While We Wait

(Sermon preached at College Station Adventist Church, August 27, 2016).

This past week, I saw an interesting discussion on a friend’s Facebook page. He posed this question: “If Seventh-day Adventists really believe in the soon return of Jesus, why do we have a health care system?”

Some see a contradiction, my friend said. Some Adventists contrast the innocent, naïve, but hope-filled Millerites who believed in the imminent end of the world with a later Adventism that has long been comfortable. Institutionalized. Proud of its leading role in Protestant health care. Laodicean.

Some others think running hospitals is a waste of money that could better be spent doing public evangelism, or sending copies of 800-page Adventist books to every household.

Still others, he said, argue that we have hospitals not in spite of our apocalypticism, but because of it. And that was to be the premise for a Sabbath School discussion last week in Loma Linda.

I thought it an appropriate question to raise at the start of a new school year. Because it doesn’t apply to health care institutions alone.

We could rephrase the question this way—if we really believe Jesus is coming, why have Adventist colleges and universities? Why should students spend four to five years getting a bachelor’s degree, or even more years getting graduate and professional education? Why don’t we just send the eager to a short evangelism school and get them out in the field, giving canned sermons and Bible studies proclaiming that Jesus is coming soon?

Let’s turn to the Bible for an answer to that. Matthew 24, starting with verse 1. This is a very familiar passage. It’s the starting point Adventists use for talking about the signs of the end.

24:1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Their question is two-fold. When will the temple be destroyed, and when will you come? They see the two as a single event. And Jesus responds by giving them signs of both – and, more importantly, by separating the events in time. .

4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

Just the beginning, he said. Don’t be alarmed. The end isn’t yet. These are things he suggests they will see in their day, and that will continue until the end. They are signs that the world is passing away. Signs that a new kingdom will come. Signs that prompt us to seek, and to long, and to pray for it.

You will be persecuted, he says in verse 9. Many will fall away and hate one another. False prophets will arise. “The love of many will grow cold.”

And then, verse 14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” You’ve got work to do, he says. You have to preach the gospel throughout the world. Only then will it come. So if you are sitting in Jerusalem, waiting for it, you are wrong. If you have only gone to Judea and Samaria, you are wrong. The end isn’t going to happen while you stay put.

In verse 15, he begins to talk about the specific signs related to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. He warns again of false Christs and false prophets. And he warns against those who suggest that his coming will be secret. He tells of a period of tribulation, after which, verse 29,

“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

That’s the end of all things. It’s separate from the fall of Jerusalem. It will be after lots of signs, none of which lends itself to setting a timetable. Wars and rumors of wars? Earthquakes? False Christs? Heavenly signs? We’ve had them to one degree or another for 2000 years. It’s as if Jesus says, “You want signs? I’ll give you signs. You will have signs all around you of my coming.”

36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. … 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. … 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

He gives signs, but these signs don’t really answer their question. They don’t say when. Instead, they put them on a constant state of alert and expectancy. A state in which they have to look to him, and pray to him, and long for him … while living in the world, a world they can take no security in, a world they can take no refuge in, a world that will be destroyed. But a world that needs them.

He gives them a paradox, which he will not resolve for them. His words create tension, and he will not slacken it.

And then, he subtly changes their question. He suggests that this is the question we should be asking: If we believe in the return of Christ, if we see signs of his return all around us, what should we be doing? How should we then live?

And that’s the question he begins to answer starting in verse 45, through a series of parables.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What should you be doing? You should be doing your job faithfully. The master has left you in charge of his possessions while he is on a trip. Care for his servants. Care for what belongs to him. Focus on the work right before you.

Chapter 25, verse 1, begins another parable making the same point. “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” The wise had oil, and were prepared for a delay. The foolish were not. All slept, and were startled at his coming. The refrain, verse 13, is the same: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The next parable tells of another master on a journey. He gives talents to each of his servants—these “talents” are not abilities, but bags of cold, hard silver. Two of them use the talents to trade, or to invest, while the third buries his in the ground. “I was afraid,” was his excuse. He was so obsessed with the thought of his master’s return he was paralyzed with fear. He did nothing. He kept to himself. He avoided the world. He separated himself from all that stuff that would be destroyed, and from all the people that he might have connected with. The others, however, used the time, and the talents, to invest in the marketplace of the world. They kept busy. They kept engaged. They saw there was work to do. And they did it.

All these parables speak of delay. And they all say we have something to do. What that work is, Jesus spells out in the parable starting in verse 31. The Son of Man will come in his glory, with his angels, and he will sit on a throne, and the nations will be gathered before him. He will divide them into two groups, sheep and goats. And this, he says, is what will separate them:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

And to the others, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Christians are told not to judge–but we do. We judge each other on lots of things. Lots of petty things: What people eat. What people do on a Sabbath afternoon. What people they hang around with. The Pharisees judged Jesus on those same things.

But Jesus, who will be our judge, has a different standard. He tells us what will matter to him that day. He tells us what we are to be doing now: giving food and drink to those hungry and thirsty. Caring for those who are naked, and sick, and in prison.

We used to sing a song when I was a kid in Sabbath School. Micah 6:8: “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

How should you invest your time and your talents? In ways that are going to improve the lives of people. And, I think, by taking the time to get the training you need to do that.

Do you want to take care of the sick? Then spend time here, in pre-med programs, and then medical school, and then in residency, so that you can be a physician.

Ellen White certainly believed in the return of Jesus – yet she and her husband saw a young man with promise–21-year-old John Harvey Kellogg. They thought he should get a medical education. And they made it possible. They mentored him; they invested in him; they sent him, and then others, to the medical schools of the world to get trained.

Do you want to see justice done in the world? Then spend time here, in pre-law programs, and then law school, and become that lawyer, that judge, that legislator, that advocate that will give a voice to the cries of those who suffer injustice. Who will fight for Religious Liberty for Adventists, and for Catholics, and for Muslims, and Buddhists, and Atheists.

Do you want to preach the gospel in a way that will impact people? Study them. Get to know them. Get to know their hopes, their dreams, their hurts, their struggles, through the study of art, music, literature, history, and philosophy. Do an undergraduate degree in humanities, do internships working in the intercity. Spend time with people who are hurting, and are alone. Do clinical pastoral education in a hospital. And, then if you dare, join me as a chaplain in a hospital, or the military, or a prison, or a university. Live a ministry like Jesus did. Who, as Ellen White wrote, “mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”

Those are just three examples. You have many different majors. Ask yourself the same questions. How can my field benefit people? How can it improve their lives? How can I, through what I’m preparing to do, do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God? Where can I invest myself? What work is God calling me to do?

And then, do it. Be faithful at it. Use the time wisely. Invest in people. Touch them with the love of God. Make a difference. Bring hope to the world. Hope that is born from that hope which burns within our hearts, hope in the coming of the Lord.