Advent 1B Mark 13:24-37
Advent 1C Luke 21:25-36
(This sermon can be used on any Sundays that focus on the end of
It was January 27,
1986. We were getting ready. The whole nation was getting ready. It
was going to be a special time in the life of our nation. It was
going to be a great day. All
eyes were watching the television sets. It was going to be the all
time greatest space launching. All the right professionals were
there. We had a
schoolteacher; a woman; an astronaut.
It was one of the most exciting days in American history.
We were glued to the television set because we knew it was
going to be a historic moment. We loved the stories of the people
who were going to go out and orbit the earth that day. We waited and
waited, and suddenly there was an ignition of all that power and the
rocket shot high into the air, high, high, and higher into the air.
And suddenly, the rocket exploded, and our dreams exploded;
and our hopes exploded. Suddenly,
there came a river of tears from our eyes. Jesus said, “And so
shall it be at the end of history.
It will come suddenly (snap of thumb and forefinger or a
sharp clap of the hands) like a thief in the night; like a snare;
like a trap that snaps (clap) shut. So quickly. (A sharp sound
improves this sermon; like a snap of the two fingers or a clap of
two hands, sounding like a trap suddenly snapping shut. I used the
sound of a clap because the noise was louder and sharper.)
It happened near
Naples, Italy. It happened sixty miles from Naples, Italy. There was a
little Italian town by a name that sounds like Bowlwana. It was located in an earthquake zone. In 1930, fourteen hundred people were killed in a massive
earthquake in that same town. Earlier
in 1908, 123,000 people were killed in earthquakes in that region of
the world. Yes, I said,
123,000 died. All the seismologists said, “Be alert. Be ready. You
are a fool to live here. If you had any brains, you would move away.
You are living in a major earthquake zone.
And then suddenly, like the sound of a snap, unexpectedly, an
earthquake hit. 6.8 on the Richter scale. Within thirty minutes,
l400 people had died. Yes, they knew it was coming but it happened
so…suddenly (snap). Jesus said, “So will it be with you at the
end of time. I will
come like a thief in the night; like a trap that snaps shut,
suddenly, quickly and you won’t be expecting it at all.
I go to the
hospital often. I go there a good deal.
I visited a woman. She was so healthy, so vigorous, so strong.
She said, “I’ve never been sick a day in my whole life.
What am I doing in this place?” Yesterday, she was so strong;
today she is so weak; and tomorrow, she is gone. She is dead.
It happened so suddenly (snap).
She wasn’t expecting it. None of us were, especially her
family. Jesus said, “And so the end will come suddenly (snap),
unexpectedly, like a thief in the night; like a trap that snaps
shut. So quickly.
It is with these
images that we approach the gospel lesson for the First Sunday of
Advent. The theme for the First Sunday of Advent is always this: be
ready, be alert, be ready at all times to meet your God because suddenly,
the end of all history is going to be here.
Because, suddenly, the end of your history
is going to be here; the end of my history is going to be
here. The invitation
for you and me today is to be ready, is to be ready at all times, to
meet God face to face.
You see, there was
a problem in the early church and there were so many people who
“weren’t ready.” In my mind, there were two groups of
people in those early Christian days and even Christians today.
They were the “here and now Christians” and the “here
and now pagans.”
First, about the
“here and now Christians.” These “here and now Christians”
lived only for today and took no thought for tomorrow. They were
busy and lived primarily for the things of this life; school, job,
kids, home, car, activities. They
were so busy they didn’t have time to think about tomorrow and
even less about the end of history. They didn’t have time to
believe that Christ was coming soon. Coming soon was just for the
fanatics who taught such things. These “here and now” felt
young; they had never been sick a day in their lives; and death
seemed far away. They thought, “Eat, drink and be merry for
tomorrow is another day to eat, drink and be merry and do what you
want to do. There is no final judgment. God is all peaches and
Then, there is a
second group of people. I
call these the “here and now pagans.” They believe there is no
God; there is no heaven; not hell; no end of the world; the world
always was and the world always will be. It is no longer, “Eat,
drink and be merry; it is eat, drink and sleep with Mary. It is no
longer eat, drink and be merry, but eat, drink and sleep with Harry.
