Advent I — December 2, 2007
Grace Church, Utica
Every so often, while looking through a magazine, you’ll run across one of those cartoons that shows a barefoot man with long hair— probably wearing a tattered robe of some kind— standing on a corner holding a sign that reads, “THE END IS NEAR.” We usually smile, and probably recall a previous experience with somebody we’ve always thought of as a religious nut.
Or you’ll be driving down the highway and see a sign along the way that reads: “JESUS IS COMING. PREPARE TO MEET YOUR GOD.” And we chuckle.
Most of us don’t think much about those things; we’re not particularly concerned about the end of the world, and we’re not very worried about Judgement Day. Events like the attacks of 9-11 shock and frighten us— but only for a brief time. For the most part, we’re just too busy, too wrapped up in our own agendas. We take solace in our belief that life, like “Ol’ Man River”, will just keep rollin’ along.
But every year, just like clockwork, Advent rolls around; and we hear these Gospel lessons that speak of the Lord’s second coming. So what are we to make of it? Is it something we should dismiss as the misguided idea of times past? Remnants of another culture and another world view? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Every week in the Nicene Creed we affirm and give assent to the Church’s Faith that Jesus “...will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” So regardless of what our feelings and opinions might be, and regardless of whether or not we’re comfortable with it, one of the central beliefs of the Christian Church down through the ages has been that the Lord will return, and there will be an end to human history as we have known it.
This morning I’d like to say not only that I believe it’s true, but that it has some important implications for how we live. In fact, you might compare it to the secret ingredient in a recipe— the one that in the final analysis makes all the difference.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says:
“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
Now what’s wrong with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage? Well, nothing’s wrong with it. The problem says Jesus, is that “...they knew nothing....” They knew nothing until the flood came. They knew nothing about what was going on around them, or why. In other words, they knew nothing about what God was up to; they had no awareness of God’s presence, and they took no account of God as they ate and drank and got married, and did whatever else they did. They were secular-minded people. They lived life as though it had no vertical dimension. They lived their lives cut-off from God and they pretended that there was no accountability.
Jesus goes on to say:
Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal togther; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
And here’s the secret ingredient. To all appearances the two men in the field will be alike. No difference will be apparent from the outside. The same with the two women at the mill— the way they work and the results they get will be the same. But here’s the difference: One goes about life with a knowledge of and love for God, and the other doesn’t. One eats and drinks and marries, and does it all with an awareness of the presence of God in his or her life; the other just eats and drinks and marries, and there’s nothing more to it. And while it may all look the same on the outside, it makes all the difference in the world in a person’s outlook and sense of purpose in life.
Just like food without salt or bread without yeast, you know there’s something missing when it’s not there. This secret ingredient, which of course is nothing secret at all, gives us a view of eternity. It makes us aware that all of life, everything that happens in it, has a particular end in view. That end is our salvation— living eternally in God’s presence. It also opens our eyes to the truth that God’s eternity doesn’t begin sometime later down the road. We’re already in it. And the choices we make each and every day determine whether or not our lives give witness to that truth, and whether or not we experience that reality..
Christians are called to live with that eternal viewpoint. It’s a spiritual reality. It’s not something your can weigh on the scales. You can’t dissect it with a scalpel. You can’t photograph it with x-ray equipment. One man, chopping weeds with his hoe, will have it; the other man, working just as hard and maybe doing just as good a job, may not have it. You can’t always tell. But it makes all the difference in the world in helping us to keep things in perspective, in giving us a sense of direction and motivation when things around us seem to be falling apart.
One theologian has said that preparing for the Lord’s second coming is a little like preparing for death. Well suppose one morning you feel a lump on your body. You go to the doctor and you find out it’s malignant. You’re told that at the most you have six months to live. Won’t that affect how you look at the farmland as you drive down the road? The way you savor your food? The way you talk to and with other people?
Well, six months, six years, six decades... not one of us knows how long we’re going to have on this earth. The truth is that this is the only day we know for sure that we’re going to have. So how small of me— on what could be my last day— to spend my time raking other people over the coals. What a waste, on what could be my last day, to spend it in anger and bitterness. How sad, on what could be my last day, to miss opportunities to do loving and thoughtful things.
On the other hand, what a privilege, on what could be my last day, to be living with a conscious awareness of God’s presence, both in my life and in the lives of those around me. What a breath of fresh air to be honest and open with people, loving and being loved, forgiving and being forgiven. What a pleasure, on what could be my last day, to respect the dignity of everyone I meet, no matter who they are or where they’ve come from.
This is the only day we have, for sure. What a privilege and what a pleasure to live it with a view of eternity— knowing that we are loved and valued by God for who and what we are, that God has a purpose for us, and always looks at our weaknesses with the compassionate eyes of His Son. And it’s that view of eternity and our place in it that can save us from merely existing, with no sense of purpose or direction.
Pray that the Lord will keep us alert and watchful, so that we’ll always be ready for Him— both today, when He comes in the common things of life, and tomorrow, when He comes in glory.
© James M. Jensen