When Jesus Comes Again
Matthew 24:3-14, 36-44
Did you notice the article in last Wednesday’s paper?
It contained the results of a recent George Gallup survey. Those results indicate a drastically renewed interest in the things of faith among people in this country. George Gallup said, “We are seeing a rising tide in religious involvement and interest. That’s especially true on college campuses where religious involvement has grown from 39 percent five years ago to 50 percent now. The survey also disclosed a growing conviction among the American people that religion, rather than science, can resolve the problems of the world.”
That Gallup poll is one more piece of evidence that in an increasingly tense, uncertain and dangerous world, the certain sound of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is falling upon eager and attentive ears. That Gospel declares that God is in control of this world, and that He is working His purpose out in the world as surely as the night follows the day. Not only that, but God’s purpose for our world and for our lives will be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus Christ. Here is what we, as Presbyterians, believe:
“As Christ came once in humility, he will return in glory. (Then) the age-long struggle between sin and grace will in God’s good time have an end; all the powers of evil will be destroyed; and God’s holy, wise, and loving purposes will be accomplished.”
So, in a world filled with uncertainty, we can be certain of this: Jesus Christ is coming again. Today, I want us to focus on Matthew 24 and 25 where the disciples asked questions about the Second Coming and Jesus gave them answers.
Here’s the first question: “Lord, what will be the signs of your coming and the close of the age?”
Jesus responded by describing several conditions that will mark the end of the age. Evidently there will be a series of events, not just a single incident. First of all, He warns His followers not to jump at every claim that the time has come. Many will appear, He says, claiming to be the Christ and they will lead many astray. Moreover, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation. Earthquakes and famine will strike various places. This will only be the beginning of a period of suffering. Many believers will be put to death. They will be hated because they bear Christ’s name. Then the time will come when even many believers will turn away. They will betray their faith and one another. They will follow after false prophets. Their love will grow cold. Jesus then says that once the Gospel has been preached throughout the world there will come a great tribulation upon the earth. The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the heavens, and the very heavens themselves will be shaken. Then, and only then, will Christ come. He will come in power and glory, and He will gather His people from the four winds of the earth. And the joy that will be theirs will be like no joy they have ever known.
Well, that’s the picture. And I think we can understand the temptation of the disciples to take that picture and try to put it into the times in which they lived. And the Church throughout its history has been bedeviled by the same temptation. For throughout the ages, there have been those who take this series of events and try to order them and structure them in such a way that they could say, “This is the time.” As a result there has always been disagreement in the Church as to how these things will take place. Of course, all through history there have been times of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. And wherever they have occurred, there have always been those who cry, “This is the time!” Today, in a disjointed, disoriented, disillusioned world, one hears the same cry.
But there are two things worth noticing here. Jesus’ description about the sun being darkened, the moon failing to give its light, the stars falling from the heavens, the heavers themselves being shaken—that description sounds very much like what we might imagine a nuclear holocaust would be. And we live in a time when we are under threat of such a holocaust. Furthermore, there is something about the series: of events Jesus described which is true today for the first time in history. Jesus said, “When the Gospel has been preached throughout the world.” For the first time in history that now is true. Every country on the face of the earth now has at least one established Christian Church within it. The last country to have a church established in it is Afghanistan. That has now been done. So perhaps there is some justification for those who say, “This is the time.”
But the disciples not only asked about the Signs of Jesus’ coming again, they also asked about the timing: “Lord, when will this take place.”
Again, for generations, people in the church have been trying to devise a schedule for these events. They put forth elaborate explanations about what nations will play what roles in the fulfillment of these prophetic utterances. They even go so far as to establish certain years which will mark the end of time. But those years have come and gone and the end has not yet come. The most popular current choice is 1984.
But, you know, interestingly enough, those who become preoccupied with timetables and the ordering of events fail to come to grips with Jesus’ own teachings about His return. I stand firmly within our Presbyterian tradition when I say that setting the time for the end of the world ignores the very word of Jesus Himself. Right here in Matthew, He says, “But of that day and hour no one knows…” Again in the initial verses of the Book of Acts, when His disciples question Him about when the Kingdom will come, He quickly replies, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority.”