Do what you want to do. You
have only one time around. Live it to the fullest. There is no moral
law with moral retribution.
(snap) both groups died, and suddenly (snap) both groups met face to
face with God. Both groups met God face to face. The “here and now
Christians” and the “here and now pagans;” they all suddenly
met God face to face.
The gospel for
today is an invitation for you and me to live with a sense of
readiness; that we are ready to meet God face to face, tomorrow.
What are some
examples of this readiness to meet God face to face? I thought of
three simple illustrations of this sense of readiness, this positive
tension, this being prepared.
The first is when I
was a young youth director at Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison,
Wisconsin; I worked with Dr. Morris Wee, the senior pastor and my
mentor. Its 1963 and I was a young kid out of college and worked as
a youth director in this gigantic Lutheran church. At Bethel
Lutheran in Madison, Wisconsin, when you went to do the liturgy
every Sunday morning, there in a small back dressing room for
preachers, he always asked if I had a sermon in my back pocket.
“Edward, are you ready to preach?” He thought we should
always come to church prepared to preach. Dr. Wee then checked our
fingernails to make sure our fingernails were clean; he then checked
our shoes to make sure they were shined; and then he checked our
pockets, whether or not we had a sermon, because we had to be ready
to preach every Sunday. We had to be emotionally and spiritually
prepared and not coast or slide into church… It was Easter
morning, forty years ago and I can still remember the day as if it
were yesterday. We had finished the sunrise service, and there was
an early morning telephone call, and Dr. Wee answered it, talked,
hung up, looked at me and said, “Ed, a pastor had a sudden heart
attack, and they don’t have anybody to do the worship service, and
you are going to preach today, on Easter Sunday, of all times.
Are you ready?” I laughed nervously and laughed again
nervously and finally squeaked out, “Yes, Dr. Wee.
I am ready. What
was your sermon again?”
Dr. Wee taught me
to live with that sense of readiness, to be ready at all times and
on every Sunday morning to be ready to preach. You didn’t come
coasting into Dr. Wee’s church on Sunday morning; you had to be
ready and prepared.
A second example
that I thought of: if
you are an athlete, and you are playing for the Seattle Seahawks,
and you are a sub. You
have to have a readiness that the starter is going to be injured.
You have to be ready; you have to be prepared;
that’s the name of he game if you are a sub; you have to be
just as ready as if you were on the field. There is a sense
of readiness that you are going to go to work in the very near
future. There is that
edginess, that sense of preparation, an anticipation that it just
A third example.
A readiness not only to preach, not only to play, but a
readiness to go to work as a fireman. Scott Ervin in our
congregation is a fireman. He
doesn’t know when the alarm will go off; but sometime
during the day, he knows that he is going to get that call.
Meanwhile, fireman may be working on the fire engines; they
may be working with the values and hoses but suddenly (snap) and
suddenly (snap) he as a fireman has to go immediately. It is a
matter of life and death to go quickly, now, immediately and not to
wait around and think about it. You live in a state of preparation,
And so it is with a
Christian. Just like a fireman, we live with a sense of readiness, an
edginess, a positive tension, of momentary involvement.
Just like a sub on a football team. Just like a young buck,
wet behind the years, always being prepared to preach.
What are some
qualities of this readiness I am talking about? I will briefly
The first is this:
to live with the assurance that I am a child of God, that you
are a child of God, that if I died today, that if you died today,
that you would know for sure, without a trace of doubt, that you
will be with Jesus Christ. This readiness is a confidence, an
assurance, an awareness that God is gracious, that I am a child of
God, that God truly knows my first, middle and last name. That my
salvation does not rest on my good behavior, my good theology, or my
good denominational pedigree. None
of these. That I know
for sure that I am a child of God loved eternally by God.
