Advent–the calm during the storm

If frantic preparations for Christmas are wearing you down and sapping your holiday joy, stop for a bit, take a deep breath, and enjoy a little dose of Advent.

Centuries before businesses and families began putting up Christmas decorations in mid-October, the Church created a pre-Christmas season called Advent. Stretching three to four weeks, Advent always begins on a Sunday and always ends at sunset on December 24, Christmas Eve. The theme of Advent is not counting down the days to Christmas; Advent is time to consider why Christ came to this world. The Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah are considered, as is the work of John the Baptist. Advent hymns tend to be calm and reflective—“Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel,” is a well-known example. Blue or purple cloths are placed on the furniture at the front of the church. These colors represent the somber tone of the Advent season; but they are also royal colors, saluting the coming of Christ the King. Congregations that do not have Wednesday night services year-round often have special Advent services on Wednesdays as well as Sundays.

A relatively recent tradition for the season of Advent is the Advent Wreath. It takes several forms, but it is always a circular candelabra parallel to the floor rather than vertical, often decorated with evergreen branches, holding either four or five candles. If there is a fifth candle, it stands in the center of the circle; the other four are arranged equidistantly at the edge of the circle. The central candle is always white; the outer candles are either blue or purple, except that sometimes one of the four is pink. An Advent wreath can be used in the home or in the church. The first Sunday of Advent, and all the days of that week when people are present, one outer candle is lit. The second Sunday of Advent, and the days following, two outer candles are lit. The third Sunday of Advent advances to three candles; if a pink candle is used, it is lit this week. The fourth Sunday of Advent, and the remaining days until Christmas Eve, all four outer candles are lit. The night of Christmas Eve, the four outer candles and the white candle in the center of the wreath all are lit; after the service, the wreath is put away until Advent returns. (Some churches put replace the blue or purple or pink candles with white candles and continue to light the wreath during the twelve days of Christmas.) Various writers have proposed names or themes for the candles, but no single version has been widely accepted.

Some Christians speak of the Lord’s three Advents. Old Testament believers waited for the promised Messiah to come; their waiting was rewarded with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, his first Advent. New Testament believers await the glorious appearing of Jesus on the Day of the Lord, the last day of history as we know it. This is often called the Second Coming or Second Advent of Christ, although the Greek word “Parousia” describes an appearing rather than an arrival; Christ is present today, but unseen. His presence constitutes the Third Advent. When Christians gather in his name, Christ is with them. When forgiveness is announced, Christ is present to grant his forgiveness. He is present in Baptism, and whenever a Christian remembers his or her Baptism, Christ is there to bestow forgiveness. He is present in a special way in the Lord’s Supper, also granting forgiveness and eternal life.

There are two overlapping Christmas holidays that overlap. The world’s Christmas of buying and selling, cooking and cleaning and decorating, singing about Rudolf and Frosty and Santa Claus, comes to an end on December 25, Christmas Day. On that same day the Christian Church begins the twelve days of Christmas, celebrating not just the birth of Jesus but also his Incarnation, the fact that he became human to rescue and redeem sinners. If Christmas were merely the birthday of a notable historical figure, it would not be worth all this attention. But the victory of Good Friday and Easter—the Lord who vanquished death and is risen to prove his victory—gives greater meaning to the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

Yes, we need a little Advent, right this very moment. May we find tidings of comfort and joy in the Advent of our God. J.

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It’s beginning to sound a lot like….

My youngest daughter jinxed my car radio this week.

We were traveling together Tuesday afternoon, and I was listening to my favorite radio station. It’s an “Adult Contemporary” station which plays hit music from the 80s and 90s up to the present—usually with a minimum of talk, although the morning drive hosts do tend to chatter, and they have give-away contests with listeners phoning in to get their voices on the air. But I digress….

I made a comment about the song that was playing, and my daughter remarked, “You’re lucky they haven’t started playing Christmas music wall-to-wall,” to which I agreed. That was Tuesday.

Wednesday they started playing Christmas music “24-7” as they periodically announced, “from now until Christmas Day.”

I may be a curmudgeon, but I don’t hate all Christmas music. I am fairly tolerant of Christmas music at the right time and the right place. I once knew a man who was retired and who played Christmas music twelve months a year in his basement while he added to his model train landscape and tinkered with the trains. I think that if and when I retire, I might get into model trains. I’d listen to my own favorite music, though—classical one day, Beatles the next, and hits from the 80s some other days… and in December, Christmas music. But, again, I digress….

