Creating a sermon is a funny thing. Early on in my studies I get an idea, and that idea usually translates into a rough outline and a working title. But later, as I wrestle with the text, and as it wrestles with me, sometimes we move together in directions I never would have expected.
That happened again this past week. I started with the idea of “Caught Up Short.” That theme seemed to fit, both for Advent and for the words of Paul in
It can be a good thing: a friend we haven’t seen for years stops by; a letter arrives in the mail with news of a distant relative; there’s a check from some inheritance we never even knew about.
Other times it’s bad to be caught up short. Something happens that shocks or frightens us. One of our members had a heart attack on Tuesday. Healthy as a horse, otherwise — working out, eating right; no history of heart problems in his family. But suddenly he’s doubled over in pain. And when they get him to the emergency room, his heart stops three different times! He tells me what it feels like to have the paddles on his chest and the current zapping him! He was caught up short!
It can happen to any of us: an accident that nearly kills us, or a hard report comes from our doctor after a routine check-up, or someone breaks into our home and we feel violated. We’re stopped in our tracks. We’re caught up short. We’re surprised and overwhelmed.
A similar theme runs through Paul’s correspondence with the Thessalonian church. “Jesus is coming!” he shouts. When you least expect Him. Like a thief in the night. Whatever you are doing at the time, you’ll be caught up short. Therefore, live in a way that prepares you for His coming. “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That’s a good thing to think about during Advent. When Jesus came to Bethlehem on the first Christmas nearly everybody was caught up short: Mary wasn’t ready to have a baby; Joseph wasn’t ready to get married to a pregnant woman; The inn keeper wasn’t ready to have Joseph and Mary stay; The shepherds weren’t ready to travel; The wise men weren’t ready to find a baby in a barn; Herod wasn’t ready for a challenger to his throne, even if the baby was only months old at the time. Everybody was “caught up short.” And that, says Paul, is what will happen to those who aren’t ready on the day when Jesus comes back as King. They will be caught up short, and not found “blameless.”
But then I was caught up short, and it made me think about the theme in a whole new way. I was in a store, and there was music playing from the speakers overhead. Helen Reddy sang an old song called “Delta Dawn”. She tells the strange story of a “crazy” woman down in Texas:
She’s forty-one and Daddy still calls her Baby!
All the folks ’round Brownsville say she’s crazy,
‘Cause she walks downtown with her suitcase in her hand,
Looking for a mysterious dark-haired man.
In my mind I could see her, like a woman from one of the alleys downtown. Sometimes I see her and think: “I wonder who she really is. I wonder what it was that happened to her. I wonder what she was like when she was just a girl. Did she ever imagine living on the streets?”
Helen Reddy’s woman has a history:
In her younger days they called her Delta Dawn,
Prettiest woman you ever laid eyes on.
Then a man of low degree stood by her side,
Promised her he’d take her for his bride.
Years ago she was a shy young beauty. Daddy’s girl. Inexperienced at love. Then a stranger came to town. He saw the glow in her eyes and the flush in her cheeks. He felt the fevered emotions in her heart. So he courted this beautiful young girl and swept her off her feet. They were madly in love, and they made all kinds of promises.
But then he left her. He said it was only for a little while. “Wait for me!” he said. “I’ll be back soon! We’ll get married, and I’ll take you to my grand estate where you will live like a queen! Just wait for me! I’ll be back before you know it!”
That’s where the story becomes sad, because he never did come back. And something happened to her in her mind. Now she walks up and down the streets of Brownsville, crazy glint in her eye, wearing a rumpled wedding dress, muttering to herself, looking, looking, always looking for her lover.
But he never comes. The crowds on the streets of Brownsville stop and stare. They taunt her in her misery, stirring the memories until she rushes madly to the next corner:
Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
And did I hear you say he was a-meetin’ you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky?
They shake their heads and laugh spitefully. Knowingly, they nod to one another, and then turn back to their work. And crazy old Delta Dawn shuffles down the street.
Now, that may not be much of a classic song, but it evokes some powerful images, especially if you think about the Church of Jesus Christ, and the celebration of Advent. We call the Church the Bride of Christ! The Church is like a beautiful young woman, engaged to be married to Jesus! Years ago He touch us. He swept us off our feet. He taught us to love, and then gave us an engagement ring. He said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love!” He said, “I am the Bridegroom and you are the Bride!” He said, “I have to leave you now for a little while, but I’ll come back for you! I’m preparing a mansion for you!”
He even sent a telegram some time ago, by way of a heavenly messenger. The telegram had just three words on it, three words and an exclamation point: “I’m coming soon!”
And here we are, packed and ready, scanning the horizons for our lover.
Are we crazy? Are we like Delta Dawn? Is this a foolish thing we do, sitting here, packing our bags for eternity, waiting for a mysterious dark-haired man who never seems to come, muttering to ourselves on Sundays while the rest of the world passes by and smiles knowingly, shaking its head?!
