The Imminence of Jesus
by Jack Wald | November 19th, 2004

Mark 13:28-36
II Peter 3:3-14

One of the popular Christmas songs in the US is Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.

Oh! You’d better watch out,
You’d better not cry,
You’d better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He’s making a list,
He’s checking it twice,
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Oh! You’d better watch out,
You’d better not cry,
You’d better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!

Just try replacing Santa Claus with Jesus Christ and hear how that sounds.

Oh! You’d better watch out,
You’d better not cry,
You’d better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Jesus Christ is coming to town!

He’s making a list,
He’s checking it twice,
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Jesus Christ is coming to town!

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Oh! You’d better watch out,
You’d better not cry,
You’d better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Jesus Christ is coming to town!

In the period of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day, we focus in the church on the birth of Christ but also his expected return. And if it is true that Jesus is returning, how does that affect us?

In the days before Christmas, children are conscious of needing to be on their best behavior because they know what is coming and do not want to miss out. When Santa Claus comes down the chimney with his bundle of presents, children want to be sure he has for them a train or a doll and not a piece of coal. They want blessing, not punishment.

As Christians expecting the return of Jesus, are we similarly to be on our best behavior so when he comes we will receive heaven and not hell? So we’d better watch out, better not cry, better not pout and here is the reason why, Jesus is coming back?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that the New Testament teaching on the Second Coming of Jesus can be summed up in three phrases.

1. Jesus will certainly return

2. We cannot possibly find out when

3. Therefore, we must always be ready for him.

Jesus will certainly return. Why do we say certainly? The apostle Peter believed this to be the case.
II Peter 3:10
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Paul likewise talked often about the return of Jesus as a reality.
I Thessalonians 4
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 angels who appeared to the disciples when Jesus ascended spoke of his return as a reality.
Acts 1
he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

And finally, Jesus himself spoke of his return as a reality. The disciples asked Jesus when the end would come and in his response he said
Luke 21:27
At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

Now if we cannot be certain of this, what is there in the New Testament that we can be certain of?

Jesus will certainly return.

We cannot possibly know when.

I talked about this in the last sermon in our series of sermons on Mark, on August 8. Since many of you were not here then, let me repeat some of what I said.

When Jesus taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple in Jerusalem, he spoke of the end times. Jesus said directly that they would not know when the end was coming. He concluded his teaching with this:
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.  34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”`

Jesus was very explicit about this and this was not an aberrant teaching. This was no slip of his tongue. He was very intentional about telling his disciples that they would not know when he would return.

Here’s my question: why is it that when Christians read that Jesus said we are to forgive each other and pray for healing, we seek to be obedient and forgive and pray for healing; but when we read that Jesus said we will not know when he will return, Christians ignore his teaching and spend enormous amounts of time trying to figure out when he will return? Books are written, lectures are delivered, TV and radio time is filled with discussions about when Jesus will return.

Note that even Jesus did not know the time when he would return.
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Jesus told us we would not know the time when he would return and we need to take him at his word and not think we are more clever than he thought or that perhaps the Holy Spirit will work behind his back and slip us the inside information.

Jesus said:
You do not know when that time will come.

Jesus will certainly return.

We cannot possibly know when.

Therefore, we must always be ready for him.

And this brings us back to Santa Claus is coming to town. In what way are we to be ready for him?

The problem of the Santa Claus song is that the reason for being obedient in that song is based on fear. If I am not good, Santa will not bring me a present. So I’d better be good. Fear is an emotion and it is impossible to keep an emotion going for a long time. It can work for a day or two but you can’t stretch it out beyond that.

In fact there is a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin gets it down to the last hour before Santa is supposed to come because he thinks he can manage to be good for that long and then he cannot help but throw a snowball at the girl passing by.

One of the rules in business is that if you create an incentive program for performance, the reward needs to be more immediate and not long term. If the reward for good performance is an end of the year bonus, studies have shown that such a reward does not inspire better performance. The reward needs to be at least monthly if it will create incentive for better performance.

