The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 12/26/99
Text: Mark 13:31-33
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The end of the world! Coming this Saturday! Do you believe it? Lots of people do. You might have seen "60 Minutes II" on CBS on Tuesday night. There was a feature from Jerusalem on those who believe the millennium will mark the second coming of Jesus and the end of time.(1) They are flooding Israel right now in unprecedented numbers so they can see the event live and in person. And if you are not able to get there in the flesh, you can be there from the comfort (and safety) of your own home via the Internet - a lady has set up a web site called "Messiah Cam," which relays live pictures from Jerusalem 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so anyone with web access can see the big event.(2)

The TV report featured apocalyptic writer Hal Lindsey, the author of the 1970 hugely-popular best-seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth.(3) The book predicted the fiery end of the world based on Lindsey's reading of the book of Revelation (a view, by the way, which polls say is shared by 50-million Americans who are convinced the end will come in their lifetime). Lindsey recently led 200 pilgrims on what could be called a doomsday tour of Israel. The TV program showed him conducting a Bible study about the battle of Armageddon which, as you Bible scholars know, the book of Revelation identifies as the site of the climactic battle between the forces of good and evil which will presage the end. Hal was saying that the struggle will be incredible: "In the first attack, a quarter of the population of the earth is destroyed. Blood will stand to the horse's bridle for a space of 200 miles." That is a LOT of blood!

The members of Lindsey's tour group needed no convincing. They believe that all the prophetic signs are pointing in that direction - earthquakes, famines, floods, "wars and rumors of wars." These are the last days. Soon comes the Rapture, the instant calling to heaven of all good Christians, while everybody else will be left behind. You have seen the bumper stickers for years: "Warning: In case of the Rapture, this car will have no driver." Perhaps that is part of God's judgment on unbelievers - all these out-of-control vehicles careening every which way and mowing down any reprobate who happens to be left in the road. Then there are the bumper stickers in response: "In case of the rapture, Can I have your car?" Uh huh.

Hal Lindsey is actually one of the less bombastic predictors of the end. This week in Bethlehem a 60-year-old American street preacher dressed in long black robes and a baseball cap that says JESUS IS LORD who calls himself "Bobby Bible," walked around Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity and warned all the Muslims going to Mosque, "On December 31 [Jesus] will part the sky and come partially down...Dead and living Christians are going to go up to meet him. It's going to be a catastrophe for you and wonderful for me. You will come under the wrath of God. You are going to get a spanking."(4) Nice fellow.

These are scary days over there. As the millennium approaches in the Holy Land, both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli police are on the lookout for apocalyptic groups or those advocating violence or mass suicide to hasten what they believe will be the coming of Jesus. And that is one of the reasons why the State Department has issued the alert to Americans traveling abroad this week - there are some real whackos out there who are liable to do some very strange things in the name of religion.

So, what do you think? Is it all over this Saturday? Is this when Jesus returns? It might be nice to be that precise, but I seem to recall something that Jesus himself once said concerning the question. We read it a moment ago: "...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." OK. As one commentator notes,

"Jesus says that he does not know...There were things which even he left without questioning in the hand of God. There can be no greater warning and rebuke to those who work out dates and timetables as to when he will come again. Surely it is nothing less than blasphemy for us to enquire into that of which our Lord consented to be ignorant."(5)

Hmm. Is there then any significance to this calendar change this Saturday? To be honest, what is occurring is nothing more than the Western world's odometer turning over (and remember, other parts of the world use different calendar systems). Just as there is a certain fascination with watching the gauge in your car turn from 99,999 miles to 100,000, we are especially attentive to this calendar move from 1999 to 2000. Despite all the hype, this is not even the beginning of a new millennium - by no account did the calendar start with the year ZERO; it would have begun with the year ONE! But even that is deceptive because when the calendar creators of in the Middle Ages began to publish their calculations, they got some things WRONG. According to all we can find out, Jesus was not born in the year ONE, but actually four to six years earlier! If you wonder about the start of the third millennium signaling the return of Jesus and the Rapture, that would have been several years ago. If it occurred and you and I missed it, I might be worried. I say MIGHT BE, because all those folks who were going to leave me their cars are still here too!

One little aside about the Rapture. I know you have heard about it, and you may even think it is coming, but, for what it is worth, for centuries of Christian teaching, no one else did. This concept of a Rapture in which Christians are snatched away from the troubles of this world at the return of Jesus comes from a fellow named John Nelson Darby, a lawyer turned minister who was a member of the Plymouth Brethren in England in the middle of the 19th century. Darby preached something called Dispensational Premillennialism which said that all of history could be divided into seven eras or "dispensations" and that the present age, which he called "the age of the church," immediately preceded this "Rapture." Darby's excuse for a Rapture was that a seven-year period of terrible tribulation was coming and the church was going to be spared that misery. Once the tribulation was over, then a thousand-year-long reign of God - the Millennium - would follow. The "Rapture" idea does not come from the book of Revelation (as the concept of the tribulation and the thousand-year reign of God do) but rather from Darby's literal reading of one tiny passage from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians. Chapter 4, verses 16 and 17:

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

Two problems. First, the imagery is supposed to be understood as poetic, not photographic (the same problem that lots of folks like Hal Lindsay have in reading the book of Revelation) - it was a wonderful word of hope for Christians who were terribly worried that friends and relatives who had died would miss the return of Jesus - Paul says NO, they will be included too. The second problem is that Darby has taken two texts from two different sources and joined them as if they were a seamless whole. That is an interpretive no-no - as someone very wise has said, "A text without a context is a pretext." This idea of a Rapture is a relatively new concept in the church, and despite all we hear about it, has hardly any biblical support. The point is this: if you are worried about the Rapture, DON'T! If the Bible doesn't, you need not either.

