The End Is Near

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Series: 

Matthew 24:36-51 Forever: The End is Near

Keep Your Desk Clean
The superintendent of a large Christian school was concerned about the disarray he found in so many of the classrooms he visited. Papers were often strewn on the floor, and the students’ desks were surrounded by clutter. Feeling strongly that learning could not take place in such an untidy environment, he decided to take action.

He chose one classroom for an experiment, introduced himself to the students and with a smile made this proposition:

"Your teacher, principal and I provide a well-equipped classroom for you to enjoy but we need your help in keeping your desks and the classroom orderly. Many of you have crumpled papers inside your desks with books left open and the pages bent. Often there are pencils on the floor under your desks along with other debris. I would like each of you to clean out your desk today and begin this school year resolving to keep it clean. One day I will return and inspect your desks and the person with the neatest desk will be given this $100 bill. I won’t tell you which day it will be. It will be a surprise. Not even your teacher or the principal will know the day."

The children squealed with excitement and began immediately pulling things from their desks, filling the trash baskets with crumpled papers, stacking their books neatly inside their desks, and neatly lining up their pencils and pens.

Every morning for the first week, every student checked his or her desk to make sure it was in perfect condition, confident that today would be the day the superintendent returned. The next week, a few boys grew weary of the exercise and returned to their former habits. By the third week, several students remarked, "I doubt if he’ll come back at all. He just said that to make us keep our desks clean." After two months, no one in the classrooms bothered to inspect their desks and in fact, forgot the superintendent’s promise.

Except for one girl.

Dutifully, she inspected her desk every morning and several times a day, making sure things were in proper order. For months, she was teased by the other students. "He’s not coming back! Why do you keep looking for him? You look stupid believing that promise, anyway."

Still, she remained quiet, kept her desk in perfect condition and waited.

Near the end of the school year, there was a knock on the door and the superintendent entered. Quickly, the students flung open their desks and began frantically to clean them. But the superintendent held up his hand for them to stop. All the students were asked to stand beside their desk at attention while the superintendent inspected each desk.

One after another, he rejected them for being unkempt. One boy tried giving excuses but to no avail. Another blamed the teacher for not reminding them. Still another blamed the superintendent for making them wait so long.

Finally, the superintendent arrived at the desk of the little girl who confidently displayed her well-kept desk while beaming at the superintendent. After inspecting her desk, he took her by the hand to the front of the classroom and awarded her the $100 bill.

"Boys and girls," he said kindly, "this girl never stopped believing I would return so she kept her desk in perfect order. She didn’t need to worry about what day or even what time of day I would arrive because she was always ready. Always.” (Tim Zingale, “Be Ready”, found on sermoncentral.com)

The Difference Forever Makes
We are in the middle of a series we are calling Forever. We’re talking about the fact that we are all ever-living, never-dying souls that are going to spend eternity in one of two final destinations: either heaven or hell. My goal, of course, is that you will spend eternity in heaven. And the Bible says we should “set our minds on things above” (Col. 3:2). So I spent a couple of weeks helping us get just a taste of what the Bible says Heaven will be like. And we’ve created a resource area in our library with books about heaven and I encourage you to check them out and learn more. I can’t overstate the importance of having a Biblically informed picture of what a Christian’s eternal destiny will be like.

But, of course, you haven’t given good directions to a place unless you have also warned of the dangers of going the wrong way. So last week we spent some time looking at what the Bible says about Hell. We saw that Hell is eternal justice from God, eternal punishment by God, and eternal exclusion from God. We saw that Hell is a real place, and we definitely do not want to go there.

Now, we have two weeks left in the series, and I want to focus on the difference knowing about forever should make in the way we live our lives now. I want us to spend some time thinking about how knowledge of heaven and hell influences the choices we make here on earth.

So my message today can be boiled down to three simple words, the Boy Scout motto: Always Be Prepared. We are all headed for an eternal destiny of either heaven or hell, so we should be prepared.

The way we are going to think about this is by thinking some about the return of Jesus. One of the core convictions of Christianity is that Jesus is coming again. It’s part of what we confess in the Apostle’s Creed, when we say “from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

And it is the return of Jesus that is the real beginning of eternity. It is at the time of the final judgment that the New Heavens and New Earth will begin. And so, if you are thinking about your forever destiny, it’s only natural that you are going to wonder when it will begin.

That’s the case in our passage for today. We are going to be looking at the words of Jesus from Matthew 24:36-51. This passage is a part of a larger section of scripture known as the Olivet Discourse because they are words Jesus spoke while on the Mount of Olives in response to a question from His disciples concerning when He would come again (cf. Matt. 24:3). In the passage, we are going to see that Jesus uses three different examples to make essentially the same point: the end could come at any time, so we need to be prepared. Just like the little girl in the classroom, we should be always ready.