I will say one good thing about the music I’ve heard on this station Wednesday and today: they are mixing a few carols in with the secular Christmas songs. Christ the Savior is being proclaimed along with Frosty and Rudolph and Santa Claus. My patience with Christmas music is generally exhausted when only the secular songs are played.

There truly are two holidays called Christmas. One marks the coming of God’s Savior to rescue and redeem the world. The other is about gifts and decorations and the winter solstice. Because they happen around the same time, people tend to blend them together. But the tradition of the Church since ancient times has been to celebrate the holiday of Christmas with twelve days, beginning on December 25 and extending to January 5. The four weeks before Christmas are called the Advent Season. When observed in the traditional way, Advent is known for somber hymns and for Bible readings about why we sinners need a Savior. This year Advent begins on Sunday December 2. Tomorrow is not yet even Advent yet: it is the Last Sunday of the Church Year, also known as Christ the King Sunday and as the Sunday of the Fulfillment. We will not be singing about the baby in the manger or the herald angels for another month inside the church.

Yet because of the blending of the two Christmases, the tree will be going up early in December even in the church building; and the children’s Christmas pageant will be in the middle of the month, before school dismisses and families begin traveling to other places for the holidays.

On the second day of Christmas, the radio station will return to its usual music. By the sixth day of Christmas, many families will have taken down their decorations and put them in storage until next November. In our house, the tree and other decorations will remain out at least until after the twelfth day of Christmas; some of the more durable decorations will stay up until Candlemas, also known as Groundhog Day. But once again I digress….

The Last Sunday of the Church year is a time for the Church to consider cosmic eschatology: the glorious appearing of the Lord, his Judgment, and the dawn of his new creation. One of the hymns we will sing tomorrow is the harvest hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” which begins with talk of the worldly harvest and then shifts into a discussion of the harvest of the earth on the Last Day. When this hymn is sung on Thanksgiving or the night before, people tend to focus only on thanksgiving for earthly blessings. Sung again on the Sunday of the Fulfillment, people will change their focus to that final harvest that awaits us all. Then we are ready for Advent, another way to regard the coming of our King. We will not let the world rush us; we will leave time in the hands of the Lord. J.

Thanksgiving thoughts

I am not one of those people who demands that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” In fact, I like the reminder that Christmas and the days around it are holy days—days that belong to God and not just to us. I have no opinion about the cups being used by Starbucks this season, although due to the prices at Starbucks, I will not be purchasing any beverages in those cups.

On the other hand, I have zero tolerance for the greeting “Happy Turkey Day.” I have already decided on my response if anyone says that expression to me. I am going to teach them that Turkey Day should be celebrated on the 23rd of April. That day is the anniversary of the first meeting of the modern Turkish parliament back in 1920. In Turkey, the day is also called Children’s Day. On April 23 children are invited into the legislature’s building to sit in the lawmakers’ seats and learn how their government operates. That kind of Turkey Day is worth celebrating.

The fourth Thursday of November is a national day of Thanksgiving in the United States of America. While it is known for family gatherings, large meals, parades, football games, and frantic shopping excursions, the day is first and foremost a day to say “thank you” to the God who has protected and sustained our nation. The timing of the day of Thanksgiving is chosen to follow the season of harvest in North America. The history of this day is frequently traced back to the Puritans in New England in 1621, but the real origins of the day can be found in Deuteronomy chapter eight.

Moses was preaching a farewell sermon to the Israelites, reminding them of the commands of God and the promises of God, and preparing them for life in the Promised Land. In the course of his sermon, Moses reminded the people of God how God had cared for them in the wilderness, feeding them with manna and preserving even their clothing and sandals during their travels. Moses also spoke to them about the many good things they would find in the Promised Land. “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you,” Moses said (Deuteronomy 8:10).

Christians in the United States can use this national holiday to bless the Lord our God for the good land he has given us. We thank him for food and drink and clothing and shelter and everything else that comes under the category of “daily bread.” We thank him for our talents and abilities, by which we earn our livings while serving our neighbors and making the world a better place. We also thank our Creator for the talents and abilities of our neighbors: farmers and factory workers, soldiers and police officers and fire-fighters, doctors and nurses and therapists and pharmacists, preachers and teachers and entertainers, and many others who enrich our lives by the things they do. We thank God for good weather and good government (instead of only complaining when they do not meet with our approval). We thank God for the freedoms we have as Americans and for the peace and prosperity we enjoy in this land.

In all these expressions of thanksgiving, Americans can be united regardless of religion (other than atheists and agnostics, who know of no God to thank). Christians, Jews, Muslims, and various sects can all be thankful for the blessings of creation. Christians are able also to be thankful for the gift of redemption and the gift of faith. We do not need to wait for a national day of Thanksgiving to express our gratitude for these blessings—we can be thankful for them every day.

