Advent 1A Matthew 24:36-44
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 the world.)
It was January 27, 1986. We were getting ready. The whole nation was getting ready. 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. 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, especially that young woman astronaut, that school teacher. 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 (clap). Jesus said, “So will it be with you at the end of time. I will come unexpecedly, like a thief in the night; like a trap that snaps shut, suddenly, quickly and you won’t be expecting it at all.
It happened right after Christmas in South East Asia. December 26, 2004. You were part of it all. It was the second largest recorded earthquake at 9:31 on the Richter scale. The tsunami waves spread out across the Indian Ocean.. We all now know the meaning of the word, "tsunami," and that wave rolled silently across that part of the world and 220,000 were left dead in a moment (soft sharp clap) of rushing water and sudden death. People five thousand miles away from the epicenter of the earthquake were killed in that deadly rush of water. And Jesus said, "And so it will be at the end of time, the time of your time and my time. It will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. It will come suddenly like the sharp sound (clap) of a trap slamming closed.
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 (clap), 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” believed ni God, believed in heaven and hell, believed in the last judgment. But the "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 cream.”
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.
Then, suddenly (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, Dr. Wee 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. Matt Hasselback, the quarter back. If he gets hurt in today's game, we want his sub to be ready at that very moment. Not five minutes later or at the end of the quarter or after the game. But right now. The same is true for Shaun Alexander, our great running back. If he is hurt, we want his sub to be ready now, at the moment, and not at the end of the game. 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 may happen. And the Lord God wants us to be ready to meet God now, in this moment, to be ready now to face God face to face.
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, of readiness.
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 mention four.
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 in paradise.”
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 children.
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 life.
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 the Lord God is gracious and forgiving.
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 tomorrow.
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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