Let’s work our way through the passage. As I said, Jesus uses three different examples so we’ll break the sermon down into three different parts. Each one will reveal a little more about the end of the age.

No One Knows
First, we see that the end will be a surprise. No one can predict when it will happen. Matthew 24:31:

36"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Jesus is very clear: no one knows when the end will be. Just like in our story at the beginning, the superintendent said that not even the principal or the teacher knew when he would return. So, here, Jesus says even He doesn’t know. Apparently, one of the aspects of His divine nature that He gave up when He took on human flesh was knowledge of the Father’s eternal plans.

The point is that we should be immediately skeptical of anyone who claims special knowledge of when the end will come. If Jesus Himself does not know the appointed hour, why should we believe that a sinful human can figure it out?

One of the sad aspects of Christian history, though, is that many have attempted to predict the date of Christ’s return, and many have been swindled by those predictions. At the turn of the first Millenium, so many people were predicting Christ’s return that many farmers didn’t even plant their crops.

In 1800 a man named William Miller predicted that Christ would return on or around April 3, 1843. All over the Northeast, half a million of his followers awaited the end of the world. Reportedly some of them made their way to the top of mountains, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others were in graveyards, planning to ascend into the heavens with their departed loved ones. Of course it didn’t happen. But Miller’s legacy is still alive today in the existence of the Seventh Day Adventist and Adventist denominations. Predictions of the end are still sometimes called “Millerism” today.

More recently a retired NASA engineer by the name of Edgar Whisenant sold 4.3 million copies of a book that went into great detail outlining his reasons for believing that Christ would return in 1988. As befitting a NASA engineer, it contained a lot of math. Of course 1988 came and went and Jesus didn’t return. Whisenant didn’t give up though. He went back to the drawing board so to speak and then predicted that he had just made a mistake in his calculations and that the Lord would return in 1989. Of course he was just as wrong the second time as he was the first.

And, even more recently, a radio preacher named Harold Camping made big news by predicting Jesus would return on May 21, 2011. I remember that one because May 21 is my birthday. The sad thing about Camping’s prediction is that he convinced his followers to put up millions of dollars to buy billboards and painted cars trumpeting his prediction. I think there was even a billboard north of Spencer. When May 21 didn’t work out, he changed the date to October 21. When that didn’t happen, he actually apologized publicly and called his failed predictions “sinful.” He passed away last December.

Such predictions are clearly misguided, and we should be skeptical of anyone who claims to have special knowledge of God’s calendar. Jesus points to the days of Noah as an example. Verses 37-39:

37As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

Clearly, the people washed away in the flood were taken by surprise. Even though they could see Noah and his sons working on the Ark, they never took his warnings of coming disaster seriously. And so when the rains came, it was a surprise; they were going about the ordinary business of life, and they were taken away. This is further evidenced in verses 40 and 41:

40Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

The point here is how unexpected the end will be. People will be going about the ordinary business of life—farming and grinding grain—when suddenly and unexpectedly they will be separated by their allegiance to Jesus.

Now, a brief word about the idea of a “rapture.” This isn’t really a sermon about different scenarios for the end times, but much is made of these two verses in an end time scenario that teaches that Christians will be removed from the earth before a time of terrible tribulation breaks out. This snatching is often called the “Rapture” and it is the basis of the “Left Behind” series of books.

I’m not going to get into that too much right now, but let me point out that there is nothing in these verses that says explicitly that it is the Christian who is taken and the unbeliever left behind. And, in fact, given the context and the example of the flood that “took them all away;” I would suggest that Jesus is saying you would rather be left standing than taken away at the time of His return. At the very least, it is hard to build a case for the Rapture from these verses alone.

But, again, that’s not really my main point this morning. My point—and Jesus’ main point—is that the end will be a surprise, and so we should be prepared.

Keep Watch
Which leads to the second part of the sermon: the end will be soon. We need to keep watch because it could happen at any time. Verses 42-44:

42"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

This little parable can be a little troubling, in that Jesus is comparing Himself to a thief. It’s more than a little weird to think of Jesus as a cat burglar or something of that nature. And certainly, Jesus doesn’t mean for us to think that He is up to no good or that He is going to plunder our possessions or anything like that.

Rather, He uses the example of a thief for one reason, and one reason only: nobody knows when a thief will strike. Thieves do not send press releases so that homeowners can prepare in advance. A thief could strike at any time, and so homeowners are smart to practice constant watchfulness.

In the same way, Jesus says, the end will come suddenly and surprisingly. So we need to always be prepared.

But, more than that, I see Jesus teaching here--and more generally the teaching throughout scripture—that His return could be very soon. That is, the end could come at any moment.

The theological term for this is “imminent.” What it means is not necessarily a short duration of time, but the possibility that Christ could return at any time and so the end is always immediately in front of us.

