The Day Before the End of the World
1 Peter 4:7-11
April 3, 2005
Listen to this Sermon
“The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 4:7-11).
When I was a young child, my mother taught me the first two prayers I ever learned. One was a mealtime prayer; the other was a prayer before going to bed. The mealtime prayer went like this: “God is great, God is good. Let us thank him for our food. By his hands, we all are fed. Give us Lord, our daily bread.” And before going to sleep, I learned to pray this way: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.” Of those two prayers, the first seems simpler, perhaps because the phrases are shorter. But the second strikes me as more profound. When I mentioned this on Sunday morning, someone spoke up and said, “It’s scary.” The first prayer gives thanks to God as the source of all our blessings. The second acknowledges the uncertainty of life. Although I never thought about it when I was young, it’s a heavy thing for a five-year-old to pray, “If I should die before I wake.”
I thought of that prayer and that phrase because death has been in the headlines all week long. I can’t remember a week when death in the specific has grabbed our attention as it has this week. We often think of death in general after some great tragedy, but this week our minds have been captured by two particular people who died. First there was Terri Schiavo’s long ordeal that ended on Thursday morning. Then was the death watch for Pope John Paul II. Following a custom that goes back centuries, when the Pope died on Saturday at 1:37 p.m. Chicago time, church bells began to ring across the city of Rome. Those bells bring to mind the words of the poet John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Every day in America 7,000 people die, which means that every day the bell tolls for 7,000 more people.
If I should die before I wake …
What if that bedtime prayer finally came true? What if, after years of rising and shining, the sun doesn’t come up for you? What if you knew that this would be your final day on earth? What if you knew that you would not live to see another sunrise? What would you do? How would you live?
Something like that was on Peter’s mind when he said, “The end of all things is at hand” (v. 7). Commentators differ on his meaning. The phrase certainly includes the day of our death. For the pope, the end of all things earthly came on April 2. The same is true for everyone who dies. When that day comes for you and for me, we will leave behind all that is of this earth. Our hopes, our dreams, our thoughts, our plans, our earthly friendships. All of it will end when we die. Those who will live beyond us will go on without us, and we will go out into eternity to meet the Lord. No doubt Peter means at least that much. But his words go beyond that to encompass the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. When he returns to the earth, the entire earthly order will come to an end. How soon are we to the day of his return? The New Testament tells us that the day of his return is not far away:
“The night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (Romans 13:12).
“The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5).
“The Lord’s coming is near” (James 5:8).
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
How soon is soon? If you have read Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, you may remember this conversation between Lucy and Aslan, the lion who is the Christ-figure in the story.
“Do not look so sad. We shall meet soon again.”
“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy, “what do you call soon?”
“I call all times soon,” said Aslan; and instantly he was vanished away.
Are We There Yet?
God does indeed call all times soon because he is the Lord of time. A thousand years is but a day in his sight, and a day is as a thousand years. When Peter says, “The end of all things is near,” he uses a word that means “at hand” or “approaching.” Let me illustrate. Suppose you are taking your family on a vacation trip to Florida. It’s a long drive from Oak Park and your children don’t have any clear concept of time or distance. Soon after you cross the Indiana state line, you come to Merrillville. That’s where you’ll see the last Cracker Barrel restaurant until you get to Indianapolis. As you drive past Merrillville, you hear a voice from the backseat saying, “Are we there yet?” In a few hours you drive through Indianapolis. “Are we there yet?” Then Louisville. “Are we there yet?” When you hit Nashville, you stop to get some gas. As you load up the car, you hear the familiar question, “Are we there yet?” At length you come to Alabama, the last state before Florida. But Alabama (my home state) is long. If you’re driving on I-65, you’ll be in Alabama for quite a few hours. So when you drive past Huntsville, the children (now impatient) ask, “Are we there yet?” Then you hit Birmingham. “Are we there yet?” When you get to Montgomery, you are still hours away. “Are we there yet?” Eventually you cross the Florida state line. “Are we there yet?” The answer is same in all cases: “No, we’re not there yet, but we’re on the way, and it’s not far now.” That statement is just as true in Merrillville as it is in Montgomery. You aren’t there yet, you’re on the way, and it’s not that far. And every mile you drive brings you closer to your destination.
