late. That’s what Peter has to say in this passage that we’re looking at today. He says: “The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.”
But do we believe it? If we believe this is true then what difference is it making to our life together and our life in the world? It should be making a huge difference shouldn’t it? We all know what a difference it makes when we know that something is coming to an end, that the time is short. If you’ve ever moved from one job to another you’ll know what a difference it makes to your commitment to your old job. You go through the motions; you do what you have to but no more, because you know that whatever you do probably won’t last. When the Archbishop visited Broughton Rd the year before last he commented on how run down the buildings were and of course I explained that we were planning to leave the site in the next few years so it wasn’t worth spending money on maintenance. On the other hand if you’re planning to sell your home you gladly spend money painting and tidying up the garden because you know that it’ll add value to your property. You see, when you know that the end is near it affects how you think and act.
So if we believe that the end of all things is near how should that affect our behaviour? What sort of things should we be thinking about? What sort of things should we be doing?
Peter says “be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.” Or, “be clear-minded and self-controlled.” That is, be watchfully waiting for the Lord’s return, living realistically, being aware of what’s going on, seeing the issues clearly, so that your prayers can be focused, so you’re not distracted by the stress of living in a hostile world, so you’re prayers are maintained in times of testing.
Now I think there’s a connection between disciplining ourselves for the sake of our prayers and what follows. You see what would be the content of the sort of prayers people pray who are living in the last days? What do people pray when they know they’re facing a challenge? There’s a few VCE students who might be praying hard at the moment? “Lord help me to get through.” “Lord, help me to concentrate.” “Lord help me to be well prepared.” For Christians thinking about the end times it’ll be about surviving persecution. It might be asking for opportunities to tell as many people as possible about Jesus before it’s too late. And if that’s what you’re praying about, then isn’t it reasonable to expect that your life will be shaped by those things? What we pray for is probably what we’ll be working towards in our lives together and in the world. And so in verses 7 to 11 he talks about the sort of behaviour that they need to have as the last days draw near: showing love, and using their gifts.
He says we’re to maintain constant love. Another translator suggests we’re to love one another at full strength. That is, our love mustn’t be half-hearted. Rather it’s to stretch out to encompass all people. In Ephesians Paul says “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love ,18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” That’s the sort of love we’re to have: love whose width and length and height and depth can’t be measured. And why? Because love covers a multitude of sins. How else can we accept others when we discover their failings. How else can we go to those who treat the gospel or us with disdain and offer them God’s free gift of eternal life? How else can we stand to be part of a church that’s filled with so many people who are so different from us? How else can we do as Jesus told Peter, and forgive our brother or sister 70 times 7? We can only do it with the love of Christ in our hearts.
The outworking of that love at a practical level is to show hospitality to one another without complaining. Hospitality is one of the basic givens of most societies. It’s around a meal table that community is built. But it seems to me that in our modern western culture we’ve lost that notion. Our lives are so busy that we resent having to give up time to show hospitality. And we’re so consumer driven that we don't feel we can offer hospitality unless it’s 5 star and our house is looking immaculate. Otherwise we worry that people might think poorly of us. And conversely sometimes we even worry about accepting hospitality because we may not be able to reciprocate.
But what if we had the sort of love for our Christian family that most people have for their own family? One result should be that we show hospitality to one another without complaining or worrying what they’ll think. But can you see what it is that gets in the way of this sort of willing hospitality It’s our pride isn’t it? What will they think of me? Will I match up with what they have to offer? Will my dinner be as good as the last one they went to? Well, let me give you two principles to work on. 1. Hospitality is more important than pride. 2. People matter more than things.
I remember, when our kids were growing up, we suddenly stopped being invited to people’s homes for meals. Now our kids weren’t any different from other kids. I think it was just that people weren’t prepared to risk their precious things or to change the layout of their house to handle guests with little kids. Well, in a place like this where we want to welcome and encourage people with young families, we need to rethink that attitude, if that’s how we think. People matter far more than things. Showing God’s love through hospitality is much more important than pride.
Next, if we’re praying about the spread of the gospel, and about surviving the testing of the end times, then how we use our gifts will be important. Peter is assuming that each of us has received a gift of one sort or another, and if that’s so then its been given so we can serve one another. He says we’re to be good stewards of God’s gifts. What does that mean? A steward’s the guy who looks after you on an aeroplane isn’t he? No, that’s not what Peter means. A better title for this day and age might be managing director. We’re to be like a managing director looking after God’s investment in us. And that investment includes a whole range of gifts: God’s grace he says, is manifold. That is, it comes in a wide variety of forms. Peter separates these into gifts of speech and gifts of service. He says if your gift is speaking, then do so as one speaking the very words of God. So what are the speaking gifts? (congregational input?) Preaching, leading groups, reading the bible, public prayer, encouraging one another, telling our friends about our faith, or about the congregation we belong to. Whenever we find ourselves doing one of those things we’re to believe that God is speaking through us. Do you know that beautiful hymn, “God me in my head”? “God be in my head and in my understanding; God be in my eyes and in my looking; God be in my mouth and in my speaking.” That should be our constant prayer as we speak to one another and as we speak to our non-Christian friends. May God be in my mouth. Believe that God is speaking through you, believe that God will use you, and he will.