So some years ago, a woman named Elizabeth Steen, announced that Christ would return on April 14, 1969, in San Francisco, Over 10,000 people gathered there to witness the event. It didn’t occur, and some who were present made obscene gestures toward the heavens as they walked away disappointed. How sad to have so misunderstood the Bible. Better to be like Queen Victoria of England. On one occasion she heard a sermon preached by Dean Farmer on the subject of the Second Coming. Afterward the queen said to the preacher, “I do not know when the Lord will return—I only wish that he would come in my lifetime.” The preacher replied, “Your Majesty, why do you have such a desire?” The Queen said, “Because I would so love to lay my crown at His feet.”
We do not know when Jesus will come. Remember what He said: “Of the day and hour no one knows.” But that He will come we cannot doubt. Remember what he said? He said, “Surely I am coming soon.”
That brings us to the crucial question: “Lord, what are we to do until you return?”
My friends, the coming of Jesus will be a time of unparalleled joy—and we can look forward to it with eager expectation and anticipation. But I want you to notice here in Matthew 24, Jesus says that, until He returns, we are to be about the business of justice and righteousness. When Jesus comes again, the servant in whom He will take pleasure is not the one dressed in white robes, seated in a chair, looking out the window. No, rather it is the servant who knows Jesus will return someday and will rejoice when He comes. But who, until then, is busy at the task of caring for the people of the world. Jesus says, “Blessed is that servant whom the Master, when He comes, will find so doing.” Then He proceeds to tell three parables in Matthew 25 to underscore His point.
The first parable is about ten maidens at a wedding feast. Five of them are wise and take extra oil in their lamps to be ready for the bridegroom when he comes. Five were foolish. They had no extra oil, and while they were off trying to buy extra oil, the bridegroom came and they missed him. The message is clear. We must be ready when Jesus comes again. We must wait expectantly for His arrival. We must be prepared for the moment of His return.
The question is: are you prepared? Don’t wait. If you’ve never committed yourself fully to Christ before, commit yourself to Him now. Confess your sins to Him; ask Him to come into your life, and begin to live as a disciple of His. Now is the time to get prepared for His return.
But then Jesus tells two more parables which make clear what we are to do until He comes again.
In the second parable, He speaks of the man who was going on a journey and who left His money to his servants to care for while he was away. He gave to one five talents; to another two, to another one—to each according to his ability. And when the man returned, he asked his servants for an accounting. Again, the message is clear. When Jesus comes again, there is going to be a moral accounting. He is going to ask us, “What did you do with the talent I gave you?”
Then in the third parable, He speaks of coming and separating people like the shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. He will place the sheep on His right hand and the goats on His left. To those on the right, He will say, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.” And who are the ones who will inherit that Kingdom? Those of whom Jesus could say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to me.” And those who are placed at His right hand will ask, “Lord, when did we do these things to you?” And Jesus will say,”As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Once more, the message is clear. What’s so remarkable about this parable is that God asks so little of us. The price of eternal bliss is not some heroic sacrifice, not the solving of some major problems in this weary world. No, rather it is a piece of bread, a cup of water, an hour of sympathetic listening, a night or two of common hospitality, a hand extended in love, a word spoken in encouragement, an everyday awareness of the needs of those around us. One does not have to be especially gifted or talented or wealthy to participate. These are the kinds of deeds any one of us can perform. But in so doing we shall see Jesus and we shall experience the kingdom.
I know this isn’t completely Biblical—yet somehow when I read these verses in Matthew, it rings true. You see, I have an image in my mind of when Jesus comes again, that He will find us working at some task in His name. Perhaps we shall be standing at the bedside of one who is ill or counseling someone whose soul is stricken with guilt or grief or giving food and drink to those paralyzed by hunger and thirst. Yes, in the name of Jesus, we shall be carrying out some task designed to alleviate suffering and pain and to bring joy and hope. Our sleeves will be rolled up, perspiration will be dripping from our face. Then we shall feel a tap on our shoulder. We shall turn and behold the face of our Lord. We shall hear Him say, “Come, it is time.” And I can imagine our saying to Him, “Lord, thank God you are here. But do you mind if I finish just this task?” And you know, I can see Him rolling up His sleeves and hear Him saying, “Well, then let me help you. And when we have finished, we shall go together to that place which I have prepared for you.”
One day, while St. Francis of Assisi was working in his garden someone asked him what he would do if he knew that Christ were returning that day. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Why, I’d keep working in my garden.” You see, he said that because he was ready. There were no last minute preparations to be made. He was ready for the return of his Lord.