Sermon for 05-22-11: “Eyewitness News, Part 4: ‘It Is the Lord'”

May 26, 2011

A painting depicting the miraculous catch of fish in John 21

The following sermon touches on issues concerning the end of the world that I covered in more detail in a blog post from last week. See this post for more information about the classic Christian understanding of the Second Coming.

Sermon Text: John 21:1-14

The following is my original manuscript.

So I guess we’ve all been “left behind,” huh? I’m not surprised to see that some of you still here, but… I’m just kidding. I have to laugh to keep from crying. I’m referring, of course, to a prediction by a self-styled prophet in Oakland that the end of the world was supposed to start yesterday, and we believers were going to be “raptured” into heaven. Dr. Martin referred to this prediction in his weekly eNews article. He said, “You are fair game for every Bible thumping huckster on the radio yakking about the end of time if you have not invested time in study and conversation about the Bible.” This would-be prophet’s end-of-the-world prediction, like every other end-of-the-world prediction over the past two millennia, didn’t pan out. Some of us never learn, I guess, that when Jesus said the end was coming at an “unexpected hour,” he meant it would be unexpected.

Now, let’s be clear: The Second Coming of Christ is a doctrine that is faithful to both the Bible and orthodox Christian thought. This is what we refer to in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Jesus will come again at the end of history as we know it to judge humanity and establish God’s kingdom in all its fullness. How that all happens and what it will look like when it does—we don’t know. But we believe it will happen.

We don’t believe, however, that Christ’s coming is two-step process—that first believers are taken into heaven while unbelievers are left behind to suffer for some period of time before the end finally comes. This idea, referred to as “the rapture,” didn’t exist before the 19th century. It’s not a Methodist doctrine, nor is it a doctrine embraced by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant Christians. In other words, despite its popularity in books like The Late Great Planet Earth, the Left Behind books, and the people who thought the rapture was going to happen yesterday, the vast majority of the universal church rejects the idea. I’m not doubting that before the Second Coming there will be suffering and tribulation—as there has been throughout history and will continue to be—but I don’t see in the teachings of Jesus or in the rest of the New Testament any thought that we Christians are exempt from it. We follow in the footsteps of our Lord, after all, who suffered and died for us; and we’re supposed to take up our cross and follow him and demonstrate that same kind of self-sacrificial love, right? That’s our example.

I don’t believe in the rapture. I believe in the Second Coming. If I don’t talk about the Second Coming and the end of the world very much, it’s not because I don’t believe it will happen, but because I can’t figure out the point of all the speculation. I can’t figure out the point of getting worked up about it. See, even if we’re not alive at the time of the Second Coming, none of us escapes the end of the world that is our own death. Our days are numbered. Our time is short. Our task is urgent. Let’s not be distracted by idle speculation. Besides, I imagine for some of us, it would come as great relief to be instantly delivered from our world of worry and stress and deadlines and schedules and be taken instantly to heaven—without passing go, without collecting two-hundred dollars.

The New York Times profiled one family last week who believed in yesterday’s rapture date so much that the mother quit her job to work full-time spreading the word about it. The parents stopped saving for their children’s college education. They stopped working on their house. And their three teenaged kids, who didn’t believe the world was going to end yesterday, were wondering how they would console their parents when the rapture didn’t happen. One of the daughters said that there was at least one bright side to all this mess. “[My mother will] say, ‘You need to clean up your room,’… And I’ll say, ‘Mom, it doesn’t matter, if the world’s going to end!’ ”

See, the truth is, rapture is easy. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ… that’s hard.

I hope that the lives of all those families who bought into yesterday’s rapture date will return to normal—a new and better normal, to be sure, with a more mature, less gullible faith—but I hope they get back to normal. A lot of Bible scholars think that “getting back to normal” is what this fishing trip in today’s scripture is all about. After all the shock and trauma and excitement of the events associated with Easter and Jesus’ resurrection, it must have been oddly comforting for these seven disciples to experience a little bit of normal life again—doing something they knew and understood and could make sense of.

Some of you love to fish, and you love to fish because it’s your hobby. It’s what you do when don’t have to go to work. This isn’t what fishing represented to these disciples. Fishing for these disciples was work. This was their “day job.” This was how they made their living. They weren’t always “fishing for men”; they weren’t always turning the world upside down with the gospel of Jesus Christ; they weren’t always preaching the gospel and watching as thousands of people joined the church—at least not at this point in their ministry, So here, they’re most likely fishing to put food on the table, doing what they had to do to pay the bills. No evidence here suggests they were being disobedient to Jesus. They were probably just supporting themselves and their families. The apostle Paul, after all, made tents for a living even as he went about his world-changing missionary work. My point is that even in the midst of doing what might have been for them a boring day job, these disciples still had this amazing encounter with the Lord.

Do you ever see Jesus as you go about your normal routine? Does Jesus ever disrupt your busy life when you’re working or in school? Do you expect to find Jesus as you go through your busy day? I hope so! [Share texts?]

But I’m afraid it’s hard for most of us to experience Jesus in this way. I’m afraid that most of us live very compartmentalized lives. We have our work compartment over here—in which we invest eight, ten, maybe twelve hours of our day. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, your work compartment is even larger than that! If you’re a student, you have your school and homework compartment. Then we step out of that compartment and step into our family compartment. And of course we have our exercise compartment and our laundry compartment and our yard work compartment. And let’s not forget our TV-watching compartment. And, for some of us, how big is our golf-playing compartment or our sports-viewing compartment?

