May 20, 2012

Waiting For The End


When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  (Acts 1:9)

A pastor died and immediately found himself standing in a waiting line at the Pearly Gates.  Ahead of him was a fellow wearing sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket and jeans.  St. Peter asked this man:  “Please tell me your name, so that I may know whether or not you qualify to be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven?”

The man replied:  “I’m Joe Shasta, a retired Air Canada pilot from Vancouver. “

St. Peter consulted his records, then turned to the pilot and said:  “Congratulations, you qualified. Take this silken robe and gold staff and enter into the Kingdom.

After the pilot had disappeared into heaven, St. Peter turned to the pastor and asked for his identification.  “I’m Joseph Snow from St. Mary’s church where I have served for the past 43 years,” replied the pastor.

St. Peter again consulted his records, then said to the pastor:   “Oh yes, you qualify” replied St. Peter rather hesitantly.  Take this cotton robe and wooden staff, and enter the Kingdom.”

The pastor, rather puzzled by the markedly different equipment he was offered, inquired of St. Peter:  “How come that man ahead of me, who was only a pilot, got a silken robe and gold staff, and all I get is a cotton one and wooden staff?”

“Well,” replied St. Peter, “what counts up here is works, not words.   When you were preaching, people slept, but when he was flying, people prayed!”

Have you ever wondered what it will take for you to get into Heaven?

Our text for this morning, describes what happened some 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection, when His disciples and followers witnessed His departure from this world.  Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that:  “As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.”
(Acts 1:9)

I want us to think about this event for a few minutes this morning.  If we had been there that day, what question might we have asked Jesus, just before He ascended into the air?

The question on the disciples’ mind was:-  “Lord, is this the time when you’ll restore the Kingdom of Israel?”

From their point of view, this was a reasonable question, after all, wasn’t that what most Israelites expected from their Messiah; that He would one day restore the nation of Israel to its rightful place, as God’s chosen people.  They needed such restoration in order for them to feel secure from foreign domination.

That same question lingered on in the minds of many early Christians.  The New Testament tells us that as Paul and the other apostles began planting churches throughout the world, many new Christians expected that Christ would return sometime during their life time.

Yet here we are today, some 2,000 years later, celebrating the ascension of our Lord, and still waiting for His return, and still wondering - ‘Is this the time?’

Predicting the end of the world has been the preoccupation of hundreds, if not thousands of would-be prophets over the centuries.  In recent years, one of the most famous has been Robert Fitzpatrick of New York City who spent his entire life’s savings on subway and bus shelter ads, announcing that the end of the world would be on May 21, 2011.  The fact that we’re here today,  proves the error of his prediction.

More recently some members of the scientific community have been pointing to December 21, 2012 as the likely end of life on our planet.  Their prediction is backed by astronomical data which predicts that the sun and planets will be lined up with the center of the Milky Way on that day; something which they claim hasn’t happened for over 26,000 years.  The effect of this on our earth is really unknown, but many think that it might trigger a barrage of natural disasters such as mega-cyclones, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.  Of course, the fact that many such disasters have been occurring in recent months, merely adds fuel to their speculations.

It is important in the face of such predictions to remember that Jesus told His disciples, that no one would know when the end would come; only God has such knowledge.  But He did say that we would see signs of its approaching:-

“You will hear of wars and rumours of wars.  See that you are not alarmed,” said Jesus, “for this must take place, but the end is not yet.   For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places; all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  (Matt. 24:6)

You have to wonder, are we seeing such signs today.  Who knows?  Perhaps we are, perhaps not.  But what’s really important for us is to pay attention to the instructions Jesus gave to His followers, moments before His ascension.  You see, Jesus redirected the disciples’ focus, telling them that they would receive the Holy Spirit so that they could become witnesses to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel to the whole world.

Those words of instruction, while addressed only to that small assembly of men and women who witnessed the ascension, were really meant for faithful followers in all generations to come.  Being a witness for Christ, wasn’t a commission for only a handful of disciples.  In sending His Holy Spirit, Jesus meant that everyone who acknowledges Christ as Saviour and Lord, should be a witness for Him.

Why is then that so few of us today seriously consider ourselves as witnesses for Christ?  Or perhaps, more to the point, why is it that so few of us engage in witnessing to our faith as we go about our daily affairs?

Someone has calculated that the average Christian will, over the course of his/her lifetime, - listen to 4,000 sermons, - sing at least 20,000 hymns, and - participate in at least 8,000 public prayers, - and yet lead no one to faith in Jesus Christ.  That’s a very sobering and sad statistic, isn’t it.

If sharing the Gospel with people outside the church is so important as to be the very last instruction Jesus gave His followers, why are we so reluctant to engage in it?

Many years ago, while I was studying theology, a few of my classmates decided to go out onto a busy street corner to preach the Gospel.   - This was during the early 60’s, a time when a prominent Methodist preacher in Great Britain was famously noted for his soap-box preaching in Hyde Park in London; so the idea of preaching on street corners was very much in the thoughts of Christians in those days.

