by Dr. David Rogne
A colleague of mine,
Don Shelby, who pastored a Methodist Church in Santa Monica, tells of a telegram
he received a number of years ago. The telegram read: "He comes, His escort of
angels in His train. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amid red hibiscus, yellow
windflowers, and blue morning glories, our Savior, Christ the Bridegroom can be
met. Directions: Fly to Lihue on the island of Kauai. From there take Kuhio
Road to Kapaa. Go through the town to
Kauai Hau Road. You'll see a
sign pointing to the Samuel Mahelona Hospital. Turn
left on this road and go past the school. Turn right on Hanaala Road and
continue on this road until it becomes a one-way road. Turn left here at the
stop sign into the cane field road. You are almost there. At the first
crossroad, turn left into the Valley House parking lot. Hawaii is 'star
country.' That's where it's at, the happening of the ages. Bring camp gear and
be at the spot before sundown on April 5. On April 7, Jesus Christ comes again
that he did not go. If I had received such a telegram, I certainly would have
looked for ways to persuade the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee that this was
a continuing education event worthy of their support. But the happening of the
ages did not happen.
Even so, people
continue to make outrageous claims. Here we are the third millennium, and there
are still countless predictions about the Second Coming of Christ and about the
end of the world. Many of these expectations will be based upon the passage
that was read this morning from the New Testament. So, today, I'd like to have
us think together about the meaning of the Second Coming for us.
One aspect of this
topic that has always interested people is speculation about when it will take
place. There have been many who have tried to predict the second coming. In
the earlier letters of the Apostle Paul, he shows that he himself expected the
literal return of Christ in his lifetime. He writes: "Then we who are alive,
who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them, to meet the
Lord in the air."(I Thess. 4:17) His teaching so distracted people, however,
that Paul wrote again and advised people to go back to work and stop worrying
about the Second Coming, as it probably was not going to happen so soon after
all. Yet, all manner of prophets have manipulated, multiplied, added,
subtracted, and divided the numbers to be found in various books of the Bible to
come up with their own dates for the coming of Christ. In the 19th century
alone, dates announced for the Second Coming of Christ included 1835, 1838,
1839, 1843, 1844, 1866, 1870, and 1873.
And even in our era,
each time there is a panic, or a depression, or a war, somebody says, "It won't
be long now." Roy Bonisteel, a Canadian columnist, writes about just such an
experience. "A few years ago," he says, "I noticed in my local paper that a
farm was for sale a few miles from where I lived. I didn't know the owner that
well, but I was familiar with the farm. As a boy I had climbed its hills where
towering pines reached for the sun, cross-country skied over its fields, hiked
across its meadows and along its sparkling creeks. There was a large brick
farmhouse and a sturdy dairy barn on the property. Mildly interested, I visited
the owner, a man in his 40s, and asked why he was selling. "Because the world
is coming to an end one year from next month. I'm getting rid of all earthly
possessions," he answered. When I inquired about the price, he replied,
"$25,000." Considerably more interested, I protested, "But this place is worth
five times that." "I know," he said, "But $25,000 is all I need to live on for
one year. -- We are promised that when Judgment Day comes, the wicked will
perish and the righteous shall inherit the earth. Not only will I be saved, but
I'll likely get my farm back." "I stared at him in astonishment and disbelief,"
says Bonisteel. "Then I bought the farm."
I don't wish to
deprive anyone of the comfort they may derive from expecting the imminent return
of Christ, but I would like to point out that because of the outlandish claims
of some, there are people who find no relevance at all in the teaching that
Christ will come again.
The problem arises
because all of us would like to have the inside track when it comes to seeing
the future. We long to lift the veil and get a glimpse of tomorrow. So people,
even in our scientific and technological age, turn to astrology and its belief
that the events of the world and the happenings in our individual lives are
influenced by vibrations in the heavens, and that stars and planets affect the
day-to-day affairs of humans.
We like to know the
schedule of things, but not everything submits to our desire. A friend once
told me about a small resort town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains which he liked
to visit on weekends. The town had a movie theater of sorts that was open only
on weekends. You could never plan on seeing a movie, he said, because, for
economic reasons, the management had a policy of not running the film unless at
least ten people showed up. As soon as ten paying customers were there, the
movie would begin, whether it was 7:00 pm, 8:20, or 10:00 o'clock. If less than
ten people came, it was a "no show." There was no exact schedule.
It is kind of like
that with the second coming of Christ. Whatever it may mean, the schedule is up
to the management. We may get ourselves ready, insist that the time is right,
but still wind up waiting. Jesus himself said, "But about that day and hour no
one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
(Matt. 24:36) In another place he says, "The Son of Man is coming at an
unexpected hour." (Matt. 24:44) The movie-maker, Samuel Goldwyn, once advised,
"Never make predictions--especially about the future."
If we cannot be sure
about when the Second Coming takes place, perhaps we can at least get a better
idea of what it means. For one thing, it is an extension of a theme found
throughout the Bible that God comes among us. In the early chapters of Genesis,
God is described as coming into the Garden of Eden to seek out Adam and Eve.
God came to visit Abraham in his tent and to share God's intentions with him.
As the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness, the tabernacle became a
symbol of their understanding that God dwelt in their midst.
But even far back in
the Old Testament, assurances were given that God would come among his people in
a more visible, human form. The idea of Messiah, the one who was to come, was
born, and varied expectations developed. For Christians, those expectations
were fulfilled by the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, who demonstrated
the love of God and convinced Christians that in Jesus, God had come among them.
