Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee many years ago, my first job was advising and selling what were considered high-technical audiovisual equipment to school systems and businesses. These included Bell and Howell 16 mm self-threading film projectors (I said this was many years ago), and very large VHS players, as well as complex mechanisms to control six 35 mm slide projectors. We also had high-end sound equipment, TV production equipment, and lots of media to go with these systems. Our company had installed the sound and recording equipment for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.
My boss accompanied me as I put on a demonstration of our newest 16 mm projector to a room full of librarians at one of our county’s school systems. I was horrified as I discovered their electricity was two-pronged, and I had a three-pronged projector. I struggled to get things working. I finally ripped off the ground connection, the third prong, on our projector, and was able to plug it in. I eventually sold 16 projectors to that system.
While outside in the car before driving back to Knoxville, my boss tossed a two-prong, three-prong adapter at me, and said, “Is this what you needed in there?”
I said, “Yes. Why didn’t you give it to me in there, instead of making we sweat so?”
He said, “David, you needed to learn this lesson. When you are making a demonstration of our equipment, you must be prepared for every eventuality.”
Being properly prepared means that we are prepared to face all possible eventualities, which I obviously wasn’t for this demonstration. Being prepared means we are to be prepared for those things we can anticipate, and those things we cannot anticipate. As Christians we know Christ will come again. This is an eventually for which we can and should be prepared.
I fear that many Christians today are only just another tribe among various tribes that exist cantankerously in our country today. I also fear that far too many Chirsitans are trampling down with their sharpened hoofs that the pastures that other Christians should feed upon, as Ezekiel warns us in 34:18 and, that these sharp hooved Christians are muddying the water that their brothers and sisters need for life. These Christians seem to be making it impossible for us to help lead others into green pastures and pure water.
The previous weeks’ lectionary lessons and today’s lectionary lessons are ushering in Advent. These lessons have been teaching us to be prepared for Christ’s judgment, the awful Day of the Lord. Today’s add to this by teaching us two aspects of Christ’s Second Coming, namely his revealed role of both a fierce and comforting Shepherd at the end of days: (1) as Shepherd, he will fiercely separate his sheep from the sheep that are not his and tosses them into eternal gnashing of teeth; (2) as Shepherd, he watches over his sheep and guides us into eternal joy. He is now currently in the process of pulling his flock together to be revealed that last day when all of Christ’s enemies will meet their ultimate defeat.
This is the last Sunday in the Church Calendar. Next Sunday, December 3, will be the New Year for the Church Calendar. It will be the first Sunday of Advent. The Church Calendar is designed to remind us of specific events in the life of Christ. The Church Calendar reminds us of the fact that the most momentous event in the history of humankind took place when he who was in the form of God took on human form, was born of a virgin, was circumcised, was visited at birth by shepherds and later by magi, grew in wisdom and stature, was baptized at the beginning of his ministry and was declared by the Father to be his Beloved Son, taught, healed, stilled nature, died on the cross for our sins, and ascended into heaven, where he now reigns at the right hand of God.
Advent comes from the Latin “adventus,” or coming. In Advent, we are reminded of the three comings of Christ, two in the past, and one yet future. The first Advent was when Christ came in the flesh and walked among us. At Christmas, we celebrate this event, the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus. We must be careful at Christmas to not fall into the popular mode of worshipping a baby. We worship a resurrected man-God who exists in a glorious body and who sits on the same throne as God the Father in the supreme position of honor, at God’s right hand.
The second coming of Advent that we celebrate is when Jesus came into our lives. We received him, as St. John says in the Prologue to his gospel, and we became children of God. He continues to come into our lives in many ways. And he comes into our lives in the Eucharist, in the simple elements of bread and wine, elements that become his body and blood.
The third coming is yet to be. It will be the Parousia. Parousia is a Greek word that has its secular origins in Caesar entering into a city. This was a high honor for the citizens of that city. Knowing Caesar was on his way to visit, the citizens of that city prepared for his coming by sweeping the streets, preparing buildings and roadways, and dressing in their finest. When Caesar appeared, the town’s officials welcomed him warmly, trumpet blared, drums were beaten, and its citizens lined the streets and greeted Caesar with great joy. But not all of its citizens were filled with joy. Some were filled with dread. Caesar would soon be judging them, and many of these would be put to death.
