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Live Like Today Is The Day

Based on Matthew 24:36-44
By Dr. David Rogne

A man who lived on Long Island sent away for an expensive barometer. When the instrument arrived at his home he was disappointed to note that the only sector it would point to was the one marked "Hurricane". After shaking the barometer vigorously several times, its new owner wrote a scorching letter to the company from which he had purchased the instrument. The following morning, on his way to his office in New York he mailed the letter. That evening he returned to Long Island to find not only the barometer missing, but his house also. The barometer's needle had been right.

The Bible has for centuries attempted to tell the human race what the future holds so that people could be forewarned and take whatever steps were necessary to prepare themselves. One of the predictions referred to frequently in the New Testament is the expected second coming of Christ. Some say this took place on the first Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, when the disciples all sensed that the Holy Spirit had come upon them. After all, Jesus had said he would not leave them comfortless. Others say that Jesus comes a second time whenever he comes into an individual's life and changes that person into someone different. There are those who say that Christ comes again in the life of each of us when we die. We go to be with him in the presence of God. Still others say that all people should be treated as reappearances of Christ, for he did say, ...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are the members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:40)

These may all be valid interpretations of the second coming, but a great host of Christians throughout the history of the church have expected a more glorious and concrete return of Christ. That expectation has kept Christians alert when they have been tempted to laziness. It has provided hope when the outlook for people of faith has been grim. Unfortunately, it has also led to date-setting and outlandish claims of knowing more than Jesus claimed to know. For example, in 1857 one religious writer said:... about thirty-five years from this time, the Jews will return to Palestine; in sixty-five years they will become converts to Christianity; in one hundred years they will, with the blessing of God and the cooperation of Gentile believers, carry the victories of the cross to the remotest parts of the Earth, and introduce the golden period of the Messiah's reign." Because of such misguided claims Christianity has often been subjected to scorn. For that reason many Christians of this generation have been loath to speak much of the second coming.

Even in Luther's time, 350 years ago, there was much wild speculation about the return of Christ. In an effort to bridle that speculation Luther reminded his hearers that humans have no
control over what God may choose to do. What we need to focus on is what we can do in the present. He gave some advice which I would like to use as the basis of my message for today: "We are to believe and live and love and work," he said, "as though Jesus Christ died yesterday, rose today, and is coming again tomorrow."

The first thing he advises Christians to do then, is to believe as though Christ would return tomorrow. What we believe affects our attitude. "If you think you can, or if you think you can't, you're right," said Henry Ford. What you accomplish is enlarged or limited by what you believe. Karl Menninger, the psychiatrist, went so far as to say that "attitudes are more important than facts."

What we believe or do not believe affects our actions. Jerry Whitworth was sentenced to 365 years in prison for his role in the Walker spy ring, which stole naval information and sold it to the Soviets. When the judge passed sentence he said that Whitworth was not acting out of sympathy for the Soviets. Rather, the judge said Whitworth was a person who "did not believe in anything at all. He is the type of modern man whose highest expression lies in his amorality."

We are called to believe as though Jesus were coming tomorrow. Belief can be strengthened and cultivated by working at it. For 444 days Kathryn Koob was held as an American hostage in Iran. In her account of her captivity she tells of a spiritual awakening which occurred during her imprisonment. She writes of her developing prayer life and her increasing ability to rely on God despite captivity and chaos. "During this time I began to learn about joy," she writes. She witnesses to the preciousness of memorized Scriptures and hymns, and of the memory of life in the church, which she felt had prepared her to deal with her situation. She wrote her book, Guest of the Revolution, to show that what we are teaching in our churches is what gives people strength. Belief is not something we either have or don't have. We can take steps now to nourish what we have, whether much or little, so it will strengthen us in the time of testing.

The second thing Luther advises us to do is to live as though Christ were to return tomorrow. Certainly, that means to live adventurously. Sometimes, we search for a placid existence, as though the Christian life is supposed to be a life without challenges. Such a life can become boring and paralyze our potential for zestful living. If life is spent simply waiting for God to act, we may be brought to a standstill. In order to stay alive we need to continue to stir the pot.

