2/12/01 10.45 a.m. Matthew 24:3,29-51

Three apprentice devils were asked by Satan for ideas to tempt and ruin people. The first said, 'Tell them there is no God.' Satan said, 'That won't fool many as it is obvious that there is a God.'

Scratching his head the second said, 'Tell them there is no hell.' 'You'll deceive no-one that way as they know that there is punishment for sin', retorted Satan.

The third suggested, ' I will tell them there is no hurry.'

'Brilliant,' said Satan, 'Go. You will ruin millions !'

Today we wait for Christ's return with great expectancy. We do not know the day nor the hour of His return, but we are confident that He is coming back. As we wait for Christ's return, we prepare ourselves each day to meet Him. But we are surrounded by many people who are unaware of the truth of Jesus' first coming, never mind his return.

We ought to...

Be Aware

This passage is about judgment. It looks back to a time when God judged people by sending the flood. Noah and his family were warned, they were prepared and they were saved. The others were not warned, they were not prepared and they perished. This is not to say that they were punished unjustly, because Genesis 6:5 says that they were ' evil all the time'. God will judge people fairly based on their response to the revelation they have received. In Romans 1:18ff it says that we can know enough about the nature and power of God through creation, but that many people have rejected and ignored God which leads to the His wrath against them.

This is not politically correct and parts of the church are embarrassed about proclaiming a God of judgment. We see this in the set lectionary readings that we follow each Sunday, because they sometimes miss out verses that refer to judgment. This encourages the erroneous picture of God being like a white bearded, weak, doddering old man, who pats people on the head saying, 'There, there...'. This ignores the holiness and justice of God and the need to respond to him in penitence and faith. Jesus needed to go to the cross because God is just and the price for sin had to be paid for by somebody. For those who have laid their sin upon Jesus, he is that somebody. Others will have to bear God's righteous wrath for their own sin.

As well as being about judgment, the return of Jesus is about restoration. Restoring God's people to the life that he wanted for them from the beginning. This Chapter tells us that Jesus will return one day and take his followers with him to be with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit forever. This is what Jesus was referring to when he paints the shocking picture of pairs of people working together until, suddenly one disappears to join his or her Lord, cf. verse 31. The resurrection of the righteous will be the beginning of a new phase in every believer's relationship with Christ. Their resurrection bodies will be incorruptible, glorious, and spiritual (1 Cor 15:35ff.) and like Christ's glorious body (Phil 3:21).

The motivation for every Christian rests on the certain hope of his return.

Of the 260 chapters in the entire New Testament, there are 318 references to Christ's second coming. That averages one out of every 30 verses. Furthermore, 23 of the 27 New Testament books refer to this great event. Only four books do not refer directly to the Second Coming and three of these four books are single-chapter letters which were written to specific persons on another particular subject.

As we go through this Advent and Christmas time we will, once again, see how the birth of Jesus was foretold by prophets hundreds of years before his birth. There is only one, major prophecy in the Bible that has yet to be fulfilled, the return of Jesus.

The belief that Jesus will come again should give hope to every Christian. The 19th Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, " To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante's hell is the inscription: `Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.' "

( Be Aware ) Be Ready;

The evangelist Tony Campolo said, 'I've no idea when Jesus is coming back. I'm on the welcoming committee, not the planning committee.'

Jesus tells his followers that they are to be watchful, to be on their guard. Why should this be ? Because, although his return is certain to happen and will be seen by everybody ( 25:30 ), it will be unexpected. However, there will be some clues that will precede Jesus' return. Like a detective in a murder mystery Christians are to look for the clues.

In verses 7 & 23-29 Jesus warned that the clues to his return will be false Christs and political, natural and cosmic unrest. This means that people are not called to predict when Christ is coming, because Jesus said that not even he or the angels knew this, verse 36. There have already been false prophets who have claimed that Jesus will return. The Jehovah's Witnesses excel in this. They said that Jesus would return in 1874, then said that it was an invisible coming ! The predicted that the end of the world would occur in 1914 , again in 1975 and in 1984. Prior to 1975 many Jehovah's Witnesses did not have children because they expected the end to come. The Watchtower Society also predicted that all members of the body of Christ would be changed to heavenly glory in 1925. They also believed that World War Two was Armageddon.

They also claim to be 'Christian' but do not believe that Jesus is God.

When Jesus returns many people will be surprised, but no-one will be mistaken. We are called to be alert, ready for his return anytime.

Even though there will be great unrest before Jesus returns many people will continue with life regardless, unaware until it is too late. Most of us know of the story of the 'Kings new clothes'. It wasn't until the boy pointed out what was obvious, that the King was naked, that people had the courage to face up to what they could see.

We are called to be like that boy. To be observant, knowing Jesus' words and looking out for the clues that will usher in his return. We are to point people to the signs and to the Saviour. But many people will continue to live an apparently normal life, ignoring the signs.

Over seven years ago soon after moving here we were burgled. We did not know that it was going to happen otherwise we would not have gone to Hanley that morning. We would have stayed behind and kept watch. We are not alone. One in seven people have experienced a break-in. Burglaries increase by a third in December and January.

Jesus return will be unexpected like a burglar. If we knew exactly when Jesus is going to return this would not be helpful. It could lead to complacency and for some to live an immoral life before, supposedly turning to Jesus at the last minute. Salvador Sanchez was a boxing champion who died, aged 23 in a car crash. It was reported in his obituary that, a month before his death, he said, 'I'm only 23 and have all the time in the world.'