Genuine, joyful gratitude on the part of Christians will do far more to attract our neighbors to the message of the Gospel than all our complaints about commercialism and worldliness encroaching on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Rather than complaining about the world, we can rejoice in Christ who has overcome the world. We have many reasons to celebrate and, in comparison, few reasons to complain. Thanks be to God!

Happy Thanksgiving to all! J. (edited from a post from November 2015)

Oak leaves

Forty years ago, the developers who built the neighborhood where I live decided to construct houses in an oak forest without ripping out all the oak trees; they preserved as many as they could. So we have all the benefits of living among oak trees: the beauty, the shade, the wildlife. We also have the costs of living among oak trees: the falling leaves in autumn, the allergies. For me, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I don’t complain about the oaks or their leaves; I am distressed whenever a homeowner decides to remove oak trees from his or her property.

The city owns a giant vacuum cleaner truck that travels around the various neighborhoods, reaching each neighborhood two times every autumn, to pick up leaves from the curbside. They only pick up leaves within six feet of the street. Many homeowners rake their leaves to the curbside and let the piles sit there until the truck comes and takes them away. The city shreds the leaves and uses them as mulch in the city parks. I strongly approve of this policy.

My house is at the end of a cul de sac, one of five whose driveways lead into the circular turnabout. As a result, the property is a trapezoid rather than the traditional rectangle: tiny little front yard; expansive back yard and side yard. Because of this arrangement, I don’t have much of a curb for depositing leaves; the driveway consumes half of the curbside and the mailbox takes up another quarter, leaving four or five feet for the weekly garbage and biweekly recycling pickup. Some years I’ve tried piling leaves on those few square feet available, but my property receives far more fallen leaves than will fit in that area. Besides, putting leaves there leaves no room for the garbage and recycling containers. So, like many other people in the neighborhood, I bag my leaves and leave them to be picked up on Monday morning, not by the giant vacuum cleaner, but by the regular truck that carries lawn and garden waste to the dump. Unlike many other people in the neighborhood, I put my leaves in biodegradable paper bags rather than plastic bags. In two or three years, even in the city dump, my leaves and their bags will have become fertile soil that eventually will find its way into the city ecosystem to the benefit of other trees and various plants. Mrs. Dim’s leaves, on the other hand, will still be encased in plastic when her grandchildren have reached her present age, providing no benefit to anyone or anything.

Saturday morning Mrs. Dim was busy blowing her leaves into piles with a loud leaf-blower, shredding them with her mower, and then emptying the mower bag into large black plastic bags to leave on the street. She is one of several in the neighborhood who handle leaves in that fashion, so Saturdays are often accompanied by chorus of blowers and mowers from dawn to dusk.

Saturday afternoon I got out my rake and my “bearclaws” and my paper bags. (Bearclaws are like rakes without long handles. They fit over each hand to enable the user to scoop up copious amounts of leaves and drop them into a bag.) In about one hour I was able to clean leaves off the deck, the front lawn, and the driveway, filling nine bags. I stopped after that hour of work for three reasons. First, only eight bags fit on the curbside, two rows of four. Second, I generally refuse to spend more than an hour each week on lawn work. Third, an hour of raking and lifting and bending is about all my back and my allergies can handle. So the leaves in the back yard and the side yard will have to wait for another day—perhaps later this autumn, perhaps not until spring.

When I started working in the front lawn, Mrs. Dim was washing her car on her driveway. Mrs. Dim has a routine system of washing a vehicle with great attention to detail, often taking two hours or more to complete. She bellowed at me—Mrs. Dim never talks; she always bellows—”Hey, J., who do you think is going to win the War of the Leaves?”

I looked upwards. “My money is on the trees,” I told her. They’ve had a lot of years of practice, and they’re good at what they do.”

“I know,” she said. “I raked this morning, and look—you can hardly tell that I did it.” I could tell that she did it; there were a lot of black plastic bags piled on the street, but it was true that a few more leaves had fallen since the morning. “I’m going to wait two weeks before I rake again,” she announced.

“I think that’s a good plan,” I responded.

After that we both worked in relative silence. I enjoyed the shushing of the leaves as I raked and gathered them. I enjoyed the crunching as I walked through sections I had not yet raked. Unfortunately another neighbor was using his blower to clear his back yard, so I could not completely enjoy a peaceful afternoon, but it came close.

