May 28, 2017

“Are We There, Yet?” 5-28-17

Acts 6:1-11 & Matthew 24:1-31
May 28, 2017

This past Thursday was the 6th Thursday after Easter.  That is important, because it was on the 6th Thursday after His Resurrection that Jesus ascended into heaven.  It is unfortunate that because it is on a Thursday, this day does not get a lot of publicity in the American protestant Churches.  It is a very important holiday among the Amish, but they are by choice not in the mainstream of American Protestantism.  Ascension Day is also still a holiday in most of the European nations; although I imagine that most Europeans would be hard pressed to say who it was who ascended on Ascension Day.
Nevertheless, The Ascension of our Lord is an important event and it touches upon two of the six essentials of our faith.    
Earlier in our service we read those two, numbered two and six as things that we believe. 
Our first lesson, from the book of Acts tells us of the Ascension of Jesus.  The two essential things are in that narrative.  The first is that Jesus left this earth in full view of his apostles, and that he was spoken of by the angels who were present as having ascended into heaven, into the place where God lives and is worshiped continually.  As is the case with many journeys, our Lord’s ascension is more important because of its destination rather than its origin. 
Ever since that day, Christians have lived with the reality that their Lord is not physically with them on earth, but is physically with the Father in Heaven.
But the angels who spoke to the Apostles after the Ascension of Jesus also spoke of that second important reality.  He is coming back.  They said that “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This has been, ever since that day, one of the expectations of Christians; that Jesus will physically return to earth for the final judgment of the earth and its people, and that he will then establish his kingdom in its final form.
This is the final goal of our Christian journeys, and it has been the subject of much inquiry, much of which can be summarized in one word: When?
When Jesus was still ministering with his Apostles, before his death, this was an often asked question.  As Jesus spoke about his great kingdom, he was often asked when it was coming.
This question was asked of him by his apostles during the last week of his life, just a few days before his death.
That occasion is described in our second lesson, from Matthew 24.  Jesus and his apostles had just left the temple Courtyard and His apostles were commenting on the buildings of the temple.
There was a reason for this.  The late King Herod the Great had begun a major rebuilding of the temple in 19 BC.  The main structures of this rebuild were completed in 10 years, or about 3 years before Jesus was born, but the decorations and elaborations continued for another 74 years until 64 AD or over 30 years after the death of Jesus.
So, as Jesus and his apostles visited Jerusalem during his ministry, there was always something new for them to see, some new decoration or item had been added.  The Apostles were probably noticing the new additions when Jesus said that the entire temple complex would one day be torn down.  I would guess that that announcement probably put an end to that conversation.
But later that day, after they had walked to the Mount of Olives, They asked Jesus a question about what he had said about the Temple and about their understanding of the establishment of his final kingdom.
Matthew records the question as being “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
I am pretty sure that they saw their question as one question that the destruction of the temple would come at the same time as the return of Jesus and the final judgment, and the beginning of His kingdom.
Since in our time, the temple is long gone and the end of the age has not yet come, we know that the question asked of Jesus concerns two different events, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the return of Jesus which is still in our future.
The fact that the question was actually two questions makes the following instructions of Jesus difficult to understand. 
He spoke of several things in his answer. He spoke of people coming to them and saying they were Jesus returned.  Others would proclaim themselves to be the Messiah and some would follow them.
There would also be wars and rumors, but those things would not signify the end.
Jesus said that there would be conflicts between nations and kingdoms, and that there would be earthquakes and famines, but that these things would just be the beginnings of the process of the birth of the kingdom.  IN other words, these things would happen before the return of Jesus, but not necessarily Immediately before His return.
He then spoke of persecutions and murders of his followers.  Many believers would fall away from Christ and hate and betray those who still believed.
But some would endure to the end, and in the process, the good news about Jesus would be proclaimed throughout the world.  The End would come after that is accomplished.
But then in verse 15, he seems to focus on the events that would precede the destruction of the temple.  He speaks of the desolating sacrilege in the Holy Place. 
This refers to something that had happened.  Shortly before 170 BC, the Seleucid Empire had captured Jerusalem and their ruler Antiochus IV in 170 decided to eradicate Judaism.  As a part of his efforts, he placed in the Temple Courtyard an altar to Zeus and sacrificed swine on it.  This event was referred to by the Jews as the desolating sacrilege.  So Jesus was saying that before the destruction of the temple, something like that would happen.  (We do not know what that was.)
Another reference was the falling of stars from the heavens.  This was symbolic language used in some of the literature of the time that referred to falling or death of kings or leaders.  The temple was destroyed in 70 AD.  In that year 4 different Roman Emperors, reigned, the first 3 of who were killed or committed suicide. 
But we also have references to stars falling from the sky in Revelation, which was written after the destruction of Jerusalem so many leaders will fall before the return of Christ.
And so the rest of the instructions of Jesus go, some refer to the fall of Jerusalem some referring to the return of Jesus, and many referring to both events.
But finally Jesus spoke about his return.  He said that there would be reports that he had already returned, but that his followers should not believe it.  His return would be obvious to all, like a lightning strike seen all over the world.
He said, where there is a corpse, you will see vultures.  In other words, you will know it when you see it.
There will be great suffering, then Jesus will come on the clouds, and the trumpet will sound, and the angels will gather those who believe in Jesus, both the dead and the living.
So, what is the answer to the Apostles question of When?
Well, the destruction of the temple occurred over 1900 years ago.  And we are still here.   And there are wars and rumors of wars, and there have been.  And the good news of Jesus’ Kingdom has gone out to all of or most of the world.  And there are famines and earthquakes and false prophets and messiahs.  And Christians have been and continue to be persecuted and killed.  Some like to say that these things mean we are near the end.  I like to say that these things are reminders that Jesus will one day return and will judge the people of the world and establish his final kingdom.
Are we in the final generation? I don’t know, But Jesus said that when he returns, those who believe in Him will know it.  So when it happens, you will know.
Until then, we continue to believe in him and we continue to be obedient to him and wait for Him.

Pastor David Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906