How Long?

Read Psalm 94:1-15 and Matthew 24:3-8 to start.

Sometimes when I’m preparing to preach a sermon, I know exactly the passage I want to speak from and the particular story I will start with. That’s great when it happens, and while it’s still plenty of work and a number of hours to prepare a sermon, it feels like things flow well and it’s fairly straightforward. It can be easy to look at these occasions and say that the Holy Spirit lead me to speak on this topic and in this way. And that may well be the case, at times the Holy Spirit certainly leads down clear and straight paths that go easily. But not always.

Sometimes, there’s a topic that feels necessary and important, and I feel that it’s needful to speak about it, even though I don’t have a clear direction already in mind. This is one of those times. Does that mean that the Holy Spirit wasn’t directing me? I don’t agree with that thought. The Spirit does not always lead down easy roads. Often the best roads have a certain level of challenge. And this topic is one that bring some challenge, although not nearly as much as it does for the people who are actually living it.

You see, it’s been just over a month since war broke out in Eastern Europe. This is something that we found shocking here in the relatively peaceful West, although for most of us it really has not changed our lives to any great extent. Apart from increasingly dire news reports and troubling accounts on social media, not to mention the unprecedented instability in the price of fuel, most of us are not greatly distressed by the invasion of Ukraine. If you don’t have friends or family in that country or in Russia, or one of the neighbouring nations, then your life has probably not been directly impacted to any serious extent.

Does that mean we should just ignore it and go about our lives? Well, given that millions of people have had their lives upended and thousands of people have died, that would be a rather flippant reaction. On the other hand, deciding to go and live in a bunker because we are afraid that war is coming here next, well, that’s not an appropriate response either. How should we as human beings, and as believers in Christ, how should we respond to this crisis? What should we think about this, what can we do about this, and what should we do about it?

If we have an opportunity to help those who have been displaced, whether with our time, our skills, or our money, then we should definitely do that. But given our distance from the war, we may not have much chance to do so. We should stand up and say that this is wrong, that is one thing we should do, and can do. A lot of people have very strong feelings about this. I have friends who have spoken out about this in one manner or another. You may have strong feelings yourself, or you may be unsure of what to think, or you may be worried and troubled about it all. For many of the younger people here this may well be the first time that such a war has been anywhere near the forefront of their minds, as opposed to something from the history books. I don’t propose to fully answer everyone’s concerns in a 40 minute sermon this morning. But scripture certainly has answers for many of the questions we might raise, or the thoughts that the war might provoke.

There are those who look at these events and see a strong indication of the end times being at hand. And certainly, given the common interpretation that places Russia as the enemy of Israel located to the north as we read about in the later chapters of Revelation. And certainly the presence of bellicose leadership in the Kremlin aligns nicely with that interpretation. Russian aggression in the Ukraine now, as similar Russian aggression in Chechnya and Georgia several years ago, not to mention the more recent Russian involvement in Syria does suggest that further Russian aggression is possible, perhaps even inevitable. Will this be directed against Israel? Given that Israel has long since been aligned with the United States, and that many nations around Israel have been in the Russian sphere of influence for years, it is absolutely possible. That all fits with what we read in prophecy, whether in Revelation chapters 19 and 20 or in Matthew 24, as we read to start. After all, this definitely fits with wars and rumours of wars. Nation rising against nation? Check. Earthquakes? Check. Pestilence? Definitely check. For all we know, Ukraine could be the last domino to fall before the Lord’s return.

It’s important to remember that the interpretation of prophecy is not something to undertake lightly, and while the Lord could definitely return at any time, the invasion of Ukraine certainly doesn’t suddenly make His return any more imminent than it was six weeks ago. Christ will come, but we know not when. It could be today, but it could be a decade from now. It could be a century from now. It is on us to be ready in how we live and how we conduct our day-to-day lives. It’s not about cramming for a last minute test, it’s about living in a manner that is prepared for the Lord’s return but still doing His work as if we have time to get a lot done.