I imagined a further conversation with Mrs. Dim. I imagined her asking me why I was putting my bags of leaves back by the shed instead of leaving them at the curb until Monday morning’s pickup. I imagined me telling her that no one likes to look out their front window and see a pile of bags. I imagined her agreeing and saying that she always puts her trash next to the driveway so she doesn’t see them from the house. “I’ve noticed,” I would say, because her driveway and her trash are what I see when I look out the front window of my house.

That’s the price of having a trapezoidal lot with an expansive back lawn and side lawn and a tiny front lawn. When Mrs. Dim washes her car, it’s as if she’s doing it in our front lawn; it’s right outside our living room windows. When Mrs. Dim blows her leaves or mows and trims and edges, her noisy tasks are happening right in front of our house. When Mrs. Dim carries on a conversation with another neighbor or with someone on the telephone, her words are broadcast throughout our house. What can you do? It’s not criminal behavior you can report to the police; it’s just one of the nuisances of having neighbors.

I should have a clever concluding paragraph to wrap up this rambling account, but nothing comes to mind. Feel free to add a conclusion of your own devising. J.

What is yet to come?–part five

When God first began to create the world, he knew all the problems that would happen in creation. He knew all the sins that would be committed. He knew all the rejection he would face. He knew all the suffering and tribulation that sin would cause in the world. He knew already how he would suffer to redeem sinners and to rescue the world from sin and death. God knew all these things, and clearly he felt that they were worth the cost. You are worth the cost to God. He was willing that sin and death might exist in order that we also might exist.

Paul wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Jesus might have said the very same words, even while hanging on the cross. The few years we face tribulation are nothing when compared to the eternal glory of the new creation. No matter how much we struggle today, it pales in comparison to what God has in store for us: the eternal celebration that we call heaven.

When Jesus and his saints land on the earth on the Day of the Lord, the planet will have been changed. All sin and evil will have been stripped away, and everything will be new. We will see the world as Adam and Eve saw it before they were tempted and fell into sin. Everything God made was very good, and those very good things will be ours forever in the new creation.

Will there be animals? “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. A nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6-9). I cannot say whether the dogs and cats we have loved in this world will be restored, but in the new creation all animals will be tame; none of them will be dangerous to us. There will be no poisons, and we will not have allergies. No longer will our lives be in danger from storms and earthquakes. Best of all, people will not be dangerous to each other. We will all get along and will live in perfect peace and harmony. We will have fellowship with God, with all the people around us, and with all of nature.

Our bodies will be changed. We will be healed of all that happened to us in this lifetime. Our eyes and ears will work perfectly; our legs and knees will carry us without pain. We will be in no danger of sickness. Our minds will be healed too; there will be no anxiety, no depression, no sorrow of any kind. Even someone born with a defect will be healed at the resurrection. We will still be diverse, as we are today, but none of us will have any kind of problem with our health or with our bodies.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). No wonder Jesus compares heaven to a wedding reception. There will be no starvation, no hunger, and no overeating. We will know how to take care of these bodies and will have no temptation to abuse these bodies.

Without death, there will be no deadlines. There will be work to do, as Adam and Eve had work to do in the Garden, but the work will be enjoyable. Of course, many careers will not be needed in a perfect world. There will be no police officers, no attorneys, and no judges. Doctors and nurses will not be needed. Nor will pastors; all of us will have direct access to God. There will be jobs, but they will be enjoyable. I expect that the tasks you enjoy doing today, the occupations that cause you to lose track of time, are the things you will do in heaven. Whatever you do, it will be done for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

But if someone wants to take a vacation, to enjoy creation for a while, nothing will stop that person. He or she could walk to the mountains, build a cabin in the woods, and live among nature for twenty or thirty years, and then return; and it would be like taking a Saturday afternoon to rest today.

Will there be technology in heaven? Technology is not sinful. No doubt there will be room in heaven for fast cars and motorbikes and other things some people enjoy. Those who do not enjoy those things will not have to do them or be anywhere near them. I will probably ride a horse in the new creation, but if a car makes you happy, I am sure you will have a car.

The devil wants us to think that heaven will be boring. Taking a few scraps of imagery from the book of Revelation, the sinful world has created a cartoon picture of heaven with haloed people wearing white robes, sitting on clouds, and playing harps. Now if playing a harp sounds good to you, no doubt you will have the opportunity. But the new creation will be like this present creation, except that sin and all the consequences of sin will be stripped away. What you like about the world as it is now will probably be there for you in the new creation.

Best of all, we will live each day fully in the presence of God. We will know his love and have no doubts about him. We will always know what is right for us to do, and we will always want to do what is right. Should we have questions, God will have answers. We will know Jesus as well as we know our best friends today, and nothing will come between us and his love.

