Living in light of the imminent celebration
by Jack Wald | November 22nd, 2002

I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

Life-changing events sneak up on us with no advance warning. In February 1989 our family visited my third cousins in East Berlin. In order to visit, we had to cross through the wall that separated East and West Berlin. We left a world of freedom and entered a world of repression.  We left a world of color and walked into a world of grey. One of my cousins, Rolf, told us about his hobby which was building model airplanes and he talked about his delight in flying them. In his world of restrictions he was able to soar vicariously through the model airplanes he flew.

I remember distinctly him taking us back to Checkpoint Charlie so we could cross back into West Berlin. He was a bit nervous even driving near the wall, something one did not do for fear of attracting the attention of the police. He parked and stood as we walked to the gate. I kept looking back and can still feel the sadness in that moment, that he was not able to come with us.

If I had told him that nine months later the wall would come down and he would be free to walk into West Berlin, he would never have believed me. Just the week before we arrived, a young man had been shot trying to escape by swimming across a river that formed part of the barrier between East and West Berlin. No one could have predicted it.

And yet nine months later he went to the wall and mailed me a piece of it with this note. “Enclosed we send you pieces of the wall that we ourselves on 1/1/90 in the area of the Brandenburg Gate knocked out of the wall with the sweat of our faces, with hammer and chisel and thereby made the wall a little more permeable.”

The whole world can change in a moment with no notice given.

In just three days we will celebrate Christmas. When I was growing up, that statement brought great excitement. There was a wonderful buildup to Christmas. The closer we got to Christmas the more reminders there were. The streets were decorated with lights and wreaths. The stores all had Christmas displays. At home we had been making Christmas cookies, cutting our Christmas tree from the mountain behind where we lived, decorating the tree. On our piano we put down white cotton to look like snow and then built a tiny village on it complete with tiny ice skaters and sleighs, last minute Christmas shopping needed to be done, school was over, a holiday was here.

Christmas is a great celebration because we know it is coming, we know the date when it is coming and we prepare ourselves for the celebration.

What was it like in Bethlehem the three days before Jesus was born? The shepherds woke up, had some breakfast, took the sheep out to the fields, sat around a fire, talked. Those three days were days like every other day they had lived. There was no anticipation of the nighttime display of angels announcing news of great joy.

A philosopher from the time of Jesus wrote this:
How long must I endure the same things over and over? Shall I forever wake to sleep, hunger to eat to hunger again? Nothing ends! Everything is connected in a circle, fleeing and chasing at once. Night follows day, and day follows night; summer is killed by autumn, autumn is buried in winter, winter is broken by spring, and spring’s aborn as summer again. All nature passes only to return. I do nothing new. I see nothing new. Sooner or later one grows sick of this.”

Three days of waiting for the most significant event in the history of the world and no one knew it was coming. Then light came into the world and the world was never the same.

But I imagine that there was a different anticipation in heaven. In hushed tones the angels whispered to one another, “In just three days, He will visit the planet.”

The apostle Peter wrote in a letter about the life of Jesus and said: Even angels long to look into these things.

Into the daily routine burst forth the light into which even angels long to look.

Now we are back in the shepherds’ situation. There is a promise that Jesus will return but we don’t know when. The promise was made almost 2,000 years ago and the world still waits for the fulfillment of that promise.

Last week I asked how our Christian life would be different if we knew not the year but the day that Jesus would return. If Jesus had said he would return some year 120 days after the celebration of his resurrection, how would that affect us? In 2003, that day would be August 18th. We might not do much differently in January or February. About June or July we might start thinking more about it. Moving into August all preachers would be speaking about the Second coming of Jesus. On August 18th we would wake up with a nervous anticipation. But then on August 19th, we would slip back into a normal routine. Another year before we would have to get ready for the big event.

I think Jesus was purposely vague about the date of his return and the signs he said would precede his return have occurred often enough so that virtually every generation since the resurrection of Jesus has anticipated that he would return within their lifetime.

We are not to know the time but we are to anticipate it’s imminence. The Thessalonians expected Jesus to return within their lifetime but they were wrong. Wrong by at least 1952 years. Many of us expect Jesus to return within our lifetime. We may be wrong, but we are 1952 years closer to the time than were the Thessalonians.

