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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

2nd Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013

Live Like You Were Dying

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 24:36-44

              One of the most popular movies out this season is Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks in the role of Richard Phillips, who was the captain of a container ship taken over by pirates from Somali who were hoping to extract millions of dollars from the United States in exchange for the ship.  The movie is based upon the true story of Captain Richard Phillips’ capture by a group of four Somali pirates, and then his successful rescue by the Navy in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Somali in 2009.  In the movie, Captain Phillips actually volunteers to be taken by the pirates in order to protect his own crew, but all of this happens amid the confusion of a botched prisoner exchange, when his crew members have captured the leader of the band of pirates. 

             The movie is really a story about salvation, that is, how Captain Phillips was saved.  And it is told with great skill and art by its producers, holding you on the edge of your seats until Captain Phillips is brought safely home.  As such, it is not unlike the academy award winning film, Argo, which tells of the rescue of those six American diplomats who were rescued from Iran in the midst of the 1979 hostage crisis by CIA operative Tony Mendez after being hidden in the Canadian Ambassador’s home in Tehran for eighty days.  Connie and I both knew the outcome, of course, before we went to see the movie.  But like Captain Phillips, the story was such a nail biter and so well told that we were a wreck until the wheels were up on that Swiss Air flight taking the six Americans safely home.  We all love salvation stories, and I take comfort that American movies, the best of them, continue to tell them.  I think I know where they get their ideas for them!

             The Bible this morning, as it does most Sunday mornings, tells a part of God’s great salvation story.  This morning Jesus is talking in Matthew’s Gospel about when that full and final salvation will take place, and how we are to live before it does.  Our text is a reminder that as Karl Barth said, “We live between the times.”  The Biblical story looks back to creation itself, but also looks forward to the consummation of all history according to God’s plans to reconcile and redeem the whole creation.  This is always the Biblical shape of history.  It has a beginning and an end in God.  Christians live between the incarnation of God, the birth of God into the world as Immanuel, “God-with-us,” and the return of Immanuel as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We live between the resurrection and the return of Jesus.  As Karl Barth says, “We live between the times.”

             We all know and sense this who follow Jesus.  We look back at God’s mighty acts of salvation and give thanks for God’s providence and grace.  We remember Jesus’ birth into this world as a helpless infant, dependent on our loving care.  We recall always Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the world and His resurrection sometime before the dawn on that first Easter.  But we also look forward to Jesus’ promised return to heal, restore and redeem, to save the world.  We take comfort in the thought that God is not finished with us yet, and that the story won’t be over until Jesus says it is.  The story of Jesus is the ultimate salvation story, of course, and we know that our world is in desperate need of salvation, and of the Savior.

             Salvation has come in Jesus, and when Jesus returns, that salvation will be brought to a glorious, life-giving, loving and just completion.  We love salvation stories, and “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

             Jesus believed that this day would surely come.  “But of that day and hour no one knows,” He said, “not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  Jesus said that this day, which is sure to come, will come like a thief in the night.  It will not come in ways that we will ever be able to predict or cause.  Only God has the power to know and to bring about that day.

             So let’s pause and give thanks for this uncertainty that belongs to the best of Biblical faith.  Jesus does not expect us to know everything.  Even He did not, as Jesus readily admits in our passage this morning.  Paul said, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”  And if that is how Paul walked, I know it is how you and I must walk as well.  Remember the great Biblical definition of faith?  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  We don’t have to know everything.  God alone is sovereign and God alone holds the future in Jesus’ loving, redeeming, merciful hands.  I love how P.T. Forsyth put it: “I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”

             This is Biblical faith.  It is not about a date you can ever circle on the calendar, but it is all about living hope.  God has let us know in Jesus, Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” that He is our Savior, and that our salvation is assured.  We know already the end of the story.  We know already that the hostages will be freed, that death and evil are defeated, and that love will reign supreme.  We know the Who of the story of salvation.

             But the “how” and the “when” we will never know.  But Jesus here tells us how to live between the times.  We are to watch, to be awake and alert.  I love that notion of watchfulness, or wakefulness.  You can learn a lot when you are watchful.  That is why Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, be harmless as doves.”  It is why James said, “Be quick to listen, slow to anger, slow to speak.”  Be watchful, alert, wise in Jesus’ words and ways.  And be ready!  I think of our dear friend Hershel Tolbert on this count.  Hershel worked from the early 1950’s until 1991 for the Boy Scouts of America.  He did much to bless and build the Middle Tennessee Council from 1976 to 1991, and then he went on being a friend of scouting until he died last month in his nineties.  Folks used to call Hershel “Scoutmaster.”  At our last visit, Hershel could barely whisper.  “I pray for you every night, Jones,” he said.  You know the motto of the Boy Scouts, don’t you?  “Be prepared.”  In this sense and many others, every Christian, male and female, should be a Scout!  “Be prepared.”  Be prepared for anything!  Be prepared for life, for “Life is what happens when you make other plans.”  And be prepared for death when it comes.  This is to “live like you were dying,” to borrow the title of the country hit, for all of us in fact are!

             I had a teacher in seminary who joked that a “Presbyterian preacher needs to be ready to preach, pray or die at a moment’s notice.”  Only I learned over the years that he was not joking.  We all need to be ready, ready for life, ready for death.  And as Peter bids us, “ready to give reason for the hope that is within you.”  We have every reason to be hopeful because we know that the God who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords is none other than that baby born in Bethlehem, who came “in the fullness of time,” and who died to set us free from sin and death.  That, dear friends, is the real story of salvation for which our hearts long and for which our world awaits.  So listen to Jesus, the Savior: “Therefore you must also be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  That, dear friends, is the glorious uncertainty of the certain Gospel.

                                                                                     Amen.

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