For the last four weeks, we’ve been speaking of the hope we have for the future – hope that is not grounded in optimism or wishful thinking but in the steadfast love of God that has been most clearly revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
This is the last of our series of messages on hope. It’s not that we’ve run out of hope, but today we are speaking about the end of hope – that is, the purpose of hope. We’re talking about eternal hope, our hope for what happens after this life.
It’s especially appropriate that we should talk about this today. Today is Ascension Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ return to heaven. It’s also the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country, and when families often visit the graves of loved ones.
This is a time when we often think of what comes after death. This year our thinking is especially fraught with uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 90,000 Americans have died so far, and there’s no end in sight. We can’t live on the self-serving promises of those in power. We’ve got to live on real hope, and that comes only from God.
This morning I want to talk about several dimensions of our eternal hope and also dispel some common illusions, misconceptions and downright lies about that hope. Most of these distortions come from what I call pop religion. In times of uncertainty, these untruths are trumpeted especially loudly by fundamentalists and evangelicals.
You’ve probably heard a lot of speculation about whether we are living in “the last days.”
In one sense, we most certainly are. First-century Jews commonly spoke of two ages: this age and the age to come, the present evil age and the last days. (Galatians 1:4, Ephesians 1:21) The hinge between them is the coming of the Messiah.
God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, the book of Hebrews says, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). At Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday, the Apostle Peter quotes the prophet Joel as saying: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17 CEB).
So, yes, we’ve been living in the last days since the time of Jesus.
But those aren’t the last days that most people worry about. What they’re wondering is, are we living in the “last days” before the end of the world? The answer to that question is, no, not very likely. In the King James version of the Bible, Jesus and others do speak about “the end of the world.” But that is a serious mistranslation. In all cases, they’re not talking about the end of the world but the end of the age – the end of the present age and the beginning of the coming age.
God does not intend to destroy this world, but to renew it. That’s how the book of Revelation ends, with the renewal of heaven and earth and God bringing heaven down to earth. “Look!” God says. “I’m making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5 CEB)
Still others wonder, are these the last days before the Second Coming of Christ? About that we cannot know, nor are we meant to know. A lot of people have made a lot of money speculating about the timing of the Second Coming, and it’s nothing but speculation. In times of crisis such as we are living in today, some people may find comfort in such speculation. Some also find comfort in kooky conspiracy theories. I wouldn’t put much stock in any of it.
Next question: Is God using the coronavirus to punish us for our sins? No. That’s not the way God works. The Bible speaks frequently of the “wrath” of God, but it always comes down to God allowing us to suffer the consequences of our own stupidity. If God were to punish us for our sins, how could any of us survive?
(And, hey, incidentally, didn’t Jesus take care of that for us on the cross? Just asking.)
God is not in the punishing business, but a lot of people are, and they would like to think that their penchant for cruelty is a godly thing, except that it’s not. They dishonor God when they make God out to be the monster they see in the mirror every day.
Psalm 7 says, “God has deadly weapons in store for those who won’t change; he gets his flaming arrows ready!” But they turn out to be metaphorical arrows, not real ones. The Psalm goes on: “See how the wicked hatch evil… They make a pit, dig it all out, and then fall right into the hole they’ve made! The trouble they cause comes back on their own heads” (Psalm 7:13-16). In other words, as Galatians 6:7 says, they reap what they sow.
But let’s not ignore those flaming arrows. They may be metaphors, but we need to take them seriously. Notice who they are for. They are for those who won’t change, for those who won’t repent. Again, understand that the arrows are not punishment. They are warnings that you need to change your ways. They are encouragement to change. In other words, God uses “flaming arrows” to motivate us to turn our lives around and start living right.
Hold that thought as we turn back to the book of Revelation. Understand that the popular understanding of it is quite twisted. Revelation is not a blueprint for the end of time. It is not a pack of Tarot cards, or a Quija board, or a crystal ball that peers into the future. It is a testament of hope to seven churches in Asia Minor near the close of the first century.
