March 20, 2003, on the declaration of war and first action against Iraq
What Does the Future Hold?
Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. (Mark 13:5-8 )
And upon the angel’s words to the prophet Daniel in DANIEL, CHAPTER 12
[The angel said to Daniel,]”At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people —everyone whose name is found written in the book —will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:1-3)
How much would you give to know the future? What would you give to see what’s coming in the days or months ahead?
Many people would give quite a lot. Human beings in general, and especially people in our American society, are captivated by the future. They speculate on the unknown, attempting to reach into tomorrow for some peace of mind today. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads people into deceptive and dangerous practices: horoscopes, psychics, astrology, fortune tellers, and the like.
But for most of us, our interest in the future shows itself in a different way. Some are, for instance, intrigued by time-travel and futuristic movies which often depict what the world might look like in 50 or 100 or 500 years. Most of us listen carefully to analysts who make predictions about the future of the environment or the economy or our investments. And we enjoy listening to experts speak about life-changing inventions and technologies which are ‘just beyond tomorrow.’
Of course, our interest in the future is not always simply a matter of curiosity. Many of us have serious and legitimate concerns about the days, months and years ahead. Am I going to find the right person to marry? Is my family life going to remain stable? What are my children going to become? Is my job going to be there down the road? Will my health hold up? Will I have to go to a nursing home? And what about our congregation? Where will we be 5 or 10 or 50 years from now—if Christ does not return first?
And so too, the post—9-11 world we each live in causes us to contemplate our future—will there be another attack upon our cities, or will it this time be our water supplies or our food distribution system? Will it be my son or daughter who does not come home from the war; will chemical or biological weapons be used in a last vain attempt to retain power? What does the future hold?
God Knows the Future
The only one who truly knows the answer to such a question is God himself. And therefore his Word is our only guide in this matter. The readings chosen for tonight speak about the future, though not about the specifics of everything that will happen. Their concern is not about America or Iraq or the stock market or the European Union or other political events. Rather, it is the future of God’s kingdom and God’s people.
God does not simply wish to tantalize us with signs and prophecies. His purpose is to calm our hearts and to assure us that in Christ we are forever safe in his loving hands, regardless of what we might see or experience. He reveals to us ahead of time some of the catastrophic and troubling things that will happen, so that when they do occur we won’t be shocked or think that God has somehow lost control. He also comforts us by showing “the big picture” of how things will in the end turn out gloriously for us who trust in Jesus. Knowing the ultimate certainty of this future gives us the strength and the confidence to live in the midst of war and the many uncertainties of our time.
Both the prophet Daniel and the Lord Jesus encourage us to take comfort in God’s promises. If we were to ask Daniel, “What does the future hold?’ he might respond, “Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.’ First the bad news: “There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations’ (v I). In that sense, the future doesn’t look bright at all. In our day, some have the notion that humanity is always progressing to a higher and higher plane, that eventually humanity may achieve a social and scientific paradise.
But the picture Scripture paints is quite different. While humanity may witness great advances in areas such as science, medicine, and technology, the Bible depicts Adam’s race as degenerating morally and spiritually, descending to greater degrees of foolishness and depravity even as it claims to be growing wiser and more tolerant. This spiritual bankruptcy will eventually make world conditions worse and worse until finally, right before the end, there will be a time of such distress that nothing in all of history will conic close to matching it.
Look at the Signs
If you think that present conditions aren’t bad enough to fit the terrible descriptions of the end times in Scripture, remember that the worst kind of distress is not physical but spiritual oppression and suffering. The worst disaster is the loss of the Gospel. On the surface, things may appear normal or even peaceful. But Satan’s best work is done in secret, without people realizing what he is doing or that he is the one doing it. Jesus’ words are sharp and to the point: “Watch out that no one deceives you’ (Mk 13:5).
For example, for much of its history the United States was a nation largely composed of Christians. While not everyone was a believer, the Christian faith generally was respected in society. References to God the Creator are even found scattered throughout our country’s founding documents.
But now expressions of faith in Christ are prohibited in many places where the Gospel used to be proclaimed loudly. The first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom has been twisted to mean “freedom from religion.’
The airwaves are filled with television shows and popular songs that ridicule Christians. Some contain outright blasphemes against God. “Losing My Religion,’ by the group R.E.M., was a recent top song in America. Another popular song, entitled “God,’ by Tori Amos, a disillusioned pastor’s daughter has the chorus, “God, sometimes you just don’t come through. You need a woman to look after you.’