This is our eternal home, guaranteed to us through the work of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. To him be thanks and praise forever! J.

What is yet to come?–part four

The teaching of judgment and eternal condemnation for sinners troubles many believers. It also disgusts many unbelievers. They are appalled that the God in whom they refuse to believe would subject people like them to eternal torment away from his presence. They disregard the fact that one of the chief joys of heaven is living in the full presence of God. If they reject God today, why would they want to be with him forever? God is being kind to them by honoring their choice, saying that if they want no relationship with him, they will not have to spend eternity with him.

The real tragedy of judgment is not that unbelievers will be rejected. The real tragedy is that people who think they are believers will also be rejected. Anyone who thinks he or she is good enough for heaven is wrong. Anyone who invites God to judge him or her by his or her own life is making a terrible mistake. Only those clothed in the righteousness of Christ can enter the new creation. To those who show their own lives to the Judge, he will respond, “Go away; I never knew you.”

Jesus does not want to say those words to anyone. He went to great lengths to avoid the need to say those words. In the parable of Judgment Day, Jesus welcomes believers to “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). He sends unbelievers to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). God does not desire the death of the wicked. The fire is not for humans, it is for fallen angels. God wants all to hear his promises, repent of their sins, receive his forgiveness, and become citizens of the kingdom of God, prepared for eternal life in his new creation.

Looking at that parable, another important point stands out. Those welcomed into their inheritance, a place in the new creation, are surprised to hear themselves credited with good works. They were not keeping score. They knew that God’s approval depended on the righteousness of Christ and his sacrifice, not by the things they did. Being forgiven through Christ, they were also in the process of being transformed into Christ’s image. As a result, they did perform acts of love and service. In the end, though, those good deeds shine not by their own value, but because the stain of sin had been washed away by the work of Christ, so nothing but good could be seen by the Judge when he looked at their lives.

Those sent away in Judgment were also surprised. They were keeping score. They thought they had done enough good deeds to earn God’s approval. Because they did not trust in Christ for redemption, none of their sins had been removed. As a tiny prick from a pin or needle pops an entire balloon, so even the smallest sin separated them from the God who made them, who loves them, and who wanted them to enjoy eternity with him in his new creation.

Fire and brimstone preachers have, perhaps, made a mistake by focusing on the tortures of eternal condemnation. Jesus does speak of the unending fire, but he has other images also for that condemnation. He speaks of the “outer darkness.” Heaven, he says, will be like a wedding reception, a party with food and drink and music and dancing and family and friends and joy. Heaven will be rejoicing in the presence of God. Those locked outside of the new creation will be like people in the parking lot outside the reception hall. They have nothing to do. They have no reason to celebrate. They are left outside because they disqualified themselves from a place in the celebration. Rather than picturing the flames of hell, we might think of the endless boredom of hell, like an afternoon alone at home with nothing to do and no reason to try to do anything.

Because Jesus did not want to send people away on the Day of the Lord—because he wanted to welcome all people into his new creation—Jesus did the work of redemption to save people from their sins. He became human, as human as we are, being born into the world. He placed himself under the Law and obeyed all the commandments he wants us to obey. He said no to every temptation. He lived a life of pure and perfect righteousness. Then, to give each of us credit for his righteousness, he sacrificed that life. He suffered the penalty of sin so no punishment would be left for us to endure.

The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the sun would turn to darkness. As Jesus was on the cross, there was darkness; for three hours the sun failed to shine. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the earth would shake. When Jesus gave his life, there was an earthquake, and the curtain in the Temple—representing the separation between God and sinners—was torn top to bottom. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the moon would turn to blood. If (as many scholars believe) Jesus was crucified on April 3, A.D. 33, the full moon was eclipsed by the shadow of the earth, making it a “blood moon” before sunrise in Jerusalem. (That date is one of three that fits the description in the Bible: Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and the beginning of the Passover celebration fell on the night of a Sabbath day.)

Jesus has already gone through the Day of the Lord to rescue sinners. God’s Judgment fell on him so we could be spared Judgment. On the Day of the Lord our sins will not be displayed, for God has already removed our sins from as “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). An inheritance belongs to us, because Jesus died to provide the inheritance he earned by his righteousness.

What then will life be like after the Day of the Lord, when we live in his new creation? That remains to be described in one further post. J.

What is yet to come?–part three

In the days before his crucifixion, four of the apostles came to Jesus with questions about the Day of the Lord. They wanted to know when it would be, and what would be the sign of his appearing and the end of the age. In response, Jesus gave them seven signs—six negative and one positive. He mentioned false christs, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution of the Church, and the gospel proclaimed to the whole world. Yet Jesus did not call these signs a countdown to the Day oi the Lord. Quite the opposite: he said, “See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:7).

