Wednesday, November 07, 2012

November 4, 2012 - Think Again: What's Happening To Us?

Matthew 24:23-26, 36, 42-44

What’s Happening To Us?

In January of 1977 I tried to outrun a blizzard.  As I was preparing to go back to school after Christmas break a warning was issued for a major snowstorm in southern West Virginia and western Virginia, where I would be driving.  I was anxious to get back to school so I thought I would leave a day early and get through the mountains before the storm hit.  Weather forecasting isn’t an exact science with today’s technology, so it was less exact back then, which meant the storm came in early.  I was about halfway through West Virginia when it hit, and it was a major snowstorm. 

I was traveling by myself, and probably should have turned back, but I decided to press ahead.  That wasn’t a great decision.  The snow was falling so fast and hard that very quickly it was difficult to see the road.  By the time I crossed into the western tip of Virginia it was really bad, and by then I was beginning to understand I made a mistake trying to drive through the storm.  I was in the middle of the mountains, with nowhere to stop, so I decided to keep driving.  I was listening to weather reports and heard a report that the interstate was closed behind me, so I knew that if I got stuck I was on my own.

By that time I was beginning to get really worried, wondering if I would end up in a snow bank and stranded on the mountain late at night by myself.  What would happen to me if I became stranded out there?  About that time, I suddenly came upon two tractor-trailer trucks driving side by side.  It was dark, and the snow was falling so hard that I couldn’t see them until it was too late.  I wasn’t traveling that fast, but I was going faster than the trucks.  When I hit my brakes I started sliding and knew I was going to plow right into the back of one of the trucks.  There was absolutely no way I could stop in time to avoid a wreck.

One of the things that really sticks in my mind about that moment was the fear of what was going to happen to me on that mountain in that blizzard.

Have you even had one of those moments?  What would happen to me?  It’s a very frightening feeling, isn’t it?

As we continue with our new series, Think Again, we are considering the question What’s Happening To Us?  There are so many problems facing our world today that it’s difficult not to feel a sense of foreboding about the future.  Do you ever feel discouraged about the state of the world?  Do you worry about the future?

If so, meet the Millerites, a group of people who serve as the historical setting for our message this morning.

The Millerites were followers of William Miller, who began to preach about the end of the world in the 1840’s.  Miller predicted that Jesus would return for the Second Coming and that Earth would be engulfed in fire sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.  Miller was an apocalyptic preacher. The word apocalyptic comes from a Greek word meaning unveiling.  The Bible contains apocalyptic literature, such as our Scripture passage for today.  Apocalyptic literature has to do with the end of time, or an unveiling of the future.  When people speak of apocalyptic events they are speaking of destructive events on a tremendously large scale or of events related to the end of time.

Miller spoke to large crowds, had his writings widely publishes, and eventually as many as 100,000 Millerites sold their belongings and moved to the mountains to wait for the end.  Miller eventually selected the date of October 22, 1844 as the end of time, but when nothing happened it became known as The Great Disappointment.  The reaction of the Millerites varied – some sought to rebuild their lives, some became affiliated with other religious groups, and some formed what would become the Seventh-day Adventists.

Though other apocalyptic groups existed before the Millerites, it was William Miller and his followers who burned into American consciousness the idea that we are living in the final days, and the primary reason why it was viewed as the last days was because of the depth of the problems facing humanity.  There was such a strong sense of what is happening to us that people believed the end must surely be near.  So pervasive is Miller’s influence that world events and catastrophes continue to be interpreted in light of the impending end of time. 

Every time we are visited by disaster I am asked if I believe it is a sign that the end is near.  I have already been asked if I believe that the destruction of Sandy is a sign of the impending end.  My reply to that question is very simple – no.  Absolutely not.  Jesus makes it very, very plain that no one knows when the end will come.  In Matthew 24:36 Jesus says But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

But there are very legitimate fears about the future of our world.  We possess the technology to destroy ourselves, and it sometimes seems as if we are determined to do so.  Environmentally, we seem to be at a tipping point.  Can the world sustain the billions of people that inhabit the earth?  Is it possible we could suffer a large-scale epidemic?  Some scientists think we are very fortunate to have avoided one thus far.  There are, certainly, many things taking place in our world that should cause concern.

But this morning I don’t want to concentrate on the difficulties facing us.  Instead I want to instill a sense of confidence.

First, the Scriptures seek to calm our fears and anxieties about the future.  When people want a theology about the future, they most often turn to the book of Revelation.  A lot of people, I believe, misinterpret the book of Revelation, and I’ll tell you the number one way to recognize when its being misinterpreted – if it is used to instill fear in people.  The book of Revelation is a strange book to read.  If you have read the book of Revelation you’ve probably scratched your head at some of the imagery it presents.  Let me simply say this about the images and the message of Revelation – rather than seeking to instill fear, it seeks to instill hope and trust.  The book of Revelation was written to a church suffering terrible, terrible persecution, and much of the imagery is a kind of code so things could be said about the Roman Empire without those comments bringing greater persecution.  Those images are also meant to remind people that no matter how bad things may appear, God remains in control.  Those early Christians had a lot of reasons to wonder what was going to happen to them.  They often asked the question, I’m sure, what is happening to us, and why is this happening to us?  The book of Revelation sought to calm their fears and to remind them God was in control, would remain in control, and would always be with them.  There is far too much fear-based religion in our world. 

Second, the world isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In Matthew 24:44 Jesus says the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.  Put it this way – when the end is most expected, that is when it is least likely to happen. So the next time someone starts prattling on to you about the Mayan Calendar and how the end is coming on 12/21/12, just ignore it.  It’s not a prediction anyway – it just runs out of pages!

Third, yes, the world is in bad shape, which is why we are called to make a difference in the world.  So what are we going to do? 

Now, you didn’t think I’d leave you wondering what happened to me in that blizzard did you?  What happened next was one of those moments that will make you shake your head years later.  I still can’t decide if what I did next was totally crazy or totally brilliant.  I didn’t want to have a wreck on that mountain in the middle of a blizzard so I made a split-second decision that probably need a good deal more thought.  Since I couldn’t stop in time, I stepped on the gas.  I realized the trucks had some space between them and estimated that it might be just enough for me to drive between them.  I wasn’t sure there was enough room, but I was hopeful.  Let me add at this point a disclaimer – please don’t ever try this, and I’m especially saying this to Nick and Tyler!

I held my breath, started honking my horn, started flicking my lights between high and low beam, and drove between those two trucks, probably scaring the two drivers half to death.  I tried not to look at the trucks as I went between them because I didn’t really want to know how close it was, and I found myself scrunching up my arms, as though that would somehow help.

Miraculously, I came out the other side, and as I did both those drivers were hitting their horns and flashing their lights at me, and probably saying a few things as well. 

There are many things in our world that bring to us a sense of anxiety, but the message of the Gospel reminds us that God is in control, and because of this we have hope!  Some of you may be in the midst of a storm in your life – God is with you, don’t ever forget that promise.

When you are struggling in life, remember that God will see you through to the other side.  When you are in doubt and feel alone, remember that God is with you.  Remember that God will remain with you.  Will you have fear?  Probably so, but remember that God is greater than any fear we experience.
What is happening to us?  Nothing that will take us out of the hands and the care of God!

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