If you read the scriptures with an eye for this, you will be struck by the sense of expectancy the Biblical writers had with regards to Christ’s return. The impression given is that they believed they would still be alive when the end happened. So, for example, in 1 Thessalonians Paul suggests that “we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Elsewhere, in Titus, he talks about how much he waits for “the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”, and the impression is that he expects to be around.

Or, again, the Apostle Peter wrote in his first epistle: “The end of all things is near.” The Apostles certainly lived and thought as though they were living in the last days.

Of course, that was nearly 2000 years ago, and Jesus still hasn’t returned. That doesn’t seem to fit many definitions of “soon.” Are we supposed to conclude then that the Apostles were wrong? Like the kids in the classroom, are we supposed to conclude that since Jesus hasn’t come yet, He isn’t coming at all?

I don’t think so.

I think the Apostles were modeling for us the kind of expectancy we should all live with. The kind of watchfulness Jesus is calling for. The Apostles wrote with the urgency of those living on borrowed time, and we should think the same way.

Remember, Biblically speaking the word “soon” does not necessarily mean tomorrow, but it could. Soon means “any moment”, and every generation should live with an expectancy of the end.

Faithful and Wise Servants
Then, third, we should be serving. Since no one knows when the end will be, and since it could be at any moment, our goal should be to be found faithful when Christ comes again. Verses 45-47:

45"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.

Jesus uses the example of a servant who has been left in charge of his master’s property while the master is gone on a trip. This is a favorite example of Jesus, one He uses in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 24:14ff) as well as the Parable of the Tenants (Matt. 21:33ff). In this case, the chosen servant is left in charge of the other servants within the household, responsible to see that their food and wages are handed out at the proper time.

This idea of stewardship would have been pretty familiar in that culture where household slaves and servants were pretty common. (If you watch Downton Abbey, maybe you’ve got a picture of what this would have looked like as well.) The idea is that the servant is supposed to take his master’s belongings, and his master’s other servants, and use them in a way that will honor his master’s wishes.

Perhaps the best modern equivalent would be if you have a financial advisor. If you have someone to whom you give your money so that they can invest it and make it grow, the expectation is that they will use your money in a way that meets your goals. In fact, that’s the first conversation you’ll have with your financial advisor: he or she will sit down with you and say, “What are your goals for your money?” A financial advisor who says: “Let me tell you my goals for your money” would not be a good advisor.

So, of course, the servant who does a good job managing His master’s property—the one who is hard at work when the master suddenly reappears—is the servant who will be blessed and given more responsibilities. But the servant who isn’t working? Verses 48-51:

48But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' 49and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Imagine going to a financial advisor and giving him a significant chunk of your savings, and then the guy decides that he’s going to go out and buy a beach house and speed boat with your money. Maybe he even reasons with himself: “They’re not going to need the money for awhile. I’ll just have fun with it for now, and then I’ll put it back. They’ll never know.” But suppose you call, and you want your money back, and it’s all gone. How are you going to feel about that?

That’s essentially what this wicked servant is doing. Instead of providing for the rest of the household in a fair and equitable manner, he hoards all the food for himself and blows it on parties and he abuses anyone who questions what he is doing. When the master comes home suddenly and unexpectedly, it will be far too late for this wicked servant to make things right.

The point is obvious: Since Jesus’ return will be a surprise, and it could be soon, we should be busy serving our master right now. It’s not something we should put off to do later, or at the last minute like the kids in that classroom. We should be ready. Always ready. Our desire should be that when Jesus returns, He will find us to be “faithful and wise”.

If I Draw My Final Breath…
Always be prepared. When Jesus and His disciples talked about Forever, this is the attitude they took. It could happen at any moment. It will come suddenly. We need to live in expectation.

When the Biblical authors talked about the end, they usually thought of it in terms of Jesus’ return. As we saw, this whole Olivet Discourse in Matthew is about the Second Coming.

But the reality is, if Jesus doesn’t come again in our generation, we are all going to die. If we are not ushered into eternity by Christ’s return, we will be ushered in through the ending of this mortal life. And the interesting thing is that the things Jesus says about preparing for His return could also be applied to preparing for our deaths:

The end will be a surprise. Most people, it seems, are taken by surprise by death. Even if we live to a very old age, very few of us really expect to die. We don’t want to admit it is coming. We don’t want to think about it.

The end will be soon. The truth is: any of us could die at any moment. And whether it happens later this afternoon or 80 years from now, the prospect of death is always an immediate possibility.

And so, we should be serving. If we can’t really plan for our death, and it could happen tomorrow or next week or next decade, our goal should be to be busy serving our master now. Because, whether He comes again for us, or we go to meet Him through the expiration of our bodies, we want to always be prepared.