I think of the
thief on the cross. Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me
in paradise.” It’s done. No works righteousness. Nothing he can
do. No religious pedigree. Pure grace.
And God says that to us as well, “Today you will be with me
Again this past
week and the week before, I talked to little children, and I
asked the little children, “Do you know what will happen if you
mother or daddy dies? The little children all knew the
answer; “My mom and dad will be with Jesus in heaven.” “How
about you if you die? Where will you be?” The little children know
the answer; they know the truth; in heaven. When we become older
children and adults, we tend to make it more complicated. …The
first component of this readiness is to trust God like little
A second quality of
this readiness to meet God face to face is to be a person of love.
To be a person of love with your nearest and dearest, with
your husband and wife, sons or daughters, your moms, your dads, your
closest friends, strangers and others in need. If you are going to
die tomorrow, why would you want to have a big fight with your
spouse today? If you are going to die tomorrow, why would you want
to neglect your child today? If you are going to die tomorrow, why
do you want to allow that conflict to perpetuate itself today? If
you are going to die tomorrow, why do you want to allow that
conflict to simmer?
To live as if I am
going to meet God face to face tomorrow is not only to avoid doing
the negative things, but to do the positive things. I not only avoid
having a fight with my spouse, but I do something nice for her
today. Isn’t it a pleasure to do something wonderful, tender and
nice for your spouse, your parents, your children, or even that
person with whom there is conflict? To have this sense of readiness:
to be a person of love.
A third quality of
this readiness is to do the job. To do the tasks that God has given
you to do. Personally,
I have added up the roles that God has given me to do, and I think
that I have eleven or twelve roles that I do. Hear me out. I am a
husband to a wife. I am a father to three children. I am a
grandparent to four grandchildren and one more on the way. I am
still a son to my mother and father, even though they are deceased.
I am a brother to my brother and sisters. I am uncle to eleven
children. I am a cousin to a swarm of cousins and a nephew to the
few aunts and uncles who are still alive. I am a pastor to a
congregation. I am a friend to a whole bunch of people. I am a
neighbor to many people on our street and neighborhood. I am a
citizen of Des Moines and the United States of America. I am a
member of the human race of about five or six billion people I am a
caretaker of this planet earth. Plus I have many more jobs and roles
that I haven’t mentioned but that God wants me to do.
To live with a sense of readiness is to do my many jobs; it
is to do the several tasks that God has given to me to do. With
integrity. And to do these jobs in such a way that God will be
proud. To do it in such
a way that when God sees me tomorrow face to face, God will say,
“Good job. Good job that you did yesterday.” To live your life in such
a way that God would be proud of the way that you are living your
The fourth quality
of this sense of readiness to meet God face to face is to be loyal
to the values of Jesus Christ. To be loyal to a sense of love,
justice and compassion, to always have a special concern and action
for the poor. In the book of Romans, it says to the Christians,
“Knowing that the time is coming near, don’t do what the world
is doing.” There are to be no orgies, no drunkenness, no sexual
immorality, no sexual indecency, no fighting, no jealousy. Don’t
do these things. For Christ is coming soon; Christ is coming to meet
you tomorrow; and if Christ is coming to meet you tomorrow, live and
cling to the values of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Don’t
embarrass Christ with your behaviors; live life so Christ will be
proud of you.
As a young child, I
was taught to loyal to Christ and not embarrass Christ by my
behaviors. Let me tell you a story about living life so as to not
embarrass Christ.. I remember as a boy growing up in Jackson,
Minnesota. How I loved growing up in Jackson. When I was a boy of
fourteen or fifteen years old, I would hear all kinds of sermons
about the end of the world. My childhood pastor really liked to
preach about the end of the world, so we had lots of sermons about
it. We also had a man who was a Jehovah’s Witness who always came
to our gas station, and I would pump his gas and fill up his blue
1949 Oldsmobile. Once a week, while at the gas pump, he would try to
convert me to become a Jehovah’s Witness and let me know that the
end of the world was coming. I even wrote a paper when I was a
senior in high school about the end of the world. That shows you
what a religious fanatic I must have been if I wrote a senior high
school paper about Revelation and the coming end of the world. If
you were a little boy or girl growing up in Jackson, Minnesota, you
thought that just maybe the end of the world would come.