Wars and earthquakes remind people that the world is under judgment. Wherever and whenever they happen, they prepare sinners for the Last Day, calling them to repent before it is too late. Storms and other natural disasters have the same purpose. The violence in nature is a reminder of the wrath of God. The violence of people in wars, terrorist attacks, crime, and other violence also reveals the wickedness of sin and the need for a Savior to come. And, because of that need, Jesus did come to redeem sinners and will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to make everything new.

Wars and earthquakes have happened all over the world in every century since Jesus spoke those words. They are not a countdown to the Day of the Lord; they serve as reminders that the Day of the Lord is coming. Jesus describes his appearing as sudden and unexpected. “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the appearing of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27). “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the appearing of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:28-29).

What, then, of the great tribulation that is supposed to precede the Day of the Lord? Jesus does not omit the tribulation. He says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened….” (Matthew 24:29). So tribulation will precede his coming, but when does it begin, and for how long does it last?

The book of Revelation is filled with sevens. It is addressed to seven congregations. It includes a scroll with seven seals, the blowing of seven trumpets, and seven bowls of wrath. In literature like Revelation, numbers bear significance; they have special meanings. Seven is the number of completeness. There are seven days in a week because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Therefore, a letter addressed to seven congregations is intended for the complete Church in every place and every time. Likewise, the seven seals and seven trumpets and seven bowls of wrath speak of complete judgment on a sinful world.

But wait—there is more! The number seven is sometimes cut in half in Revelation, to three-and-a-half years, or forty-two months, or 1,260 days. This matches the words of Jesus about the tribulation: “If those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24:22). In other words, the complete suffering of the tribulation will be limited by God’s power and will not be as bad as it could have been.

The tribulation, then, is not a future set of events. It is felt in the wars, the earthquakes, the false teachers, and the persecution of the Church, all of which have been happening for twenty centuries, and all of which will continue to happen until the Day of the Lord. The execution of Stephen the deacon and of James the apostle were part of the tribulation. The false teachers whom Paul confronted were part of the tribulation. The siege of Jerusalem forty years after Christ’s resurrection was part of the tribulation. So are the present wars, earthquakes, and persecutions—they all are part of the Great Tribulation described in the Bible.

But another picture of this same time invokes a different number. Many Christians are confused about future history because they have failed to notice a hidden seven in Revelation. In that book, the Day of the Lord is described, not once, but seven times. After the first six descriptions, the book rewinds to current events and approaches the Day of the Lord from a different point of view. Only after the seventh depiction of the Day of the Lord does the book of Revelation begin describing the new creation that will begin on that Day.

So in Revelation 20 we find an angel coming down from heaven and binding the devil, pictured as a dragon, sealing him in a pit for a thousand years. During those thousand years, Christ rules the world, accompanied by his saints who are seated on thrones. At the end of the thousand years, the dragon is released from his prison, gathers the world in rebellion against Jesus, and is finally defeated. Then comes the judgment—the seventh and final presentation of the Day of the Lord in Revelation.

What does all this mean? The devil is defeated whenever the gospel of Jesus Christ is shared and believed. When his missionaries reported back to Jesus after they had gone out to preach, he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Satan’s fall is also pictured in Revelation 12. But the fall of Satan does not happen at one particular time in history. Satan is continually falling as the gospel continues to be taught and proclaimed everywhere in the world.

How, then, does Satan become unchained? Since the Word of God chains him, whenever that Word is rejected Satan is unchained. All those who mock the Bible and scorn its teachings are releasing the devil. Where the Bible is forgotten, where it is ignored, where it goes unused, Satan is free. But where the Bible is proclaimed, where it is trusted, where it is studied and shared, there Satan remains bound. There Christ rules, and his saints rule with him.

Did you think Jesus had to physically appear to rule the world from Jerusalem? He is in charge today. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus says (Matthew 28:18). “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (I Corinthians 15:25). Even today Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). We are living in the millennium today, even though we also face tribulation today. But compare the numbers: tribulation is assigned seven years, but then it is cut in half. The reign of Christ is assigned a thousand years. The power and authority of the Lord far surpasses any trouble or hardship he permits in our lives today.

But do Christians rule the world with Christ? Indeed we do. First, he has given us the privilege of prayer. “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Second, he has given us the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). We have royal authority, not to resist Jesus or to defy his rule, but to rule along with him and in his name.

Sad to say, not everyone wants to rule with Jesus. Some prefer to defy his power. They choose their sins over their Savior. They reject a place in the eternal kingdom of God. I will have more to write about this in my next post. J.

