Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 12, 2014 By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker (Pompeii, Punishment, and Grace!) Copyright 2014 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: Revelation 7:9-12
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, and His message of grace is for all people. Amen.
Pompeii? Have you heard of the town? Probably. Maybe you've heard of the ancient volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. If you have, well, the city that was destroyed was Pompeii.
Just to show that this city still has modern appeal, I recently discovered that back in February, Hollywood released the movie "Pompeii," starring Kiefer Sutherland. Yes, that Kiefer Sutherland of "24" fame. The studio promotional release describes the film this way: "A slave-turned-gladiator finds himself in a race against time to save his true love, who has been betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator. As Mount Vesuvius erupts, he must fight to save his beloved as Pompeii crumbles all around him."
Isn't it amazing that nearly 2000 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of the ancient Italian city of Pompeii in 79 A.D., there is enough interest in what happened to make a movie? Now, there weren't many rave reviews. Apparently, reliving mass destruction due to volcanic eruption isn't something the public is seeking as a way to escape the day-to-day grind of life.
But the real story of Pompeii still draws. You can see it for yourself like I and others did when we journeyed to the lands of St. Paul. You see, back in 1748, the site was excavated by archaeologists and it remains a compelling site to this day. They uncovered the town and even injected plaster into the voids discovered between layers of ash and pumice. These voids once contained the bodies of citizens of that ill-fated city. We saw those plaster molds of the victims; we saw the terror in their faces as they were overcome by the over 600-degree Fahrenheit blast of volcanic heat and pyroclastic flow.
This harsh reality still draws millions of tourists every year. It is a city buried by volcanic ash, literally frozen in time. It was a sobering reminder of how life can change in an instant.
Pompeii, a sobering reminder of the temporalness of life, yes; but, Pompeii itself was also a call to seek something more than the things of the day. You see, the city became accustomed to the rumblings of the earth--tremors, landslides, and some serious earthquakes. Layers of evidence found by archaeologists show that, even amidst the peace of Rome, Pompeii was a city that lived in danger. It was almost as if the citizens were living in denial. On the one hand, the city was sophisticated. It was high tech for its time. It had swimming pools, many fountains, businesses, and detailed works of art. Archaeologists also discovered a wine dealer that branded his wine humorously after the volcano that loomed north of the city. He called his product: "Vinovesuvium." But, on the other hand, the city was primitive and corrupt. The artifacts of the city reveal people who were deeply immersed in the pagan and immoral practices of Roman religiousity--taking it to a level of depravity that appeared to rival Sodom and Gomorrah.
Physical danger, moral danger was all a daily reality that the citizens of this town kept at bay. Then, in an instant, Mount Vesuvius rained down fiery ash and lava for six hours, sparing no one. Pompeii was gone. All it took was an instant; technology, business, arts, relationships, pet dogs, children, husbands, and wives--everything and everyone--gone.
In an instant. A lot can happen in an instant. You know this. I'm sure you've experienced how an instant can change everything. When I lived in Southern California, the fire season taught many of us that everything can be gone in a day. Lots can happen in an instant.
In an instant you can hear a cancer diagnosis that changes your life. In an instant, you can receive relationship news that is absolutely heartbreaking. In an instant, someone you love can suddenly die. Just like the citizens of Pompeii, we don't know what might happen in an instant from now. What might happen in your life?
But God is not unaware of the trials of this sinful world. In fact, He is very honest about this precarious position in our lives. The wise and godly writer of the book of Proverbs said, "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps" (Proverbs 16:9). In other words, we live from moment to moment, instant to instant. But God has bigger plans for you than that! In fact, His plans are often in spite of that!
James, Jesus' brother and someone who knew how quickly his own life could change, said, "What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that' (James 4:12-15).
So, just listen to the Lord's will for your life! He says it this way, "The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." Whether it is Satan, or the world, or our own sinful flesh, on our own you and I are a mist. Life can be so very short. Cities are destroyed. Empires fall. Wealth disappears. Lives end. These are the sobering facts of your life and mine.
Oddly, Pompeii was a very religious town, but again, this was on its own selfish terms. People's homes had many religious artifacts that showed a deep connection with Roman religious practices. Unfortunately, these practices were immoral, corrupt, disrespectful, and self-indulgent. The epidemic of depravity in Pompeii must have created chaos in relationships and in the ability to lead balanced and productive lives. Similar to today, when sexual preoccupation dominates lives, it leads to trouble and harm. Marriages are destroyed. People are hurt and abused both physically and emotionally. Self-destructive actions ruin people's lives. The level of decay then was so pronounced that the graphic images, figures, and paintings of Pompeii embarrassed early archaeological discoverers. King Francis the First of Naples, Italy; he locked the artwork in a secret area to keep people from being embarrassed by the images. Even today, minors are still allowed entry to the display of artwork only in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.
With evidence of the population living for the next moment of self-indulgence, it appears that no one in the city was thinking about living life that served others or made the world a better place. And no one seemed to be conscious of what would happen to his or her soul after death.