We can say the same thing about the Lord’s return. Since God does not reckon time the same way we do, we know that Christ’s coming was “soon” 2,000 years ago, and 1,000 years ago, and 500 years ago, and 50 years ago, and five years ago. Think how close we must be now. In Louisville, you are closer to Florida than in Indianapolis, and you are closer in Birmingham than in Nashville. As we travel onward, the Lord’s coming is always close and coming closer at the same time. Our Articles of Faith use two particular words to describe the coming of Christ. It is personal, meaning that the Lord himself will return, and it is imminent, meaning that he could come at any moment.
If we believe that, how should we then live? The key word in our text is in verse seven: Therefore. It’s a conclusion, an inference, a deduction, an application. Peter is going to suggest in our passage that if we really believe that Jesus Christ is coming and if we really believe that the climax of history is upon us, then it ought to make a tremendous difference in the way we live. He singles out four things that are especially important for those living in the last days.
I. Keep your EMOTIONS under control so you can PRAY. (v. 7)
The Greek word translated “clear minded” is the same word used for the man with the legion of demons in Mark 5:1-20 after Christ had healed him. With the demons gone, he was literally in his “right mind.” The term describes a state of emotional control so that under pressure, you don’t wilt or waver or give in to anger or fear or otherwise lose your composure. Let me illustrate. Here are two teams playing for the national championship. As the clock ticks off the final seconds, one team dressed in blue and white is nervous, frantic and scared. They suddenly start throwing the ball away. The other team dressed in orange is calm, cool, deliberate and determined. There is no fear in their eyes. The crowd counts down the seconds, 5, 4, 3, 2, Dee Brown from Maywood takes a shot from the top of the key. As Dick Vitale would say, “Nothing but net, Baby.” And Illinois wins the National Championship, 78-77. Why? Because they kept their composure in a pressure situation. (Note: I used this illustration on Sunday. Alas, it proves that I’m not much of a prophet.)
When Alvin Toffler wrote the best-seller Future Shock, he talked at length about the effect of rapid change in our society. In our day, because of telecommunications and advancing technology, what used to take centuries, decades, years, now takes weeks, days, minutes and seconds. Today we even speak of nanoseconds. And Toffler wrote before the days of personal computers, the Internet, email and instant messaging. Many people can’t take the pressure of life. They just can’t handle it. In these days, to survive you need to be clear-minded so that you can see things in their proper perspective.
Why? Peter says “so you can pray.” When you are always on a tear, always uptight, always running from one thing to another, stressed to the max, it’s easy to become distracted, bothered, and controlled totally by your circumstances. What happens? You can’t pray. Your mind won’t stop whizzing and worrying. You literally can’t pray. I’m sure you’ve experienced that before. When we are wound up like a top, we can’t slow down or focus long enough to pray.
This week I ran across a sentence that grabbed my attention: “If we live without prayer, we will die without hope.” It’s not easy to persevere. Complaining seems to come naturally to most of us. But the moment we start to pray, suddenly we can hear music a mile away, and we remember a conversation we had last week, and before long, we’re not praying because we have been distracted. The point is: In light of the approaching end of the age, don’t panic—pray! Keep it together between your ears so you can pray. And the only advice I can add is to start praying early in the day—as soon as you wake up—before the pressure of the day wraps its arms around you. Start the day with prayer and you’re likely to remain cool, calm and collected all day long.
II. Be QUICK to forgive the STUPID things other people do. (v. 8)
The word “deeply” might be better translated “fervently.” It was used of an athlete straining his muscles, or a horse running at full gallop. It pictures a runner straining for the tape, a basketball player leaping for a rebound, or an outfielder stretching for a fly ball. It means “stretched-out love.” It’s love that goes on and on and on. We must make that sort of effort because true love is difficult. It costs something. Once you really get to know another person, real love means going to the wall for them, stretching to the limit, putting yourself in a place where you can be hurt. In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes it this way:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. Wrap it carefully with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in a casket of your own selfishness. There it will not be broken. It will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
To love is to open yourself up to the possibility of being deeply hurt which is why Peter says, “Above all, love each other deeply.” There’s a reason for this command. We are to love each other with a stretched-out love because “love covers a multitude of sins.” Every time someone wrongs me I have two choices. I can deal with it, forgive it, cover it and move on, or I can drag that person through the mud and in hatred stir up all kinds of dissension. The meaning is—love refuses to wash its dirty laundry in public. Love handles it privately, it goes out of its way to veil sin, to treat it discreetly. It is exactly the opposite of hatred that exposes weakness and humiliates someone else. Love deals with sin publicly only as a last resort.
