This is the edited text for my message today at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, IA.
It would be hard for the Bible to be clearer about anything than this fact: no one knows when Jesus is going to come back. There is a lot about the Second Coming that remains shrouded in mystery, but God has made it clear that this mystery will not be revealed until the moment the trumpet sounds. In spite of the unequivocal and adamant assertions of Jesus that no one knows the day or the hour of his return, people continue to be fooled by those who announce that they have either received some kind of new revelation or gotten a new insight into the Scriptures that renders Jesus’ words null and void. From Edgar Whisenant in 1988 to the failed and embarrassing predictions of the late Harold Camping more recently, the parade of false prophets has continued.
But the Word is clear as crystal. There are some things that we can know today about the end. We know that as time goes on, deceivers will arise and the world will grow more evil. We know that one day, Jesus Christ will ride from heaven to assert his authority over all the world and that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. And we know that it could happen today. We know THAT Jesus will return as King of kings and Lord of lords, but we do not know when. I don’t. You don’t. No one does.
And that is the way Jesus wants it. I would direct your attention to two stories or parables that Jesus told near the end of his time here on earth, just before his arrest and crucifixion. He wanted to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead.
The Ten Virgins: Matthew 25:1-13
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’
In Matthew 25:1-13, Jesus told a story about 10 young women who were betrothed for marriage – five of whom were wise and five who were foolish. They were awaiting the arrival of their bridegrooms, and the five wise women had flasks of oil to keep their lamps lit. But the others were not prepared. I do not have time today to go into the wedding traditions of the day, and those details are not really germane to the point. Five were ready, five were not. Five were wise; five were fools.
When the bridegrooms came, the wise virgins were ready and rejoiced, but the foolish virgins were left out of the marriage feast. It is easy to over-interpret a parable. This is not about the timing of events of the end-times or anything like that. A parable is told to make a particular point and the point of this one could not be clearer. Jesus states it directly. He says, in verse 13:
“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Keep watch. Be ready. O Bride of Christ, Church of the Living God, we have a marriage feast prepared for us. One day, the Bridegroom will come to take us to that feast that we might rejoice with him. But we do not know the day he will come, or the hour. I don’t know if I will even be alive when he comes, or if I will go to him when my life is over. But I know that Jesus is coming one day and my duty today is to prepare, to watch and wait, to hope, and to look up for our bridegroom’s appearing. We are to keep our lamps ready, our souls prepared and our hearts expectant.
That’s why Jesus did not tell us the day. “Stay on watch BECAUSE you do not know the day or the hour.” Let’s be honest, if you knew that Jesus was coming again in 2018, what would we do? We’d goof around until 2017, right?
I went through school as the king of procrastination. To graduate college, I had to write a 100 page research paper. I started it about 2 or 3 days before it was due (got a “b” because I didn’t have time to correct the typos). That was how I lived my life. Delay it, Dave. Wait till the last minute. I have always worked best under a deadline. I’m fairly certain that knowing the day of the end would be an excuse for me.
So, Jesus did not tell me. He gave me a much more difficult command. Be ready every day of your life, Dave. Live each day as if it could be the day the trumpet sounds. Will it be today? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. But one day, people will wake up wondering and will find out it is the day! Will they be ready?
The Master’s Return: Mark 13:32-37
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Mk 13:32–37
Jesus begins this story with the declarative statement. No one knows the day or the hour, not even angels, or the Son himself (during his earthly ministry), but only the Father in heaven. Then he tells another illustrative story. A man leaves home and puts his servants in charge, giving each them work to do. He does not tell them when he is coming back, but exhorts them to stay ready because the master might return at any time.
The principle here is identical to the other parable, except that in this one we are servants instead of brides. But the command is the same as it was in both.
Stay awake. (Mark 13:37).
Be ready, at all times. We have a clear call from God, my friends. We ought not to listen to date-setters, but every day of our lives, every moment of every day, we ought to strive to stay ready for Jesus to come again. We must live every day in the light of what Jesus did for us at the cross, focusing on his amazing love and grace that transforms us. We need to walk in the fullness of the Spirit every day. We need to remain in the Word of God, letting our minds be transformed and our lives conformed to Christ instead of to the world. We need to invest our lives daily in eternal things, in the work of Christ in this world to which we have been called.
We cannot be fools, living for this world, loving the things of this world, seeking the rewards and treasures of this world, and ignoring the call of our Lord and Savior – being surprised at his coming, or at the moment of our death when we go to see him. We must be ready!
A Personal Illustration
I was reminded of this principle in a very stark way this week. Now, the end result of the story that I am going to tell you is that I am going to look kind of silly; a worry-wart who makes mountains out of molehills. But, the fact is that God used this to remind me of a lesson that I badly needed. So, I want to share my recent journey with you, and use it to remind you, as we come to the table of the Lord today, of this important lesson.
My adventure started New Year’s Day in Lakeland, Florida. We were planning to get up and begin our return trip to Sioux City. I had a little bit of a recurring earache during my time in Florida, but when I woke up that morning my right ear hurt a lot and I had a very sore throat. I drove about 750 miles that day to Nashville, TN and the next day, Jenni had to do most of the driving between Nashville and St. Louis. I started to feel feverish and achy. We got home Friday afternoon, and I spent Saturday in bed. Sunday I felt a lot better and was able to preach. But it was right after our dear brother KP’s funeral on Monday that it began to hit me again – this time like a ton of bricks. It is not unusual for me to have a cold and then to have it turn into bronchitis or something, so I knew I needed to see the doctor on Tuesday.