So from my
pastor’s sermons, the questions of the Jehovah’s Witness and my
fascination with the end the world, so much so that I wrote a paper
on it during my senior year of high school, I learned that I was not
to get caught doing anything to embarrass Jesus Christ because I may
be “left behind,” to use a contemporary popular phrase.. If
Jesus Christ came, I didn’t want him to find me at the local pool
hall. I can see it as if it were yesterday, the smoke over the green
pool tables. I can smell that room. I loved going by the local pool hall;
but I didn’t want to be caught there if Jesus Christ came back
tomorrow. If Christ came back and I was in the pool hall, I may be
left behind. … Also I didn’t want to be caught reading a dirty
magazine at the local drug store, in the bottom rack at the local
drugstores, out of sight but not out of reach of little Jackson
boys. If Christ came back and I was reading a dirty magazine, I may
be left behind. … Also, I didn’t want to be caught going “too
far” with Lorna Finkelbaum, my girlfriend. No, no, no, no. When Jesus Christ came back and we really felt Christ was
coming back quite soon, I didn’t want to be caught doing anything
that was embarrassing to Jesus. If Christ came back and I was going
“too far” with Lorna, I may be left behind. That was a
fundamental moral principle by which I lived in childhood.
Today, I would like
to make it very clear. I would like it clearly understood that if
Christ came back and I was in the pool hall shooting pool, on in the
drug store reading dirty magazines with the other boys or in the
back seat of the car going too far with Lorna, I would not be left
behind. I now realize that the love of Christ is stronger than the
judgment of Christ, that I belong to Jesus Christ even as I am a
sinner, that the grace of Christ is stronger than my sin. Jesus
Christ will not leave me behind. Why? Because he is gracious and
As I look back on
my life, I chuckle and laugh, but …
there is an element of truth to my experience. That is, if
Jesus Christ does come today, I do not want to embarrass Jesus
Christ by the way I am living. So while I chuckle and laugh, I still
believe that I want to live my life in such a way that Jesus Christ
would be proud and not embarrassed by my behaviors.
Who is this passage
of Scripture addressed to today? It must be the old people, everyone
who is sixty and over, receiving ARP advertisements, on social
security or getting ready to die. Those people think more about
mortality and death; these Bible verses are for them.
I don’t think so.
Life changes so quickly. The totality of life moves by so quickly.
… I look at an
infant, and the infant today is a two year old tomorrow.
And you blink and the child is thirteen.
And you blink, where did time go, and the kid is now a young
adult. I blink my eyes again and you are now married.
I blink my eyes again and you have children.
I blink my eyes again and those children are gone and you
have an empty nest. I blink my eyes again and you are grandparents.
I blink my eyes again and you are a widow or widower. I blink my
eyes again and you are ready to die. That’s the way life is.
Who is this passage
for? It is for all of us because it, life, moves so quickly,
doesn’t it? …I was a baby and suddenly (snap) I was two years
old; and then suddenly (snap), I was ten, growing up in Jackson,
Minnesota. And before I knew it, (snap), suddenly I was twenty and
at college; suddenly I was thirty and a pastor in Eugene, Oregon;
(snap) suddenly I was forty and a pastor in Seattle, Washington; and
suddenly (snap) I was sixty and thinking about retirement; and
suddenly (snap) I was eighty and getting ready to die. Suddenly
(snap) there was an explosion in the sky and the astronauts were
gone; and suddenly (snap) there was an earthquake and 1400 people
were gone; suddenly (snap), the woman was healthy today and gone
Suddenly, all of
life happens to suddenly, doesn’t it? And Jesus said to all people
of all ages, the end will come so suddenly (snap); live today as if
you were going to meet God face to face tomorrow. Amen.
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