How does the Bible describe this event?
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

The birth of Jesus was a relatively quiet affair. The glory of God seeped through the cracks of the events of his birth but there was not a lot of fanfare. Most people were unaware that anything had happened.

The return of Jesus will be quite a different event. His return will come in a burst of glory that will be apparent to all in the world. He came the first time as a humble servant. He will return as a triumphant king, ready to claim his throne.

As Jesus and Paul described it, there will be a trumpet blast and the dead and those alive at the moment will rise up to meet Jesus the triumphant king. Jesus will be seated on his throne, the devil will be cast into oblivion and we will enter paradise.

That’s quite an exciting event and for two thousand years the church has been expecting it to happen at any moment. Over and over and over again people have made predictions of when this will occur and thus far they have all been wrong. When this event will occur is in question, but that Jesus will return is not in question.

And so we await another event that angles long to look into. Like the shepherds three days before Christmas, we may be only three days from this event.

I want to tell a story and ask a question about the second coming of Christ and then we will explore some implications of his imminent return.

My favorite story about the return of Jesus occurred about 17 years ago. I was giving a children’s sermon in church and my daughter Caitlin, then four years old, was sitting with about four or five other children. I was talking about the return of Jesus and mentioned that the Bible said there would be a loud trumpet blast, Jesus would appear in the sky and then we would all rise up in the air to meet him.

At this point Caitlin said loudly and clearly so all the congregation could hear, “I think you’re fooling us.” Everyone burst into laughter. When the laughter died down Caitlin continued, “I see that smile on your face. I think you’re fooling us.”

That’s a great story and makes a great point. The description of Jesus’ return is a bit unbelievable. Can this really be true? On what basis do we believe it to be true?

Prophecies predicting the coming of the Messiah existed for centuries and people lived in eager anticipation of his arrival. Under Roman occupation, Jews thirsted for the coming of the Messiah and there were several leaders who arose among the Jews to revolt against the Romans who were followed as potential Messiahs.

When Matthew wrote his gospel account of Jesus, his central purpose was to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He quotes Old Testament scripture 53 times in order to do so. What God promised, God delivered. The Messiah was given to redeem mankind.

We are again in the same position as those who awaited the first coming of the Messiah. We have scripture promising his return. Jesus himself promised he would return and gave descriptions of how it would be in that day. The history of God’s interactions is that he keeps his promises and so we trust that this promise, that Jesus will return for his church will also be kept.

How can you prove something that has not yet happened? But God is faithful and keeps his promises. This we know from history and so the return of Jesus as the triumphant king is a foundation of our faith.

I’ve told you my favorite story of the second coming of Jesus, now let me tell you my favorite question concerning the second coming of Jesus.

Imagine that you have worked hard all day and eaten nothing since breakfast. You are famished and the meal that has been prepared for supper is incredible. The smells make you salivate. You can almost taste the food just by smelling it. The colors of the meal are beautiful to the eye. In fact this meal is your favorite meal.

You sit down to eat and pray, thanking God for all this good food and his provision of all we need in life. You serve a generous helping of all this delicious food onto your plate and reach your fork down to take that first tantalizing bite. Just as your hand is bringing that bite of food to your mouth, the trumpet blasts and Jesus has returned.

Now for my question: Do you take that bite quickly as you are rising in the air? Do you grab a handful of food from your plate as you begin to rise?

I know I’m a bit strange, but I think about questions like this. Maybe there will be a long line and you might get hungry waiting for your turn to see Jesus. Scripture promises there will be a wedding banquet but maybe that will be some time in the future. Why not take some food along for the journey?

Here is the answer to the question. When Jesus returns and if we are alive at that moment, we will rise and everything of this world will slip through our fingers and be left behind.
I John 2:17
The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

Even if you wanted to take a bite before you left, which I don’t think will be the case, you would be unable to do so.

What difference does this future event make in our lives? Let me offer two ways we should live in light of the imminent return of Jesus.

1. Enjoy this world but don’t hold on to it too tightly.

Do you remember when I preached from the beginning of Genesis on God benediction of his creation: And God saw that it was good.? I talked about God’s gift to us of pleasure. He created us as sensual beings in a sensual world. We handed out geranium plants that Sunday to plant and enjoy. (How is your plant doing?)

