Sunday, November 28, 2010

Being Ready

Texts: Isaiah 2:6-22; Matthew 24:36-51

IT WAS OCTOBER 22ND, 1844. ALL THAT day, all over the Northeastern United States, men, women, and children were gathered in fields and on hilltops, ready, waiting. They sang hymns. They prayed. But mostly they strained their eyes to the heavens, expecting at any moment to see the Lord Jesus Christ descending from the skies. They were there on that day because their leader, an amateur theologian named William Miller, had added up dates and times he got out of Scripture and decided that's when the Day of the Lord was to be. But the sun moved on in the sky, the daylight hours faded, the evening darkness marched on to midnight. But nothing happened. The Lord did not return on October 22nd, 1844, or on any day thereafter. This event went down in American history as "The Great Disappointment." Those who'd expected Christ's coming that day were brokenhearted. Some renounced the Christian faith altogether.

Those Christians were ready for Jesus' return. Most of them had sold their land and businesses. They'd given away all their worldly goods and renounced all involvement with this present evil age. Their thoughts and hopes were focussed on Christ alone. They were ready. Why did it go wrong? Was it only because Mr. Miller dared to set a date? Or was it something else as well?

Certainly, we must be prepared for the day of our Lord's coming. Jesus says so in Matthew 24:44. This word He originally gave to the disciples who walked He also intends for us. In the year A.D. 2010 as in A.D. 33, our Lord's warning is the same: "Keep watch! Be ready!" But how?

Isaiah shows us how to be radically unready. We didn't read this part, but the first five verses of chapter 2 show us the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in the last days. They tell of the time when all God's people, Jew and Gentile, will be united as one under the word of the Lord, walking in one holy way and worshipping in one holy temple. Hear this good news: That word, that way, that temple is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who died for the sins of the world. By His Spirit He calls His Church from every nation and His return will bring about the perfection of God's plan for all mankind.

But in verses 6 though 9 we see how things really were in the earthly Jerusalem. And, sadly, it also points to how things frequently are among those who claim to be Christians today. Isaiah writes:

They are full of superstitions from the East;
they practice divination like the Philistines
and clasp hands with pagans.

Is it not enough for us that Jesus Christ died and rose again for us? Do we have to import Buddhist or Hindu spiritualities and practices into our lives as well? Do we have to talk about "karma" as if that were God's means for judging the world? Dare we reject the Holy Spirit Who has been sent to us to lead us into all truth? Do we need also to consult our horoscopes or quote so-called prophets like Nostradamus? Has not our Lord given us His holy Word the Bible to show us the way of faith and life? Why then do we consult our feelings or experiences or our "inner voice," instead of believing and doing what God says? And why do we "clasp hands with pagans" and pretend that Allah the god of the Muslims is the same as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Why do we even think it's possible to have "interfaith worship" with those who deny His godhead and call His atoning sacrifice a lie? Perhaps you don't do those things, but we all know Christians who do. People who engage in these practices will not be ready for our Lord's coming!

And hear what else the Spirit says through the prophet Isaiah:

Their land is full of silver and gold,
there is no end to their treasures.

I admit: In America today, we can definitely see coming to the end of our treasures. But fear of poverty and ruin can distract us from God just as much as excessive enjoyment of prosperity and wealth. Either way, we stop being interested in who God is and what He has done for us. We stop trusting in Him; rather, we live our lives "bow[ing] down to the work of [our] hands," as it says in verse 8. Isaiah was referring first of all to the actual idol statues that the faithless Jews were making and calling their gods, but this can also include everything we do for ourselves and put our faith in without giving praise and glory to God the Maker of heaven and earth. With such an attitude, how can we be ready and watching for the day of the Lord? With such an attitude, how could we escape the judgment it will bring?

Make no mistake about it: The day of the Lord will be a day of judgment. God has visited His people and the nations with His wrath many times throughout history, but the day of the Son of Man will be the culmination of them all, the day when all that stands opposed to the holiness, righteousness, and love of God in Christ will be shown for the filthy thing it is and will be swept from the sight of God forever. It will be the day when those whose sins have been covered by His grace will receive the glorious inheritance promised to them as children of God and co-heirs with His Son Jesus Christ. To be ready for the second coming of Christ is not a thing to take lightly!.

So we must take warning from what our Lord Jesus says in Matthew 24. He says,

"As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man."

