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Last Things First

Text: Matthew 24:4-44 Dr. Stephen D. Jones, preaching Seattle First Baptist Church July 22, 2007

Teleos is a theological term that speaks to the end of time. It means the aim, the fruition of time, when things apart come together. Are you teleological? Do you tend to focus upon the end, the aim, the goal, the fruition of your time on this earth? Teleos is the long view, the big view. Too often, we worry only about the minutia of life.

Most liberals are into process, journey, pilgrimage, caring how we go, how we collaborate, how we decide. I care deeply about healthy process. I think one of the gifts that have emerged in our time together is that we make better collaborative decisions. We openly process things as a community. We have furthered communal dialogue in this church. We air contrary opinions and no one is alarmed. We make decisions mostly by consensus and we've been known to wait until consensus emerges. Throughout most of my five years, we haven't had inner power groups taking undercover actions.

Sometimes, however, process can go to extremes. Perhaps the most humorous example was the recent vote by the residents of Seattle about the Alaskan Way Viaduct. We had two options on the ballot. But the options weren't real choices and the election resulted in a confusing delay rather than a decision. It was a vote, but also a non-vote. Only in Seattle! The front corner sign of our church is deteriorating in an alarming way. Don't be like one of my previous churches. We needed a new sign

and we had design consultations, surveys of the congregation, listening forums, and feedback sessions. After two years, the result was so over-processed that new sign made an embarrassing statement to the world!

In the past several weeks I've heard over and over that you appreciate during our time together that decisions have been reached, actions have been taken, long-standing, simmering issues underneath the surface have been aired.

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We care about good decisions, about reaching consensus, about taking risks, about taking action. And we care about the end as well as how we get there. We care about the goal as well as the journey.

Are you aware that "Left Behind" is a bestselling fictional series by evangelical authors about the rapture and those left behind when "Christ comes again"? The first 13 books in this series sold over 42 million copies, becoming the fastest-selling adult fiction series ever. Seven of the titles became #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List. This doesn't suggest that all those readers agree with the "end of times" theology ­ they might just enjoy fictional writing. But it certainly does suggest a lively interest by Americans in a topic around which the progressive wing of Christianity is mostly silent. We can't just focus on "how we're going" if we don't also focus upon "where we're going."

The End of Time is a no-brainer for the scientifically-minded. The Earth obviously is on a timeline. Our solar system won't last forever. Watch Al Gore's apocalyptic film, "An Inconvenient Truth." We may be hastening the end of time. Everyone agrees the earth had a beginning. We of the JudeoChristian-Islamic faith believe that God is the Creator of the universe, which needn't be in conflict with evolution. Scientists agree that everything in the universe has a life-span. Planets wear out, they die down. At some point when the sun begins to fade, life on earth will grow untenable. The earth seems permanent, but it is not forever.

There are a number of passages in the Gospels in which Jesus speaks of the end of time.

Jesus' disciples asked him, "Tell us, when will this be and what will be the signs of your coming and of the end of the age?" Jesus responded, "Beware that no one leads you astray." (Mt 24:3-4) "About that day and hour, no one knows..." (Mt 24:36)

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (24:35) Some things are eternal and some things are temporal. Jesus taught, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own." (Mt 6:34) an unexpected hour." (24:44) "Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at

The Prophet Isaiah said, "Wait, for the day of the Lord is near... Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor." (12:6,8) The apostle Paul adds, "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God... We know that the whole creation has

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been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, groan inwardly while we wait for...redemption..." Romans 8:18f.)

I remember once seeing a full-page ad in a newspaper proclaiming, "Christ is Coming Very Soon," citing eight evidences and offering an "escape plan" to avoid the great tribulation. (by an organization called, "Christ's Soon Return" of Bloomington, IN) I might add that I saw that advertisement over ten years ago! "Very soon" has yet to come!

I find such groups interesting for the very things Jesus told us not to do: reading the signs to predict the end of time.

Whether in our own folly or in God's own time, the earth will someday cease. Just as I believe that God's love is eternal, so do I believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not death, not calamity, not the end of the earth. Beyond that, all else is speculative, just as with the Left Behind series.

I don't worry about such things. If I did, I suppose I'd preach more about them. I believe with Apostle Paul, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. " Romans 8:28 If you hold on to that, you can let go of everything else.

Jesus' message about the end of times can be summarized as: Be ready, but don't be watchful. He told the story that if the homeowner knew what night the thief would break into his house, he would have stayed awake to prevent it. (Mt. 24:43) So, Jesus says, "be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." (24:44) Be ready, but don't be watchful.

The message is the same for our own "end," our death: be ready, but don't be watchful. No matter your age or health, don't begin a count-down to death. Of course you're going to die. But you needn't be morbid. Follow your heart, follow your calling, take the risk, ignore the script, don't postpone or procrastinate so death won't catch you unprepared. I was standing over David Clarridge's bedside with his son, daughter and wife surrounding him. It was one of his last days. And we were talking together and they identified that David was one of those free spirits who had a lot of dreams of what he wanted to do, like photographic trips overseas, like taking up the harp, like the Earth Charter, like starting a neighborhood pea patch, like involving himself with the film industry. But he didn't just have the dreams, he pursued them. And at a very premature and unexpected death, David had lived

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with the end in mind. He had caught up to his dreams and he faced death with full peace of mind, almost absent of fear.

Why would I preach about the end of time on my next to the last sermon as your pastor? A transition is a wonderful opportunity to take the Long View. So often, we just get caught in the day to day routines and we fail to step back to see the broad themes of our lives. In a transition, we are forced to ask, "How am I really doing? How are we really doing? Where are we going? Where am I going?"