It’s not time to start panicking that the end of days is just around the corner. If you want to panic about the Second Coming, you should have started a long time ago.

Rather than looking at this from the prospective of prophecy this morning, instead I want to look at a more specific, yet general question. It’s a question that has to come up when things like this invasion take place. This question, and this may be a big one for a lot of people, is addressed in the passage that we looked at from Psalm 94. In verse 3, the Psalmist asks how long shall the wicked triumph?

How long indeed? Vladimir Putin has been the de facto dictator of Russia for 22 years. During that time he has overseen wars in Chechnya and Georgia, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine 8 years ago, indiscriminate bombing in Syria to support their favoured side in that country’s ongoing civil war, and now of course the current invasion of Ukraine. Then there’s the repeated Russian attempts to interfere with elections in other countries, including this one, not to mention the questionable legitimacy of the last few elections with Russia itself. If that’s not enough to give you an idea of his track record, don’t forget that there are a lot of Russian journalists and dissidents, all critical of Putin, who have died violent deaths over the last couple of decades. There is no question that this man falls clearly under the heading of the wicked. He has triumphed for a very long time now, he’s been doing largely whatever he wants and leaving pain and misery for a lot of people in his wake. And for the most part he has gotten away with it.

Right now, soldiers acting on Putin’s orders are busy killing innocent civilians in the Ukraine. As it says in Psalm 94, verse 6, they are killing widows and murdering the fatherless. They’re also making new widows and fatherless, because there is a lot of death and destruction happening on the battlefield. The Russian soldiers themselves, many of whom were likely sent into Ukraine being told that this was going to be not much more than a training exercise, there are lots of them ending up dead as well. Those who return home are going to have to live with the fact that they have committed atrocities, that they have killed the innocent, that they have done great wrong. The ongoing damage of this war will reverberate across the Ukraine and likely throughout Russia itself for a generation at the very least. And it stems from the fact that a wicked man has been allowed to do his wickedness unchecked for the last 22 years.

How long should this continue? How long can this continue? Why does God allow men like this to continue in their evil ways? That is one question that this war has brought into sharp focus.

The world at large is asking much the same question. Perhaps not including God in the equation so directly, but there is much speculation as to how long Putin will last. The number of analytical news pieces and critical articles that have appeared in the last month is more than anyone can count. Has Putin followed the same path and made the same mistakes as past dictators? What does he actually want? What motivates him? How did he end up with so much power? Is he trying to rebuild the Soviet Union? Is he trying to remake the old Russian empire? Does he think of himself not as a president, but as a Tsar? And what should the US, NATO, the UN, the world at large, do about him? So many questions, but so few good answers.

Vladimir Putin may well be today’s greatest boogeyman, but he’s hardly the only one, and as bad as he is, he’s far from the worst. He’s also hardly the first. It would be impossible for me to give you a comprehensive list of the greatest evildoers and oppressors of the weak who are alive and working today, or those who have been in recent decades, but there are many. Saddam Hussein started wars with his neighbours and used nerve gas on his own people. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in less than three years killed one quarter of Cambodia’s population. Josef Stalin was responsible for somewhere around 9 million deaths, most of them his own citizens. The Holocaust under Adolf Hitler resulted in 11 million deaths, more than half of them Jews, almost all of Europe’s Jewish population either fled, or was eliminated. And then there’s Chinese leader Mao Zedong, whose policies killed more people than everyone else on this list combined, almost all of them Chinese, upwards of 40 million people. Putin is an evil, evil man, but compared to the recent past, his crimes to this point are relatively conventional.

If you look farther back in time, there is no shortage of evil men whose have done terrible things. Whether from their own selfish ambition, grand schemes of power and empire, or the collateral damage that always arises from war and strife, those in positions of power frequently crush those who are in positions of weakness. This has been the case for as long as there have been men with power. The Spiderman related cliché is that with great power comes great responsibility, but all too often with power instead comes opportunism, selfishness, and exploitation. That is not how it should be, but sadly, that is how things frequently end up.

