A FALSE ALARM
29-31 I do want to point out, friends, that time is of the essence. There is no time to waste, so don’t complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple—in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things—your daily routines of shopping, and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you. This world as you see it is on its way out. 32-35 I want you to live as free of complications as possible. When you’re unmarried, you’re free to concentrate on simply pleasing the [the Lord]. Marriage involves you in all the nuts and bolts of domestic life and in wanting to please your spouse, leading to so many more demands on your attention. The time and energy that married people spend on caring for and nurturing each other, the unmarried can spend in becoming whole and holy instruments of God. I’m trying to be helpful and make it as easy as possible for you, not make things harder. All I want is for you to be able to develop a way of life in which you can spend plenty of time together with [the Lord] without a lot of distractions.
(I Corinthians 7:29-35, MSG)
Do you remember where you were on December 31, 1999? Our family was in North Carolina celebrating the holidays with Colleen’s family. Matthew was not yet 3-years-old. As you may recall, a potential hazard loomed large—the Y2K millennium bug that possibly threatened computers worldwide. The potential problem arose because computer software mostly used only the last 2 digits of a given year, which worked perfectly well until someone realized that when December 31, 1999 turned into January 1, 2000 that most computers would read that as the year 1900 instead and chaos would ensue. The government and the private sector took various steps to correct the problem and minimize potential damage. From what I had read, the Y2K computer issue would not likely cause any major problems for our family. As the clock ticked down to the stroke of midnight, I was blasting a boom box with a favorite song by the Georgia rock band, REM, which said, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Thankfully the potential crisis only caused small issues around the world. It was not the end of the world as we knew it and I still felt fine!
A much more harrowing situation occurred in Hawaii on January 13 when at 8:07 AM a state employee accidentally triggered an Emergency Alert System message saying, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Thousands upon thousands of people in Hawaii believed that a ballistic missile was headed their way. For the next half hour people coped in various ways with what appeared to be an impending life threatening missile strike. It took 38 excruciating minutes before a correction alert was issued.
Hearing the news, I wondered what I would do in the same situation, if I had only 38 minutes left to live. I decided I’d pick up a phone and call my family to tell them that I loved them one last time. A few people in Hawaii decided to enjoy those last few minutes. I heard about one guy who headed out on his surfboard to catch a few more waves. I heard about several people on a golf course who looked at each other and decided to keep playing.
Most of the stories were more traumatic with reports of parents piling their children into bathtubs and pulling mattresses over them for protection. There were stories of parents putting their children in manholes for safety. Some drivers sped through red lights trying to get home to loved ones, while on the highway, cars pulled over to the side of the road and passengers ran for the safety of concrete tunnels and culverts.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I’m guessing the number of atheists in Hawaii plummeted during those 38 minutes as many people prayed. When the news came out that the scare was a human error, many people were thrilled and suddenly people were being more polite and friendly than usual at the mall and the gas station. Many people were understandably furious that they had been put through such a distressing ordeal that could have been easily prevented or at least quickly corrected. To try and prevent anymore “boy who cried wolf” situations, public officials around the country began assessing their emergency alert systems. It was a false alarm and thank goodness the alarm was proven false before our military took any deadly countermeasures.
With this story in mind, I pulled out a New Testament and read the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Christians living in Corinth chapter 7. This is a very modern translation called The Message: 29-31 I do want to point out, friends, that time is of the essence. There is no time to waste, so don’t complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple—in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things—your daily routines of shopping, and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you. This world as you see it is on its way out. 32-35 I want you to live as free of complications as possible. When you’re unmarried, you’re free to concentrate on simply pleasing the [Lord]. Marriage involves you in all the nuts and bolts of domestic life and in wanting to please your spouse, leading to so many more demands on your attention. The time and energy that married people spend on caring for and nurturing each other, the unmarried can spend in becoming whole and holy instruments of God. I’m trying to be helpful and make it as easy as possible for you, not make things harder. All I want is for you to be able to develop a way of life in which you can spend plenty of time together with the [Lord] without a lot of distractions (I Corinthians 7:29-35, MSG).