We should be alert, ready to prepare ourselves for Jesus and to warn people to repent before it is too late. After all, none of us can assume that we will be alive tomorrow, so we should live every day as if it were our last.

John Wesley was asked at one time, "What would you do if you knew that tonight you would die?" He said, "I would do exactly what I have scheduled to do."

I wonder if we are so ready and disciplined that we could say that?

( Be Aware; Be Ready; and ) Be A Slave;

This relates to verses 45 to 51.

Robert Fulghum, who wrote "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten", says that he placed alongside the mirror in his bathroom a picture of a woman who is not his wife. That's risky ! Every morning as he stood there shaving, he looked at the picture which is of a small humped-over woman wearing sandals and a blue eastern robe and head dress (sari). She is surrounded by important-looking people in tuxedos, evening gowns, and the regalia of royalty. It is the picture of Mother Teresa, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize!
Fulghum said he keeps that picture there to remind him that, more than a president of any nation, more than any pope, more than any chief executive officer of a major corporation, that woman has authority because she is a servant.
In 1970, Malcolm Muggeridge went to Calcutta to do a special documentary on Mother Teresa for BBC-TV. That morning of their meeting would change him for the rest of his life. He met her as she was working out in the streets with sick and poor people in a ghetto like he had never seen before, amid stench, filth, garbage, disease, and poverty that was just unbelievable. But what struck Muggeridge more than anything else, even there in that awful squalor and decadence, was the deep, warm glow on Mother Teresa's face and the deep, warm love in her eyes.
"Do you do this every day?" he began his interview. "Oh, yes," she replied, "it is my mission. It is how I serve and love my Lord."
"How long have you been doing this? How many months?"
"Months?" said Mother Teresa. "Not months, but years. Maybe eighteen years.
"Eighteen years!" exclaimed Muggeridge. "You've been working here in these streets for eighteen years?"
"Yes," she said simply and yet joyfully. "It is my privilege to be here. These are my people. These are the ones my Lord has given me to love."
"Do you ever get tired? Do you ever feel like quitting and letting someone else take over your ministry? After all, you are beginning to get older."
"Oh, no," she replied, "this is where the Lord wants me, and this is where I am happy to be. I feel young when I am here. The Lord is so good to me. How privileged I am to serve him."
Later, Malcolm Muggeridge said, "I will never forget that little lady as long as I live. The face, the glow, the eyes, the love - it was all so pure and so beautiful. I shall never forget it. It was like being in the presence of an angel. It changed my life. I have not been the same person since. It is more than I can describe." After Muggeridge made those comments, Mother Teresa continued to serve in that sacrificial way until the end of her life nearly twenty-seven years later.

God doesn't call all of us to minister in an Indian slum. But he does call each of us to be a 'faithful and wise servant', verses 45. This means that we are to put Jesus first, obeying God's will, rather than being like the wicked servant and doing what we want, verse 48f.

Why should we obey God ?

Because we do not know when Jesus will return and, when he does, he will judge people. In the parable the wicked servant represents someone who would describe themself as a Christian, maybe go to church, but live without it affecting their lives. Such people will go to hell, verse 51, so there is no place for complacency or resting on laurels.

Our service of God should arise from who he is and what he has done for us. He is the Almighty God and, therefore, should be served and obeyed. Just like the master in the parable who should have had respect and obedience because of his position. He owned the slaves, 'servants' is not an accurate translation, probably buying them from a slave auction. He was free to do what he liked with them. They had the same status as a piece of property.

We have been bought by God with Jesus' blood, shed to pay the price for our sins. We should, therefore, serve him because we belong to him, and out of gratitude for what he has done for us. A few months ago a television program featured Baronness Cox going into Sudan, where many Christians have been captured and sold into slavery. She bought and set free some of these slaves. We have been bought by God and set free. Free from the fear of death and free from the power of sin. So we are free not to return to sin and death but to love and serve God, our master, Saviour and friend.

We would not want God disgraced either, so we should serve him to bring glory and honour to him. It is only through God's undeserved favour that we come to trust in Jesus and we keep on living for Jesus. Living the Christian life is not about living life in one's own strength according to a set of moral principals. It is about a realization that we cannot be good enough for God and turning to him for forgiveness and the strength to live a new life. Therefore, people should be able to see the transformation in Christians and praise God who has brought this about. Obedience glorifies God, disobedience exposes his name to ridicule.

Our service of God should also spring from the love that he has placed in our hearts by His Spirit, one that is to overflow to others in the way that the love of Mother Teresa touched the poor of India and Malcolm Muggeridge.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Every other advert on television is for a music album or children's toys. Shops have been full of father Christmas, trees and decorations to get customers to buy their goods. People have been compiling Christmas lists, taking care in buying the 'right' presents, cooking cakes, buying food and drink. Newspapers are publishing television guides. Then, after a day of presents, television and over indulgence, it will all be over. Some people willl wonder if it was really worth it when they receive their credit card bills in January.

As Christians we are called to invest our time, talents, energies and possessions in God. This investment will never disappoint, perish, fade, break down, or run out of batteries. It will be glorious and last forever. We should be ware, alert and serving.

C.H. Spurgeon said, 'The fact that Jesus is to come again is not a reason for star-gazing, but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.'