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November 19, 2006 (Sunday 33 • Time after Pentecost)—“No Dress Rehearsal”
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
Participants in confirmation class and Bible study occasionally ask why the Gospels were written so many years after Christ’s earthly ministry. In answering, I often refer to Mark’s thirteenth chapter and suggest to them that the oral history, the sharing of the account of Jesus’ life and death, was very effective in spreading the Good News for quite some time, just as it is more engaging today to hear it from a Christian than to read it.
Probably most who knew him or who became Christians early on believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. A good many who shared the accounts in those early years following the Ascension did so during times of persecution and death, and as they died and the years passed, it became clear that his second coming could be far off, and there needed to be a written record, a reliable authority to which new Christians could turn.
I’m sure that simple explanation is no big surprise to most of you. But think about how people were living their lives expecting Christ to return any moment. It became a significant problem and one that Paul saw a need to address. He wrote to the Thessalonian church members who thought the end times were here and thus no longer had to work (for the common good?): “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (Does that sound like anyone in your family?) He encouraged them to live their lives expecting the end at any time, but living life fully and faithfully.
He essentially said they should not squander the time and gifts with which their Creator had blessed them. They had been personally selected, blessed, and empowered by God for a purpose. Life is not a dress rehearsal—there is but one earthly life and that is to be lived to the glory of God each and every day.
A former Roman Catholic teacher of ancient and medieval history became a psychodramatist later in life after a difficult divorce and eventually married a Jewish bank executive. He saw how her faith and therapy changed other lives and filled her with purpose and joy. At age 60 he also received a PhD and partnered with her in training others in this discipline. Despite being in their 70s and having suffered from a stroke and battles with cancer, they continue to use their gifts at a dizzying pace, literally around the world. When asked why they don’t simply retire and enjoy their grandchildren, Dorothy frequently responds, “When I die, I want to be all used up.” Frankly, I cannot imagine the love and compassion they show others ever running out.
To the disciples’ question about the timing of the end and the signs that will alert them to it, Jesus answers that they are wasting time and energy that could better be used in doing the work of the Father. But he also shows his awareness that in the days and years and millennia to come, false prophets will come in his name leading those with such concerns astray.
How true that would prove to be for so many generations. For centuries there have been people carrying signs declaring the end is at hand and warning we should be prepared to meet our Maker. There have been and will continue to be charlatans and serious spiritual leaders wrecking havoc by focusing on that. In fact, people from certain faith groups often come to the homes of pastors who do not preach of the “end times” and condemn us for leading people astray.
But there have been and will continue to be prophets from various walks of life exhorting people to refocus on the gift of life. You have heard or read many of them.
J. H. Newman: “Fear not that your life will come to an end, bur rather fear that it shall never have a beginning.”
Henri Amiel: “Life is short and we have not too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”
Oscar Wilde: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
And unkown writer: “This is the beginning of a new day. God has given me this day to use as I will. I can waste it or grow in its light and be of service to others. But what I do with this day is important because I have exchanged a day of my life for it. When tomorrow comes, today will be gone forever. I hope I will not regret the price I paid for it.”
Even a recent internet communication captures in jest the spirit of the issue: “Begin worrying. Details to follow.”
Still others have told us in one way or another that we cannot control the length of our lives, but we can control the depth and the height.
Jesus tells his distracted disciples not to get lost in worrying about the end of days, but to focus on the new time, the beginning of new life his sacrifice and resurrection bring. In the end of his days on earth, his faithfulness to God and love for all despite cruelty and death at the hands of others will cause others to say, “Surely this was the Son of God.”
In the end of their days, the disciples’ witness in word and action will also cause others to say, “See how they loved Him!”
Pentecost, the season when we celebrate the gift of the Spirit in our lives and the lives of the saints, is drawing to an end and we will soon focus on preparing for the arrival of the Messiah. Perhaps this is an appropriate time for us to stop and reflect on how we allow or restrict the Spirit’s proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ in our daily lives.
“UncleDave” Marks was the owner of his own business in New York who, at the height of the Vietnam war, realized that he could do little to change the politics of the war, but he could impact lives effected by it. Using much of his own income, he began Operation Goodwill, partnering with ham radio operators to send word of need for medical, school, and survival items for orphanages in that war-torn country. In those days before computers and cell phones, he arranged for family members to tape messages to their service members overseas and encouraged people to send paperback books, letters of support, and home-made cookies to the troops. While others were referring to service members as baby killers, “UncleDave” was finding ways for them to be reintegrated into civilian life.
His family often chastised him for the long hours and the diversion of personal funds to this endeavor, but in all the years I knew him, he never slowed down. I did not need to ask him why he did so much, his business stationery had his reasoning printed for all to see:
“I shall pass through this world but once.
Any good, therefore, that I can do
Or any kindness that I can show
To any creature,
Let me do it now.
Let me not defer it or neglect it,
For I shall not pass this way again.”
“UncleDave” did not change the course of the war, but he did change the course and quality of many lives. He certainly taught me the importance of expending ourselves in the service of God for others, and I am a pastor and chaplain in large part because of him.
Today there are wars and rumors of wars; there are weapons of mass destruction; and there are natural disasters that wreak havoc on large numbers of people. Some will spend their days looking for the beginning of the end of the world and be distracted from living their lives to the glory of God. None of us know the number of our days, but each day given us is a gift from our Creator. How will you use this day?
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org