What is yet to come?–part two

Many books of the Bible mention and describe the Day of the Lord. This is Judgment Day, or the end of the world as we know it. The most succinct description of that Day comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:14-17).

Only God knows when this Day will be. Christians will not be surprised by the Day, because we have already been told that it is coming. To the rest of the world it will come “like a thief in the night,” unexpected and without warning. No countdown exists to tell us how soon the Day will be; God says only that it will be soon. All we can say is that it is seven days closer than it was a week ago.

No one alive on that Day will fail to notice what is happening. Jesus will appear in the sky, and everyone will see him. How God will accomplish this on a round world is beyond me, but the Bible says it will happen, so I believe it. Everyone will hear the noise that Paul describes as three sounds: a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. All the dead will be raised and all people who ever lived will stand before the Lord for Judgment—for the announcement of his verdict. They will be sorted quickly, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). The parable that contains that phrase mentions sheep to the right and goats to the left, but Paul describes the separation as happening in a different direction: believers “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This ascension of the Church has become known as the Rapture. Although Christians disagree about the timing of the Rapture relative to Christ’s Judgment, Paul certainly makes it sound as if it happens on the same Day.

After commenting on the fact that mockers pretend to wonder why the Day of the Lord has not yet happened, Peter describes another aspect of that Day: “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (II Peter 3:10). In other words, the fire of God’s judgment will remake creation, restoring it to what it was before sin and evil and death entered. Christians will meet the Lord in the air; they will land with the Lord upon the surface of the new earth, where we will live with him and with all his saints forever.

As for those who have died, their bodies will be raised and restored. Any injury caused by sickness or accident or age will be removed; even birth defects will be canceled. Our eyes and ears will function perfectly. Our knees and backs will no longer ache. All allergies will disappear. Even malfunctions of the mind and of the emotions will be erased. All the consequences of sin will be removed, and we will live with the Lord forever.

All these teachings from the New Testament are found in the Old Testament as well. On the Day of the Lord the sun will refuse to shine, the moon will turn to blood, and stars will fall from the sky. The earth will shake, and sinners will seek to hide from the eyes of the Lord, but there will be no place for them to hide. God’s faithful people will be vindicated, and their enemies will be removed. The saints will dwell in a new world in which God will be their God and they will be his people. The Son of David will rule an eternal kingdom in peace and righteousness and glory.

I want to emphasize two points: first, the resurrection is a physical reality, not a symbol. We will not be bodiless spirits in heaven; we will be physical as we are now. Yet we will be focused on the life of the spirit. We will eat and drink and enjoy the bodies God fashioned. In a future post, I will try further to describe what life will be like for God’s people in the new creation, after the Day of the Lord.

Second, the change will be abrupt. One minute we will be going about our lives, along with everyone else in the world. The next we will be meeting the Lord in the air. All the events of the Day of the Lord described in the Bible will happen at the same time. We will move seamlessly from this old sin-polluted world into the new creation.

Someone may ask, but what of the Great Tribulation, and what of the thousand-year reign of Christ? I will discuss such things in my next post. J.

What is yet to come?–part one

In the long-held traditions of the Church, the month of November is a time when Christians think about eschatology—the study of Last Things. Granted, many congregations in the contemporary world create their budgets for the coming year in November and, as a result, they use November to talk about stewardship and tithing. But the older tradition is to consider Last Things. From All Saints’ Day on the first of November to the Sunday of the Fulfillment near the end of the month, readings and hymns and sermons and prayers tend to focus the congregation’s attention on eschatology.

More than many topics, eschatology tends to produce a blurring of the Bible’s clear and literal teachings and its imagery about Last Things. Some Christians tend to consult the book of Revelation first about Last Things and to use its splendid imagery to interpret the more straight-forward passages in the Bible about Last Things. The result can be highly imaginative and creative, but at the same time it is rather inaccurate. Not that this is a catastrophe; any Christian who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved. Some Christians are in store for a few surprises when the Last Day comes, but afterwards they will be able to laugh with Jesus and the other saints about any misunderstandings.

Eschatology divides easily into personal and cosmic Last Things. I will discuss cosmic eschatology in a later post and deal today with personal eschatology, based on what the Bible says.