The Church Calendar reminds us that our Biblical view of time is both cyclical and linear. It is cyclical in that there are repeating seasons, but it is also linear, in that these seasons are moving towards a point of pending judgment. Time is thus like a wheel moving towards a terminal destination. The Church Calendar reminds us that, as Moses says in Psalm 90, we must continually ask God to teach us how to number our days.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Day. But everyday in our lives should be a Christ the King Day. Is this true for us?
The Church Calendar also reminds us that time is short, and that we will die. A question that has perplexed philosophers and theologians through the ages is this, “What is time?” Augustine, in Book XI, section 14, from my old Penguin Classics Confessions, asks this very question:
What is time? I know well enough what it is, provided nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled. All the same I can confidently sat that I know that if nothing passed, there would be no time; if nothing were going to happen, there would be no future time; and if nothing were, there would be no present time.
In physics, we define time as being both an arrow, and being entropy. Entropy is when systems disintegrate into chaos. Time, then, is a continuous series of disintegration. Entropy brings about events. Entropy is one of the catastrophic results of the fall. On a human level, entropy results in death. But when Jesus comes again, entropy will no longer be in effect. There is no disintegration or death in the New Heavens and Earth.
Yet from Augustine’s point of view (and ours, too) time is an accumulation of events that is leading to a cataclysmic summation, which will bring about the Second Coming of Christ. But something not quite as cataclysmic (at least I pray not so) are the events of our own lives. What are the events that we are accumulating in our lives? Are they God-honoring events? Are they events preparing us for Jesus’ Return?
One of the mysteries of the Incarnation involves time. We know that God exists in all time, and that past, present and future are one in the same to him. The time in which he dwells differs radically from the time in which we dwell. Yet Jesus who was eternal entered into our temporal time and in his life experienced everything that you and I experience, but without sin. Including death. He rose from the dead and he now dwells in eternity. But he waits the day when he will once again enter into our time. As the dead and Christ and those who remain alive are caught up with him in the clouds as the trumpet resounds, we will depart from this time, which brings about decay and death and will enter into eternity, a time in which we will live eternally with the Triune God and with one another.
The Roman Caesar made claims that only the Son of God could make. He claimed to be a God. He claimed to be the salvation of his people. He claimed majesty and glory, among other spurious claims. So at the end at the end of time, our Caesar will appear, our true Caesar, the Caesar to the Cosmos, the Caesar of time, at his Parousia, a Parousia which will make that of the earthly Caesar appear so insignificant, it will be as nothing. The question that today’s lectionary lessons ask us is this: “Are we prepared for the Parousia? Have we allowed Jesus to seek us out as one of the sheep in his flock, as Ezekiel tells us Jesus is doing at this moment, or are we a goat?” And, as Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel account, are we now so thoroughly imbued with the Spirit that our lives automatically serve our brothers and sisters when we seed their needs?
Paul L. Tan, in his Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times relates this story:
After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a naval tournament was arranged for the victorious British seamen and, at the request of Admiral Drake, Queen Elizabeth consented to come from London to award prizes. The officer in charge of arrangements issued orders that “on account of the dazzling loveliness of her Majesty, all men, upon receiving their prizes, should shield their eyes with their right hand.” Thus was born the naval and military salute!
When Christ comes again, the “dazzling loveliness of” our Caesar will be such that we will do more than salute; our knees will be bowed and our tongues will confess that Jesus is Lord! We will be overcome by his dazzling glory.
Which brings me to the main point I have extracted from today’s lessons: Being prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming means that everything in our lives should be done in light of this pending event. We should live in this manner because Jesus came in the flesh, died for us, purchased us with his blood, and we are now his. We have the choice of being either good servants of our Lord, or bad servants. If bad servants, then this is the time to cry, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” This is the time to be resolved to be good servants and to fall on his mercy. Whether we eat or drink, or everything we do, we should be doing for the glory of God.
Several points come to mind about being prepared for the coming of our Lord. Point 1: Being prepared means that we have to be aware of the fact that we have our feet in two different time zones. We dwell on earth as well as in heaven. Our dwelling in heaven should determine how we dwell on earth. Our internal GPS should we directing us to the fact that Christ will come again, and we should remain steadfastly on this highway.