The Psalmist here talks about the wicked of his day, who likewise triumphed in their oppressive behaviours. We don’t know who precisely they were or what their names or nationalities were, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? We see at least in general terms what their actions did, and who they had hurt, how they brought harm to God’s people, how they had slain those who were disadvantaged in particular.

We see as well that God let them continue in their wickedness, at least for a time. Not that He was unaware of their evil deeds, for we read from verse 9 that He absolutely knew their ways. It’s a clever and oh-so-telling way that these verses are framed. He that planted the ear, and formed the eye, shall he not see and hear? If the God who gave us our senses of sight and sound, who created the organs that take in that information, and of course the brain to process and understand it all, to make sense of what we see and hear, will He somehow miss out on the doings of His creation? He knows, of course He knows. He made us, He knows our good and our bad, our up and our down, our strengths and our weaknesses. And oh, we have so many weaknesses. So many failings, so many shortcomings. God knows them all, the first from the last.

We should know that He knows, we really should recognize this and live accordingly. But so many people do not. The wicked of this Psalm, the great sinners and evildoers that we talked about earlier, one would think that they must not realize that God knows their deeds. Or else they would stop their actions. But these wicked, like almost all who do wickedly, pay little heed to the thought that there is a God in Heaven who does not approve of their deeds, or who does not notice.

In this, they are no different from anyone else who wilfully does wrong and does not consider any spiritual consequences, or who might consider them, but goes ahead and sins anyway. When you or I do something that we know is wrong, that we know violates God’s laws, that we know will bring harm to someone else, we are likewise wicked. We differ only in terms of scale. All of us are capable of great evil, we need only to consider our own hearts to realize this. The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, we read in Jeremiah chapter 17. The same verse then asks who can know it? Who can know the heart of man?

Do we know our own hearts? Maybe in part, but I think that most of us probably don’t, not really. And what we do know we may not be eager to admit. What I know of my own heart, my own inner man, much of it is troubling at best. Some of it is downright terrifying. I want things that are bad, plain and simple. Not everything, mind you, but far too much. Really, wanting any quantity of sin, even the tiniest quantum of evil, is a problem. And the things I want that are bad, whether they are bad for me, for my family, for my friends, for my work, for my community, whether on a physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual level, it’s more than a miniscule amount. Even though I have long since turned to God for salvation and I know that the price of my sins have been paid for through the completed work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, even though I am much improved over what I was before, still there is much evil in my heart, more than I can know, or want to know.

And if we know not our own hearts, then how can we expect to know the heart of anyone else? The answer is that we cannot, not truly. But God can, and does. As it says in verses 10 and 11 of the Psalm, he that teacheth man knowledge, shall he not know? The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity.

God knows our hearts, He knows our desires, He knows our plans and schemes, He knows what we would do if we could do it. And He gives us the freedom to make our own choices, to decide between following our hearts or following His instructions.

People will tell you to follow your heart. This is terrible advice. They think that this will allow you to find what makes you truly happy, that getting in touch with your inner desires and satisfying those will lead to deep peace and contentment. This is false. Our hearts are evil. Following our hearts will lead us to dark places.

And this brings us back to the wicked, and to the war. Because what is war other than the outcome of man’s wicked desires? I’m not Vladimir Putin’s psychologist, frankly, that’s an assignment that I can’t imagine anyone would want, the life expectancy is probably not especially high, and the opportunity for job satisfaction is likely about nil. But I think it’s a safe bet that Putin wants to build what in his mind would be a greater, more powerful Russia. He wants to increase his own wealth, power, and legacy in doing this, and he obviously doesn’t care who gets hurt, who gets killed, or who gets forgotten in the process. Does that sound about right? I think it fits the evidence we’ve seen over the number of years, and over the last few weeks in particular we have seen this brought into much sharper focus.