Before too long, it’s easy to see how our  prayer and Bible-reading and church-going compartments—our God compartment in general—can become very small. It’s like packing a moving van and realizing you haven’t left enough room for your most precious and valuable heirlooms! Or worse, even if we manage to “fit God into” our schedule as one activity among so many others, well, it’s easy to see how we can get quickly burnt out on God and church as well.

This year I’ve been teaching the Disciple II Bible study. Those of you who’ve taken Disciple know that each week’s lesson begins with a statement called “Our Human Condition.” It attempts to describe our lives as they naturally are as opposed to the way they should be. The very last “Human Condition” for Disciple II said the following: “Mostly I put me first. Each new decision becomes a crisis; I feel pushed an pulled in all directions. I spend my time doing the immediate and put off the important. So often my life seems off balance.”

Does that describe any of us? Pushed and pulled in different directions. Not feeling in control of our lives. Letting the busy-ness of our lives control us. Feeling out of balance. One stay-at-home mom in our group said she felt as if she were a full-time chauffeur, spending all her time taking her kids to their various activities and keeping them on schedule. She feels as if she has little time for anything else. But it wasn’t just her. This “Human Condition” resonated with everyone in my group. They agreed: This is the way we usually are; this is the way we live.

There’s got to be a better way to live! And I believe today’s scripture gives us a clue how to find that better way. And it’s not primarily about changing the activities we have to do during the day—we all have to work or go to school and support the family—doing the things we need to do to survive. But it’s mostly about learning to see our daily routine, our daily activities in a new way.

Think of the beloved disciple in today’s scripture. This beloved disciple—he’s unnamed in John’s gospel but is often thought to be John himself—is always getting there first. He was the first to arrive at the empty tomb in the footrace with Peter, and the first to believe in the resurrection. And here he is, the first to understand that this person on the shore giving directions is none other than the risen Lord. It’s possible that if he didn’t recognize Jesus, and say, “Look! It’s the Lord,” the rest of the disciples would have let this miracle pass them by. They would have caught the fish, to be sure, but they might have just chalked it up to good luck. Weren’t they lucky that this stranger happened to see a large school of fish on other side of the boat. They might have just said, “Hey, thanks, stranger! See you later,” and gone on about their business. But because of the beloved disciple’s insight, they didn’t do that. They saw the miracle. They saw that this was Jesus.

I’m convinced that being a Christian, among many other things, means learning to see Jesus in unexpected places. It means learning to see Jesus not simply when we step into our “God compartment” after we’ve accomplished everything else in our busy schedules, or when we’re at church. It means learning to see that miracles are everywhere. And I don’t mostly mean those extravagant kind of miracles that break the laws of physics, either. This miraculous catch of fish didn’t necessarily break the laws of physics. It’s not as if the fish jumped into the boat on their own. The disciples themselves cast the net and did the heavy lifting and hauled them to shore.

No, the main miracle is that Jesus met them there, helped them, guided them, gave them what they needed to experience this abundant catch.

Do we dare to imagine that, through the power of his Holy Spirit, Jesus can be with us in a similar way today? When we’re at the office, preparing for an important presentation, we can see that the Lord is with us. When we’re packing lunches and getting kids off to school, we can see that the Lord is with us. When we’re cramming for that final exam, we can see that the Lord is with us. When the words to a song on the radio speak to us in a new way, we can see that the Lord is with us. When we meet a friend over coffee and enjoy good conversation, we can see that the Lord is with us. Of course, this takes practice to see Jesus in this way. “Practicing” means praying and reading scripture regularly. It means gathering for worship and taking Disciple Bible study. It means tithing. It means  serving. Don’t forget that in Matthew 25 Jesus surprises disciples by becoming the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—by becoming the least among us. But we don’t practice seeing Jesus on our own. We do it together. We’re in this together. We need each other as the church.

The other disciples needed the beloved disciple’s insight to recognize Jesus, but it took all of them working together to sail the boat, haul in the net, scale and clean and cook the fish. Each one had something to contribute. Church ought to be like that!

There’s a great song by John Lennon called “Beautiful Boy,” which he wrote as a father giving encouragement to his young son. The song includes this memorable line: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Great line. And very true. But listen, for those of us who are Christians I would add something else: Jesus Christ is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans. Pay attention! Be on the lookout! You never know where you’ll find him. You never know when he’ll show up!

Last week, I read accounts—and maybe you did too—of Christian families who turned their lives upside down when they thought the end of the world was on its way. With God’s help, may we all learn to live our lives in such a way that even if we knew for sure that Jesus was returning in the near future, we wouldn’t have to turn out lives upside down. Amen?

† Ashley Parker, “Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending,” New York Times, May 19, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/us/20rapture.html (accessed May 21, 2011).

3 Responses to “Sermon for 05-22-11: “Eyewitness News, Part 4: ‘It Is the Lord'””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Just great, as usual, Brent. Sometimes it is pretty hard to seek Jesus as the work day progresses at my law firm, or doing chores at home (though thankfully my wife and kids do most of that!). However, sometimes, as you say, if we look, we see that “Jesus was here.” (And I of course agree with you as to the rapture and Second Coming.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      That’s an interesting insight. I think we usually see Jesus in retrospect. We are rarely so “in the moment” that we notice him while he’s there.

      Not that he isn’t always with us, but you know what I mean.

  2. Nancy Drake Says:

    Good points. I agree with your thinking. I really liked your comment … But listen, for those of us who are Christians I would add something else: Jesus Christ is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans. Pay attention! Be on the lookout! You never know where you’ll find him. You never know when he’ll show up!
    The key is to pay attention. Jesus Christ will show up.


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