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Mark 13:24-37
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 in glory!"

Shelby acknowledges 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 this life.

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 been--hope."

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 itself."

Martin Luther 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 ashamed.

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 their grandfather.

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."