On Being Prepared
Luke 21:25-28 and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10
The term “cheap grace” was coined by the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945 for his steadfast loyalty to Christ and his unswerving opposition to Hitler and the Third Reich. As Bonhoeffer looked at the church and at Christians of his day, he saw that, all too often, God’s love was emphasized but God’s judgment was forgotten, Christian belief was affirmed but courageous loyalty to Christ in daily living was not practiced, God’s forgiveness was received and enjoyed but the response of true repentance was lacking. This, Bonhoeffer said, was “cheap grace”—love without judgment, belief without loyalty, forgiveness without repentance—a phony and fraudulent type of Christianity.
The season of Advent is a season during which Christians for many centuries have focused their attention on the coming of the Lord—his coming as prophesied in the Old Testament, his historical appearance in Palestine at the beginning of our era, his subsequent coming in spirit to Christians in every succeeding generation, and his final coming in glory at history’s conclusion. There are certain passages of Scripture that have been used again and again by the church during this season. When you read them, you discover that one of the main things they emphasize is the danger of “cheap grace,” the danger of sentimentalizing the advent of the Lord. They remind us in no uncertain terms that the Christ who came to us in Bethlehem and who still comes to us in spirit and who will come again, comes with love, but with a love that stands in judgment upon our dark and sinful ways and that demands our repentance and faith and loyalty in daily life.
The two texts for this sermon direct our eyes toward the future. In the Luke passage, in very vivid language, Jesus assures his disciples shortly before his death that ultimately there is going to be a day of reckoning when God’s victory through him will be complete.
In the Thessalonians passage, Paul picks up that theme and reminds the members of the church at Thessalonica that no one knows when this day of reckoning will be. It will come like a thief in the night; when it does, those who have been living in the dark will be seen for what they are, and those who have been living in the light will be seen for what they are. He warns them that the only way to be prepared is to keep their faith in Christ and their loyalty to Christ constantly alive and strong.
This day of reckoning has two dimensions, a universal one and a personal one.
In the universal sense, the Bible teaches that this world is a battleground on which Christ and the values of truth and goodness and beauty and love, which he embodied, are at war with the forces of falsehood and evil and ugliness and hate and that the day is coming when the victory will belong to Christ and to those who love and serve him. William Barclay says it this way, “Whatever else the doctrine of the Second Coming says, it says above all else that there is an end and a goal to history, and that history is going somewhere—and the corollary of that is that a person may be on the way or in the way.” (Apostles’ Creed for Everyman, p. 196) We pay lip service to this conviction every time we say in The Apostles’ Creed, “he rose again from the dead and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
In the personal sense, there is a day of reckoning for each of us individually, the day that we die and go to meet the Lord. We have each been given one lifetime (70 or 80 short years at best), along with the responsibility for choosing how we shall live it, whom we shall trust and what our values and priorities shall be. At the end, there is a day of reckoning when we will give account of our stewardship. As the writer of Hebrews says, “It is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
There have been times in the history of the church when this promise of judgment at life’s end and of the final judgment at history’s conclusion was shouted from pulpits with threats of fire and brimstone. People were moved to make decisions of faith more from a fear of hell and a vengeful God than from a loving response to a merciful God. No one should grieve the demise of that kind of sick religion.
But neither should we let ourselves become blind or deaf to the core of truth which that kind of religion distorted, a truth which is sounded through the Scriptures from beginning to end: we are accountable. There is a day of reckoning, a day of judgment, coming for each of us and all of us. Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian of the 19th century, put it this way, “There comes a midnight hour when every person must unmask.”
When that time comes, you will be one of two things, says Paul; you will either be prepared, or you will be unprepared. Consider first those who will be unprepared. Some, writes Paul, will be saying complacently to themselves and to one another, “All is well; all is safe,” when sudden destruction comes upon them.
You could be unprepared by deceiving yourself as to what God requires. A man once had a dream in which he looked upon his good deeds as the material out of which to construct a ladder by which he could climb to heaven. Each time he contributed to the church, donated to charity, or gave a coin to a beggar, he imagined himself adding a rung to the ladder. Finally, he lacked only two rungs, and when these were added, the gate of heaven swung open as he had expected. But to his surprise, in the middle of the way stood Jesus saying, “I am the door; he that does not enter by the door but climbs up some other way is a thief and a robber.” Despite what you may think, there is no way you can pile up enough good deeds to outweigh your bad ones. John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” There is no way to be justified in God’s sight except by acknowledging that fact and receiving the forgiveness which God offers you in Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, you could be unprepared by taking that forgiveness too much for granted and assuming that it carries with it no expectations. For many of us, confession stops short of repentance. We say, with a momentary feeling of remorse, “sorry about that,” and proceed to keep on living in the same old way—taking things that do not belong to us, playing fast and loose with our marriage vows, giving more importance to our own pleasures than to our service to those in need, falling repeatedly into some old bad habit of thought and action and never taking serious steps to change after we have asked God’s forgiveness. We tend to operate with the presumption that Christianity offers the help and comfort of a benevolent God but does not carry with it any really stringent requirements.
