Come, Ready or Not
a sermon based on Luke 21: 25-26
Dr. David Rogne
A good many years ago a very devout elderly lady from a rural
village in Europe was visiting her children who lived in Chicago. After
being here only a few days, she came rushing into the house one evening
screaming: "He's coming! He's coming! Jesus is coming! I just saw him in
the sky." Her family ran outside to see what had caused such an outburst
and there, sure enough, riding across the night sky was a flying red
horse. Of course, it was attached to a Mobil Oil Company blimp;
something she had never seen. But, for one filled with expectation
regarding the return of her Lord, it looked very real.
are not relegated only to a past generation. They are very much a part
of the thinking of a great many denominations and individuals today. I
can remember some years ago, when I was barely a teenager, talking to a
lady who was quite confident that the end of the world was in sight.
Her calculations, which seemed impressive at the time, had convinced
her, that the return of Jesus was imminent. After I got through talking
with her, I didn't sleep for two nights, heaven might be a nice place
and all that, but I was still young, and if Jesus came too soon, I was
going to miss out on an awful lot of life. I was ready to accept the
inevitable, but I wasn't looking forward to it.
Today is the first
Sunday in Advent. Advent means "coming", and the scripture lessons for
Advent point to the ways that God comes among us. One of those ways is
through the Second Coming of Christ, which is referred to in our
scripture for today. I would like to have us think together today about
the meaning of the Second Coming of Christ.
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 Thessalonians 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.
The books of
Daniel and Revelation were written to enable the persecuted people of
another time to face their problems victoriously. They contain a
spiritual message for all time, but they were not intended to be a coded
history of the end of the world written in advance. Yet, all manner of
prophets have manipulated, multiplied, added, subtracted and divided the
numbers to be found in these books to come up with their own predictions
of 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.
Even in our era,
each time there is a panic or a depression, or a war, somebody says, "It
won’t be long now." I remember going to Bible camp as a youngster, when
I belonged to a church that was fond of such prophetic speculation, and
being told that the world situation being what it was, Jesus would
surely return within ten years. Fifty years have now elapsed.
I do not wish to
take issue with those who derive comfort from expecting the imminent
return of Christ. But I would like to remind them that because of the
outlandish claims some have made, there are many people who find no
relevance at all to the teaching of the Second Coming of Christ.
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 only open 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 p.m.,
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.” (Matthew 24:36) In another place he says, “..the Son of
Man is coming at an unexpected hour." (Matthew 24:44)
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.
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 the 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 (good things) 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 it 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. We must be
vigilant. The Second Coming symbolizes our hope.
In any event, the
important thing about the Second Coming is not its timing or its nature,
but what it teaches about our conduct.
For one thing, it
teaches us that we need to get ourselves ready to meet Christ. When
Dwight Eisenhower was president, he visited Denver. His attention was
called to a letter in the local newspaper saying that a six-year old
boy, suffering with cancer, had expressed a wish to see the president
before he died. One Sunday, a black limousine pulled up in front of the
boy's house. Ike stepped out of the car and knocked at the boy's front
door. The father, Donald Haley, not knowing the president's intention,
opened the door wearing beat up jeans, an old shirt, and a two-day
growth of beard. Standing behind him was the boy, Paul. Ike said, "Paul,
I understand you want to see me. I’m glad to meet you." Then he took the
boy to the limousine to show it to him, shook hands and left. The family
and neighbors talked bout the President's visit for a long time, but the
father always remembered it with regret because of the way he was
dressed. "What a way to meet the president of the United States," he
lamented. We, too, want to be ready when the time comes for us to meet
Another thing the
Second Coming of Christ teaches us is that the time to prepare is now.
There is a fable
which tells of three apprentice devils who came to earth to finish their
apprenticeship. They were talking with Satan, the chief of the devils,
about their plans to tempt and to ruin humanity. The first said, “I
will tell them that there is no God.” Satan answered, "You won't delude
many, for most know that there is a God.” The second said, “I will tell
them that there is no hell.” Satan said, “You won’t deceive anyone that
way; people know even now that there is hell to pay for sin. The third
said, “I will 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 mere is plenty of time.
Another thing the
Second Coming of Christ teaches us, is that we are to keep busy with the
work he has given us to do. A woman once asked John Wesley, "Suppose you
knew that you were going to die at 12 o'clock tomorrow night. How would
you spend your time? Wesley replied: "How Madam? Why just as I intend to
spend it now. I should preach this evening at Gloucester and again at
five tomorrow morning; after that I should ride to Tewksbury, preach in
the afternoon and meet the society in the evening; I should then repair
to friend Martin’s house...converse and pray with the family...retire at
ten o’clock, commend myself to my Heavenly Father; lie down to rest and
wake up in glory."
When Martin Luther
was asked how to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ he 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.
One more thing the
Second Coming of Christ teaches us is to stay at our task. It is
difficult for us to remain vigilant over the long haul. In Winston
Churchill's book, The Hinge of Fate, he describes the situation
as it was changing from defeat to hope for the allied powers in 1943.
About the Second World War he wrote, "Between survival and victory,
there are many stages. Henceforth, our danger was not destruction, but
stalemate.” In stalemate we may give up going for victory. In the stage
play, Waiting for Godot, two characters are waiting for Godot,
who never arrives. Life is filled with boredom and ennui as the
characters lose their alertness and forget why they are waiting. Long
term waiting is difficult. We are challenged to remain expectant.
At this time of
year we talk quite a bit about that first coming of Christ in Bethlehem.
We may talk some, as we have done today, of his eventual coming in the
future. But all of this will not have the slightest significance for us
unless Christ comes into our own lives. There is a saying that I have
seen on Christmas cards which is much to the point: "Though Christ a
thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he is not born in you, then you
are most forlorn."
We cannot dictate
when or how Christ comes in future glory, but we make ourselves ready
for it by opening our hearts to him now. "Ready or not," he says, "Here
I come." May he find us ready.