I didn’t join that group!  For me, the thought of standing on a street corner and preaching the Word of God was simply to intimidating.  I thought I’d make a fool of myself, so I didn’t do it.

Is that how most of us feel?  Are we afraid that if we talk to a friend or colleague about some aspect of faith, we’ll end up making a fool of ourselves?  Is that why we are so reluctant to engage in witnessing for Christ?

It’s so much easier to join an environmental protest, or to campaign against corporate greed.  But talking to someone about how wonderful it is to accept Christ into one’s heart, - that’s not for the faint of heart.

Is it any wonder then, that Church attendance is declining, and many denominations, (including our own), are struggling to stay alive?   The truth is that throughout the Western world, the Church is almost completely devoid of advocates, willing to stand up and be counted as witnesses for Christ.

In the years immediately following Christ’s ascension, the Bible tells us that the church in Jerusalem grew from a mere 100 to well over 20,000, - and that an even greater expansion took place as Paul and other Apostles began carrying the Gospel to towns and cities across the Roman Empire.

So what`s so different today, that makes us reluctant to share our faith; when those early Christians were so enthusiastic about sharing their faith?
• It can’t be that it was a matter of strategy.  After all, with our modern communication tools, we can communicate with vast numbers of people in an instant.
• It sure isn’t that those early Christians had a different message to share.
• Nor can it be that they gave people a message they wanted to hear.  Quite the opposite, in fact, - the message the Apostles delivered could very likely cost the life of anyone who accepted it.

No, the difference between the evangelists of the first century and those of us today, comes down to a matter of faith.  Those early followers of Jesus were totally convinced of the things that they had heard and seen.  They truly believed that Jesus was their risen Lord, and therefore they were willing to accept His gift of the Holy Spirit, which then gave them the courage to proclaim Christ as Lord, to anyone who would listen.

The first century Church grew by leaps and bounds because Christians felt compelled to tell the story of this man Jesus, who had so changed their lives.  As Luke describes it:  “It felt like a fire burning in us when Jesus talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us. …  The Lord really has risen from the dead.” (Luke 24:32; 34)

But friends,  we have this same amazing message to share today;  and i’s just as important now as it was in the first century, - that we share it!  For the message of our risen Lord has the power to change lives; - and to enable those who accepts it, to triumph over ever the difficulties and trial of their life.

One final point.  Luke tells us that as the followers of Jesus were gazing up toward heaven:-
“Suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”   (Acts 1:10-11)

These angelic words weren’t questioned by the early Christians.  They believe with absolute certainty that Jesus was going to come back.  In fact, they anticipated His return at any moment.  That’s why it took so long for the New Testament to be recorded in written form.   It was only as the years began to pass by, that Christian leaders realized a written record was going to be necessary to preserve the Good News of the Gospel for future generations.  People yet unborn needed to know what Jesus had said and done during His ministry.  And they especially needed to know the events of Good Friday and Easter - which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the long expected Messiah.

The belief that Jesus would return, was the engine which motivated the Christian community to reach out to as many people they could, as quickly as they could.

Think what a difference it would make, if we believed in the Second coming with the same intensity as those early Christians.  Think how it would change our daily lives!

It’s important that we remember that Jesus said:  “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Therefore, keep awake, for you don’t know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt. 24:36, 42).

Jesus was very clear about this.  Someday, He would return.  But in the meantime, it is our responsibility to live as though expecting Him to return.  We need to be prepared to meet our Maker at any moment.    To disregarding this warning, is to fool ourselves into thinking that there is no urgency about sharing our faith with others.

The Institute of American Church Growth recently polled about 4,000 Christians, asking them - what influenced their decision to become active Christians.  The results of this research are significant.  They found that:
• a few people simply walked into a church, - perhaps motivated by curiosity.
• others were attracted by church programmes, or
• the quality of the preacher.
• But by far the largest group (some 80 & 90%) said that they became active Christians because of the influence of a friend or relative.

Recently, some of us here at Central have been a concerned with the apparent decline in church attendance since last summer.  Our Council is taking this decline seriously, and has initiated a number of strategies to reverse it:
• We’re going to upgrade our internet and social media marketing, so as to better communicate with younger families,
• In the Fall we’ll be launching a ministry of small, home groups; and
• Were considering the possibility of adding an additional staff person to minister to youth and young families.

However, if the statistical analysis of the Institute of American Church Growth is correct, the most effective way for us to make our congregation grow; and to encourage our members to become more involved, is for you, - the people of our congregation, to do your part by communicating the message of Christ to your friends and relatives; - inviting them to become part of our church community.

You see, in the final analysis, it’s what you (the members of our congregation) say and do that will really make a difference.  But if you are willing to share the Good News of Christ with others, you may well become a life-saver for the people who respond.