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Preparing for His Coming

 

A sermon by

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

 

Mark 13:24-37

 

 

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SERMON: Preparing for His Coming

 

Today is the beginning of the Advent season –– the first Sunday of the New Year.  I trust you know, the dominant theme of Advent is Jesus' coming, and we think of Jesus' coming in three ways: As a baby born in Bethlehem, as a living presence in our world today, and as the risen Savior, who will come at the close of the age to reign in glory over all creation. 

 

This little snippet of liturgy from our Communion service captures the essence of Jesus' coming as well as anything I know: "Christ has come, Christ is come, Christ will come again."

 

The gospel lesson for today focuses on the last part of this trilogy – the so-called Second Coming of Christ.  And that's what I'd like for us to think about in the sermon this morning: What do we mean by the Second Coming, as opposed to the first or third or last coming?  As importantly, what do we believe about the Second Coming?

 

To be honest, the Second Coming doesn't rank high on the food chain for most Presbyterians.  Oh, we say the words.  For example, in the Nicene Creed we're this morning for our Confession of Faith, we'll say plainly:

 

"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God … (who) for us and our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human."

 

We'll go on to talk about Jesus' passion, death, resurrection and ascension, and then we'll say,

 

"He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." (Nicene Creed)

 

So, why are we so ho-hum about it?  If we really believe Jesus is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, shouldn't that strike fear and trembling in our hearts?  What gives?  I checked the pcusa.org web site to get the company line on the Second Coming and made an interesting discovery.  It says:

 

"… (We) also believe that Jesus will one day return to the earth to complete the task of creating a world where justice, peace and love rule and evil is no more. To those who believe in Christ, such an event is seen not with fear but with joyful anticipation …"  (http://www.pcusa.org/101/101-jesus.htm)

 

If I read that correctly, we believe in the Second Coming, not so much as a threat to our well-being, but as the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams for a world of peace and harmony, a world in which we are no longer at war or at odds with each other.  So, if I've got it right, Christ will come again in glory to judge us, and we're to look forward to that with joyful anticipation. Hmm.

 

 

 

 

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I don't know about you, but I've been subjected to judgment before – times, say, when my work has been scrutinized and closely evaluated – and I found that to be an excruciating experience, anything but joyful.

 

In music school, for example, we'd end each semester by playing a solo or an etude before a small panel of faculty members.  We called them, "juries," and that was a pretty good name for it.  We were on trial, and our semester grade depended on how well we played.

 

In graduate school, I had to face an oral examination on my dissertation.  I well remember the day I came before my doctoral committee and fielded their questions over the past four years of my research and study.  I can tell you, I didn't look forward to that with joyful anticipation!

 

We're judged all the time, and, each time, it comes with a bit of nervous trepidation.  Just invite a few friends over for dinner.  A little voice inside clicks on and says, "You'd better get in high gear."  So, you clean the house and polish the silverware and prepare a scrumptious meal and make sure everything is just so, not that your friends would notice if you didn't.  Yeah, right!

 

Or, say, you have a job interview.  Don't tell me you're not going to be on edge.  After all, you want to make a good impression.  You want to look your best and be at the top of your game.

 

So, when I read that Jesus' coming "is seen not with fear but with joyful anticipation," I'll just have to tell you I'm not buying it.  I believe God's judgment is far more serious than that, and that it's likely to be painful.  The prophet Malachi compared it to purifying metal.  He said,

 

"But who can endure the day of his coming?

And who will stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner's fire, and like launderer's soap;

and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,

and he will purify the sons of Levi,

and refine them as gold and silver;

and they shall offer to Yahweh offerings in righteousness."

(Malachi 3:2-3)

 

We all know the words of the 51st Psalm, where David prays,

 

"Create in me a clean heart, O God.

Renew a right spirit within me." (Psalms 51:10)

 

But what we may overlook is that, in order to have a clean heart, he also prays,

 

"Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean.

Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." (Psalms 57:7)

 

Do you have any idea what hyssop is?  Hyssop is a plant with medicinal qualities, not the least of which is a powerful laxative.  In other words, when David prays, "Purify me with hyssop," he's talking about the digestive tract.

 

Here's the point: Jesus will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the extent that we fail to be just; that we fail to live in peace with others; that we refuse to love our neighbors – including our enemies – and that evil still lurks within our hearts … his coming promises to be a painful experience, in which case, we do well to be just a tad fearful.

 

If so, what might we do to prepare for his coming?  Here's my short list.

 

First, make amends.  Resolve any outstanding grievances.  Put away old grudges.  If you've wronged somebody, go to him or her and apologize.  If they won't forgive you, that's their problem.  It's up to you to own up to what you've said or done and seek to make amends. 

 

The 8th and 9th steps of the AA program require the recovering alcoholic to go back to all those he's lied to and stolen from and cheated in any way and make a full confession and, if possible, make retribution. 