And then, too, you could be unprepared simply through procrastination. It could be that you recognize your dependence upon the mercy of God and recognize that grace requires a serious response of change and growth; and it could be that you are always intending to get around to that. “I really ought to start spending more time with my family.” “I really ought to get started on that term paper.” “I really ought to take a more active part in the work of my church.”
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.
“When people say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as the labor pains come on a woman who is with child, and very certainly they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters,” Paul goes on, “are not in the dark. You are not in a situation in which the day, like a thief, can surprise you.” You can be prepared for the day of reckoning no matter when it comes.
You can be prepared first by beginning to be conscious that it is coming—sooner or later—and by letting that awareness begin to affect your living. Some years ago, a tourist was traveling along the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. When he reached the castle, Villa Asconatli, an elderly and friendly gardener opened the gate and showed him the grounds that he kept in immaculate condition. The tourist asked when the owner had last been there.
“Twelve years ago,” the man answered.
“Does he ever write to you?” the tourist asked.
“From whom do you get your instructions?”
“From his agent in Milan.”
“Does he come?”
“Who, then, comes here?”
“I am almost always alone; only once in a while does a tourist come.”
“But I observe that you keep these grounds just as if you expect your master to come tomorrow.”
“Today, sir, today,” the old gardener promptly corrected him.
G. Campbell Morgan once said, “I never begin my work in the morning without thinking that perhaps God may interrupt my work and begin his own. I am not looking for death. I am looking for him.”
The first step toward meeting the day of reckoning in a state of preparedness is simply to become more aware of the fact that it is coming—all too soon at best.
The second thing is to begin building into your life new attitudes and values and commitments and activities that are a reflection of those that you see in Christ.
Make the worship of God an integral part of your life.
Start giving God’s work in the world, through the church and other agencies, a larger claim upon your resources.
Turn away from what is ugly and demeaning and learn to find your satisfactions in what is beautiful and uplifting.
“Conduct yourself becomingly as in the day,” Paul writes in Romans, “not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealously. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
No one knows when God’s call will come, and there are things that cannot be left until the last moment. It is too late to prepare for an examination when the test paper has been put in front of you. It is too late to make your house secure when the storm has burst upon it. Some things have to be done in time, or it is just too late. When Mary Queen of Scots was dying, her chaplain wanted to read the Bible to her, but she declined his offer, assuring him, “I have not left this matter till this hour.” An old Scotsman gave the same assurance in different words to someone who wanted to preach to him as his life ebbed out. He said, “I thatched my house when the weather was warm.” The call of God need not find you unprepared no matter when it comes. If your heart and your hands belong to Christ, you will always be prepared to enter his nearer presence. If you live in the light and in the day, there is no way you can be caught unawares.
Creator and Father of us all, to whom we are accountable for the way we are living our lives and by whom we will be judged when our days are done,
keep us from the clever rationalizations by which we set aside that accountability,
save us from the self-justification which we are able to feel by cataloguing the faults of others,
deliver us from the procrastination which rests on the illusion that there is always tomorrow.
Reassured and given courage by the knowledge that you are truly for us and not against us, enable us today to move forward in obedient service to you.
Help us to stop our personal religious experience as a justification for being insensitive and rude to others,
help us to begin evaluating our political opinions on the basis of their compatibility with our religious convictions rather than vice-versa,
help us to care as much for eccentric and crotchety neighbors and fellow church members as we do for needy people far away whom we don’t even know,
and help us to care as much as we can, with our money and our prayers, also for those needy people far away.
Help us, Lord, to cease being so self-centered and self-pitying and self-indulgent and to start letting how we talk and how we act be increasingly affected by what we see and hear when we look to you and when we look to others.
Reclaim your world, O God, from darkness and restore it to light.
Overcome falsehood with truth,
ugliness with beauty,
animosity with goodwill,
and fear with courage,
O Lord,. . . with us, through Jesus Christ your Son, our Redeemer. Amen.
The Rev. J. Harold McKeithen, Jr., Minister, Hidenwood Presbyterian Church Newport News, Virginia
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