Sunday, February 5, 2012

Life Signs - #5 A Life of Confidence (to the End)

I read a “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” that explains how to survive various life or death situations.  How to escape from quicksand. How to survive a gunshot wound. How to escape a submerged car.  How to survive a shark or bear get the idea.  A few weeks ago I was on a study leave at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena with several pastors who I've known for years. We were crossing the street after returning from a late dinner.  Suddenly a car came into view, making a left turn and heading right for me.  The car screeched to a halt not more than five feet in front of me.  The first word out of my mouth was "Holy" but unfortunately the next word was not! As I think back, I had no time to review my "Survival Handbook" but I'm quite sure there was no chapter on "How to Survive Death" which is what I was anticipating at the moment. There are, however, several chapters on that subject in the Good Book. In 1 John 2: 18-28John reveals why we can have confidence to the end of our lives; that Day when Christ returns or calls us home.  It's another "life sign" of genuine Christian faith...

To begin with, we can be confident because we know God is in control from first to last.  John begins by telling us what time it is! “Children, it is the last hour! (18) The New Testament refers to Jesus' first coming as the beginning of “the last days” or the “last hour” of this age, and that when Christ returns this age will end.  We live between the times: “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” says John (2: 8).  Think of it this way: if all of world history could be compressed into a single day, we are in the last hour of that day.  This does not mean there will be no more days to come (there will be)…only that this day is coming to an end. 

Now Jesus told his disciples that in this last hour they should expect opposition: “I’m sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16).  John describes this as the coming of the “antichristos" - a word which appears only here and in Johns other letters.  Who or what is the antichrist?  Not surprisingly, the antichrist is “anti” or “against” Christ, his people, and all Christ stands for!  Jesus spoke about the coming of "false messiahs" (Matthew 24) and Paul of "the man of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:1ff.) before Jesus' return, but more about this "spirit of the antichrist" in a moment…because Jesus also said we should expect tribulation.  In Matt. 24: 6, Jesus says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…famines and earthquakes,” nevertheless “do not be alarmed…..” In other words, when the crisis comes, Jesus says that we who follow him should be the calmest people on the block! 

In the past ten years there have been several “doomsday” predictions beginning with Y2K – Jan. 1, 2000, followed by June 6, 2006 (666); May 21, 2011 (Harold Camping's latest prediction of Christ's return date), and now Dec. 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends and, in the minds of some, the earth runs out of time.  I saw one billboard that read: “2012: It’s Your Last Year On Earth: Eat More Ice Cream.” Now I like the calmness of that message, even if it is a little shallow.  David has the right idea when he says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation….Though a host encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.” (Psalm 27: 3) – so "don't be alarmed" ...and pass the ice cream.
Secondly, we can be confident because we know where we belong: in the community of Jesus’ people.  John says that one of the distinguishing marks of the antichrists is that “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us” (19; cf. Matt. 24: 11-13).  I’m thinking of Judas who walked with Jesus…but in the end chose his own path, and left the circle of Jesus’ followers with devastating results. I’m thinking of the communist dictator Joseph Stalin who attended Sunday School and orthodox seminary; and of Adolph Hitler who actually contemplated the priesthood as a young man! I’m also thinking of a woman who was deeply wounded as a child when her parents joined a pseudo-Christian “cult” in which she was emotionally and physically abused. Jesus warns us in Matthew 24 that many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (11-13).

The point is that we can have confidence before God to the end of our lives as we persevere with our Lord's people!  Here’s a sure sign that we belong to him: we’re still here; and that we intend to be here…to the end of our days!  That’s not to say that Christians will never drift from the church for a time, never go through periods of doubt, never have disagreements, or never join others congregations. What it means is that our life speaks of a commitment to Christ and his Body…that we have kept the faith and stayed together to the end of our days! There is a funny notion going around that Jesus is essential but his Church is optional.  Friends, we can’t opt out of the Church because we are the Church!  Jesus prayed that we might be one.  He called us to love and serve him together, and he blesses those who stick it out with this motley crew of sinners and saints! 

Thirdly, we can be confident because we know who we are “for” despite opposition: Christ, the Son of God. John speaks with piercing clarity: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also…and this is what he has promised us, eternal life” (22-23; cf. Matt.16:16; Romans 10:9). Again, “The liar is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ.”  This is the great untruth, the great lie....that Jesus is simply a man, and not the Christ the Son of God; fully human and fully divine, this world’s true Savior.  John speaks with the clarity of a Giants or Patriots fan with front row seats on the 50 yard line of last Sunday's game.  He knows who he is for, and he knows who he is against.  Don’t tell him that he should cheer for the Giants and for the Patriots.  What a laugh!  He’s made his choice…and you have to make yours.  Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12: 30).

Make no mistake, says John, “No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also.”  Some thought they could have God without this Jesus…that Jesus was simply one way to the Father.  No, says John.  He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14: 6).  All who come to God will pass through him.  How can John speak with such intensity of conviction?  "How can John be so narrow minded?!!" some will inevitably ask.  We must return to the beginning of John's letter, where he talks about how he was not only on the 50 yard line, or writing about it for ESPN, he was in the game: “We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1:1).  John heard Jesus with his own ears, touched him with his own hands… saw him call the plays, speak the words of God, sacrifice it all on the cross, and witnessed his resurrection on the third day.  This Jesus turned his despair into confidence!  The good news is that we can stand with him in confidence too.  We can abide in what we have heard from the beginning (24). We can confess him as Lord and know that in the end…his promise to us is not the end, but eternal life.

We’ve been talking about that spirit which is against Christ…which is unnerving when we realize that all of us at some point have been against Christ, have failed him, have not spoken up for him.  How can we have confidence to the end knowing that?!!  We can have confidence only because of the table at which he broke bread and poured out wine…We can have confidence to the end of our days, because Peter who denied the Lord three times sat at that table.  We can have confidence because Thomas who doubted the Lord sat at that table.  We can have confidence because Judas who betrayed him sat at that table.  We can have confidence because at that table, men and women from every tongue, tribe and nation who were once against Christ, including you and me, are now invited to receive his grace and forgiveness, to eat with him, learn from him, and confidently join him in his saving work.  As we come to him humbly today, we can be confident that we will also be ready to celebrate when who he has survived it all - even death - comes again. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Crucified and Risen Savior, we want to be your faithful witnesses to the last hour, confident that we are anointed with your Spirit, grateful to be counted among the generations of your followers; entrusted with your mission to the lost and hurting of this world and, yes, even to those who stand against you! At your table, we are reminded that you are for us, that you took on human flesh for us, lived and died on the cross for us, rose from the dead for us, and are coming again for us. Please feed us with the grace and courage to stand for you and against every evil, to represent you well despite opposition, to meet each crisis with calm assurance, to join sadness with hope, to follow you even when it is unpopular; to abide with you and with your people until you return or call us home.  Amen.

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