Only one of the churches has faced persecution for their faith in Christ, but fear of persecution is beginning to gnaw at all of them. The message that John of Patmos brings to these churches is simple: Endure, he says. Tough times may be ahead. Stay faithful, and you will inherit the best that God has to offer.
Revelation is full of truly bizarre imagery and awful accounts of environmental catastrophe and millions of deaths. But imagery is all it is. These are symbols, not literal descriptions. Whenever you take a symbol literally, you always get it wrong. Revelation is not predicting catastrophe. But it is warning us that awful things will happen if we don’t change our ways.
Those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are not predictions of the future. They’re descriptions of human history: war, slaughter, famine, death. As Jesus said: You’ll hear about wars and rumors or wars, but don’t be alarmed. These things happen all the time. They’re not signs of the end. (Mark 13:7 and parallels).
I invite you to carefully read three chapters of Revelation, chapters 8 and 9 and 16. These describe John’s visions of the seven trumpet calls and the seven bowls of the wrath of God. Read them, and then consider what you have heard will happen to us if we do not reverse the course of global warming. Now convince me that Revelation and scientists are not issuing a similar warning.
Now consider how the coronavirus outbreak fits into what you’ve just read. Revelation doesn’t “predict” this plague. It does suggest that plagues like it are the inevitable result of human irresponsibility.
Oh, we don’t have to worry, some say. We’ll be raptured away before all that happens. No, we won’t. Christians will not be secretly whisked away in the night so we won’t have to endure “the great tribulation.” Believers as well as unbelievers will endure it, because “the great tribulation” is human history itself.
As for the so-called Rapture, it’s a cruel hoax, an escapist fantasy, a monstrous misrepresentation of truth. Try to find the Rapture in Revelation. Keep looking. Take all the time you need. People have been looking for it since John Nelson Darby invented it in 1830, and they still haven’t found it in there. Because it’s not there.
When Jesus returns to earth, his arrival will not be a secret. There won’t be anybody “left behind” wondering what just happened. Jesus says his return will be like a flash of lightning that lights up the sky (Luke 17:14). It will be a day so bright that it will be remembered forever.
Some people call the Rapture our “blessed hope,” and that is a breathlessly ridiculous claim. The notion of a “blessed hope” comes from the letter to Titus. It says, “we wait for the blessed hope and the glorious appearance of our great God and savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
It doesn’t say that we wait for the secret arrival of our great God and Savior. We wait for his glorious appearance. We wait for his glorious epiphany. That’s the word that’s used in Titus: epiphany.
That’s what the book of Revelation points to – the glorious epiphany of Christ. But there’s more. What is the end of our hope – that is, what is the purpose of our hope? What, ultimately, are we waiting for?
Sure, we all want to go to heaven when we die. Heaven is where God is. And wherever that is now, Revelation tells us that God intends to bring heaven down to earth. So heaven is not our final destination. Our final destination, the Apostle Paul assures us, is bodily resurrection in a renewed earth.
We could spend a long time working out the implications of that. It’s a mind-boggling assertion. But finally we believe, as 1 Peter 1:3 assures us, that we “have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
It’s not about going to heaven. It’s not just about getting to be with loved ones again. It’s about living with God and loved ones – and maybe a few folks we never really got along with in this life – in a new life that is so wonderful and so much beyond the limits of our imagination that we might as well stop trying to imagine it and just trust God that it will be good.
That’s the end of our hope. That’s the blessed hope that gives spring to our steps and meaning to our lives. We have lived lives of significance. We have loved greatly. We have had successes and failures, but we’ve also had one great accomplishment, and that is that we have shared God’s grace with others. We have let God’s love shine through us. We have been beacons of hope to others. That accomplishment is truly something worth hoping for!
This message was delivered online on May 24, 2020, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas. It’s the 7th Sunday of Easter, and the text is Acts 1:6-9.