Alyse's decision to be baptized today sets her future on course. She is wisely using my last times with you to prepare for her future.

In terms of what God will do in the universe, we don't need to be watching. We simply need to be ready. That is all God asks: don't try to predict the future. But be ready for what the future holds.

Karen was a young Catholic woman, and she fell in love with Orville. But this match was apparently not made in heaven, for, as Karen explained to her mother, "Orville is a staunch Baptist and he is opposed to the idea of marrying a Catholic." Karen began to weep because she cared for Orville very much.

Her mother said, "Now wait, Karen. Why not try some salesmanship? Tell Orville how wonderful our church is. We're the first Christian church. We're the holy catholic church. Tell him of our great creeds, our martyrs, our saints, the two thousand year history of our church, all the way back to the Apostle Peter. Tell him about our marvelous cathedrals, and the wonderful inspiration given by our priests through their words, through confession, and through the Holy Eucharist. Go out and sell Orville on the Catholic Church!"

Karen dried her eyes and in an emboldened spirit agreed to try. She had a number of dates with Orville and romance was in the air whenever the two of them were together.

But one evening, after a date, her mother heard Karen sobbing again. "What's the matter darling? Are you two still fighting about the Baptists and Catholics? Couldn't you sell him on the Catholic Church?"

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"Oh, no, mother, that's not the problem," Karen sobbed. "I over-sold him. Now, he wants to become a priest!"

One of my favorite theologians of all times, John A.T. Robison wrote, "What the Christian faith provides is not a blue-print for the future... Its hope is not set down on some divine scroll waiting to be unrolled. Its hope is in the Call, the Cry, implanted in nature and in history, which refuses to allow us finally to stop our ears. Its assurance rests in the fact that the whole of life is response, that initiative-- whether in the Beginning or the End--does not lie with us." (P. 139 In the End God, John A.T. Robinson)

There is only One who holds the future. Only One. If you think you hold the future, you're deluded. If you think the President of the United States holds the future, be thankful! I don't know when death will come to you or me. Some of you here have already out-lived a doctor's prediction, and other members over my five years have died so prematurely. I don't know when the earth will come to an end but I know the One who holds the future.

If you want to be ready, for whatever comes, if you want to put Last Things first, then somehow you need to get things in the right priority. Whether the refrigerator at your home is filled or empty will make absolutely no difference if tomorrow is the last day of your life. Whether your desk at the office is cleared or cluttered will make absolutely no difference. Whether you've changed the oil in your car won't matter. Whether you've closed that big deal won't matter.

But if you have distanced yourself from God, if you have alienated those closest to you, if you have lived a superficial life, if you have ducked the big questions, if you've hurt others needlessly, if you've moved shiftlessly from day to day without purpose, these things truly matter. These things are teleological, they matter in the Big Picture. They suggest, you've missed the mark.

You can call it, if you like, putting Last Things First, as in, where are you going with the rest of your life?

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Biblical scholar James Efird writes, "Teleology has to do with a purpose, a goal to be accomplished, ...a life that is brought to completion or maturity. the biblical accounts, the emphasis is in reality upon a new beginning. Those who are so preoccupied with the end of the world would be better served and closer to the New be concerned with the new life given by God which transforms the person ...and society..." (p. 37, Christ, the Church and the End, James M. Efird)

My tenure here is not and never has been the issue. Surely you know that pastors come and pastors go. Some stay longer than others but our coming and going mark passages in a church's life. My resignation places you at a crossroads. You could step back clinging to the past. Or you can step forward. In my leaving, you have opportunity to embrace the future. My departure affords you a new beginning. I cannot take you there. It will require a new pastor coming to you to help you find your way. I would also suggest that the 125 new members could well be your greatest asset in this transition. Let them lead the transition. Let their voices be heard first.

Thirty-seven years ago, I was ready to leave my roots, to leave Missouri. I wanted to explore the wider world. I wanted to experience more of what the world had to offer. I felt that Missouri was holding me back. It was too provincial. I think my parents positioned me to live a wider life. They launched a daughter who spent her career as a missionary in Africa and a son who has served as a pastor from coast to coast. You can see that my family is nauseatingly religious!

The author of Hebrews speaks of Abraham and Sarah leaving Mesopotamia in search of a homeland, and how their descendants, the Jews, continued on in search of a homeland. The author writes, "If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return" to Mesopotamia. "But as it is they seek a homeland of God's choosing." Heb. 11:13f Home. Where is your home? Just down the street? What home are you seeking? Is the home you are seeking akin to your ancestral home? To your spiritual home? Are you searching for home or have you already found home? How will you know it when you find it?

A few years ago, I read a quote from T.S. Elliot. Have you ever read something that speaks to your soul? I'm sure you have. I found myself clinging to these newly discovered words, long before I recognized a desire to return to my roots.

Here are Elliot's words: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time." (Little Gidding, Four Quartets, p. 59) You don't have to literally move

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back to your childhood roots to know the truth of Elliot's words. Truth-seeking and meaning-making have a cyclical pattern: we return to places we have been before that look strangely familiar but with new eyes the vast stretches of life's horizon come into focus. We know the place for the first time. We're home for the first time.

And that, my friends, is a teleology that preaches!

What about you? You might not be relocating, but where are you going? What is your life's aim? Where are you in making sense of your life? And where are you with your partners in this journey in this church? Big questions.

What about Last Things First for you? Amen.

Our Sunday Worship hour audio is streamed LIVE via the web each Sunday morning beginning at 10:55 a.m. PST. If you cannot attend in person, listen to this hour from the comfort of your home, or you can view our on-demand streaming video of each week's sermon or listen to the audio version, all from our website:

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