And so we return to the question of how does a God who knows all this, who understands a dictator’s mind better than the dictator does himself, how does God let this continue? Why has this wicked man been permitted to continue in his evil ways?

There are those who say that God is unable or unwilling to do anything about the evil in this world. And if that were indeed the case, then it would explain why someone like Putin can remain in power year after year, long after the normal term for a Russian president has expired. But if you look back at history, at all those names mentioned earlier, all of those men, each one more evil, more predatory, more destructive than the one before, each of them is dead and gone. For some, justice came swiftly and sharply. Perhaps after time in prison, or in a bunker in the desperate final days of a lost war, or at the end of a hangman’s noose. For others, they died still in power after suffering heart attacks in their old age. Justice for them came later, and out of our immediate view. But in any case, the wicked come to an end in one way or another. God at times extends a very long leash to some. We know not how long that leash may be.

We see many examples in scripture of those who thought they could get away with whatever they wanted, who thought they could take, and oppress, and kill, and continue without consequence, and we see that inevitably they were wrong. In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh time and time again offered to let the people of Israel go, only to change his mind. Wicked king Ahab let his even more wicked wife Jezebel freely establish idol worship and commit murder on a whim for his convenience. King Herod, unable to find the child born King of the Jews, slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem in his rage.

Why does God let these men continue for so long? Why does He let them wreak so much destruction, and cause so much pain and suffering? But for that matter, why does He let any of us continue in our evil ways? The sins of the common man do not have the same scale, the same level of damage, as do the sins of a national leader. But sin is sin, great or small, and the wages of sin is death.

It is not up to us to determine why God allows one evildoer to continue for so very long while another is given only a short time. But I think it has very much to do with allowing each of us more time, more opportunity to repent. He will correct and chasten those who err, and hopefully they learn from their mistakes and turn from evil and disobedience.  God’s mercy is great, and He does not want to send a single person to the lake of fire. But He will not stop those who choose that. Those who disobey God’s laws, those who break the commandments, and most crucially, those who will not repent and turn from their sin and turn to Christ, their fate is sealed. They have chosen condemnation, and much as God gives us the freedom to choose life, He also allows the freedom to choose death and suffering.

Will those who commit atrocities on a grand scale suffer more keenly in eternity? That is almost certainly the case. We can look at the teachings of Christ. In the gospels we read more than once how things will be worse for some than others in the day of judgement, and we are told that that to whom much is given, much will be required. I believe that those who do great wickedness will be punished to a greater extent than those who do not. Perhaps their hell will be hotter. Perhaps the knowledge that they could have done much good, but instead did great evil, will weigh upon them for forever. But much as sin is sin, so hell is hell, and it is a place best avoided.

As we consider the evil of this world around us, we must remember that evil only exists because that is what people have chosen. Those who are in positions of prominence, when they choose to do wickedly, the repercussions are felt on a far wider scale, perhaps a national or even a global scale. We do not want to see this happen, but it does, and it has happened since so not long after God first breathed life into the man He had created.

When we see events such as the war in Ukraine, when we ask how long will God let this continue, it is not so different from the disobedient child whose parents extend him mercy. It is not so different from the friend who hurts you, either with his fists or with her words. It is not so different from the selfishness and the pride in each and every one of us that feels that we deserve what we desire, and so we take it. In each case, God does not smite and destroy, but rather allows the sinner to repent. No matter how great the sin, God’s grace is greater still. Why should God’s grace be limited to only the small, when Christ died for one and all? We might think that someone is beyond grace. No doubt some thought exactly that of Saul of Tarsus. He seemed intent on causing pain to the followers of God quite specifically. The road to Damascus changed all of that. The greatest of sinners are in as much need of salvation as everyone else. God’s grace reached to me, and I am forever thankful that it did. If you know Him today, then it has reached to you as well. If you do not know, then consider what choices you have made, and that you will make. The day of salvation is today, because we know not what tomorrow will bring. But we know that God saves those who repent, great or small. Who are we to know who will repent, and whom God will save?