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December 3, 2006 (Advent I)—“People of the World or the Word?”
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
Now that I am again supervising an intern pastor, various discussions lead me to again remember segments of my internship some 35 years ago in Allentown, PA. The senior of the two pastors seemed to find a way to discover the areas in which I was least comfortable and arranged for me to be assigned responsibilities attendant to them.
One such pastoral responsibility was visiting the terminally ill. What would I say? Why would anyone want to have an intern pastor attend to them under such circumstances when two ordained pastors were available? Could I make a bad situation worse? What would I have to face in my own life and relationships by dealing with the dying?
Pastor G. decided that I was the perfect choice for one such patient. This 16-year-old had recently lost his father to a form of cancer that could be hereditary. So as a precaution, other family members were tested and, despite showing no symptom, Mike tested positive for end-stage cancer and likely had months to live.
Mike was an athlete and sportsman. His greatest joy in the outdoors was fly-fishing with his father in the local mountain streams. I could relate to that, having been taught to fish by my dad as well. So armed with that little bit of insight, I reluctantly went to visit him.
I expected Mike to be in bed and appear deathly ill. But he was standing by the window and, apart from the hospital clothing, could be mistaken for a healthy high school letterman in any sport. I introduced myself and told him Dr. G thought it would be good for us to spend some time together. He smiled, and I saw the kindness and sense of peace in his eyes. It appeared to me in that instant that Mike was going to be my teacher, mentor, and spiritual guide as we confronted the unfairness of two tragedies in short succession within a loving, Christian family—and how he would help others cope. This certainly wasn’t a role he would otherwise have chosen, but one he accepted with dignity and faith.
Others I would meet over the years who faced the end of their days would often look down or stare off in the distance. Still others would be angry with God and want nothing to do with a pastor. But Mike looked me in the eye with a kind and patient smile.
I wanted to pray and wish and will away the disease so he would be restored to life and his mother would have her incredible son—and we could wade in the fast moving streams together celebrating life.
When Mike heard the diagnosis and prognosis, he realized instantly the plans he had for his life would be inalterably changed. As he listened to prophets of doom several times a day, he refused to let his spirit be bowed or crushed, and instead followed what he had been taught in his family and chose to look up and look forward, trusting in the God of the universe to be with him as the end of time on earth came and the beginning of new life began.
There was no time spent wringing his hands in remorse and wondering if he had done enough good to outweigh the bad or if God could forgive all he had done. He made his peace with God, as he did apparently every day in prayer and every week in church in worship and communion. Perhaps what Mike displayed most was an absence of worry over what would come next or fear in meeting his Maker, showing instead an absolute trust that God was in charge and a preparation to be in communion with the Lord of love.
Mike’s gift to me, and I expect to those myriad others who came in contact with him in his remaining days, is one that has shaped my personal faith and impacted my ministry. It was not the world that made the difference for him and empowered him to confront the end of his life; it was the Word made flesh.
Recently I spoke in a sermon of those who are focused on the signs that lead to the end of the world and the return of Christ. Now as we begin Advent and will in subsequent Sundays focus on the past coming of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem, Luke invites us to take another look at the future coming or reappearing of the Son of Man.
Several scholars in their commentaries on Luke would agree that he makes a distinction through Jesus’ words between the inhabitants of the world and the people of the Word.
The signs Jesus mentions allude back to the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel in which the signs no longer are those of wars and revolutions; earthquakes, famines, plagues, or armies; but entirely of cosmic events in the sun, moon, and stars; the tumults of the oceans, and the shaking of the heavenly powers themselves.
These signs that were beyond the ancients’ understanding, have always been with us. The accompanying worry has likewise been a part of life for the inhabitants of the earth. But Jesus presents a contrasting picture of “the people” and “you.” The signs will continue to happen. The responses to what happens are quite different. “The people” faint or die from fear and foreboding about what is coming upon the world. However, “you” are to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
As Mark also noted and I preached recently, there will be those who say “the time is near,” and we are not to follow those people. They are false prophets, according to Jesus, and they are still leading people astray.
Jesus tells believers that they should respond differently than others because our redemption is drawing near. The Greek word carries the idea of releasing or freeing someone by the payment of a fee or ransom. To what or whom are we in bondage? What is the payment that will be made that frees us? What will it mean to be set free? In this context, the Son of Man will pay the price and free us from the terrible distress that has come upon the world.
The Day of Judgment for the world is also a day of release from judgment for the believers. Pastor Brian Stoffregen has suggested that this is a bit like the old Fram oil filter commercials: “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” We can face divine judgment now—confessing our sin to God, repenting of those sins, and having those sins wiped away by divine forgiveness. If all our wrongs have been removed by daily repentance and forgiveness, there will be nothing left to judge on Judgment Day. We will be “pure and blameless,” “declared not guilty” on the Day of Christ.
The other option is to avoid daily judgments which cause us to face up to our sin and sinfulness, and take our chances on facing God later—when all people will be judged. Many of our ancestors chose to wait to be baptized until the end of their lives, believing that they could live as sinful a life as they wanted and then have all sins forgiven at the last. The problem, aside from the poor theology, is that many died before they could be baptized. Judgment Day came earlier for them than they anticipated.
The Eschaton, the end of days, also brings an end to all evil. What would living in such a world be like? How do we capture glimpses of that world today? Having celebrated Christ the King last Sunday, how shall we live now under the Lordship of Christ?
I am sure I am not the only one who has been repeatedly told that I am naïve if I think I can change the world. But I have seen how individuals who have Christ as their King can change one person’s world, and that’s a start.
The world and its inhabitants will pass away. The kingdom and the people of the Word will never pass away. These church buildings we hold so dear are only temporary and will all pass away. But just as in the temple in Jerusalem, God does not live in structures, he lives in the hearts of his people.
Mother Teresa, like Mike, received each day as a gift from God, and used each day to worship God by how they lived their lives. They were keenly aware that the end of their days could come at any time and they were ready to meet their Creator in thankfulness and in peace.
Most of you have read of the poem written on the wall of Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Instead of worrying, spend your days listening and talking to God. He will give you the strength to live today and the hope of eternity for tomorrow.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org