Similarly with those who exercise gifts of service. If you’re one whose gift is to serve, then again you need to believe that God will use you. These are gifts like caring for the sick, driving for meals on wheels, giving money, painting the church, typing the pew sheet, doing the flowers, setting up the communion table, serving tea and coffee, organising church dinners and cake stalls and Garage Sales, etc. He says whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies. It’s certainly possible to do all these things in our own strength. And to start with that may be all right. We tend to choose people, or they volunteer, who are good at these particular jobs, or who feel comfortable contributing in this way. But if we try to do them in our own strength for too long then we soon get tired; burnt out is the modern phrase, isn’t it? And what happens then is that we start to grumble, to feel resentment. “Why can’t other people help with vicarage maintenance?” “Why doesn’t anyone ever thank me for washing the tea towels?” or doing the flowers, or sweeping the hall floor, or whatever it is. Or else we fall into what I call condescending benevolence: where I pat myself on the back every time I do another act of service for these needy people, and so I end up not serving God or them at all; I’m actually just serving my own ego. Well, the remedy for all that is to be constantly falling back on God’s strength, so that it’s God who gets the glory. When we get tired, look in God’s direction, not our own. Ask him for strength to continue, if he wants you to, and ask him that whatever you do may be to his glory and to the glory of Jesus Christ, because they’re the only ones who deserve to be glorified.
Suffering & Judgement
Well, having talked about how we might live in the light of the end times, Peter goes on to talk about the probability that Christians will suffer. He says “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” The Christians in Asia Minor were experiencing severe opposition, of a fairly brutal kind. So he says “Don’t be surprised.” But what about us? Should we be surprised when painful trials of our faith come along? Should we think, “This isn’t right?” Or do we take the Malcolm Fraser approach: “Life wasn’t meant to be easy!” Well, sadly this is a world where life often isn’t easy. This is a world that’s broken, diseased, that’s been condemned like a falling down building in an old part of town. It’s a world where people dishonour God, ignore him at best and rebel against him at worst.
We as Christians stand in stark opposition to the standards and aspirations of the world. Where self-centredness is the norm, we preach self-giving, where revenge is espoused, we embrace forgiveness; where survival of the fittest rules the political and economic scene, we propose justice and equity, where sexual liberation is proclaimed, we affirm God’s creation ordinance of sexual fidelity within a lifelong marriage relationship. So we shouldn’t be surprised when Christians are targeted for abuse, when we’re ridiculed for our beliefs or our standards. Jesus said that the servant wasn’t above the master, so if the master suffered, the servant could only expect the same treatment. That’s why he says that when we suffer as a Christian we’re actually sharing in his suffering, but if that’s the case then we also look forward to sharing in his joy when his glory is revealed. Peter says our suffering is a sign that God’s Spirit is resting on us.
Again, though, he gives us a warning. He says make sure the reason you’re suffering isn’t because of your own sinfulness: i.e. either as a criminal or even as a mischief maker. You know how some people just can’t keep their noses out of other people’s business. They love to know what’s going on, and especially they love to point out the errors of others. That sort of high-handed, better-than-thou attitude only brings Christians into disrepute. You occasionally hear Christians purporting to speak for the church on some moral issue but they do it in such an offensive way that you just cringe and wish they’d keep their mouths shut. So he says, don’t feel yourself justified if you suffer because of that sort of behaviour. But if you suffer because you bear the name of Christ then rejoice. Why? Because it’s a sign of God’s coming judgment on the whole world. The suffering we experience is like a refining fire, burning off what isn’t helpful or necessary. And if that happens to God’s own people, what’ll happen to the rest of the world when Christ returns. Let’s not miss the unstated implication here. This is the great incentive for mission. What we’re experiencing now in this hostile world is nothing compared to what those who don’t know God will experience when Christ returns. So there’s a great responsibility on us to see that they understand their predicament and escape the wrath that’s to come.
So, how are we to live in the light of the end times, of these last days in which we live? Well, we’re to be disciplined, clear-minded so we can pray. We’re to love one another at full strength. We’re to serve one another with whatever gift God gives us, whether its through speech or through more hands on service. And we’re not to be fazed by suffering. Rather we’re to understand that suffering as a Christian is a natural consequence of having the Spirit of God within us, of being Christ’s follower. And finally, in all we do we’re to entrust ourselves to a faithful creator while continuing to do good. Let me leave you with the words of Paul in 2 Timothy: “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” Let’s pray that we too may not be ashamed when we meet opposition. Let’s pray that we might show by our life and witness that our trust is in the one who created and redeemed us and that that might commend the gospel to those around us.