Jesus didn't come to give you another religion; He came to give you His life. And the grace of that life changes things. The Apostle Paul once lived for momentary pleasures. He sought knowledge and position. He craved attention and credentials. He wanted to do away with Christians who testified to the resurrection of Jesus so he could get satisfaction from the way he obeyed the law and made a name for himself. Paul was all about himself, his plans, his preferences, his ego. But then Jesus appeared to him and changed everything. Paul was stripped of his pride. He was humbled, forgiven, and baptized into serving others with the Good News of forgiveness and life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul suddenly became a man who was ready for eternity! During his final days in prison in Rome, he wrote to his apprentice Timothy, "The time of my departure, my death, has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who loved his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Paul was ready for death. He faced each next instant with faith in His Savior. He told Timothy, "The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever." (2 Timothy 4:18).
Paul was prepared for life after death. Even the ashes of the temporalness of this world couldn't overwhelm the life that he had in Jesus. Not too long after he wrote those words to Timothy, tradition tells us that the apostle Paul was tortured and beheaded by the Roman Emperor Nero. In an instant, he was with Jesus, fully restored, safe in his heaven. But the people of Pompeii? I wish that I knew. There is only frightening uncertainty about them in their last instant on earth concerning the life that God wanted for them in Jesus Christ.
Dear friend, I need to ask you today: in full view of Pompeii, are you ready this instant for the time your last breath comes? Are you prepared by believing that Jesus died and rose again for you--for your forgiveness and for the gift of eternal life that He has for you in heaven--all by His grace? God wants you to be.
For as John reminds us today that great picture of the final throne of Jesus at the end of time, that Jesus indeed came for all the nations of the world.
This is a common refrain of God's Word. And The Apostle Paul tells us how, he says "God our Savior...desires that all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ" (1 Timothy 2:3-5).
God desires that you are saved and that you come to the knowledge of the beautiful truth of hope, help, and eternal life in Jesus Christ. God desires the world to know and believe in this life-renewing blessing! That's the message that we shared at the beginning of this sermon series, and that's the message we end with.
God even wanted the people of Pompeii to know Him. It's interesting that the Apostle Paul spent one week about ten miles north of Pompeii as he traveled to Rome. We know there were Christians in the area because they met him; they invited him to stay with him there. The message of Christ crucified and risen was so close! God was reaching!
Friend, please know that God is reaching out with His presence, His love, and His grace every instant for you and for me, too. Even the heavens declare the glory of God. He is reaching--always reaching out to you, to me, to all the people around this world.
Eight hundred years before Pompeii saw its end, a man named Jonah was called by God to reach another corrupt city. The city of Nineveh; it was very similar to the city of Pompeii. The citizens were steeped in immoral and destructive practices that were ruining their lives. They sacrificed their children to appease the gods of fertility. They were sexually unfaithful and promiscuous. They were barbaric Gentiles that no one wanted any part of--especially the Israelites who followed the Savior God, the One who cherished the gift of life and wanted blessing, health, and goodness for His people. But one day, God commanded Jonah to go preach to the people in Nineveh. You may know what happened next. Jonah refused! He ran away. He boarded a ship that took him in the opposite direction. But God was persistent--He is persistent, isn't He? Jonah ended up being thrown off the ship, swallowed by a large fish, and spit up onto the shore. That's when God told him once again to bring the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to the people of Nineveh. This time, he went.
For three days, through a not-so-motivated-prophet named Jonah, God called the people of Nineveh to turn to Him above all things! And they did! The citizens stopped their evil ways and resolved to serve the Lord. Wow, even through a reluctant messenger, God got through.
Please hear me today clearly. There's no reluctance here at all. I want you to know what God wants all people to know; that they are saved and that includes you! He doesn't want anyone to see a hopeless end like the thousands of residents in Pompeii may have suffered that day. For God brings the Gospel to the world. He brings the saving news of Jesus to you, then and today. In God's eyes, according to His heart, there are no boundaries to this love.
That's a slogan we hear in advertizing a lot today. Do you remember the "No boundaries," ad that was used to advertise four-wheel-drive vehicles a while back? With four-by-four power, the ads claimed, the world was a wide open door. Hmmmm....not sure how a motor vehicle can deliver that; but, through the cross of Jesus Christ, "No boundaries to God's grace" that's a great description of God's approach to the world. He wants the news of salvation to go anywhere to anyone. We see a picture of His desire in Revelation, chapter seven. After introducing the suddenness of Judgment Day, the coming of the Lord--that instant when everything will stop and eternity will be ushered in, we are shown a picture of heaven. The Apostle John narrated what he saw this way: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, people, and languages, standing before the throne, before the Lamb, they are clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, they were crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!' (Revelation 7:9-10)
Every nation, every tribe, people, and language. The gift of eternal life earned by Jesus on the cross and through His resurrection was not just for a select group of people. It wasn't just for a few privileged people. Jesus came to save all people--including you and me.
You may wonder if this could be true. Is it really possible that the living Word of God can change people's hearts? Is it conceivable that God really cares about everyone? Is it within the realm of reality that God can reach you in your pain, in your failure, or in your sin? You might be tempted to say "No."
But God's ways are higher than your ways and mine. His plans are greater than what we can imagine.
