Sermon 06-29-14: “Therefore Keep Watch”

July 3, 2014

Wedding Receptions

 

Every week, most of us United Methodists recite the Apostles’ Creed. When we do so, we affirm that we believe in a doctrine that we rarely talk about: the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. What is it, why should we believe in it, and why is it relevant for our lives? How are we supposed to live now, before Christ returns?

Sermon Text: Matthew 25:1-13


The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

In the past ten years of my pastoral ministry, I haven’t one time messed up the names of any bride or groomwhose wedding I’ve performed. I haven’t said, “Stephen, will you have Amy to be your wife,” only to have Stephen say, “My name is Richard! And her name is Cindy!” That hasn’t happened yet, I’m happy to say. At least I don’t think it’s happened!

Once I did a wedding for a bride and groom who had interchangeable names—names that could easily apply to either a man or a woman—something like Casey and Taylor. Which one’s which? And they weren’t members of my church, so it’s not like I knew them very well.

Their wedding was at 6:00 on Sunday evening. Sunday! Which is the worst day for us pastors because we all take long naps on Sunday afternoon! Anyway, I set my alarm to wake up extra early from my nap, in part because I wanted to make sure I had time to learn their names and keep them straight.

So I’m driving to church about a quarter to 5:00. I have plenty of time…When I get a notification on my phone: the wedding is in 15 minutes! “Five o’clock! I thought it was at 6:00!” I pulled into the church parking lot at 5:01, ran to my office, put on my robe, grabbed my Bible, ran to the entrance of the sanctuary, saw that the harpist was still playing the prelude, breathed a sigh of relief, and then very calmly walked up to the groom—as if I planned on arriving at this time all along. Little did anyone suspect that I was thinking to myself, “Is his name Casey…or Taylor?” Ugh.

Well, if I got it wrong, no one told me!

My point is, there are few, if any, occasions more important than weddings. When they happen, everyone involved, including sleepy pastors, needs to be well-prepared, well-rehearsed, and ready to go. Shame on me for not double-checking the time of the wedding. Don’t you know that if it were my own wedding, I would have made sure I knew what time it started? Don’t you know if I were asked to perform a royal wedding, I would have made sure to be there on time? Of course I would—if it were important enough to me.

And Jesus is making the same point about these foolish bridesmaids in today’s scripture.

In Jesus’day, when someone got married, the groom would travel by entourage to the bride’s house, where a big wedding banquet was waiting for them. While the groom was approaching the house, the bridesmaids would rush out to meet him, lamps in hand, and escort him the rest of the way to the house. Since the groom arrived later than expected, these ten bridesmaids ended up burning more oil than they expected—and five of the bridesmaids didn’t bring any extra oil with them. So they weren’t prepared to go outside when the groom finally arrived.

And what happened to them? They were prevented from entering the banquet hall.

Jesus is using these chilling words to remind us of something that we Methodists say we believe every week when we recite the Apostles’Creed: We believe in Jesus Christ, who “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” These are old-fashioned words, obviously.

But here’s what they mean: We believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

I had a Sunday school teacher years ago who probably spoke for a lot of modern Christians when he said, “I don’t believe in the Second Coming as a literal event. I think it means that Christ comes to us ‘again’ through his Holy Spirit when we receive him into our hearts as Savior and Lord. And he comes to us again and again throughout our lives.”

I can see the appeal of that. After all, Jesus wasn’t lying when, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, he said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”[1] Or when, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, he said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[2] Or when he told the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”[3]

The Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us, as Jesus himself said the Spirit would do.

So the Second Coming can’t mean that while Jesus isn’t here with us right now, he will be again some day. Because Jesus is here with us today—in a spiritual way.

But Jesus distinguished this spiritual way of being with us from the physical, historical, literal event of the Second Coming. The Second Coming means that at some point in the future—we don’t know when—God will bring human history as we currently know it to an end.

And some of you are like, “Pastor Brent, do you really believe that’s literally going to happen?”

