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Loving to the End

I remember as a child in a small mill town in the Southeast being struck with fear over a couple of things: one was foreign armies hiding in the cars of the freight train that rumbled through my backyard all hours of the day and night, 365 days a year. I imagined that one day heavily armed soldiers would invade my neighborhood, as if we were somehow a strategic target for the cause of communism. Even more terrifying than atom bombs and fascists was the second thing, the end times. My mom was the only one in my small world bold enough to bring it up, and everytime she did I listened in silent dread to her sober, hushed suggestions of how it would all play out. The memories are too vague to retro-struct her theology, but I know she believed that unspeakable acts of evil would be perpetrated by the antichrist. She was also confident that her Lord would ultimately be victorious and that, in her words, “the devil can’t touch me!” She was a fiery one.

Decades would pass before I began to consider eschatology in a serious way. My disposition at the outset was clouded by the fears of my youth. The first thing I discovered is that Believers who are alive for the Tribulation won’t be spectating from a cloud which, in turn, caused more fear to set in. Biblical literacy and greater observation of world affairs brought together in my mind the Ancient Text and the present age. I could see things happening in the news that made sense in light of biblical prophecy and especially the words of Jesus in texts like Matthew 24. Don’t we all come to that point in our faith when we realize that the Bible is no joke?

It all added up in my mind as bad news and gave me all the more reason to escape to a safe place, as if there was one. Fear reigned.

I’m now years down the road and working for a missions organization that works primarily in the Middle East, center stage, you might say, for the eschatological narrative. I still tremble when I consider the trials that are coming to “all who dwell on the face of the earth,” according to Luke 21. Jesus will confront all that is evil and this confrontation will involve real human beings who will fall on one side or the other of global conflict. The spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms will not give up without a fight. The church will face persecution. Some will be “delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you will be put to death” (Luke 21:16). Indigenous Believers and long-term missionaries in the Middle East will be in the center of the End Times storm. Although Jesus and all who are faithful to the end will ultimately triumph, the Church will suffer. These will be glorious but troublesome times.

Some in the Church ignore eschatology (hey, I did for a long time) in the same way they might ignore a film genre they don’t prefer or understand. Or maybe they lump it together with things like giant meteors striking and destroying the earth: it could happen; it probably won’t, at least in my lifetime; and I can’t do anything about it anyway, so why bother.

Jesus, on the other hand, clearly teaches that we should be very attentive to the signs of the times, that we can and should discern the season we are in, and that we can and should prepare for the last days, lest we get caught with our pants down. The parables of Matthew 24-25 give us insight into how we should carry our hearts and spend our life’s energy in light of His return.

The fact that Jesus tells us how to prepare implies that individuals, families, churches, and perhaps whole cities and regions will have vastly different experiences in the End Times based on how they respond to His wisdom. In considering again recently what it means to be prepared for His return, the following statement from the mouth of Jesus struck me: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:12-13). What should concern us about this season more than what can happen to our physical bodies is what can happen to our hearts, what will, in fact, happen to many hearts, according to Jesus. Should we be afraid of the End Times? Yes, I believe healthy fear is appropriate – the type of fear that causes us to examine our lives with sobriety and course-correct. We just need to fear the right thing, that is, the propensity of our weak, human love to collapse under pressure.

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Every organization has its own culture. Whether by design or by default, culture happens. Families, workplaces, churches, and business establishments all embody methods, values and attitudes that can be discerned with even casual observation. I work for a start-up missions organization that is working diligently to create healthy culture. “Culture” is on the agenda of every meeting, day after day, week after week. A few days ago in prayer we stumbled upon another piece of our culture puzzle right out of Matthew 24. As an organization that plans to have thousands of missionaries working in frontier environments in locations all across the 10-40 window; that plans to be laboring in the Middle East for the great end-time harvest until Jesus returns; that plans to remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of demonically empowered, government sanctioned lawlessness, we must be a people who really know how to cultivate and maintain high-quality, steadfast, unshakable love. Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:12 by all means has application for individuals. Every believer should take this warning personally and begin cultivating a life of unshakable love so that when the day comes where “the love of many grow cold,” we are able to remain steadfast in Jesus and “endure to the end”. But I also believe the individual who plans to “love to the end” must do so in the context of a corporate reality that embraces the value of sacrificial love and seeks to live it out in small ways daily. This sounds easy enough; however, the natural bent of the human heart is to dismiss an unthinkable reality such as rampant lawlessness and to assume that the power to overcome will suddenly manifest when that hour comes.

