Sunday, November 29, 2009

Come, Lord Jesus: How to Face the End (Of the World or Your Earthly Life)

[This message was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning. Today is the First Sunday in Advent.]

Luke 21:25-36
I once read a news story about a young graduate assistant at MIT who was developing what he called, “memory glasses.” Richard W. DeVaul said that he himself could often work for long hours, forgetting to eat or keep appointments. His memory glasses, consisting of a small computer display clipped onto eyeglass frames and hooked up to a small computer, were designed to flash little reminders to the wearer. DeVaul’s “wearable computer” is intended to send subliminal messages or images to wearers, providing them with private reminders.*

Based on his personal experience, DeVaul apparently thinks that we all need help in remembering not to get so caught up in the urgent matters that scream for our attention that we forget what’s important. I think that he's right. A few signs–subliminal or otherwise–pointing us in the right direction each day would be really helpful!

In today’s Gospel lesson, an example of a type of Biblical literature which the Bible scholars call, apocalyptic, from the Greek verb, apocalupto, meaning I reveal, Jesus talks with us about signs, things going on around us that ought to live as His followers in everyday life.

Specifically, Jesus talks about the signs of the end of the world. He begins by telling us: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the power of the heavens will be shaken...”

When the world goes nuts,

When family incomes are drained and jobs are scarce,

When Army psychologists open fire on military personnel preparing to go overseas,

When terrorists perpetrate violence on innocent people,

When seemingly incurable diseases victimize family and friends,

When people are subjected to mistreatment or violence unjustly,

it’s easy to faint from fear and foreboding.

But Jesus warns us to be on our guards, " that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation [that’s spending time on wasted, worthless efforts] and drunkenness and the worries of this life..."

Instead, Jesus says that we should regard all of the rotten, hard things that happen in this world as signs of His return at the end of the world.

For most people, talk about the end of the world or about the ends of our own lives on earth is frightening. In the face of life’s difficulties, as Jesus says, people faint from fear and foreboding or get caught up in meaningless activity, in anesthetizing themselves with dope or booze, or in allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with worry. They read the headlines or consider the adversities that they themselves face and hang their heads in despair.

We need not do that!

A few weeks ago, I read another full account of a dangerous secret trip taken by our president. Not even his wife or family knew that he was going away to a secret destination, right in the midst of dangerous enemies. You may think I’m talking about former President Bush’s trip to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day several years ago. But I’m talking about an account of President Franklin Roosevelt’s secret trip to Newfoundland to meet with British prime minister Winston Churchill in the summer of 1941, which I read about again in Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Roosevelt.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill took voyages by sea in waters filled with menacing German submarines. The ship which Churchill took to their summit would, just a few months later, be sunk by the Germans.

The point is that the world was dangerous and prone to craziness sixty-five years ago. The world is dangerous and prone to craziness today. Nothing has changed.

In another place in the Bible, Jesus spoke of the signs of the end of life on this planet and of His return and said that each and every one of them had already happened. So, people who wring their hands and try to outguess God about when Jesus will return are wasting their time, wasting their lives!

Jesus says that the turmoil of the world presents us with signs that point to the inevitable fact that life on this planet will end and that our lives on this planet will end.

Jesus also says that we should see these signs as subliminal prompts, cuing us to adopt a different way of living.

Most of the human race will fall prey to worry or fear or drunkenness or dissipation. But Jesus tells those who trust in Him not to lose heart or hang our heads.

He says: "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

When things look bleak or frightening, Jesus says, “Buck up. I’m right here! And no matter how things may look right now, I have everything under control!”

He had been standing for three hours in the frigid Michigan winter night, trying to hitch a ride home to his wife and kids in Royal Oak. The wind howled. Snow billowed around him. He was a service man. Originally tapped for Christmas leave, he’d gotten into a drunken brawl that got him confined to his base through the holidays.

Then a buddy’s parents surprised him, traveling to be nearby for Christmas. Since it was going to be easy for the buddy to see his folks, he went to their commanding officer and volunteered to take the Michigander’s place.

That raised a whole new problem. You see, the soldier from Michigan had spent all his savings on gifts for his wife and three children, having planned on shipping them north. He couldn’t afford bus or train fare. The only way he could get back home was to stuff the presents into a duffel bag and hitchhike. Everything had gone pretty well until that three hour wait in the snowstorm.

A single preacher in a Corvette was barreling along too quickly for the road conditions, heading home to see his parents and family, the car filled to near-capacity with goodies. He saw the forlorn soldier, looking like an abominable snowman in khaki green, hitching on the side of the road. He told himself that somebody else would pick the guy up and that if he turned around now, he’d find the soldier gone. But he felt as though God was telling him that at least on Christmas Eve, he should be willing to share Jesus’ love with a stranger.

So, begrudgingly, he turned around and though it required some packing and arranging, got the hitchhiking soldier and duffel bag into his car. After the soldier had thawed out a bit, he asked the preacher, “Didn’t I see you go by earlier?” “Yes.” Why, the soldier wondered then, had he turned back around?

The preacher explained that while he hadn’t wanted to turn around and come back “it’s Jesus Who makes me do things like that,” things that He was certain Jesus would do if He were faced with the same circumstances.

The soldier explained how convicted he felt by that. He then told the story of how he had come to be hitchhiking on that frozen stretch of road on Christmas Eve. He explained that he’d planned on surprising his family. He talked about what a wonderful woman his wife was, a devoted follower of Jesus who was brokenhearted over her husband’s unwillingness to let Christ into his life. He often poked fun at his wife’s faith and her church-going.

The longer he’d stood by the side of the road, the soldier said, the angrier he became at all the people who passed by. He became even angrier when he thought that a lot of the people zooming past were Christians. He thought of what hypocrites all Christians were, but also thought that if he were in their places, he’d probably drive on by too.

Then the soldier said: “Let me tell you something embarrassing—I got so cold, so lonely, and so desperate that I started to pray—honest to God I did—it was so humiliating. I told God that if He would help me, I’d do better. And you know what? About that time you showed up, and you told me that you came back because of Jesus—now what do you make of that?”

Thirty-five years later, John William Smith, the once-young pastor driving in the Corvette, wrote: "Jesus comes to us in many ways. He came to me in the form of a freezing soldier trying to get home for Christmas. He came to a freezing soldier in the form of a young minister trying to find his way to God. Either one of us could have missed Him."

Jesus says that even before the end of time--even before we die and pass into His presence, He wants to come to us. And He doesn’t want to come to us just at Christmas time, but every moment of our lives.

The turmoil of the world and the challenges of our lives can be reminders of our need to welcome Jesus to walk with us, to guide us, to be our God, to be our King.

I know that the next few weeks will be busy for us all. Last-minute shopping, visits with family and friends, extra social engagements. We all have them.

But these next weeks, with all their activity, are also a great time for you to do what that soldier did on that cold Christmas Eve—ask Jesus to help you and to be with you.

Let the signs of the times prompt you to enjoy a close relationship with the God we know through Jesus Christ.

When we let Christ into our daily lives, we’re prepared to handle all that life may bring.

We’re prepared for living.

We’re prepared for dying.

We’re prepared for the moments when we will come face to face with Christ.

And when we keep close to Christ, we’re also prepared to do something most of our frantic, fearful, feverish world can’t even imagine: With Jesus beside us, we’re prepared to have a truly joyous and merry Christmas.

*DeVaul and others at MIT are working on lots of other wearable computing devices, which you can read about here.

[Top picture: A CBS News photograph of Richard DeVaul and his memory glasses. Bottom picture: Cerezo Barredo's wonderfully hope-filled representation of Luke 21:25-36.]

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