And I’m like, “Yes, I do! I believe in a literal Second Coming of Jesus.”

left_behind_movie

But that doesn’t mean that I believe it will happen just the way a work of fiction or a Hollywood movie depicts it. For example, there’s a new Left Behind movie about the Second Coming starring Nicolas Cage that comes out in October. Will the Second Coming happen just the way that movie describes? Probably not. And it’s not because I doubt the writers and producers of the movie aren’t trying their best to be faithful to what the Bible says. It’s just that what the Bible says about the Second Coming is prophecy—and in the Bible, prophecy comes, but it never comes true quite way people expect.

Here’s a helpful analogy…Next week is the Fourth of July, Independence Day. Two and thirty-eight years ago, the founding fathers had a certain vision of what they wanted the United States to become—a nation that would enable people to be free, to enjoy their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Has our country literally fulfilled the founding fathers’expectations. In some ways no, of course. We’re very far from perfect. But in many ways yes—and “yes”to a degree that goes far beyond what the founding fathers could have imagined: Our country enjoys so much freedom now that the idea that people could legally own slaves, as they did in 1776, is unthinkable So much freedom now that even women are allowed to vote, which they couldn’t do in 1776. So much freedom now that we not only have freedom of speech and freedom of the printing press—but also freedom of radio and television and motion pictures and the internet, things they couldn’t have imagined back then!

This is kind of the way prophecy is fulfilled in scripture. For instance, Bible scholars in Jesus’day read the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and imagined that he was going to be a military and political leader who would set Israel free from Roman oppression. The reality, of course, is that not only did Jesus come to set Israel free—but to set the whole world free! Free not merely from political enemies, but from the more powerful enemies sin, evil, and death! When Jewish leaders asked Jesus for a miraculous sign, Jesus prophesied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”[4] When he was on trial, religious leaders mistook this prophecy about his death and resurrection to mean that he thought he was going to destroy and rebuild the actual Temple in Jerusalem.

Finally, in Acts chapter 2, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit and shared the gospel in languages that they themselves didn’t understand, Peter quotes the prophecy in Joel 2:28-32, and says that it’s been fulfilled. In a way, it’s easy to see how it was fulfilled: the Spirit was poured out; sons and daughters prophesied; and people called on the name of the Lord and were saved. But Joel also mentioned the sun darkening and the moon turning blood red. That didn’t literally happen, of course: what literally happened was much greater, much more significant than a solar eclipse or a blood moon—Joel mentioned those heavenly signs to symbolize the cosmic scope of God’s saving plan.[5]

My point is, these examples of the fulfillment of prophecy from Scripture caution us against taking prophecy about the Second Coming too literally. Whenever and however the Second Coming occurs, it will likely be very different from the way we imagine; it will likely go way beyond all our wildest hopes and dreams; yet, when it happens, we will probably say, “Of course! That makes perfect sense! This is just the way it should be!”

What else do we need to say about the Second Coming? We don’t know when it’s going to happen, and we shouldn’t speculate. Jesus warns us against speculating many times. Paul, Peter, and John all warn that Christ will return like a thief in the night.[6] We don’t know and we can’t predict when it will happen! But that doesn’t stop us!

late_great_planet_earthHal Lindsey, who wrote the bestselling book of the ’70s, The Late Great Planet Earth, which was his generation’s Left Behind, confidently predicted that Christ would return before the year 2000. He also predicted that the Soviet Union would be part of the fulfillment of the prophecy. Of course the year 2000 and the Soviet Union both came and went. Which all goes to show that when someone predicts the Second Coming, as Christians have been doing since the beginning, it very likely won’t happen then.

But someone might say, “Yes, but isn’t the fact that it still hasn’t happened after all these centuries evidence that it’s not going to happen?”

Not at all! Think about it…one of the main points of the parable that Jesus tells us today is that the bridegroom is coming much later than expected. The apostle Peter addresses Christians who are tempted to give up and warns, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness…”[7] So from God’s perspective, we haven’t even completed Day 2 since Jesus was resurrected! From God’s perspective, it hasn’t been long.

We can be confident that Christ is coming again. It might be at any moment now; it might be tomorrow; it might be thousands of years from now. The question is, how are we supposed to live in the meantime?

The same way the bridesmaids lived when went to sleep, knowing that when they woke up, something really good and exciting was going to happen: the bridegroom was going to show up—and all the planning and preparation and work that they had done to get ready for the wedding was going to find its fulfillment.