Sometimes it seems that way. I remember my fourth grade Sunday School teacher. “Screwy Louis” we called him. We were only imitating our parents. They called him that too. Louis was a farmer, just like the rest of the people in our church. Then, one year, he met a Bible teacher who had everything down on charts and graphs and maps. He had worked everything out, and all of his research proved that Jesus would be coming back in just six months!
So Louis sold his farm, pulled his children out of school, and bought a motor home. They joined a caravan of Christians who traveled across North America warning everybody they met. In the sixth month they parked their motor homes together, built campfires, sang songs and scanned the skies looking for Jesus.
But He didn’t come. Then the money ran out, and they got restless. One by one they drifted off, bitter and disillusioned.
“Screwy Louis” came back to our community, but He hid himself out of sight. We heard that He got sick. When He died, people said it was from a broken heart.
How do we live in Advent? How do we live in the expectation of Jesus’ return without becoming a “Delta Dawn” or a “Screwy Louis”? How does Advent expectation stay real and fresh and honest and meaningful in our lives, without turning into something strange or wacky or weird?
John Henry Newman gave a beautiful image in one of his sermons. He said that in the Old Testament the prophets pulled the people of Israel along on a road that ran straight out toward the horizon. It began at the dawn of creation, and marched through the history of God’s Covenant love. It pointed them up ahead to something dark and ominous and climactic. They called it “The Day of the Lord.”
The prophets said that Day would be one of reckoning, a day when evil would be judged and God’s people would be rescued from all the terror that gripped them. Most of all, said the prophets, it will be a day when God steps out of heaven and comes down to visit us and shows himself to us in a whole new way.
Well, we know what happened, said Newman. The prophets were right. The Day of the Lord arrived, just like they said it would. But here’s the funny thing: nobody even realized it! No big ball of fire from heaven. No earthquakes and cosmic storms. No sounds of battle or terrors of plagues.
The Day of the Lord came quietly. So quietly, in fact, that God had to put out a special news bulletin in the nighttime skies over Bethlehem or everybody would have missed it! Even that ad came on so late in the late, late show that only a few shepherds out in the fields saw it!
The Day of the Lord came, but it wasn’t what people had expected. Do you remember how George Herbert put it?
They all were looking for a King
To slay their foes and lift them high;
Thou cames’t, a little Baby-thing,
That made a woman cry.
The Day of the Lord came, but it came like a whisper rather than a wind; it came like a tinkling bell rather than a loud, crashing cymbal; it came like dew on the morning grass rather than a thunderstorm cloudburst. And in the quiet of Bethlehem’s manger, God stepped into our world.
Here’s where John Henry Newman gave a powerful image. He said that the road of human history, which the prophets had pointed straight toward the horizon, right toward the ominous clouds of the Day of the Lord, on Christmas night suddenly took a right turn at the brink of the cliff of eternity.
Jesus stepped into our world exactly there, and planted his feet on the cliff of time. Now we are running down the road along the cliff together, just a step away from eternity. One day the road will veer sharply to the left once again, and then we will enter everything that the prophets told of the Day of the Lord.
Newman’s picture is a good one, and it helps explain so much of what we know is true. It helps us to live in the way that Paul challenges in his letter to the Thessalonians without all of the craziness that we see in people like Delta Dawn and Screwy Louis. Living in Advent, living in anticipation of Jesus’ return, must still be something that we do in this world without becoming mad lunatics. After all, Jesus Himself prayed for us in this way: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them” (
The Delta Dawns and the Screwy Louis aren’t really in this world anymore. They’ve left this world behind and entered the Twilight Zone. They have checked out of reality. But if John Henry Newman’s picture is correct, and if we are running a course at the edge of the cliff of history, all of the things that Paul says here make a great deal of sense. Earlier Paul says that there are two kinds of people who travel this road.
Those Who Sleep
Some are sleepers. They just move down the road, but they haven’t got a clue what kind of road we are on. I thought of that when we were on the “Going to the Sun Highway” in Glacier National Park last summer. It climbs and climbs until you are above the clouds!
For most of its length the road is cut right out of the side of the mountains. On one side of the car you stare into a rock wall that goes up forever. On the other side you peer out into space. There’s nothing there! The edge of the mountain drops right off below you.
I remember the first time I went over that road. It was a dreary day, and as we started up into the pass the clouds came down and hid us in a swirling world of fog. We couldn’t see beyond the edges of the road, and simply followed the car in front of us. But the next day, when we returned back over the pass, the skies were clear. Suddenly we saw what we had navigated in blindness the day before! Sheer cliffs! A road at the edge of nothing! It was scary!
But the day before, shrouded in clouds, we were totally unaware of it all. Nothing frightened us, nothing amazed us.
Sometimes people meander through life like that. Paul calls them sleepers. Here they are, on the edge of eternity, next to the greatest panorama of beauty and wonder and awesome magnificence anyone could ever imagine, and all they do is watch the road. Life, for them, is a dull routine, lost in the fog. They make life so much less than it could be. They reduce an adventure to a tedious march. They hear a magnificent symphony and complain because they can’t hum the tune. They only look for a job, and never a career. They want sex, but they can’t be bothered with a relationship. They see a work of art and only ask how much it costs.