Some of the clearest teaching about personal eschatology—and passages I have used in hospice situations—comes from the words of Christ on the cross, written in Luke 23. First Jesus prays for sinners: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” The prayer could apply narrowly to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. However it broadly applies to all sinners, all of whom made the crucifixion necessary for salvation. God the Father answers the prayer of his Son: all those who trust in Christ are forgiven. Next, when a thief beside Jesus confesses his sin and prays, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” As his own death approaches, Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

From this we learn that, at the moment of bodily death, the spirit departs to be in the hands of the Father, with Jesus in Paradise. Paradise is a spiritual waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day. It is not the final fulfillment of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes about Paradise when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than life in this sinful world (Philippians 1:23). He also writes, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:6-8). But Paradise is not the final goal of the Christian. “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Corinthians 5:4). Paul also stresses the vital importance of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15.

Christians proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Death is described as sleep from which we shall awaken. Some conclude that the soul will sleep in Paradise and will not experience the passage of time between the death of the body and the resurrection. It appears, though, that in death the body sleeps and not the soul. Revelation pictures saints in Paradise praying for the Church on earth (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul’s notion of “better” and “at home with the Lord” seems to indicate some awareness of being with the Lord, as do the words of Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.”

The Bible also hints of a spiritual waiting place for those without faith, those who will not have a home in the new creation. The Old Testament’s word “Sheol” appears, at least in some instances, to describe that waiting for judgment. Jesus borrows the Greek term “Hades” to describe the rich man waiting for the final judgment while the beggar Lazarus is at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).

But all are waiting to stand before the throne of Jesus and receive his Judgment. The announcement of Judgment will be a verdict, not a trial with evidence produced and weighed. The spirit’s presence in Paradise or in Hades already indicates the verdict for each spirit.

The saints who have departed this earth are not yet walking the streets of gold. They have not yet entered the pearly gates. Those belong to the new creation, not to Paradise. But the saints are with Jesus, in the hands of the Father, and that is a better place than this sin-polluted world.

And next comes the cosmic eschatology. J.

Truth and analogy

Part of the challenge Christians face when sharing the Gospel is distinguishing imagery or analogies from literal truth. While Christians (at least the traditional or conservative sort) say that everything in the Bible is true, we stop short of saying that it is “literally true.” Psalm 91:4 portrays God as spreading his wings and covering us with his feathers. We know that to be an image, comparing God to a mother bird protecting her young. We believe in the truth of God’s loving protection; we do not believe that God literally has wings and feathers.

When it comes to the redemption of sinners, it can be hard to sort literal truth from imagery and analogy. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure. He does not represent any truth; he is Truth itself. Historically, he was executed, suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Historically, he rose to life again the same weekend he was killed. Anyone who tries to turn those events into images or analogies is distorting the central truth of the Christian faith.

But the meaning of those events can only be portrayed in analogy. No one image is big enough to cover the enormity of what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection. Any single image is open to distortion and misunderstanding. Sometimes, when trying to communicate the Gospel, a Christian must set aside one analogy and turn to another to keep from offending the listener (in the Biblical sense of John 6:60-66, not in the shallow worldly sense).

The image of the suffering and death of Jesus as a sacrifice is common among Christians. Animals sacrificed in Old Testament times were pictures of Jesus on the cross. But are we to say that God approves of human sacrifice? Clearly not—one of the charges against the Canaanites was that they sacrificed their own children to their gods. The sacrifice of Jesus is an analogy of his voluntary acceptance of suffering to redeem sinners. When the analogy is pressed too far—when it is said that God the Father demanded the sacrifice of his Son—we are better off seeking a different analogy.

There are several others to choose. Paul liked to use financial analogies, depicting Jesus as paying our debt so we could be free from sin. He also used legal analogies, showing Jesus accepting our punishment so we could be declared not guilty (that is, “justified”). Yet another common analogy is that of warfare, that Jesus on the cross battled the devil and the evil world and all sins and death, winning a victory that he shares with his people and wants to share with the entire world.

Likewise, when we pursue the warfare analogy, it is important to remember which enemies were defeated. Christians are commanded to love our worldly enemies, but Christians also battle spiritual enemies of great power. Without Christ’s victory, we are easily defeated; through Christ’s victory, we are more than conquerors. The Psalms that call for help against our enemies do not apply to Muslim terrorists or to neighbors with noisy leaf-blowers. They apply to the devil, to the sinful world, and to the sin still within each of us. When Psalm 137 calls for the children of Babylon to be killed in a violent way, that does not refer to historic babies in a historic city. It uses the imagery of warfare to describe the crushing of our sins through the victory of Christ so those sins can no longer afflict us.

We are not free to change every verse of Scripture into an analogy or an image. Statements about historical events should be regarded as factual. Commandments not to sin should be taken seriously. But the greatest truths can only be communicated through imagery. Human language alone does not have the power to describe the splendor of our Savior and the wonder of all that he has done for us. J.