OK. The Bible does not teach some "Rapture." But the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is coming again. The church around the world affirms it over and over in our creed: "I believe in God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, etc. etc...He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence HE SHALL judge the quick and the dead."

HE SHALL COME. We do not hear as much about that in the church these days as we did in the past. That is probably a reaction to the excesses of the apocalyptic loonies - we do not want to be tarred with that brush. But I did hear a good deal about it as I was growing up. Perhaps you did too. Mostly, it was shared as a way of keeping sinful teenagers in line (and I suspect that has been the case for every generation for almost 2,000 years): "Do not be caught somewhere or with someone or doing something which would be an embarrassment if the Lord should come back right then and see you." And there was the reminder that the Second Coming could be at any moment, so BE READY! Did the warnings work? Well... The most recent warning I have seen is on another bumper sticker: "Jesus is Coming. Look Busy!"

Is the Lord coming back? As I say, scripture says so, and so do we from week to week: "from thence HE SHALL COME..." But, so saying, the return might not be in the way that traditional understanding has taught (and I can promise it will not be the cause of massive traffic accidents because of driver-less vehicles - what kind of God would cause such a mess?). So saying, I am satisfied to leave the details in the Lord's hands. I am content to know that, one day, whether individually at the end of my earthly journey or as one of a great band of believers at the end of history, he is coming for me, and I will see him face to face.

As we approach the year 2000 this week, that is not a cause for alarm for us. Rather, it is wonderful word of comfort. This century that is coming to a close has been mind-boggling, a time of exponential change. When it began, the world's population was less than 2-billion people; it ends with more than 6-billion of us. When it began, the median life expectancy in America was 40 years; it ends with a life expectancy for men of 76, for women, 85. When it began few American homes had electric power; it ends with TV's, VCR's, microwaves, personal computers and more gadgets in every household than we could begin to name. When it began we were first encountering horseless carriages; it ends with space shuttles and missions to Mars. When it began there were a few telephones here and there; it ends with the internet and instantaneous global communication at our fingertips. Amazing changes!

But the coin has two sides. This century has also brought unprecedented death and suffering. There was the Mustard Gas of World War I, the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the nuclear missiles of the Cold War that threatened global destruction. There was genocide on a massive scale - Hitler's gas chambers and death camps, the ethnic cleansing recently in eastern Europe, the slaughter in Rwanda as one tribe went after another with axe handles and sickles. Despite unprecedented prosperity, much of the world still goes to bed hungry. In America today there are the well-documented horrors at Columbine High School, at Paducah, Kentucky, or just days ago at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. But there are also these sobering statistics: a major crime is committed every 22 seconds, there is a murder every 34 minutes, a quarter-million teenage girls are pregnant, 1-million teenagers are alcoholics. In the face of all that, we WANT Jesus to come back. And SOON!

The good news I bring to you this morning is that he IS coming. This Saturday? Probably not. But, as Jesus himself said, "Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come."

In recent days, we have been hearing about the impending retirement of Charles Schultz, who for so many wonderful years has been the author of the Peanuts comic strip. Schultz has always had some marvelous wisdom, some of which is applicable this morning. In one of the strips, Linus and Lucy are standing at the window looking out at the rain falling. Lucy says to Linus, "Boy, look at it rain...What if it floods the earth?"

Linus, the resident biblical scholar for the Peanuts strip, answers, "It will never do the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow."

With a smile on her face, Lucy replies, "Linus, you've taken a great load off my mind."

Linus responds, "Sound theology has a way of doing that."(6) Indeed, indeed.

Sound theology this morning says the world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ. If we do not meet him this Saturday, we will encounter him at the end of our lives or at the end of human history, whenever that might be. There will come a day when the aim of God, the dream of God, the purpose of God will be realized. There will come a day when EVERY knee shall bow...and EVERY tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.(7)

  • Yes, there will come a day when the wrong shall fail, the right prevail because Jesus Christ is Lord.
  • There will come a day when the principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness of this world will reluctantly declare that Jesus Christ is Lord!
  • There will come a day when sin will no longer have dominion over anyone and we will be able to shout Jesus Christ is Lord.
  • There will come a day when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream because Jesus Christ is Lord!
  • There will come a day when all tears are wiped away and there will be no more sorrow or pain or crying or death because Jesus Christ is Lord.
  • There will come a day when ALL God's children, red and yellow, black and white, will join in one mighty chorus and sing, Jesus Christ is Lord!

Are you ready? Can you hear it? Down through the corridors of the centuries faintly echo the strains that have become so familiar but slowly build to a crescendo and which one day will resound through the rafters of the universe. Can you hear it? Louder and louder it gets: "King of kings and Lord of lords and he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah and Happy New Year!"


1. 12/22/99 broadcast produced by Michael Rosenbaum; Copyright 1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved.


3. With C. C. Carlson, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970)

4. Christine Hauser, "Bobby Bible' Warns Jesus Is Coming to Holy Land," Reuters News Service, 12/20/99

5. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

6. Quoted by Bass Mitchell, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Sermons," 11/24/97

7. Philippians 2:10-11

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