Those references may
prepare us to deal with God's coming to us in Bethlehem, in the person of Jesus
of Nazareth, but what about this teaching of a Second Coming of Christ? I would
like to suggest that the idea of the Second Coming is a concrete and pictorial
expression of God's involvement in our salvation. It is possible to derive
meaning from the idea even if we do not look for its literal fulfillment. For
example, it is possible to say that the Second Coming took place on that first
Pentecost when the disciples all sensed that the Holy Spirit had come upon
them. After all, Jesus had said that he would send them another comforter. It
is possible to say that Jesus comes a second time whenever he comes into the
life of an individual and changes that person into a new being. And we are
taught that the Holy Spirit resides in us. It is possible to say that all
people should be treated as reappearances of Christ, for Christ himself said,
"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are
members of my family, you did it to me.” It is possible to say that when a
believer dies, Jesus comes for that person in a fuller way than is possible in
I think that all of
these interpretations are valid ways of understanding the Second Coming. The
problem is that they are spiritual, and therefore, do not grip the imagination.
Most of us need something concrete to guide our spiritual thinking. For
example, the concept of neighborliness is a part of our faith, but the story of
the Good Samaritan gives it substance. We are taught that God forgives and
accepts us, but the story of the prodigal son makes it understandable. The Holy
Spirit of God is a rather elusive concept, but Jesus of Nazareth makes the
Spirit visible and believable.
In a similar way, the
teaching about the Second Coming is an attempt to give substance to the idea of
hope. In his first appearance among us, Christ came to do battle with the
forces of darkness. He has enlisted us in that cause. He has not abandoned
us. He is with us now and will be with us when the final victory over evil is
complete. The Second Coming symbolizes our hope that God is with us as we seek
to live out God's intention for the world.
In any event, the
important thing about the Second Coming is not its timing or its nature, but
what it teaches about our conduct. In the light of these things, Jesus says we
are to "Keep awake," (Matt.24:42) which I take to mean "be alert." It is
difficult for us to remain vigilant over the long haul. There is a fable which
tells of three apprentice devils who are coming to earth to finish their
apprenticeships. They are talking with Satan, the chief of the devils, about
their plans to tempt and to ruin humanity. The first said, "I'll tell them that
there is no God." Satan said, "That won't delude many, for most know that there
is a God." The second said, "I'll tell them that there is no hell." Satan
answered, "You won't deceive anyone that way either, people know even now that
there is hell to pay for sin." The third said, "I'll tell them that there is
plenty of time." "Go," said Satan, "and you will ruin people by the
thousands." The most dangerous of all delusions is that there is plenty of
time. For that reason, Jesus says, "Be alert."
The teaching of the
Second Coming also encourages us to be hopeful. Threatened as we are with urban
crime, proliferation of drug use, destruction of the environment,
over-population, home invasion, homicides, the rise in gang violence,
international terrorism, it is easy to get down on the prospects for humanity.
Not long ago, a 27-year-old X-ray technician in the
Midwest killed his wife and three
daughters, set fire to the family home, and then shot himself because, as he
explained in a suicide note sent to a friend, "We don't want our children to
grow up in this lousy world." He had lost hope.
Hope gives people the
power to survive. Leaders give people hope when they can't find it in
themselves. Winston Churchill was prime minister of England during the darkest
hours of World War II. He was once asked by a reporter what had been his
country's greatest weapon during its struggle against Nazi Germany. Without
pausing for a moment he said: "It was what England's greatest weapon has always
The promise of the
Second Coming means that God has not written us off. God will be involved in
the ultimate outcome of history.
Another thing that we
need to bear in mind as we seek meaning from the Second Coming is that we are to
keep busy with the work God has given us to do. Too often, those who make much
out of the supernatural intervention of God in the affairs of the world at the
end of the age, conclude that since everything is in God's hands there is
nothing for us to do.
Jesus taught that
even though his disciples were to look for his return, they were to be active in
furthering his work. Early in the life of Sir William Osler, a noted Canadian
physician, who was one of the founders of Johns Hopkins University, he was
filled with anxiety about the future. He was about to finish school and was
uncertain about what would happen after graduation. One night he happened to
pick up a book of the noted 19th century English poet, Thomas Carlyle, and read
the following sentence: "Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a
distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand." Those lines made a difference
for Osler. Years later, when he returned to
England to be knighted by the
King, he remarked in his acceptance speech: "More than anything else, I owe
whatever success I have to the power of settling down to the day's work and
trying to do it to the best of my ability, and let the future take care of
advised: "We are to believe and live and love and work as though Jesus Christ
died yesterday, rose today, and is coming tomorrow." If we are doing our duty,
however simple that duty may be, on the day Christ comes for us, we shall not be
I close with this.
In the opening chapter of his book, The Invisible Pyramid, Dr. Loren
Eiseley, who was a distinguished professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, relates the story
of seeing Halley's Comet as a young child in 1910. His father had lifted him to
his shoulder as they stood in a field and gazed at the flaming comet crossing
the sky. It was a moment of intimacy between father and son that Eiseley
cherished all of his life. Eiseley remembered how his father had whispered in
his ear: "It will come again (in 75 or 80 years) and you will see it again . .
. . I will be gone, and you will have grown old . . . . but you will wait and
see it again for me." Unfortunately, Eiseley died in the summer of 1977, before
the comet returned. Eiseley left no sons or daughters to see it for him or for
The church, on the
other hand, is the community that always has a generation waiting for the
appearance of Christ in whatever form that may be. Jesus’ message to watch and
wait is passed on from generation to generation, through the Gospel, through the
celebration of Advent, and through the community of faith as it prays those
closing words of the New Testament, "Maranatha!" "Come, Lord Jesus."