Sunday, November 16, 2008
Jesus is Coming, Look Busy
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
When I was in seminary, there was occasional need for a little blowing off of steam. One night a few friends and I went to hear a local comedian, someone who was well known and loved in Dallas, but that I hadn’t heard of. It was a small show, I think only about 20 people were there. Afterwards, we walked around the section of Dallas called Deep Ellum, which for years had been the African American center of town. The building of the highway straight through the center of that neighborhood, as well as desegregation and economic changes had pretty much killed Deep Ellum’s original energy, but it had come back through its growth as a neighborhood of music, nightclub, and boutique shops.
In one of those shops, we found a t-shirt which, to our minds, was the most amusing thing of the night. I’m sure that the original designer of the shirt had secular, antagonistic reasons to write what they did. They probably had meant to be sarcastic or somehow judgmental when they wrote on the shirt—“Jesus is coming! Look busy!”
What they didn’t know, of course, is that they had illustrated perfectly the proper mindset for Christians.
You see, one of our most central beliefs as Christians is that Jesus is going to come back. When we say the Apostle’s Creed, it is right there; “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”. (and by the way, since you all are not dead, then you all are quick.)
What he will do when he comes back is the source of much dissention within the church over the course of church history. The earliest letters we have from Paul speak of a belief in the imminent return of Jesus. He even advocates that people should avoid getting married, because Jesus is coming soon. By the time of Romans, one of his last letters, he has backed off of his expectation that Jesus is returning immediately. In the years leading up to the year 1000, many people believed that Jesus’ return was nigh, that a thousand years was a nice tidy number. But Jesus didn’t come. So maybe it was 1033, which would have been a thousand years after Jesus’ death. But Jesus didn’t come. You may remember the frenzy over the calendar flipping over from 1999 to 2000, and how the computer calendars wouldn’t be able to cope and the world would shut down. Some folks took that annoying inconvenience and built it into the mechanism by which Jesus was coming back. But Jesus didn’t come, and we’re still here (and so are our computers).
There have been many calculations about the return of Jesus. Much ink has been spilled printing both predictions and imagining what it will be like—the Left Behind series of novels are merely the latest, albeit most commercially successful, versions of that.
Predicting the signs of Jesus’ coming has always been problematic. From Paul himself, all the way down to Hal Lindsey in the 70’s and since, no one has gotten it right.
Prophecy isn’t seeing into the future, it isn’t using a crystal ball, or reading tea leaves. Prophecy, in the Biblical understanding, is stating the effect that will occur if the people of God persist in their cause. It is simply a Cause and Effect relationship. If you tip a pitcher of water over, then you will spill the water. If you persist in worshipping foreign gods, you will fall to the enemy before you. There’s nothing spooky about it, according to Scripture.
It can be stated that there are signs and portents that point to the return of Jesus. This bear means this, this eagle means that, this dragon means those people who are not us. Revelation and Daniel and Matthew 24 can be made to work just like a horoscope, to mean anything you want it to mean.
I do not dispute Jesus and Paul when they claim Jesus’ return. I believe that he will, as well. But Jesus and Paul are both clear here—you CAN”T predict when it is that Jesus will come again. Paul says it in this section of his letter to Thessalonica, which says Jesus will come like a thief in the night. Jesus says it in Matthew 24, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. He says “therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”. In the parable that immediately follows that section of Matthew, Jesus tells the story of a faithful and an unfaithful slave. No one knows when the master of these slaves will return from wherever they went, but the one that is found to be working, feeding the other slaves, and generally doing what they were supposed to will be blessed, and will “even be put in charge of all the masters’ possessions.” He even says “for as the lightning comes from the east and flashed as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man.” In other words, don’t worry, you’ll know. It will be impossible to miss. The next parable, the beginning of Chapter 25, is the parable of the ten bridesmaids that we read just last week. Remember how it ends—“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
All three of the rest of the Gospels have similar sections. It can all be boiled down to this statement: Jesus is coming, but we don’t know when.
The signs and portents, for those who insist in them, point to Jesus’ imminent return. But so they have for two thousand years. Various supposed anti-Christs have come and gone. The people who expect Jesus to return again are not wrong. It is not a matter of getting the signs and portents right. It is a matter of reading Jesus’ own words and realizing that predictions are not the most fruitful discipleship. The things that matter to Jesus are clearly stated for us in Scripture. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry, welcome the stranger. Visit the sick. Other things are perhaps not stated as clearly, but would seem to be just as obviously fruitful; bring the children up to understand Jesus and his teachings. Take care of each other. Take care of what God has given you to care for.
If we seek to do all of these things, and to keep body and soul together as long as we can, that’s a full enough life. Think of it this way. If Jesus is coming, what do you want to be seen busy doing? When Jesus comes, what do you want to be caught doing?