 

I had a dear friend years ago who did just that.  He sat down with his former employer and went through his personnel record, page by page.  He even called the IRS and asked to speak with a supervisor to tell him he'd cheated on his income tax.  He said it was a humbling experience, but one of the most empowering things he'd ever done.  For the first time in years, he could look in the mirror and not be ashamed of himself.

 

Make amends.  That's one side of the coin, and the flip side is, if someone has wronged you, you're to take the initiative and do what you can to resolve the conflict.  Jesus taught his disciples,

 

"If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar,

and there remember that your brother has anything against you,

leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.

First be reconciled to your brother,

and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24)

 

Reconciliation takes precedence over worship!  So, to prepare for Christ's coming, first make amends.  And second, square your debts.  Paul told the Romans,

 

"Owe no one anything, except to love one another;

for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law." (Romans 13:8)

 

That doesn't mean you can't borrow money to buy a house or start a business or pay off a new car.  It has to do with being encumbered so that you're not free to be in relationship with Christ.

 

Three years ago, my son, John, introduced the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University to his congregation.  It's a thirteen-week program designed to help young couples and families get out of debt and learn to manage their money.  He's offered it five times now.  In all, about a hundred people have gone through the course.  He said it's revolutionized their congregation.  They've cut up hundreds of credit cards and are now living on a pay-as-you-go budget.  They use cash for their discretionary spending – things like going out to eat, going to a movie, taking a weekend trip – so that, if they don't have the money, they don't go.  It's given them more control over their lives and a less stress over their money.  In gratitude, many have started tithing.

 

But Paul wasn't just talking about money, he was also talking about constantly being on the receiving end, letting others do all the work, taking advantage of others' good will, being dependent on the generosity of others.

 

Pete Smith was director of Faith Mission in Wichita Falls.  One of his favorite sayings was, "There are givers and there are takers."  As far as Pete was concerned, you were one or the other.  Those who lined up at the mission for a free meal were the takers and those who bought the groceries and did the cooking were the givers.   

 

There's a truth to this: Some people are generous beyond all expectation.  They'd give you the shirt off their back.  Others always have their hand out wanting more.  And, what we need to be clear about is this: While everyone needs a helping hand, from time to time, being a giver or a taker is largely a matter of choice.  No matter how much or little you have, you can contribute something … but it's up to you to decide.

 

So, let's see now: Point one, make amends; point two, square your debts; and point three, exercise self-restraint.  To put it bluntly, curb your appetites.

 

I know it's the Sunday after Thanksgiving and we all ate too much, but this is important: We live in a gluttonous age.  Everywhere we turn we're encouraged to eat more, buy more, do more, want more.  Now, more than ever, we need to learn to just say no.

 

Look around you.  Remember when Coca-Cola came in a six-ounce bottle and a hamburger consisted of a thin slice of meat on a bun?  Now everything is super-sized.  You can get a 32-ounce Coke with a triple-decker half-pound hamburger and a jumbo order of fries.

 

I saw on TV this week where the NFL is sponsoring a program to combat obesity in children.  Can't you just see a 350-pound lineman telling a third-grader, "Hey, kid, you ought to lose some weight!"  How ironic is that?

 

Speaking of television, in the early days programs used to come on at certain times of the day; the rest of the time there was this test signal and long steady tone.  Now you can watch TV twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with a selection of a hundred channels or more.

 

Besides television, there's the computer.  At the click of a mouse, you can surf the Internet day and night.  You can email and shop and do research and study.  You can also play video games and delve into all sorts of exotic web sites, or so I'm told.  It's all there at your fingertips, inviting and seductive.

 

To prepare for Christ's coming is to exercise self-restraint, to choose carefully what you do, where you go, what you say.  No one knew this better than John Bailey, who, in one of his morning prayers, writes,

 

"Give me, O God, this day a strong and vivid sense that Thou art by my side … may I ever be aware of Thine accompanying presence.  By Thy grace, O God, I will nowhere this day where Thou canst come, nor court any companionship that would rob me of Thine.  By Thy grace I will let no thought enter my heart that might hinder my communion with Thee, nor let any word come from my mouth that is not meant for Thine ear.  So shall my courage be firm and my heart be at peace."  (A Diary of Private Prayer, p. 69)

 

I could go on, but you get the point: One day, Christ will come like a thief in the night, when we least expect it.  If we're to be prepared, we need to get our act together because, the closer we conform to the standard of his righteousness, the less we have to fear and, as we all know, "The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalms 111:10)

 

The Good News is Christ comes, not to condemn us, but to save us from our sinful selves.  And the best news is that, as we make the necessary corrections now in preparation for his coming, we're able to taste the first fruits of eternal life and realize that, in many ways, he is already here inviting us to be part of his kingdom.

 

One of the hymns we sang Tuesday night at our community Thanksgiving service says it best:

 

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

(Adrianus Valerius, 1597)

 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. 

 

Copyright 2009, Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.

 

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