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Here I Come, Ready or Not

a sermon based on Luke 21: 25-26
y 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.

Such expectations 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.

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 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 Christ.

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.