Let’s turn our attention to the gospel lesson of today. Matthew 25:31–46 (English Standard Version):
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 gives us the order of events that must take place before Jesus separates the sheep from the goats:
But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
At the end of time, it appears that Jesus no longer sits on God’s throne, but his own throne. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.”
Point 2: Being prepared means that we should be actively seeking the future blessing of our Lord.
During Christmas and during Easter, are eyes are turned to past events in the life of Jesus. But our eyes should also be turned to the present: Jesus is now in the process of defeating his enemies. He is active in our world. He is actively involved in the process of summing up all things in heaven and on earth under his authority, as Paul states in Ephesians 1:10. He is subjecting all things unto himself, as Paul tells us in today’s epistle passage. As an aside, the phrase “summing up” comes from the Roman days when addition was done down up, rather than up down.
A caveat is in order when preaching a passage such as this from today’s gospel lesson. The passage can be mistaken as works salvation. It is not. We are saved by grace through faith. But in the context of Scripture, James enables us to understand that Jesus is telling us that works justify our justification by faith. In the very same passage in which Paul tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works, Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul also tells us that we have been created for good works, which God has prepared for us before the foundations of the earth. No works of mercy and grace, Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading, no evidence of salvation by faith.
Today’s gospel is part of what is called “The Olivet Discourse,” because Jesus delivered it to his disciples on the Mont of Olives. Jesus is answering the disciples’ questions about when the end would come. Jesus then explains to them that the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed in the near future, and that he would come again in the far future. There is an “already” and a “not yet” aspect to the Olivet Discourse.
Notice that the ones whom Jesus blesses in today’s gospel lesson do these acts without conscious thought. They see a need and they meet that need:
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’”
Notice, too, that the condemned who Jesus curses also did their deeds without conscious thought. They see a need and ignored that need:
“Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Lord, let us be sheep and not goats. Let us be members of your flock and let us submit to your shepherding us. Let us see the needs of our brothers and sisters and meet those needs.
Point 3: Being prepared means that we should be learning to see the world in the full color of Jesus’ reign, not in black and white as if he is not at work. This means we are to open our eyes and lovingly see others. Let us see and define our lives, our politics, our worship, our relationships, our everyday activities through and under the eyes of our Savior, Jesus the Christ, Jesus our Caesar.
If we are saved, then the eyes of our hearts should be such that we see those things Jesus wants us to see. Incidentally, since we do not know who will be saved in the future, I firmly believe this passage about meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters applies to all people we encounter. We must learn to truly see.
In the Great Smoky National Park, the Park Service has these new sight seeing viewing scopes that enable colorblind people to see colors. When several of these people viewed the fall colors for the first time, they wept at the beauty their eyes were now beholding. The sight overwhelmed them. We must ask God to teach us to see things in full color, not just shades of gray.
Point 4: Being prepared means that we should be developing habits of love and service. Love and service comes naturally for some. But for others of us who are saved, we must develop habits of love and service that often go against our fallen natures. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, ““Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
Are we prepared for Christ’s Second Coming? Are we even in the process of preparing? As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, quoting Psalm 95:8, let us not harden our hearts, but let us turn to him Today. If we haven’t yet started preparing for the end, then it is not yet too late. Today is still here. But Today will not always be here. Jesus is Coming.
Let me reiterate the main point of today’s lectionary lessons and the four points we can extract from these lessons:
Being prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming means that everything in our lives should be done in light of this pending event.
Point 1: Being prepared means that we have to be aware of the fact that we have our feet in two different time zones
Point 2: Being prepared means that we should be actively seeking the future blessing of our Lord.
Point 3: Being prepared means that we should be learning to see the world in the full color of Jesus’ reign, not in black and white as if he is not at work.
Point 4: Being prepared means that we should be developing habits of love and service
Let me end with this story that Paul L. Tan found in Christianity Today:
The Rev. Earl Kelly, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Holly Springs, Mississippi, was preaching on the second coming of Christ.
He had just quoted Matthew 24:27, “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.”
At this point, a large light bulb fell from its socket in the ceiling and shattered on the floor in front of the pulpit.
As reported by Baptist Press, Kelly was equal to the occasion. He told the startled worshippers, “His coming will be just as sudden, and unexpected, and devastating to the dreams that are not Christ-centered.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.