What I am saying this morning does not contradict what I said in that sermon. God has given us this world to enjoy and he delights in our use and appreciation of it. So enjoy this world but don’t hold on to it too tightly.

Why did God create a world of pleasure? God loves us and delights in our enjoyment of what he has given to us. But as well, the pleasure we experience in this world is given to us as a foretaste of what awaits us in heaven. As good as that meal is to you at the time, when you are being taken to paradise, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, as Paul wrote in Corinthians, as good as that meal appears to be, it will not compare to the pleasure that awaits you.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this:
These things—beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited. (The Weight of Glory)

Pleasure, when experienced within God’s guidelines, makes us hungry for the pleasure that awaits us in heaven.

Pleasure is good. Pleasure is a gift. But pleasure is only a foretaste of what is to come. Don’t ever let your pursuit of pleasure come between you and God.

When you are tempted to seek pleasure outside of God’s guidelines, resist that temptation for the greater pleasure that is to come.

If you find yourself saying, Come Lord Jesus, but not before I get married or Come Lord Jesus but wait until I take my cruise in the Mediterranean, realize that you are holding on to the pleasure of this world too tightly.

This Christmas, enjoy time with family and friends. Enjoy the tastes of Christmas. Celebrate with music and dancing and let your enjoyment increase your hunger for the real thing.

2. Here is a second difference that comes from living in the light of the imminent return of Jesus. Seek justice but forgive injustice.

There is a desire in us for justice and when we see injustice, we become angry. If I am driving and waiting in line for a light to change and a car passes me and ten other cars by driving on the wrong side of the road to get to the front of the line of cars waiting for the light, anger is a perfectly legitimate response.

When I heard this week that Diagro was robbed by three young men with knives, anger was the proper response. Anger is a Biblical response to injustice that gives us the energy to fight for justice.

But why is that we get angry at injustice? We get angry in the face of injustice because God has planted in us a sense of justice that will prevail in heaven. We have a taste of heaven’s justice and so rebel against the injustice that so often prevails in this world.

When you or someone you care about is treated unjustly it is appropriate to be angry and use that anger to fight for injustice.

So if an injustice is inflicted on you and you become angry, that is not bad. But what happens when you allow the injustice to fester in you? What happens when you carry a grudge against a person for month after month, year after year? What happens when you refuse to forgive the person who has offended you?

Paul wrote in Ephesians In your anger, do not sin. Injustice provokes anger which makes us work for justice but when injustice is not forgiven, it leads to sin.

Here is how the imminent return of Jesus makes a difference. When you are rising up in the air to meet with Jesus, how significant will the injustice done against you seem to be?

Let’s say someone took money that belonged to you. Will that loss of some money appear to be a significant loss as you are rising up to meet Jesus? It will slip through your fingers like the food on your plate and remain behind.

Let’s say someone betrayed you. Will that act of betrayal appear to be as significant when you are rising up to meet with Jesus?

We sing a song from time to time that has these words: Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.

The world is not fair and everyone of you has experienced injustice of some sort. The injustice may be something that happened to you in the past or it may be something happening to you in the present.

Here’s what I want you to do. Picture the injustice done to you as an object in front of you. Pick some object that symbolizes what was done to you. A pile of money, a broken heart, a picture of a person. Pick up that object in your hands and hold it.

Now hear the trumpet blast and picture yourself rising up to meet Jesus and that object slipping through your fingers.

If you will not be able to carry that injustice with you on the day you come to meet Jesus, why carry it now?

Give yourself a Christmas gift this year and forgive. Let it go. Turn your eyes upon Jesus.

Just three days to go before we celebrate Christmas. How many days are there left before we will celebrate the return of Jesus?

Are you ready to meet him? Are you eager to meet him?

You will meet him whether or not you are alive when he returns. Whether you are among the dead who will rise first or among the living who will follow, you will meet him and the things of this world will slip through your fingers and be left behind. Lesser pleasure will be replaced by greater pleasure.

We don’t know the time but the angels in heaven long to look into these things. Share the anticipation that is building in heaven as we near that great day when we will rise up to meet Jesus in the air.