These are strange words from the Apostle Paul until we understand his mindset, “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine and I want you to feel fine too!” Paul like the vast majority of first century Christians believed that the Second Coming of Christ would take place not only in their lifetimes, but at any moment on any given day. This belief is the backdrop to the entire New Testament from the stories of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to the Book of Revelation.
So why was Paul urging his readers to neither marry nor mourn nor shop as per usual? Because if Jesus was coming back any moment it would be better to focus solely on one’s spiritual life without the distractions and obligations of a normal life.
In theological circles, the study of the end times is called eschatology which refers to the end of the world and the final destination of the soul. The idea of the Second Coming of Christ is a part of eschatology. During Christmas we celebrate the First Coming of Christ, his birth in a Bethlehem stable. If we fast forward through his life beyond his death on Good Friday, beyond his resurrection on Easter Sunday, we eventually get to the Ascension, where Christ does a “beam me up Scotty” from the top of the Mount of Olives disappearing in the clouds.
Ignoring the symbolic excesses of the Book of Revelation, we find a reference to the Second Coming of Christ in the first chapter of the Book of Acts which says, 9 When [Jesus] had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “[People] of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11, NRSV).
The Message catches more of what I believe to be the humor in this passage saying, 9-11 As they watched, [Jesus] was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, “You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left” (Acts 1:9b-11, MSG).
One source explains it this way, “The Second Coming of Christ is the central event in Christian eschatology. Most Christians believe that death and suffering will continue to exist until Christ’s return. There are, however, various views concerning the order and significance of other eschatological events.” (https://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschatology#Christianity)
And that’s putting it lightly. The difference between various interpretations of Christian eschatology is serious business for Evangelicals. Local churches have argued and split over different interpretations. We in our church see the whole matter through very different lenses. For most of us, the details are inconsequential because when you get right down to it, none of us know how any of these things will play out. Will pollution and global warming end life on this planet or will we get nailed by a gargantuan meteor? Nobody knows, and that’s okay. I love the way poet Robert Frost addressed the matter writing:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
How would we change the way we live if we knew the day and the hour that the world would end…and that it was soon—let’s say in the next week or so. Would we do something crazy like eat every piece of chocolate we could find or drink as many milkshakes or martinis as we could hold? Would we quit our jobs and jump in our cars and drive across the country seeking one last adventure? Would we make peace with that one crazy uncle we haven’t spoken to in years? Would we sit on a mountain top, breathe deeply, and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation? Would we gaze at the night sky and wonder if there are other intelligent beings out there to carry on some meaningful life in the universe? Would we go to the beach and do cartwheels? Would we go and be with the people we love, just to hang out and enjoy their company? Would we give away all our worldly possessions because we wouldn’t need them much longer any way? Would we floor our cars’ gas pedals and drive like the Long Island Expressway was Germany’s Autobahn?
All of this is speculation of course, but there is a reality that hits close to home, all of us have an unknown expiration date. At some point the human machine breaks down beyond all repair and these bodies that have carried our souls all these years will cease to function. Hopefully, we’ve made our peace with the reality that all we are promised is this moment, but from a faith perspective that’s not all. We are promised something even better in the life to come.
And these are questions we ought to ponder, if we only had 38 minutes left, would we look back at a life of regrets and bad choices or might we look back with a sense of satisfaction that we lived lives helping others and making the world a better place? Would we be glad at all the times we lived life to the fullest, squeezing that last drop of joy and meaning from each day?
Or might we approach life as Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life…to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Or as Walt Whitman put it:
“The question, O me! So sad, recurring-What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer. That you are here-that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Or as Robert Herrick succinctly put it, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
And having done that, we might with a sense of satisfaction say, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine.” AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
January 21, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, you have blessed us with the gift of life and a wonderful world in which to live. We offer our thanks and praise. You, O God, the very Source of life, love us as your children. May we embrace our lives and the lives of others with courage and compassion, unafraid of life’s highs and lows, life’s joy and pain. May your care be made known in our care of others. Assist those who suffer poverty, injustice or oppression. Open the ears of our hearts to hear and quicken in us the desire to respond in love.
Enliven us, by your Spirit, to live into the fullness of your Reign. We pray through Jesus Christ who gives us hope. AMEN.
Adapted from a prayer by Donna Seamone and Paul Bosch, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Lift Up Your Hearts website.