I saw another one the other day – one of those broadsides in the paper that tells you just when the end of the world is going to come. You’ve seen them. Someone finds passages in the Bible that have to do with Christ’s return, they correlate them to current events, and they make the case that Jesus’ return is at hand. This particular warning saw the recent terror attacks, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and some blood moon as proof that the end of time is near. You had better start living right before it’s too late.
You can understand that faithful Christians want to know when Jesus will return. At the heart of New Testament faith is the conviction that history is moving toward a goal. Jesus puts our lives into the context of God’s eternal purpose. We don’t just live, die and go to heaven. We’re part of something greater, part of what God is that will be completed when Jesus returns. But it sure seems to be taking a long time.
1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. It was written before any of the gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ life. One of the key questions it’s addressing is “Why is it taking so long?” Instead of giving a date, Paul gave the Thessalonian Christians an exhortation. He encouraged them to make the most of the time they had to prepare for the Lord’s coming. Whether he comes tomorrow or in 10,000 years, the way to use our time is to get ready for what is coming.
Right now things aren’t the way God intends them to be. There are wars going on. Children go to bed hungry. We compromise our principles rather than suffer the consequences of doing what is right. But we know it’s not always going to be that way, and our expectation of what is to come shapes how we live now.
Imagine that you receive a registered letter one day informing you that you had an uncle you never knew about. Uncle Pierre lived in France where he amassed a vast fortune. When he died, he named you as the sole beneficiary of his estate. He left you a house in Paris, two chateaux in the country, a yacht on the Riviera, an art collection, and a huge sum of money. But Uncle Pierre stipulated that his fortune can only be spent in France, and you can only claim it as a French citizen. It takes you five years to get ready to claim your inheritance. You take French lessons at York College. You check out every book in the library you can find about French culture. You go to the Baltimore Museum of Art to study their French tapestries and paintings. You begin the process of applying for citizenship papers. Over the years you grow to be more and more like a French person, even though you’re still living in the United States.
Now, if preparing ourselves to receive what Christ has promised at his return only took five years, it would be more manageable. But it’s been 2000 since Christ made his promise. Even the Thessalonians after less than 100 years were getting impatient. How can we be expected to wait for something without knowing how long it will take?
Our perception of time is relative. For a five year old the next 3½ weeks until Christmas will seem interminable. When you’re five, Christmas seems to take forever to get here. If you’re a parent trying to finish shopping, decorate the house, plan the holiday menu, and complete the year-end projects at work, the next 3 ½ weeks will seem like the blink of an eye. In fact, it’s time to go into panic mode. For a five year old, a year is 1/5 of a life time. But when you’re 50, a year is only 1/50 of your lifetime, a mere 2%. That’s why the years seem shorter the older you get.
2 Peter 3:8 reminds us “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” To us who consider the span of a life a very long time, Christ’s return seems like an incredibly long time coming. But to God, who experiences time as eternity, the delay is nothing.
But why should anyone believe the promise that Christ will come again to complete what he began? Why should anyone commit his or her life to something that is as far off as the return of the Lord, something that probably won’t happen in our lifetime? The life of faith, a life lived in expectation and hope of Christ’s return, is something you can’t really comprehend until you’re living it. It’s kind of like love. When I was in my early 20s the thought of marriage was unfathomable. The thought of having to arrange my life around another person had little appeal. I liked being able to do what I wanted to do on a Friday night without having to consult with anyone else. I relished the freedom of being able to pick up and move whenever it suited me. Then I met my wife. All of a sudden there was no better way to spend a Friday night than with this particular person, no matter what we were doing. Adjusting my life’s plans around hers became a joy, not a burden. It all makes perfect sense now, but I had to live into it to understand it. And that’s how it is when we give our lives to Jesus.
From the perspective of our own needs and desires, we might think it would be terribly depressing to spend time with disadvantaged families at a soup kitchen. But from the perspective of Christ, who has promised a time when there won’t be poverty, you discover that you get incredible satisfaction giving to someone who isn’t going to give you something in return. When you look at your busy schedule from the perspective of the very limited amount of time you have in your week, you might consider it a waste to set Sunday morning aside to worship or to set aside 20 minutes a day to pray and read the Bible. But from the perspective of Christ who is above all time and space, we discover that our worship and our prayers are the best way to use our time. If you look at what you possess from the human perspective of scarcity, you might think you can’t afford to be generous in giving. But when you live from the perspective of Christ who has no limits, you discover that the best thing you can do with what you have is give freely.
If we try to live into that life of the future on our own, it is extremely hard. The promises God gives aren’t given to us as individuals. They’re given to us as part of a community of faith. The promise God gave through Jeremiah was to the community of exiles in Babylon. The promises Paul conveyed about the end of time were to the church in Thessalonica, not to individual Christians.
The community of faith, the church, helps us practice for living in that time that Jesus has promised. I think of those members of the community of faith who have encouraged and been a model for me. I think of Harold and Ruby who were deacons in a church I once served. They owned a gas station across the street from the church. There had been times in their life together when they had to scrimp and save, and there had been times when they were pretty comfortable. But they never missed a Sunday. They tithed, or gave 10% of what they earned. They credited their disciplined practice of giving with helping them learn how to trust God to provide in every circumstance. I think of a friend Bob who is a successful businessman in a large city. As busy as he is, he tends carefully to his spiritual life. His life is shaped by prayer, and he always has time not only to excel in his work but for the people around him. I think of a little girl I know who suggested to her family that they work at the soup kitchen over the holidays. She was concerned about the homeless, and she wanted to do something about it. She taught her parents about caring for the poor the way Christ cares for us. God gives us those mentors in faith, people of all ages. Often they don’t even know they’re teaching us how to prepare for Christ’s return.
Jesus will come again. He will come and complete what he began when he came from heaven to walk the earth. We don’t know the date he’s coming. The date doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re ready, that we’ve used this lifetime to practice for what God has in store for us. Are you ready?
 Eric Elnes, interview in A Cloud of Witnesses: Suffering and Hope, compact disc produced by Youth Ministry Institute of Princeton Theological Seminary, 2002.