10-16-11 SHADES OF GRAY: GREAT EXPECTATIONS

SHADES OF
GRAY: GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Matthew 24:
42-51

The
idea of watching for the return of Christ, similar to the Old
Testament term, “the day of the Lord,” gets more press and
attention with fringe religious groups than it does in many churches
on regular Sunday mornings. Why is that? The second coming of Christ
is referred to more than 350 times in the New Testament. By contrast,
baptism, the subject of sermons almost yearly, is mentioned just 13
times in the writings of Paul, but the return of the Lord is
mentioned 50 times. And each month as we partake of Holy Communion, I
repeat words like this: “And each time we eat this bread and drink
this cup, we do show forth the Lord’s death until he comes again.”
It is what we believe, but is it that for which we long? Perhaps
there is fear that we will not be judged worthy; or perhaps we failed
to listen well enough to what scales God uses in judging us. Perhaps
it is that we are actually quite afraid of death and have failed to
prepare for it and loathe thinking about it. But a day will come,
when you are ready or when you are not, when you will have to think
about death. Just this week I sat down with a person to plan
ingredients for her memorial service. Good for her. I remember a man
of faith who planned ahead before his death; he met with an attorney,
and with me, and as he lived the rest of his life he had peace in his
heart where his finances would go, he knew where his soul would go
after death, and he chose leave some of his assets to his church. If
the streets of Heaven are paved with gold, Heaven didn’t need his
money, Jesus just welcomed another disciple. The man gave generously
while he was alive; and he has kept giving, through his planned gift,
while he is in heaven. Faithful people plan for the day of the Lord.
And we know that that day- for people of faith, for baptized
followers of Christ, for those who humbly honor God- that day will be
wonderful.

Billy
Sunday, the great revivalist preacher I mentioned a few weeks ago,
was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Referring to the day we meet
Christ face to face, he once said this: “The meeting is to be the
greatest meeting the Bible tells anything about. There have been some
wonderful meetings, but never has there been one to compare to this.
It was a wonderful meeting the children of Israel had on the shore of
the Red Sea, after Pharaoh’s pursuing host had been destroyed in
the angry waters, and Miriam the prophetess, with her timbrel, led
the people in singing, ‘Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed
gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.’
And it was another great meeting they had at the foot of Mount Sinai,
when the law of God was given to them amid thunders and lightnings
and fire and smoke….It was a wonderful meeting when Jesus preached
the Sermon on the Mount; and another when he fed the multitude with
five loaves and two fish. And that was a great meeting on the day of
Pentecost, when the Spirit came rushing like a mighty wind….But no
meeting has ever been held anywhere or any time that could begin to
compare in importance with the greatest of all meetings that is to be
held in the air, when our Lord comes ….That meeting is the one for
which all others have been preparing the way. It will be the crowning
meeting of all history.” [BILLY SUNDAY “The Second Coming of
Christ.”]

The
crowd in Billy Sunday’s time, as in our time, also let complacency
set in about Christ’s return and about their own death. If we go
back hundreds of years, we find complacency even in the time of John
Calvin. In one of his sermons, he affirmed “Our Lord Jesus Christ
must appear from heaven. It is one of the principle articles of our
faith. His coming must not be useless. Then, we would look for it,
waiting for our redemption and salvation. We need not doubt it, for
that would violate all that our Lord Jesus Christ did and suffered.”
[John Calvin, “On the Final Advent of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”]
And, astoundingly, we find the chord of “watching and waiting”
sound even in the time of Christ. “Watch therefore” Jesus said in
our text today. And in Luke chapter 12 he says this: “Let your
loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like those who are
waiting on their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that
they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are
those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I
say to you, he will gird himself and have
them
sit at table, and he will come and serve
them.” Those are the
words of our Lord himself; he too was telling sensory stories, making
analogies, and sharing parables to try to teach messages that filled
with insights. And yet there were those in his time, in Calvin’s
time, in Billy Sunday’s time, and in our time who worry not about
the day when they meet Christ. Not only do they not worry, some even
repress it like they repress talk about death. Yet why should it be
that way? In choir practice this week we had a bit of a discussion
about the spelling of a word in the anthem. Some versions of “My
Lord, what a Mourning” spell it with a “u” in it:
m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g. Would that imply mourning, or sadness, for those who
had died and who had turned away an invitation to heaven? Would it
describe the saddened mourners who would surely wail over the death
of loved ones who died without a sure destination? Or would there,
instead, be a sense of expectation, of awe, of a new day when the one
who put the stars in the sky will make them fall into the abyss,
because starlight will no longer needed; the Lord God will the light
of the redeemed according to Revelation 22:5. M-o-r-n-i-n-g implies a
“glorious” morning, a new day, and a new life. So how did you
receive the words of the anthem today? Was its message frightful, or
was it hopeful? Perhaps that answer says much about your sureness of
your life in Christ.

I
wish that people would take Matthew 24, verse 42, and put it in their
wallet next to their money or their credit card so the next time they
plan to buy a book from a man who says he knows when Christ will
return they will just save their money and read the passage. Here it
is: “Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is
coming.” Some teachers in their classes clearly outline the day
that they will administer tests, midterms, and final exams. Other
teachers prefer to give quizzes that they call “pop quizzes.” I
used to really dislike pop quizzes. How are you supposed to be ready
when you don’t know
when
to be ready? Although some teachers may do it to try to trick or
irritate their class, the best teachers do it as a teaching tool, to
encourage students to learn as they go. God does not want us cramming
for life’s final exam or “pulling an all-nighter” as we called
it in college, to be ready for judgment day. Therefore God doesn’t
reveal when our last day will be, nor does God reveal when Christ
will come again. Not even Jesus himself knows, according to Jesus, a
few verses ahead of our text. Matthew 24: 36 reads: “But of that
day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the
Son, but only the Father knows.” Why would God leave us in that
mystery? Instead of studying for the test, what would it be like to
live
every day as if
it were your last? What if,
today,
were your last day on earth? What would you say to people before you
leave here today? How might your prayers sound different in your
conversations with God; or would you be dusting off a prayer life
that has gotten as perfunctory as grace at meals? Who would you call
when you got home? Would you try to ease your troubled soul by
calling or seeing one with whom you recently had a fight; or might
you try to forgive the one you haven’t yet been able to forgive?
Jesus taught us to pray these words: “Forgive us our debts, as we
forgive our debtors.” Some say it “forgive us our trespasses, as
we forgive those who trespass against us.” If this was your last
day on earth, and you
knew
that your prayer asks God to forgive you to the same degree that you
have forgiven others, would you try to forgive that person today? Or
would you carrying a grudge? I am sure that no one carries grudges
into Heaven! But the issue is not just forgiveness; it is
procrastination. Jesus hasn’t returned in our lifetime so we decide
we’ll put off tomorrow what could be done today. Jesus’ knew
human nature, so he addresses in our text what happens “when the
master is delayed.” He knows all our human excuses; he knows our
temptations; but even
he
doesn’t know the days of our lives. Who he knows is his Father, and
those who get to know Jesus, know God.

So,
suppose I join all those wealthy religious authors who put out their
books, claiming that they have been given a sign, a word from God, of
when Christ is coming again! I have gotten the word from God! Christ
will return soon! You have a little time! Go and live all your days
as if you had just received such a notice from God.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
October 16, 2011