There is intense spiritual warfare right now in our land. The casualties from this spiritual battle are even more serious than those from physical wars, because those conquered by Satan spend eternity in hell.
But Jesus cautions, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom’ (Mk 13:7—8).
Even apart from the violence in our communities today, this century has witnessed the most destructive wars on the broadest scale in the world’s history. This nuclear age, and the willingness by some to use chemical and biological weapons, has the potential for something far worse in the future. Jesus also said, “There will be earthquakes in various places and famines’ (Mk 13:8).
Nature itself will “act up” in the last days. The creation itself will start to fall apart. We’ve certainly seen this happening in a variety of ways. All of these things are part of the world’s birth pains, and they will get worse before the birth of the new heavens and earth.
Now Jesus doesn’t want us to become fatalists or doomsayers. But he does give us a healthy dose of realism here so that we will remember what’s really important. We are fallen people in a fallen world that is headed for judgment. We dare not let the humanistic philosophies of the day distract us from that fundamental reality. Were it not for God’s intervention in our lives, we would be among those many people whom Daniel describes as condemned to shame and everlasting contempt. The appropriate attitude for us in these latter days is one of repentance and humility before God.
Prepare for the Future
Jesus tells us these things to prepare us for what lies ahead. Out of love for us he has told us what to expect. We need strengthening to be able to live out our faith in this world and bear the cross. For God’s people, suffering comes before the glorious victory, just as it did for our Lord Jesus.
Yet, that victory is ours as surely as Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father, ready to return for his people. All three of tonight’s Scripture readings focus our attention on the infinitely comforting, fear-destroying, joy-giving Good News of the final victory won for us by our God and Savior. The Lord Jesus has secured for his people an eternal home that will completely outshine any suffering or trouble we might experience. The message from God is Good News of triumph and gladness.
The first bit of Good News Daniel brings is that while we await Jesus’ return, we are receiving around-the-clock divine protection. The text says. “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise’ (Dan 12:1).
Michael is an archangel and leader of the company of God’s angels. While some think of angels as delicate little beings, the Bible portrays them as mighty warriors created by God and sent to protect his people on earth. One of them is capable of annihilating 185,00)0 battle-tested Assyrian soldiers in one night (Is 38:26). Even now an invisible war is being fought in which God’s angels are guarding us from the onslaughts of Satan and the other fallen angels who seek to hurt us not only in body but especially in soul. Though we may not always realize it, as Christians we have “friends in high places.’
Body and Soul in Glory
And the Good News gets better. Daniel declares, “At that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered’ (Dan 12:1). Daniel refers to the book of life, the book of those who will be delivered into the eternal glory of heaven.
The season of Lent stresses that Jesus has confirmed our reservation paying them in full by his death. Is your name written in the Lamb’s book of life? It is as surely as you have been baptized and believe in Jesus Christ. For when God put his name on you with the water, he was also inscribing your name in his book of those who belong to Christ.
You are his! Through Baptism, God incorporated you into Christ’s death and resurrection—giving you the forgiveness of sins that he earned on the cross, and the new life that came from his rising again. Jesus revealed just what a great blessing we have when he once told his disciples, “Do not rejoice that the (evil] spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ (Lk 10:20).
And the Good News gets better still. Daniel tells us that our heavenly existence is not merely a spiritual one. He speaks here of the resurrection of our bodies. Heaven will be a tangible, physical place, yet completely devoid of any of the effects of sin. At Jesus’ Second Coming our bodies will be raised in glory, imperishable and immortal, like Jesus’ own resurrected body.
The text says of believers, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever’ (Dan 12:3).
Jesus knew that we would face hardships in the last days. Natural disasters, dangers, famines, even persecution await God’s people. Some will be martyred for their witness; others will “fall asleep’ in Christ after years of service to their Lord. Whenever the end comes for us, though, Jesus promises to be with us always. His grace is sufficient to enable us to “STAND FIRM’ (Mk 13:13) to the end, confident in his mercy, relying upon his Spirit to guide and protect us through all adversity.
When we ask the question, “What does the future hold?’ God doesn’t give us all the details of the days and months ahead. He does not tell us all that we might like to know. But he does tell us how our story is going to end. And it is indeed a marvelous ending! Having such a certain and bright future with our God gives us the confidence to know that he will work out all things for our good in the meantime, even in these troubled times.
Trusting his promises, we declare with the psalmist (31:15), “MY TIMES ARE IN YOUR HANDS’— the hands of Christ, once stretched out in death, that he might become for us the resurrection and the life.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.