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It’s Getting Closer

Luke 21:25-36
You better watch out! You better not cry! You better not pout! I’m telling you why: 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. You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I’m telling you why: Jesus Christ is coming to town.
Really, in a nutshell, that’s what our reading from the Gospel of Luke today is all about. Jesus is saying that the day will come when he will return to earth. So, “Prepare yourselves,” Jesus says. Prepare yourselves, because that day is getting closer and closer.
Now that December is approaching and we’ve begun the season of Advent, our thoughts tend to focus on Christmas. We cover our houses with sparkling lights. We hang festive wreaths on our doors. We decorate our trees. We do all those things to celebrate the fact that Jesus came to us, that Jesus came to us so long ago when he was born in that stable there in Bethlehem. But the thing is that Advent is not just about thinking back to what happened there in the manger. No, Advent is mainly about looking forward, looking forward to that day when Jesus will come again.
The problem, though, is that we often think that Jesus’ return is something that only those nutty, fringe groups talk about. We figure that the Second Coming isn’t something that good, decent Presbyterians ever mention. And one of the reasons we feel that way is because we’ve seen how groups have gone out in the past and have yelled, “He’s coming! He’s coming! The End is at hand!”, only to discover that they were totally wrong.
For instance, in 1836, a man named William Miller announced that according to his calculations, the world would come to an end in 1843. Well, 1843 came and went, and some of his followers began to doubt. But then early in 1844 a comet appeared in the sky and those people started to get excited, thinking that that was the sign they had been waiting for. And because of that, William Miller ended up with about 50,000 followers, who all believed what he had to say about Christ’s return. But as time went by, and Christ didn’t return, Miller’s followers slowly began to fall away.
Or maybe you remember that group in California several years ago called the Heaven’s Gate cult. When comet Hale-Bopp appeared, they figured that was their cue that the Last Days were at hand. So they committed mass suicide, in order that they could be with Jesus, who they believed was riding on the comet.
Or we could point to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That group was founded by a man who thought that the world was going to come to an end in 1874. When that didn’t happen, he changed his prediction to 1918, and then to 1920, and then to 1925, and then to 1940, and then to 1975. Finally, the Jehovah’s Witnesses adopted a new a policy, a policy that said that you shouldn’t try to set dates.
We look at episodes like those, and that just reinforces our belief that people who talk about Jesus’ return are nuts, that they’re nothing more than snake oil salesmen. It’s like a TV preacher who was trying to get people to buy his videotape about the Second Coming, because he said that Jesus was going to return any moment. But the television screen had a line at the bottom that said to allow 6-8 weeks for delivery. It would seem that if that preacher really believed that Jesus’ return was that close at hand, maybe he would have found a little speedier delivery system!
The problem with predictions about when Jesus will return is that when people make predictions like that, they’re claiming to know more about the future than even Jesus knows. When Jesus was here on earth, people kept asking him when the End would come. And Jesus answered by saying, “I don’t know. Only God the Father knows.” What that means is that it’s OK for us to laugh at those people who make predictions, who claim to know the exact day and time when Jesus will return. We can laugh at them because they don’t know what they’re talking about.
But even though we can laugh at those people who run around making those predictions, what we shouldn’t laugh at is the belief that one day Jesus will return. That is a promise that God himself has made to us. It is a promise that God will keep. And the reason that promise is so important to us is because if this world that we know right now is all that there is, then we may as well give up hope.
The sad fact is that many people have already given up hope. A recent survey found that nearly 2/3 of all Americans say that there will be a major energy crisis. Well over half think there will be an epidemic worse than AIDS. Child psychologists have found that if you ask teenage boys, “Have you thought about killing yourself?”, one out of seven will say “Yeah.”
It’s a well-known fact that the holiday season that we’re in now is the worst time of the year for depression. At Christmastime, we’re bombarded with all kinds of images of how life should be perfect: with loving, healthy families, with enough money to buy presents galore, with not a care in the world. From TV, we get the impression that Christmas is the time when everyone has a wonderful life. But as we look at our lives and at the lives of those whom we care about, we see the problems that we have. We see the troubles that we face. We see the fears that fill our hearts and minds. And so we become depressed, as we wonder if the way things are is the way they’re always going to be.
It’s like a Dilbert comic strip from several years ago. Dilbert’s pet, Dogbert, announces that he has developed a completely reusable newspaper, the last newspaper that people will ever have to buy. Dilbert looks at the headlines that read, “Pope denounces violence. Prices continue to rise. Unrest in the Middle East.” The idea is that those are the same headlines that are in the news today. They’re the same headlines that were in the news 50 years ago. And we fear they’ll be the same headlines forever.
It seems that every time we turn around there’s some new kind of sickness, there’s some new war breaking out, there’s some flood wiping out a city. Everywhere we turn there seems to be pain and sadness and tears in our lives and in the lives of those around us. And after a while it gets to us. There are times when we reach the point where we want to give up, and we just don’t know if we’re able to keep on going.
But it’s at that point that Jesus says to us, “Stand up! Lift up your heads! Take heart!” The time is coming when the dark night of evil and suffering and death will come to an end. The time is coming when a bright new day is going to dawn, a day that will never end, a day of peace and love and life. That day isn’t here yet. But it’s coming. In fact, it’s closer now than it ever was before.
C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh, PA