First there is love, then there is forgiveness, then there is silence. Love has a short memory and sealed lips. We need to hear this word because others will indeed fail us a “multitude” of times. Love isn’t surprised when close friends fail, isn’t surprised when promises aren’t kept, isn’t surprised when others write unkind letters, and isn’t surprised when we are criticized unfairly. Fervent love expects others to fail, expects to be hurt and expects to be used unfairly. It goes on loving anyway. Yesterday we had a marriage ceremony for a fine young couple. The bride looked positively radiant, and the groom had a slightly befuddled smile on his face, as most grooms do. As they stood before me, so happy, so hopeful, so full of optimism and joy, so ready to embark on their new life together, I looked at them and thought what I often think at moments like that: “They don’t have a clue.” How could they? I didn’t have a clue when I got married. You learn so much in just the first few weeks, and still you don’t know much at all. And even after a few years, you’re still learning and growing. Marlene and I have been married for 30 years, and we’re learning all the time. No one really “has a clue” when they get married. I’m no expert on marriage, but I’m certain about this much. If your marriage is going to succeed, love will have to cover a multitude of sins. When I said that on Sunday, ripples of knowing laughter swept across the congregation.
The same is true of the church. No church can survive very long unless the members decide that love will cover a multitude of sins. The same is true where you work. No one can stay at any job for any length of time unless love covers a multitude of sins. This applies to every part of life. Because sin is everywhere, love must stretch out to cover sin. Without that “stretched-out” love, we will never be able to live together.
I heard a speaker say recently that there are too many touchy people in the church. We have too many people who get their feelings hurt too easily. A touchy Christian is really a contradiction in terms. And here’s the worst of it. While you sit at home stewing in your juices because your feelings got hurt, the person who hurt you is out having a good time because he doesn’t even realize that he hurt your feelings.
At this point we face an important question. How do you “cover” the sins of those who don’t admit they did anything wrong? Is it even right to talk about “covering” sins when there is no confession and repentance? R. T. Kendall (author of Total Forgiveness) makes the helpful point that if you wait for others to repent, most of the time you’ll wait forever. Very often, people who hurt you either don’t know it or don’t see it or pretend it never happened. And if you try to convince them they did wrong, you’ll often start an argument. Kendall says we must forgive anyway, and he means it in the precise sense that Peter means it in verse 8. We “cover” the sins of those who have hurt us. Then he lists six signs of true or total forgiveness:
(1) You do not tell anybody what they did to you.
(2) You do not try to intimidate them.
(3) You do not let them feel guilty.
(4) You let them save face.
(5) You accept the matter of total forgiveness as a “life sentence”—you have to keep doing it, indefinitely.
(6) You pray that they will be blessed and let off the hook.
This is a big part of your job description as a Christian. You are to be a coverer of the sins of others.
III. Stop COMPLAINING and start SHARING what God has given you. (v. 9)
“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” The word hospitality means kindness shown to strangers. It was vitally important in the early church because they didn’t have buildings. They met in the homes of various members. And in that day traveling Bible teachers and evangelists would come into a town and stay with a local family. They had to because they didn’t have a Sheraton or a Hilton or a Holiday Inn. The inns they did have were filthy and dangerous. The early Christian church depended on hospitality, on open homes. In those days, to welcome other believers into your home was a matter of honor.
But there is a qualification. “Do it without grumbling.” The Greek word means to “mumble under your breath.” But why would anyone grumble about hospitality? Most of us don’t look at our homes the way the early Christians looked at theirs. They saw their homes as not only a shelter for their families but also as a tool for ministry. They understood that God had given them a place to live not just to get away from the world but also a means for ministering to others.
Far too many of us view our homes as primarily a shelter for our family. And if we crack open the doors at all, it is to entertain a few close friends, a select circle of nice, approved people. But hospitality and entertaining are two different things. Opening your home to close friends is a given. That’s assumed. You start there. But Peter is talking about using your home to minister to the whole body of Christ. To brothers and sisters in Christ whom you do not know very well. To missionaries, visiting speakers, families in need, unwed mothers, and children needing a place to stay.