You and I always seem to limit what God can do while overestimating what we can do. Sin is like that. We draw narrow lines for hope and rescue. We might very well let a turbulent and difficult world color our views of who could receive God's eternal blessings. When our sin becomes plain to ourselves, when we see the temporalness of our own lives, we often conclude that such grace and hope surely can't be for me let alone the whole world.
But, friend, "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life!" God's view is expansive. His salvation is for the world, it is for you! The cross of Jesus changed the broken moments, the hurtful moments, and the destructive ones. Those instances do not have to have the last word in your life, for God's forgiveness and life in Jesus does.
Yes, we live in a world that resembles Pompeii--one of heartache and destruction. The figures of that city cry out to let us know that help is needed, that a Savior is essential. Vesuvius may have conquered Pompeii, but the cross of Calvary trumps them all.
John says, "I saw it with my own eyes; people from every nation around the throne of the Lamb of Grace." But John's words today are an invitation to you and to me to be a part of that eternal victory of Jesus, not just for today, but forever in Him.
May this day then, this day be the day of your salvation in Jesus no matter what swirls around you in this world. So much can change in an instant. In an instant Vesuvius rained down the ashes of destruction one day on Pompeii. But truth be told, the city was full of destructive fires even before that fateful day. But, then as today, Jesus was also raining down the blessings of His grace and forgiveness from the cross, in that day, so that eternal life could be theirs, yours; one that nothing in this world could take away. That's what we experienced in the footsteps of Paul. May that joy be yours today and always as you listen to this message and see that all of Paul's efforts were done so that you might know Jesus as your Savior, too.
In your heart with me right now....say as the saints in Revelation said: "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen" (Revelation 7:12)
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for October 12, 2014 Topic: Pompeii, Punishment, and Grace!
ANNOUNCER: Now, Pastor Gregory Seltz answers a listener's question about sin and God's punishment. I'm Mark Eischer. A listener asks, when bad things happen, does that mean God is punishing us for our sins?
SELTZ: That is the way the world sees it, right? In fact, this week's Lutheran Hour sermon talked about Pompeii, that city that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. For many people, they would describe events like that with the word, "karma," you know, somehow getting what you deserve. So, that word has gone beyond the eastern religious sense and has become, kind of, an everyday expression for payback.
ANNOUNCER: But, on the one hand, the Bible does say the payment for sin is death. Is that the only thing it says?
SELTZ: I think of a beautiful Psalm--Psalm 103. Part of it says, "The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love...... He, ultimately, does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalms 103:8-10).
ANNOUNCER: So God doesn't want to punish us for our sins?
SELTZ: Not unless we want it, Mark. Let me explain. Instead of punishing us for our sins, God punished His one and only Son in our place. Jesus received the full brunt of what our sin deserved when He hung on the cross. That's not Karma. In fact, that empties Karma of its threat! Jesus suffered hell in our place when He gave His life for us. The Father punished Him so we would never have to experience that punishment as we live in His grace by faith. We hear in Romans, chapter three: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace in Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-25 NIV).
ANNOUNCER: You're saying, when I do something wrong, God isn't trying to zap me because when we trust in Christ as our Savior, we know every sin and every wrong has been nailed to His cross.
SELTZ: Right. Psalm 103 even goes on to say these famous verses about forgiveness in Christ: "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him" (Psalms 103:11-12).
ANNOUNCER: But what did you mean earlier when you said, "Unless we want it, His punishment?"
SELTZ: Well, it is possible to reject the forgiveness that God so freely gives. 1 John 1:8-9 says it this way, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9). So God faithfully forgives us as we admit that we need His grace and redemption.
ANNOUNCER: But if we reject Him and deny that we even need forgiveness, God will then let us have the punishment we're asking for?
SELTZ: The Apostle Paul says something to that effect in Romans two. He said, "Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed," (Romans 2:5, 8).
ANNOUNCER: Which means, the gift of forgiveness has been earned for all, but those who reject it are, in effect, asking to face God on their own merits, based on their own track record.
SELTZ: And that track record isn't going to cut it with the righteousness of God.
ANNOUNCER: But sometimes we experience suffering as a result of sin. What about that?
SELTZ: You make a good point. There are earthly consequences to our sins--even under God's forgiveness and mercy. If someone is unfaithful in a relationship, painful consequences can result. If a person breaks the law, he faces guilt, fines, and possibly imprisonment. If a person lies, they may become alienated from family or friends. Even as we confess our sins to God and receive His forgiveness, earthly consequences are still very real.
ANNOUNCER: But this isn't God zapping us in His anger?
SELTZ: No, God isn't zapping us at all. I will say, however, that God does discipline us as we are discipled. He even uses the consequences of our wrongdoing to grow us in the ways of His righteousness and truth. The writer of the book of Hebrews says it this way, "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" (Hebrews 12:5-6). The bottom line is that we can have a loving Father who not only forgives us, but who even uses our failures and rebellion to teach and to guide us.
ANNOUNCER: In that sense, then, God is even turning our bungles into building blocks.
SELTZ: Isn't that incredible?
ANNOUNCER: Thank you, Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
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