There is nothing wrong with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. What was wrong in Noah's day is that these ordinary things were going on right alongside of overwhelming, God-defying wickedness. And people figured that as long as they could carry on their everyday lives, everything was all right and they didn't have to worry about what God might do about it all. St. Peter writes in his second letter that Noah was a preacher of righteousness. Noah told the people of his time that God would judge their rebellion, but they wouldn't listen. They were getting along well enough, why should they worry?

Jesus says it will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. Most people won't be ready. There will be widespread wrongdoing and evil that dare and defy God's judgment to come, but most people will still be managing to live life as normal. They'll think it's not a time when Jesus might return. Does that sound familiar? Kind of like how things are today?

So our Lord says, "Keep watch! Be ready!" For He will come like a thief in the night; literally, like a housebreaker digging through the mud walls anywhere, front, back, or sides. We are to be like a householder who expects that to happen at any time. We are to be that vigilant.

Don't take this little parable too far, friends. The coming of our Lord is not something for God's children to be defensive about. Nor does Jesus want us to make a fulltime job out of predicting the end of the world, like poor William Miller did. The writer George MacDonald, who was a major influence on C. S. Lewis, once said,

Do those who say, "Lo, here or lo, there are the signs of His coming," think to be too keen for Him, and spy His approach? When He tells them to watch lest He find them neglecting their work, they stare this way and that, and watch lest He should succeed in coming like a thief!*

Truly, we who believe in Him should be glad to have Him break in once and for all and take away all the worldly concerns and worry and stuff that keep us from loving Him above all! For we know that when He comes He will replace what we call our treasure on earth with the infinite and eternal treasure that is fellowship with Himself.

Clearly, wallowing in the sins and worries of this world is not readiness. But how shall we avoid that? Is it by retreating from the world into our own Christian ghetto? Shall we read only "Christian" books and watch only "Christian" movies and patronize only "Christian" businesses? Shall we be so heavenly-minded we're no earthly good? That's not much different from what the Millerites did in 1844. They thought being ready meant withdrawing from the world so thoroughly they set a date and withdrew from all of life. And by doing so, they set themselves up for disappointment.

No, Jesus tells us what being ready means. He says,

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns."

Jesus is our Master who has been away and He'll return when we least expect. Meanwhile, He's given each of us work to do in this world, in His name. Most of the time, this work is not at all what we would think of as "fulltime Christian service." Each of us has a vocation in this life; some of us have several. In those vocations we serve Him by serving our neighbor: Our neighbor in our families. Our neighbor in the church. Our neighbor at work. Our neighbor literally next door. Our neighbor who believes in Jesus and our neighbor who doesn't believe, but who might someday because of what we did for him in Jesus' name. Our Lord calls us His servants and charges us to give our fellow-servants the food of love, encouragement, good workmanship, patience, whatever they need in the relationship we have with them.

Especially, we are to serve all people with the eternal food of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether it's your own children or some stranger you meet by chance, you have good news to tell them of Christ who came to this earth to save mankind from their sins. You have the testimony of your own life to show how Jesus saves and changes sinners, even a sinner like you. Be faithful to the calling God has given you; serve one another in them, and always be ready with joy to render an account of your stewardship, for He promises to reward you when He comes.

I admit, I don't find it easy to be ready like this. Often I want to run away and play. Not that I'd ever be like the abusive steward that Jesus condemns in this parable, but the sin nature in me would be perfectly happy to get its fun out of life and disregard the fact that my Master will certainly return. Maybe I feel this way most when I try my hardest to keep watch by being faithful.

It's times like that when you and I can be encouraged by what Jesus says at the beginning of our Matthew reading. He says,

"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

Yes, be encouraged. For look, Christ the Son is content to trust His heavenly Father to set the right day and hour for Him to return. And since Jesus can rest in His Father, we can, too. Jesus will help us day by day to be ready. He will see that we are taken up to be with Him forever. He will preserve us in His love and keep us from the fate of the hypocrites, who actually dread His coming.

So in this Advent season and until Jesus returns, be ready. Serve your neighbor in His strength: you can do that, for in His cross and passion He has first served you. Rest in His grace; strive only to feed on Him in His Sacraments, to fellowship with Him in prayer; to hear and follow the voice of His Spirit as He speaks to you and guides you in His written Word. Be ready, but do not fret over your Lord's coming. You are His beloved; in Him you have been made ready for the kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world.

I'll conclude with two verses from an Advent hymn by Charles Wesley, called "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending." They go like this:

Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
See the day of God appear!

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus! Amen and amen!
*From Unspoken Sermons, Second Series: "The Word of Jesus on Prayer"