I experienced this first-hand doing relief work in Nepal after the major earthquake of April 25, 2015. I was traveling with a team of Nepalis delivering supplies to a remote village when a second earthquake hit. Our day of glad-hearted ministry suddenly morphed into a dramatic fight to stay alive amidst deadly aftershocks and landslides. The road was now impassable and vehicular travel of any kind too risky to attempt. The way to “safety” was a rigorous hike back up to the village from which we had come. This “hike” amounted to sprinting past crumbling rock outcroppings, walking short stretches to catch our breath, and otherwise running to the highest village in the vicinity. One life lesson is forever etched into my being after that experience: When crisis hits, it’s too late to top off the tank. Your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual capacities are what they are in that moment. Whatever you’ve genuinely cultivated in your life and what you’ve failed to cultivate become blaringly obvious.

A friend of mine, a devout believer, was working for a major movie production company on 9/11 in New York City when tragedy struck. His crew set up the first lights that allowed relief work to continue into the night. He was a first-hand witness and participant in the early hours of search and rescue at Ground Zero. He testifies that in the midst of the crisis and consequent trauma, he was unable to remember one Bible verse. He would call his mom and have her recite verses to him over the phone.

My point is that the maturity we desire to walk in five or ten years from now must be intentionally cultivated today. Jesus teaches this in Matthew 25 through the parable of the ten virgins. Five of them were wise and had a supply of oil on hand at the midnight hour, allowing their lamps to stay burning as the Bridegroom approached. The foolish were not so fortunate and could neither buy oil at the last minute, nor borrow from the supply of oil the wise had stored up. What they had was what they had when spiritual crisis struck.

It is worth noting that the parable involves ten virgins as opposed to two. In other words, Jesus seems to be pointing to a corporate application. One group was ready, one group was not. What had the five prepared individuals built in their life together that resulted in readiness when Jesus came? Perhaps they strengthened one another, worshiped together, prayed for and encouraged one another, built momentum together, and shared a life in common that resulted in their shared success. Their love for Jesus, which always results in love for others, was cultivated together and, in the end, celebrated together.

The most important thing we can do to position ourselves to love well under pressure is to worship and pray together. I was recently privileged to hear a missionary friend from the Middle East preach. He serves in a frontier environment that has been ravaged by the presence of ISIS. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees live within 60 miles of his headquarters. Every day he and his small team face the pressures of the tremendous human need that surrounds them. However, the first priority of their ministry is to be a house of prayer. According to him, “If the prayer and worship is weak, then the rest of the vision will be weak.”  The power to live out the second great commandment, to love others, is resident in the first commandment, to love God. And the power to love God well is in receiving His love for us, all of which is manifest profoundly in a culture of prayer and worship – that is, in an environment in which human hearts are intentionally set before the heart of God in divine communion, day after day, month after month, year after year. God is trumpeting corporate worship and prayer as a missions strategy. We see the wisdom of this in light of how it changes the atmosphere over a region, creates an open heaven, moves angels and demons, and empowers evangelism. But I believe a significant component of the wisdom of God in corporate worship and prayer as a missions strategy is that love for God and others is best cultivated in this environment. More than our zeal, our giftings, our programs or our talents and abilities, God wants to put love on display among those unreached by the Gospel. Ultimately, a community marked by love is what will attract the lost. My missionary friend often faces the temptation to abandon the priority of worship and prayer in order to devote more hours of the day to outreach. The voices within us that urge us to prioritize human need (the second commandment) over worship (the first commandment) are similar to the voice of Judas Iscariot in John 12, which questions the value of extravagant, sacrificial love.

When the acute pressures of rampant war, famine, racism and natural disaster that Jesus outlines in Matthew 24 confront us, our physical, mental, financial, emotional and spiritual reflexes will take over. When gametime comes, the season for preparation will quickly become history, and habits will take over. Jesus peeled back the curtain to reveal what lies ahead, both in terms of the troubles coming upon the human race and in how to prepare to be fully alive in love. Those who abide in His love and unite themselves to spiritual communities that prioritize corporate worship and prayer as expressions of first love will be among those who joyfully endure to the end and remain relevant to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

 

T.C. Carter

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