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Are We Living in the Last Days?

April 22, 2007

II Peter 3:3-14

If you saw the title of today’s sermon in your Morningside Messenger or in the worship bulletin this morning, you may have rubbed your forehead. You may be shaking your head, saying something like, “Not you, too, Kirk. Surely, not you!”

Let me tell you about the kind of week I had. Last Sunday was a wonderful day in church. I presented a vesper service Sunday night on a topic of great historical significance, the entry of Jackie Robinson, a black man, into Major League baseball. Last Sunday marked the sixtieth anniversary of Robinson’s signing a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In an excellent documentary on America’s game, Ken Burnes said that particular signing was the single-most important event in the history of our national pastime. It also had significance for this country as a whole, by marking a step forward in the civil rights movement. Robinson’s acceptance into Major League baseball broke the color barrier. He was voted “Rookie of the Year.” Two years later, he earned the League’s Most Valuable Player award. After church Sunday night, I watched the Dodgers defeat the San Diego Padres. Every member of the Dodgers’ team wore Number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. When I went to bed Sunday night, I had a rather contented feeling that all was right with the world.

About 3:30 A.M. on Monday, I awoke with a start. My immediate reaction was that I had forgotten something. Occasionally, I forget things, as you well know. I thought that maybe I woke up because I still had not filed my income taxes, which were due Monday. I owed the federal government a little money, and I wanted to hang onto it as long as I could. My motto is, “If it weren’t for the last minute, I wouldn’t get anything done.” I thought about that possibility but decided that was not the reason. I had actually planned to put off filing my tax forms until the last minute because I was going to file electronically. Then I started thinking that maybe I had forgotten about someone who was having surgery early in the morning, but I could not remember who it was. I looked through my notes and my calendar but did not see anything I had forgotten. I had trouble going back to sleep because the thought that I had forgotten something important plagued me.

Following a meeting at 7:30 A.M. Monday, another at 9:00 A.M., and then staff at 10:00 A.M, I knew something was terribly wrong. I heard the news, as you did, about the tragedy at Virginia Tech. One student with terrible problems had gone berserk and killed thirty-three people, including himself. It is a stunning tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. I also started thinking about the weekend storms on the east coast that had caused extensive devastation and the deaths of fifteen people. By Monday night, I did not think that all was right with the world. While channel surfing, I ran across a religious station of some fellow, ranting about our living in the last days. I went to bed knowing that I would have to change the title of the sermon I had given Holly earlier in the day. Knowing that Holly had already picked out the hymns and the anthem for today, I went into the Church Office Tuesday morning and told her I had changed my topic for today to “Are We Living in the Last Days?” I wish you had seen the stunned expression on her face. About all she could say was, “I don’t know an anthem that will go with that topic.” I must say that the choir did very well. “Even in the Valley” was a wonderful anthem to accompany this sermon.

I do not know what you think about living in the last days. Maybe you do not think about this topic. I do not preach about it very often, but I do want us to consider it today, maybe simply because of this tragedy. Tuesday brought even more bad news. Do you realize that 183 people died in Iraq that day? Nearly six times as many people died in Iraq as died in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Monday. Of course, we have become numb to the deaths that occur in war. We dismiss them because we have come to expect fatalities. Those who died in Iraq are no less precious to their families than those who died in Blacksburg or those who died in the storms. Those who died in Iraq are no less precious to God than the people who died at Virginia Tech or those who died in the Northeast. Every person is valuable in the sight of God. They are created in His image. Our Heavenly Father regards all of us as His children.

This has been a week of real difficulty. Many of you know that Judge Bruce Littlejohn died yesterday. His funeral Tuesday will be my fourth in less than a week. It has been a hard week, and so the topic “Are We Living in the Last Days?” We do not like to think about that topic, but we need to consider it.

The New Testament addresses the last days in at last three places. In addition to II Peter and II Timothy 3, Matthew 24 contains the Olivet Discourse, perhaps the definitive teachings of Jesus about this particular topic. Mark and Luke also address the last days. All of these passages provide some signs, indicators, regarding the last days.

