Lights a Lovely Mile
It Is Time to Wake Up to Reality
Why all this stress on behaviour? Because, as I think you have realised, the present time is of the highest importance—it is time to wake up to reality. Every day brings God’s salvation nearer. The night is nearly over, the day has almost dawned. Let us therefore fling away the things that men do in the dark, let us arm ourselves for the fight of the day! Let us live cleanly, as in the daylight, not in the “delights” of getting drunk or playing with sex, nor yet in quarrelling or jealousies. Let us be Christ’s men from head to foot, and give no chances to the flesh to have its fling.
—Romans 13:11–14 (phillips)
A few years ago at the University of Michigan, a fantastic movement among the students was dominated by the belief that Christ was coming again very soon. On the surface, it was a Christian group, initiated by a professor who had a remarkable influence over the students. The group interpreted current-event reports as fulfilled prophecies of obscure sections of Scripture and put them together in such a way to prove that the end of the world was imminent. The end would be initiated by the Second Coming of Christ, who would remove all his people from the about-to-be-destroyed world. One of the more spectacular things that many of these people did was go to Detroit and buy the most expensive Cadillacs available: Since they were going to be around only a short time, they knew they wouldn’t have to make any payments.
The frequency of such incidents is increasing today. There is an enormous amount of interest in the religious future. Books being sold today—purchased mostly by Christians—claim to show how current history is full of “signs of the end.” Popular preachers on radio and television are exploiting this interest and using it as material in their preaching. I know you are exposed to this kind of thing and are either attracted or repelled.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent—a Sunday that initiates a time in the church when we talk about what it means for God to come to us. In an age of intense interest in the coming of Christ, I want to spend some time understanding what Scripture says, especially what Paul said in this classic Advent passage in Romans. The coming again of Christ is a very important doctrine. I want you to understand it and believe it.
I will begin with an affirmation in its simplest form: Christ is coming again. He came once in history: in the first century, in the place of Palestine, and in the person of Jesus. He will come again.
The early church was formed and the New Testament was written with that belief. The belief was vivid and intense. Jesus provided mounds of evidence for expecting his return. You can’t read a page of the New Testament without sensing that expectation.
Let me quote a few passages to give some substance to this early belief:
Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:28)
Now may our . . . Lord Jesus . . . make you increase and abound in love . . . so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:11–13)
Be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:8)
You must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3–4)
And our text for today: “It is time to wake up to reality. Every day brings God’s salvation nearer. The night is nearly over, the day has almost dawned” (Romans 13:11, phillips).
The early church believed all that. And the Christian church has continued to believe it. Christ is coming again. History is not an endless repetition of the same old thing. Our Lord will finish his work in history, achieving victory in this creation and concluding his work of redemption.
For myself, I share that belief. I hold it in a rather naïve, unsophisticated way and can tell you very little about what accompanies it. My belief is quite simply that it is going to take place. Jesus said he would return—Paul believed it, the early church believed it, and the great majority of Christians ever since have believed it right down to our own day. And I believe it.
Now, having affirmed the doctrine of the Second Coming, let me point out something about its use that those who seem to talk the most about it rarely mention—yet is the most biblical thing about this doctrine.
When writing to the Romans, Paul told them how they ought to live as Christians. Beginning in chapter twelve, he gave them a series of rapid-fire commands. He told them to be hospitable, to serve, to teach, to contribute money, to feed hungry people, and to be lawful. He then brought these commands to a climax by saying, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another. . . . Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (13:8, 10).
You can imagine Paul sitting back and thinking, How can I get these people to begin to act in this aggressively loving way to their neighbors? They have heard this so many times; they have gotten so used to being told this—what can I say that will get them going?
What he did was talk about the Second Coming: “It is time to wake up to reality. Every day brings God’s salvation nearer. The night is nearly over, the day has almost dawned.”
Quit procrastinating. Love now. Don’t be forever putting off the most important act that is commanded. Don’t make plans for the future love you will give your neighbor. Love your neighbor now.
Paul used the news of the Second Coming as a jab to wake believers up to the world around them where love needed to be acted out. He used it to bring an awareness of “crisis as a motive to ethical seriousness.”
When Paul finished this paragraph about waking up to the fact that they wouldn’t have forever to obey the commands of God, he went right back to the ordinary instructions of everyday life: “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him” (Romans 14:1). Paul was immersed in working out Christian solutions to daily, real-life problems. He believed that the doctrine of the Second Coming gave special urgency to the daily.
In his book Exile’s Return,
Malcolm Cowley talked about his days in France when he and other American expatriates were involved in the revolutionary movements of the Spanish Civil War. He said, “There were moments in France when the senses were immeasurably sharpened by the thought of dying next day, or possibly next week.” The Second Coming does this to Christians: It sharpens their moral/ethical senses. They are pulled out of sludgy lethargy and impelled to feel and act with intensity—because they know that the Lord may come “next day, or possibly next week.”
I think it is important that you be warned about this. For, in fact, a great deal of the stuff I hear about the Second Coming is wildly separated from the Scriptures. It is full of sensationalist headlines. It is designed to provoke a kind of panicky fright. It makes its case by a perverse reading of obscure passages in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. And because people are not familiar with these writings, they accept what such glib, smooth persons say without question. All such teaching reveals a vast ignorance about history—and an irresponsible handling of Scripture.
The result of that kind of teaching is to make people irresponsible. Why go through the patient motions of loving a neighbor if it is all going to be over soon? Why get deeply involved in a nation or community to bring about the realities of justice if there will be a cataclysmic war in the next year or two? Living the gospel is reduced to shouting slogans.
Those kinds of false prophets distract us from the daily living out of the gospel that our Lord and St. Paul so persistently affirmed as the context for experiencing God’s presence. They take our eyes off the ball. They substitute fantasy, fears, or wishes for the realities of God’s love, the needs of our neighbors, and the plain commands of Scripture.
What a person thinks about the future is very important. It influences in a pervasive way what she is in the present. In a day like ours of great uncertainty, many see the question of the future as up for grabs. In a time of historical transition, people are characteristically obsessed with the future, and their obsessions ruin their present lives.