Biblically, your home is given to you for two primary reasons: First, as a shelter for your family and second, as a tool for ministry. It was never meant to be a monument to your net worth, a badge of your status, or a refuge in which to hide from the world. It is not even primarily meant as a castle in which you entertain your relatives and chosen friends, or a museum for your china, a gallery for your pictures, a garden for your flowers, a playground for your kids, or a showroom for your furniture. As good as those things may be, they do not touch the deepest reason God gave you a home. He gave it to you to shelter your family and to minister to others.
I apply the text this way: Your home is your single best tool for evangelism and Christian ministry. Hospitality is one way to show fervent love for other believers. If you don’t know where to start, invite someone to eat lunch with you today. Or if that scares you, do it next Sunday. As the end of all things draws near, it becomes increasingly important for Christians to open their homes to each other.
There is one final point Peter would make. It has to do with how we fit together in the local church.
IV. Use your GOD-GIVEN gifts to BLESS others. (vv. 10-11)
“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others.” In that little phrase we learn three things: 1) Every believer has a spiritual gift, 2) Your gift may not be the same as anyone else’s, and 3) You are to use your gift to serve others. Verse 11 categorizes spiritual gifts into two groups—the speaking gifts and the helping gifts. Speaking includes anyone who teaches the Word of God whether publicly or privately, whether to a group or one-on-one. Whether from a pulpit or in a small group or to a Sunday School class. Peter says, if you speak, make sure you speak the very words of God. The primary temptation of any teacher is to render his opinion instead of God’s word.
Helping gifts include everything else in the church, such as cooking a meal for a new mother, cleaning up after a church event, driving the bus, counting the offering, stacking chairs in the dining room, changing diapers in the nursery, visiting the sick, calling a friend on the phone, writing a note of encouragement, giving money, praying, counseling, ushering, singing, or volunteering to drive kids to camp. It includes any of the 1,001 other things that keep the church going. Whatever your gift is, do it in the mighty strength which God supplies.
There are many gifts because God’s grace is “manifold”—like the many folds of a cloak. The word was used of a fabric of many colors. Think of it as the many-colored grace of God. We are not all alike. We don’t look alike. We don’t come from the same place. We speak different languages. We have different backgrounds and customs and cultures. That’s good! God’s grace is not a monotone. Shine a bright light through a prism and you get all the colors of the rainbow. God’s grace is like that. Shine it through my life and you get green, another blue, another brown, another orange, and so on. And some people come out polka-dotted. The church needs every gift you have. No gift is too small to be used by the Lord. Here is the progression: From God … to us … to others. When we stand before the Lord someday, he is going to ask you, “What did you do with what I gave you?” You won’t be quizzed about anyone else, but you will have to give an account of your own stewardship.
God gives the gift and then God gives the strength. All we do is take the gift God has given us and in his strength we use it to serve others. That is the whole secret of the Christian life. And what is the result? Look at the end of verse 11, “So that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.”
So we ought to ask a few questions:
§ What have you done with the gifts God has given you?
§ Who have you helped along the way?
§ Is your church better and stronger because you are here?
§ Are you wasting God’s gift or are you using it for his glory?
In Word War II, a little French town had a statue of Jesus in their town square. When the bombing came, the statue was damaged and pieces were broken off. They stored the pieces, and after the war, they began to rebuild the statue. It had cracks now, but they appreciated it even more. But to their dismay, the only pieces they couldn’t find were the hands of Jesus. That troubled them because the hands had the nail prints and that was significant to them. They thought they would have to take the statue down, until one person placed a gold plaque at the bottom of the statue that read, “He has no hands but ours.”
He has no hands but ours.
He has no eyes but ours.
He has no lips but ours.
He has no feet but ours.
We are the body of Christ in the world.
Peter says, “The end of all things is near.” We know that the end times will be turbulent days. The world will seem to be turned upside-down. Long-held standards will fall. Men will be afraid. Morals will be jettisoned. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.
§ In these earth-shaking days, clear your mind for prayer.
§ In these turbulent times, be quick to forgive.
§ As you see the end approaching, open your home to others.
§ As the days draw near for the return of Christ, use your spiritual gifts to serve others.
And if this be the day before the end of the world, let it be a day in which we say, “not less for Jesus, but more.” Amen.