John Halvorsen knew the security of a tenured position on the faculty of a theological seminary. He gave it up to return to the parish ministry. When a religious journal asked him about the switch he said, "I felt I had pretty much shot my wad at the seminary. I knew it was now or never if I was going to change, because I felt my most effective period as a teacher was over. My father used to say to me, 'Son, stop your sermon while they're still willing to listen.' So that's what I did with regard to teaching. It's been hard work, but I'm glad I could make the adjustment." In vocation as well as faith there must be a newness that challenges. Even if we are waiting for Christ to come again to set things straight, there are plenty of decisions we need to make daily which will make life an adventure.

To live awaiting the return of Christ is also to acknowledge that our life is subject to review. O. Henry tells the story of a thief who sat one evening smoking a big cigar in the park. He had swindled a child out of a dollar for breakfast, and tricked a simple-hearted old man out a wad of money for dinner. He was very satisfied with himself. As evening fell he saw a young woman hurrying home. Their eyes met briefly and he knew at once that she was a girl who had thought much of him in high school. In her innocent look he felt his whole lifestyle was being judged. He quickly fled down a side street, laid his burning face against a lamp post and murmured, "God, I wish I could die." Meeting up with Christ may be similarly revealing, but living with the expectation that such a meeting is coming can have a profound impact on the way we allow ourselves to live.

Luther also advises us to love as though Christ may return tomorrow. Certainly that means that we need to express love while we have the opportunity. I conducted a funeral a while back in which people were invited to pass by the casket of the deceased. At the end of the procession appeared the adult son of the man whose body was in the casket. The son and the deceased man had fallen out with each other in recent years and had not healed the breach. Now the son stood there sobbing and protesting his love to ears that could no longer hear what was being said. How often we presume that we have plenty of time to tell someone they are loved, and so we put it off. The reminder that Christ could come tomorrow encourages us to do what love requires right now and not to put it off. There may not be another chance.

Finally, Luther advises, work as though Christ may return tomorrow. For some believers that leads to a wearying activism. A favorite hymn of such people is:

"Rise up, O men of God!

His Kingdom tarries long,

Bring in the day of brotherhood

and end the night of wrong."

It is their feeling that if God's will is to be done on earth, it is altogether up to us to do it.

Others respond to this call to work as though Christ may return tomorrow as a reminder of our powerlessness to accomplish God's will. Such people live as though the hymn read:

"Sit down, O men of God,

His Kingdom he will bring

Just as and when and where he will,

You cannot do a thing."

The truth is that we are called to cooperate with God, we doing our part and God doing his. Wallace Stegner, a California writer, describes how the gifted photographer, Ansel Adams, went about creating his hauntingly beautiful photographs of the Owen Valley in California. "Adams first quietly studied the landscape. He visualized how the finished print would look. He knew what he was looking for. Then he went to dinner and then to bed. In the chilly predawn blackness of the following morning, he came back. As he waited, clear, grey, sourceless light grew until it showed him the meadow with its shadowy horse, the mottled foothill, and the impressive loom of the Sierras. He set up the camera and went under the cloth. Then he came out and waited some more. He waited and watched. The sun moved some. He went under the cloth, came out again and waited. Another beam of light hit the eastern mountains in the background. Adams went under the cloth again, waited for the precise instant, and only then did he click the shutter." God created the mountains, the valley, the horse and the sun, but Adams employed the skill and the patience which captured the scene and made it a blessing for others to enjoy.

I close with this. While on one of his expeditions to the Antarctic, Sir Ernest Shackleton was compelled to leave some of his men on Elephant Island with the intention of returning for them and carrying them back to England. Through a series of mishaps he was delayed, and by the time he could go for them he found that the sea had frozen over and his men were cut off. Three times he tried to reach them but his efforts ended in failure. Finally, during his last effort, he found a narrow channel in the ice. Guiding his small ship back to the island, he was delighted to find his men not only alive and well, but all prepared to get aboard quickly. They were soon on their way to safety and home. After the excitement ended, Sir Ernest inquired how it was that they were ready to get aboard so promptly. They told him that every morning their leader rolled up his sleeping bag, saying, "Get your things ready, boys, the boss may come today."

The needle on our barometer has been predicting one thing for a long time: the return of Christ. It doesn't say when, or how, or where. It simply reminds us to get things ready. The boss may come for us at any time.