Saying that we have to be good so that when Jesus comes back we will be rewarded does not work to inspire us to be better Christians. That reward is too far in the distance for our human nature to appreciate.

So how are we to be ready for him?

We cannot be ready on the basis of emotion so the Scriptures point out that we are to be ready on the basis of rationality. Fear does not work as a long-term motivator but taking reality into account does.

C.S. Lewis uses this analogy. A man of seventy does not need to always be feeling or talking about his death, but he would be foolish if he did not take it into account. It would be foolish if he did not make out a will. It would be foolish for him to take on a responsibility that required the next twenty years of his life if he did not also have in mind a person who could take that responsibility over for him if he died before then.

Let’s take a look at reality.

1. It has been 2000 years since Jesus said he would return, will it be another 2000 years before he comes back? If that is not long-term, what is? How can I be motivated to be an obedient Christian when the date of his return is so uncertain and seems like it could be so far off in the future?

When we talk of the Second Coming of Jesus, we need to remember that what the Second Coming of Jesus is to the human race, death is to each of us. Jesus may not return for 2000 more years but I will certainly go to meet him and be judged by him within the next fifty years. All of us in this room will most likely die and go to meet him within the next 100 years.

So the long-term just became a lot shorter. Every time we read in the paper or hear in the news that there was a car accident and someone died or that someone relatively young died of a disease, the long-term becomes shorter. We live with the illusion that we will live long into our old age but the reality is that life is a lot more fragile than that.

The imminence of Jesus is a lot closer than we like to think.

2. We are meant to think that the return of Jesus will be soon. Throughout history, leaders have expected that Jesus would return in their generation and confidently predicted his return. They may have been wrong in their prediction but I do not believe they were wrong in their expectation.

When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, don’t you think the Christians there thought this was the end of the world?

When the Gauls sacked Rome in the 4th century, don’t you think the Christians thought this was the end of the world and the return of Jesus?

When the Black Plague raced through Europe in the 14th century and a third of the population, one out of every three people died, don’t you think many Christians thought this was the end of the world?

When an earthquake hit the center of the United States in 1811 and the course of the mighty Mississippi River reversed its course for a couple hours, don’t you think people thought this was the end of the world?

In the thirty plus years of my Christian life, I have heard many predictions and prophecies that we are at the end of time. I hope this is true but I have read too much of church history to be confident that it is true.

When Jesus taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives and talked about signs he mentioned wars, earthquakes and famines as the beginning of birth pains indicting that the end was approaching.

These signs are meant to make us think the end will be soon and encourage us to be alert and ready for the return of Jesus.

I think Paul expected Jesus to return soon, within a generation, and even more amazing, it seems that Jesus expected his return within a generation.

In what C.S. Lewis calls the most troubling verse in the New Testament, Jesus indicates that his return will be within a generation. At the end of his Mount Olivet discourse, Jesus made this statement:

Mark 13:30-31
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

And the very next verse, that I quoted earlier, points out
32 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

So at one moment Jesus demonstrated his ignorance about his return and in the next he proclaimed his ignorance.

There are some who say that the word generation can also mean race and this is what Jesus meant. (This race will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened) But I think Jesus, in his human limitation, made a prediction that generation after generation who has followed him also made.

If you had told Jesus and Paul and the rest of the early Christians that 2000 years later the church would still be waiting for the return of Jesus, they would have been shocked.

It is testimony to the historicity of the Gospels and testimony to the accuracy with which scribes copied the manuscripts of Scripture that this prediction of Jesus remained untouched. Two hundred years after Jesus died the scribes who copied the Gospels did not alter this verse or take it out, even when they knew it was clear that the generation of Jesus had passed away.

The point is that we are supposed to expect the return of Jesus to be soon, within our generation and even if his return is later, we will meet him within our generation when we die and come to him for judgement.