I wasn’t able to see my doctor, but the one I saw took x-rays and told me the word I had feared. “It looks like you have pneumonia.” No one wants that diagnosis, but she prescribed me some antibiotics which I took faithfully. Usually, that fixes me right up but this time, day after day, I was not getting any better. A week went by and I had seen very little improvement – whatever this was, it rivaled the bout of West Nile Virus in had back in 2007. So, after some gentle encouragement from the woman I live with, I made an appointment with my doctor on Wednesday of this week.
After all the blood work, and a fresh set of x-rays, she came in with, frankly, a kind of grim look on her face. “What is on your lung x-rays is not pneumonia,” she told me. My heart sank a little. She said I had a cold, or the flu, or perhaps even a resurgent illness called pertussis. Whooping Cough. She prescribed a new round of antibiotics and frankly, I’m feeling a lot better.
But, now that I’ve moaned and groaned, permit me to get to the heart of the issue. My doctor, a good friend as well as a doctor, showed me my x-rays. It was clear that there was something there, but she assured me that it was not pneumonia. That left the $60,000 question. What was it in my lungs? She named three or four possibilities, then she mentioned the one you never want to hear when you are discussing a lung x-ray. Tumor. She was very clear that she did not think it was likely that what was in my lungs was a tumor, but we needed to do a test to rule that out and to find out exactly what was going on there. On Thursday, I went for a CT scan that would hopefully reveal what exactly it was in my lungs.
And then I had to wait, wondering if the doctor was right. I spent a good part of three days this week wondering if I was going to get a phone call telling me my life was over and thinking about the possibility of my imminent death. She was clear that it was likely not a cancerous tumor, but once that is on the table it is hard to ignore. I’m not a doctor but I’m not stupid either. I saw my x-rays. I knew very well that if what I saw was in fact a cancer, my chances of seeing Memorial Day were slim and Labor Day was probably out of the question.
For the first time in my life, I came face to face with the fact of my own mortality.
I thought a lot about my family. I thought about the possibility that I wasn’t going to be around to see my precious grandchildren grow up. I went to visit my mom and dad over the holidays because I was not sure how many more years they would be there for me to visit. What irony that it might not be them going, but me. I laid on my bed upstairs (ordered to stay away from my granddaughter who lives with us) in a kind of stupor from Wednesday to Friday afternoon.
It was during that time of morbid contemplation that God’s Spirit worked in my heart. If I was going to die before my 57th birthday it would be with a lot of spiritual regrets and a lot of unfinished business. Paul said he had fought the good fight and finished his race. I did not feel I could say that. I had to admit that I was just not ready for what could have possibly come!
I’ve never been the kind of wicked sinner you read about. I don’t cheat on my wife and I try to handle financial and business affairs with honesty and integrity. But the procrastination that plagued me in college has also been evident in my Christian life and in my ministry. I have about 6 or 7 books in various stages of production and none of them are completely finished, nor have I made a serious attempt at getting them published. I have things that have been on my to-do list not for years, but decades (clean and organize my office is among them). I have some important projects I really want to do and need to do, but haven’t gotten done! I’ve let my mind get distracted and my heart’s devotion divided.
Frankly, as I faced the possibility of my imminent mortality, I realized that I could not say with Paul, “For to me to live is Christ,” so neither could I say, “to die is gain.”
I had the test on Thursday, and they said I might hear by the end of the day. I stared at my phone but it did not ring. Finally, on Friday at about 1:30, I got impatient and called the doctor’s office. I was not handling this with grace and faith, and so I just needed to get the information I was waiting for. The report had just come in over the internet and the doctor had not even had a chance to read it. I told the nurse how nervous I had been and she began to read the report to me. It was in medical gobbledygook but I heard some words I thought I understood. I asked a question.
“If I heard what you just said right, I do not have lung cancer. Is that correct?”
She said, “Yes, that is correct. There is no evidence of a tumor.”
That is when I began to feel a little silly of course. I’d been told all along that the chance that this was cancer was minimal, so I should not have been fretting as I was. And now, as I have looked back on this emotional and trepidatious week, I think I can see the hand of God showing me something I need to look at in my own life, and to give as a reminder to others.
It is time to wake up and be ready!
I want to be wise. I want to be ready. I want to stop wasting time and putting things off. I do not know how much time I have left. None of us does. But I want the rest of my life to be the best of my life. I want to do more for the Gospel and the Kingdom in my late 50s and 60s and 70s and however much longer God gives me than I ever have. I want to be used by him. I want to be more like Jesus and less like I’ve always been. I want to make a difference by preaching and writing and sharing the love and power of God. I want to walk in the fullness of the Spirit and not be full of myself.
God gave me a wake-up call this week. I don’t want to his the snooze button!
So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:6–11
It is time to wake up! Too many of us have been slogging along in spiritual mediocrity and lukewarmness, and we’ve been content with it. We have tried to both love God and the world, even though he said it was impossible. Our hearts have been torn between money and the manna of heaven. We love God, but not with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We play patty-cake with the impurity and uncleanness of the world and call it Christian liberty. We drift from day to day without attempting or accomplishing eternal work. And to those for whom this is true, the Savior has a simple command. “WAKE UP!”
I know that I will continue to fail at times, that sin will never leave me until I see Jesus face to face. But I do not want to waste my life, or my spiritual gifts, or the opportunities that God has given me. I want to wake up and be ready. Maybe the Lord will come today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe I will die and go to him. But I want to be awake and ready, my lamps lit and my oil full.
Lord Jesus Christ, make me ready!