One sign is global trauma, which some have called global fatigue. Six billion people populate the world now. At our current rate of growth, we will add about a billion people every ten years. Some say that we are overpopulating the planet, using all of its natural resources and depleting the earth of fossil fuel and a food supply. Vice President Al Gore addresses the issue of global warming in a documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. The indications are that yes, global trauma is indeed a reality, not to be ignored.

A second sign is that humans will have the ability to annihilate human life. We have known of that possibility ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps, we knew it even earlier. Now that we must deal with the issues of North Korea and Iran and their desire to have nuclear weapons, the sign becomes a more pressing concern. We are fighting a war in Iraq because we were convinced the country had weapons of mass destruction. The issue of whether or not human beings have the capability of annihilating human life seems to be one that is self-evident. Isaac Asimov, a scientist, wrote that the world could end in one of fifteen ways. He identified the atomic bomb as the most probable.

A third indicator is the rebirth of the Jewish nation. In 1948, a new Israel was established. With that rebirth, we see a real emphasis on Israel. Some Christian groups are quite preoccupied with trying to help Israel retain its independence and strength because they believe this is the only way that Christ can return. Napoleon, walking past a synagogue one day, asked why the people inside were weeping as they prayed. One of his aids answered, “They want their land and their temple restored.” The emperor responded, “People that passionate about their country and temple will surely see them restored.”

Another indicator listed in the Bible is the appearance of a shift in power, a new world order as powerful as the Roman Empire of the first century. Some would say that the United States of America has achieved that status. Other trends include religious deception and confusion. Heresies have been present from the first centuries of Christianity. H. Richard Niebuhr said that liberal Christianity is “A God without wrath brought to men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through…a Christ without a cross.” There is religious confusion. There is counterfeit Christianity.

Other indicators exist. Wars and rumors of wars – do I need to say more? World War I was supposed to be “the world that ended all wars.” Some terrible wars have occurred since then. Famine is another indicator. Thousands of people die every day because of hunger. Would you be worried if I told you that the population of Concord, North Carolina, died overnight? What if I told you the next day that the population of Salisbury, North Carolina, had died, the following day that the population of Gastonia had died, and the next day that the population of Gaffney had died? The death rate of people who die in our world every day is about equal to the population of one of our medium-sized cities. Famine and world hunger are realities. Other signs include epidemic diseases, natural disasters, earthquakes, storms, fires, and violence. Just think what the disease we know as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has done to this planet. Just think about the brutal events in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Are we living in the last days? The primary purpose of the book of II Peter is to address the people’s denial that Jesus was going to return. They asked, “We know of the promise Jesus gave, but where is this coming? When is it going to happen?” II Peter reminds people that God’s perceived slowness does not mean He has forgotten the promise. In God’s sight, this waiting is not a long time. It is short. God’s slowness is only imaginary. Isaac Watts, in “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” writes, “A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone.” God is really being very patient with us because He wants everybody to have the opportunity to become a part of His Kingdom. Are we living in the last days?

Take the indicators I have mentioned and look back at any point on the historical timeline. It is true that all of the indicators present now have been present all along. The Scriptures mention these indicators because they were present in the first century. They have always been present. The Jews thought of time as divided into two parts. The first, called “this present evil age,” (Galatians 1:4) started in Eden with the first sin. The biblical view is that we have been living in the last days since the Garden of Eden. The second was “the age to come” (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30). When we come to these passages, our response is not supposed to be one of ringing our hands and lamenting, like Chicken Little, crying, “Oh, no! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The Scriptures clearly state our response.

How are we to live? We are to live as people who are godly, who are as much without spot and blemish as possible. We are to follow Jesus Christ, to strive to be as much like him as possible. The Old Testament refers to “the Day of the Lord” on numerous occasions. The Christian church identified that concept with the return of Christ. The idea is that God will intervene in history; in the meantime, we have a lot of living to do. Whether you call it the first days, the middle days, or the last days, the only days we have are these days right now. I am sure you are familiar with Robert Herrick’s saying, “Gather ye rosebuds while we may,” and the term Carpe Diem, which means, “Seize the moment.” This is our time to live.