3. Knowing that Jesus will return and judge us does not call for desperate actions but deliberate actions.

This is really taking off on C.S. Lewis’s point that we need to not be motivated by fear but instead take into account that Jesus will return.

It is precisely because we do not know when Jesus will return that desperate actions do not make any sense. At various times in history people have been convinced that Jesus was returning on a certain date and they sold their possessions, gave all they had away and then waited on a mountaintop or seaside for the end. After a long night, they dragged themselves back to their community and had to face what they thought would never be, the rest of their earthly lives.

I couldn’t verify this by doing a Google search, but I think it was St. Francis of Assisi who was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus would return tomorrow. His reply was, “Plant a tree today.”

The world will be normal the hour before the heavens roll up like a scroll. There will be no warning. There will be young couples making last minute arrangements for their wedding, couples expecting the delivery of their first child, families gathering for a long-awaited reunion, students registering for their new year of classes, and teenagers learning how to drive a car. And then Jesus will come like a thief in the night.

We are meant to live day by day, making daily choices in light of what we know will be our future. We are meant to keep in mind when we make decisions that this world will end and we will be judged not by what the world thinks of us but by what Jesus thinks of us.

Look at Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians
I Thessalonians 4
So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.  7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.  8 But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.  9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.  11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

He tells them to be, alert and self controlled, put on faith and love as a breastplate, put on hope of salvation as a helmet, encourage one another and build each other up. These are deliberate actions. These are the things we do each day as Christians. We make daily decisions to love God and follow him in that day.

I saw Shindler’s List the other night. This is a movie about a Polish businessman during the time of Nazi Germany who rescued 1100 Jews from being gassed and cremated in Auschwitz. He used Jewish labor for his factory and at the end of the war when instructions came that all Jewish workers were to be sent to Auschwitz, he spent his personal fortune by paying the German officers in charge for each of 1100 of the Jewish workers.

There is a scene at the end when he leaves the 1100 workers who are now free and he looks at his car and cries that he could have paid for two more Jews if he had sold his car. He could have done more if he had sold the few things he had left.

Although it is not clear from the movie what were Shindler’s motives, it seems that he did what he did because it seemed wrong to him to treat Jews as less than human. And then at the end, when it was clear that Germany had been defeated and the Nazi dream of destroying the Jews of the world had failed, everything became so much more clear and he realized he had not done all he could have done.

I don’t want to get to the end of my life regretting that I did not do more.

I am often asked to help someone who wants money for one reason or another and I sometimes say no. I am certain that if you asked the person I refused to help that he would tell you I made a mistake and that I was not being obedient to Jesus by refusing to help a Christian brother in need. That person would tell you that I will regret in heaven not having helped him now.

I am imperfect and I am sure I make mistakes and there are times I should have helped that I do not and there are times I help when I should not have helped. But taking into account that Jesus will return and this world will end does not mean that I help every person who comes to me asking for help.

When I am being asked for help, I picture myself in heaven alongside the one asking for help and I wonder how I will feel at that moment. Will I be embarrassed at not having helped when I had the chance to do so? Will I regret not having heard God speak to me about what I was to do?

That is how I believe we are to take into consideration that this world will end and we will face Jesus at the end of our lives. Decisions cannot be taken easily. We must struggle to consider if we are making the right decision.

The decision someone makes about what to buy or where to go or what to do is not as important to me as is their struggle to make a decision in light of the return of Jesus and their heavenly future.

The Bible does not give us an index so we can look up, Should I buy a BMW or Should I help Sam with the money he needs or Should I go to Spain. Therefore, we must ask ourselves how we will feel about having made a particular decision when we have arrived in our heavenly home. Will we regret having or not having made a particular decision? That is how we become deliberate in our preparation for the return of Jesus.

Jesus will certainly return.

We cannot possibly know when.

Therefore, we must always be ready for him.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he came today?