And this reminds us that as good as life is or can be at times on this side of heaven, we won’t find our ultimate meaning, or purpose, or fulfillment in this life until we reach the other side of heaven.

C.S. Lewis writes about heaven in his book The Problem of Pain.

He writes:

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else…

All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for’… It is the secret signature of each soul…[8]

Heaven is the thing we were made for but can never quite attain in this world. The Second Coming of Christ means that one day we will attain it. And in the meantime we can live our lives with hope.

And Christian hope looks like a 32-year-old man from Afghanistan named Josef.

Last week, the New York Times ran a story about him. Josef grew up Muslim in Afghanistan. He briefly escaped civil war in his home country by emigrating illegally to Germany, where many of his siblings live. While he was there, out of curiosity, he attended a Protestant church whose services were in Farsi, his native language. He said, “I think I was impressed by the personality of Jesus himself. The fact that he came here to take all of our sins, that moved me.”

Josef converted and was baptized. He applied for asylum in the European Union, but his application was turned down, and he was deported back to Afghanistan. After returning home, some family members found his baptism certificate—and vowed to kill him for renouncing his Muslim faith. Not only that, they’ve vowed to hunt down and kill his three-year-old son, who is in hiding with his wife’s family in Pakistan. The Times reporter even said that his own brother-in-law offered the reporter $20,000 if he would tell him where Josef is hiding.

Josef is living in a dank basement on the outskirts on the outskirts of Kabul. The reporter said that all of Josef’s worldly possessions are the following: a worn blue Bible, a wooden cross with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount on it, and a plastic folder containing records of his conversion to Christianity. He said, “My body is in prison, but my soul is free.”

Brothers and sisters, Josef has almost nothing in this world; but he actually has so much more than many people living in our country. Because you know what he does have? He has oil in his lamp—with plenty to spare.

The question is, Do you and I? And if not, why not?

The bridegroom is coming. Will you be ready to meet him when he comes?

And you might say, “I have plenty of time. It’s been almost 2,000 years. How likely is it really that the world is going to end in my lifetime?”

Friends, the world may not end during your lifetime. But even if it doesn’t, guess what? Your world ends when you die. Then, ready or not, you will meet the Lord… Will you be ready?

In today’s parable, five of these bridesmaids didn’t have the oil they needed to be ready to meet the bridegroom. And the bridesmaids who did have oil were unable to share.

The good news is, Jesus wasn’t like that. See, in a way, before Jesus came into the world, none of us had what we needed to be ready to meet the Lord when we die. Our lamps were empty. But God loved us too much to leave us that way. So he sent his only begotten Son Jesus—who lived the life we couldn’t live for ourselves and died the death we deserved to die. By giving us his life and dying our death, he has given us everything we need—free of charge—to be ready to meet him when he comes.

Will you receive this free gift today?

[1] Matthew 18:20

[2] Matthew 28:20

[3] See John 16:12-14.

[4] See John 2:18-22.

[5] Each of these examples, including the one about the founding fathers, comes from Stephen Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 137-40.

[6] 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 16:15

[7] 2 Peter 3:8-9

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 150-1.

 

2 Responses to “Sermon 06-29-14: “Therefore Keep Watch””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Nicolas Cage in a Left Behind movie! Interesting. Of course I believe as you do in a literal Second Coming, and also that the many attempts to predict it have obviously all been failures. And we still have left to see whether pre-, post-, or a-millennial is correct (or something else!). Just as my own “hunch” (and obviously nothing more), I would expect Christ to return in the next 20 years or so, roughly, due to the continuing surge in acceptance of homosexuality (the days of Lot), widespread increasing violence (wars and rumors of wars), etc. And also, coincidentally, some roughly 6,000 years after creation (as I believe) (hence, six “days” of work and then one of (eternal) rest), as well as some 2,000 years from Christ’s sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, and the “coming down” of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Lord has to return sometime; so, why not in our time! We can only hope. And, of course, be prepared just in case at all times, just as you have preached here, which is much more important than even my own speculations!

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m sort of with you. I think it will be sooner rather than later. We ought to hope for it regardless.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s