Whether these are the last days or not really is not important. We have been living in the last days since the beginning of time, since the beginning of sin. Until God intervenes, we do not need to sit idly on a hillside and say, “Jesus is coming. Let’s just wait for him.” He does not ask us to do that. Neither does He ask us to live with fear and dread. We must not let terror overtake us because, as Christian people, we have a different response to events like those we have seen unfold this week. We are to wait with a sense of anticipation and determination to make this world a better place, to make a difference until Jesus comes. We should not try to determine when Jesus will return. Jesus himself said that no one knows, including himself, “the Son of Man.” If Jesus does not know when he is coming back, who are we to try to figure it out? God alone knows. Our task is not to try to figure out chronologically when this event is going to happen. Our task is to live as God has called us to live.

There is a sense in which time has no end. I had a conversation yesterday with a man who said that a mathematics professor had told him that time and matter does not end. That is true in a physical sense, as well as in a spiritual sense. Christians call it eternity. Eternity is time without end. “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, And time shall be no more, And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair…” Eternal. Time without end is eternity. For the Christian, Christ will return. Until then, we are to live each day as if it were our last.

One of the high points of my week came Thursday afternoon. Mike Hensley called me on my cell phone and said that the Littlejohn family had asked me to come by their home. I was already out in that direction, so it was easy for me to go then. When I walked into the room, I could tell that Bruce was struggling. He had a rattle in his respiration. Bruce’s heart surgery about two months ago seemed to have gone fine, but he had complications with his breathing. The two of us had one of the most significant conversations we have ever had as we discussed suffering and the meaning of suffering.

I said, “Bruce, you have served as a sterling example for many of us in so many ways. Now you have an opportunity to be our example in knowing how to deal with this part of life.”

He sort of shook his head and acknowledged that.

“Bruce, do you think you are going to get well?”

He answered, “No.”

I asked, “Do you think you are coming to the end?”

“Yes, pretty soon.”

“Is there anything you need to take care of?”

“No, I believe I have taken care of everything.”

I asked, “Bruce, how about spiritually?” I knew, of course; but as a pastor, I asked. “Do you know that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know that he died on the cross for your sins?”

“Yes.”

“Have you asked him to forgive you?”

“Yes. Kirk, I am going to heaven.”

“Bruce, I know you are.”

“I don’t have any complaints. God has blessed my life.”

Yesterday after Bruce’s death, I again went to the Littlejohn home. On my way there, I saw my son Scott in his yard, cutting grass. I slowed down and spoke to him, asking, “Scott, do you do this kind of work for pay?”

He laughed and answered, “You probably would not want to pay me to do the kind of work I do.”

I told him, “I’m on my way to Judge Littlejohn’s house. He died today.”

He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm, and said, “Dad, you have lost another buddy, haven’t you?” That is the truth. Bruce Littlejohn and I had a great relationship. We shared many happy times. Bruce has been living in the last days for ninety-three years. He is a fine example.

Live every day as if it were your last. Live with the idea that Jesus is your Savior and that you want in every way to honor him with your life. Live life with as much godliness and as much righteousness as you can muster. Live so that your life is an example to others. Speak, when you have the opportunity and it is appropriate to do so, a word of good news to those who need to hear it. Look forward to the day when you come to that great moment of transition.

I do not know whether I am going to die first or if Jesus is going to return first. Whichever occurs first, I want that day to be one of the best days of my life. I think you do, too. Living in the last days does not mean living with fear and trembling. Certainly, we will be sorrowful when events happen like they did this week. Who can hear that news and not grieve? We live to make the world a better place, to make a difference in this world. Charles Wesley perhaps best expressed our prayer: “Take my moments and my days; Let them flow in ceaseless praise.” As Christian people, we are to live differently. We are to overflow with joy and praise to our God.

Bruce Littlejohn said, “I don’t have any complaints. God has blessed me.” What a statement to make when you come to your last days!

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? If not, we extend to you an invitation to accept him. It may be that you have another decision to make, a decision perhaps regarding church membership. Whatever God has placed on your heart, we invite you to respond as we stand together and sing a hymn of commitment, “Only Trust Him.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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