Someone tells of two women viewing a painting in an art gallery. A guide happens by as one says to the other, “Well, frankly, I don’t see much in it!” The guide says, “Madam, these paintings aren’t on trial. They’ve been judged long ago. It is they that judge us!”
That’s the way it is in our world ever since Christ came. We travel a road on the edge of eternity. When we ignore Advent, when we give up expectation, when we fall asleep next to the wonder of the world that Jesus brought to our front doors, it is we who lose. I talked the other day with a fellow who used to be part of our church. He doesn’t come to worship here anymore. “No time,” he says. “Not much in it anyway.”
Of course not! There’s not much in coming to worship if time means money! It’s a waste of both!
Years ago archaeologists dug up a Roman military camp on the edge of the Syrian Desert. They found the diary of a soldier, stationed far from home. He wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that there are two things to live for in this world. One is power and the other is love, and you can’t have both at the same time.”
He was right. If you think life is a rat race, don’t expect people to treat you like a human being. If you go after power, don’t look for love; you’ll never find it. If your goal is to get to the top, watch your back!
And, by all means, don’t look over the side of the road because the view will terrify you! You will see things there that money can’t buy. You will hear a language you don’t speak. You will feel the waves of eternity foaming at your feet, and it will scare you to death! You won’t know what to do with it.
My wife remembers the first time her family went through Glacier Park. Her younger brother was so scared that he crawled over to the side of the car away from the edge of the cliff, hugged himself under a blanket in the corner, closed his eyes and wouldn’t look out again until they came down into the valley and the flat land.
That’s what Paul’s “sleepers” are like. They take the religion out of life, and make it so much less. They give up on Advent, and have only a “Merry Christmas” that is here today and gone tomorrow.
Those Who Soar
But you aren’t like that, says Paul. You are wide-awake!
Do you remember the last time that you stood on the balcony of a tall building and looked over the edge? Part of you had this incredible urge to throw yourself over, and see what it would be like to fly, to soar through the air!
In a sense, Paul would say, those who live in expectation of Jesus’ return live with the wild desire to move right on over into eternity. They know that the road will turn that direction again someday, and they look forward to it. They know that it won’t be a frightening thing. Instead, it will only deepen their spirits, and broaden their minds, and magnify their insights, and expand their love. Who wouldn’t want that?!
Years ago, someone came to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s church in New York City and told Dr. Fosdick that he didn’t know how anyone could live in a place like New York. All those temptations around! All those things that can pull a person down! All those enticements that could lure a young person into depravity and sin!
Fosdick agreed. New York City was full of temptations. It was filled with things that tugged at a person’s heart. But Dr. Fosdick also said that he was glad to live there, since, just as there were many temptations of evil, so there were multitudes of temptations to glory. There was the Metropolitan Opera, where a person could be held in the sway of great music. There were the art galleries where you could lose yourself in wonder. There were colleges and universities where temptations to learning soared. There were libraries where the wisdom of the world beckoned.
So it is with us. It is a scary road to travel, this road at the edge of eternity, this highway parallel to heaven. It is easier to try to go back inland where you are not tempted to jump over the cliff. But then you would miss the other temptations as will — the temptation to know life in the fullness that God intended for it; the temptation to soar on wings of love and of mercy and of grace and of beauty and of song. The scriptures speak of heaven that way because they know that the best of what we experience now is only the beginning of what life will be like when Jesus returns.
Charles Williams, one of the Inklings with C. S. Lewis at Oxford, wrote a small volume called Outline of Romantic Theology. He said that for too long Christians have tried to summarize their faith in dogmas of theory and creeds of intellect and in rational statements of mental construct. Unfortunately, he said, that is not what Christianity is all about. The Christian religion is a romance. It is a love affair as deep and as true and as powerful as God Himself is.
Why did God make this world? Because He wanted to express His love.
Why did God allow us to sin? Because He wanted to give us the freedom to choose to love Him or not.
Why did Jesus come? To woo us back to love. To court us into the best of life.
What is heaven? Heaven is love made complete.
That’s the “outline of romantic theology” in a nutshell.
And when Paul talks about Jesus coming again, He is calling us to live life here to the full, to run the road at the edge of eternity, to keep the panorama of heaven before us, and to allow it to beckon us on toward the place where the road turns again.
It is not craziness to celebrate advent. Nor does it take us out of this world, like Delta Dawn or Screwy Louis. Advent says that the best of life here is what Jesus brought with Him that day when He stepped over the cliff at Bethlehem. And better things are coming still, as we travel the road next to eternity.
Where are your eyes? What are you looking at? At the road? At the cliffs of rocks? At the distant inland? Too bad for you, because you are missing out on the best there is — the wonders of paradise next door. Charles Williams found that he couldn’t write all that he needed to write about Christianity in books of theology, so he turned his hand instead to novels. Novels of mystery and suspense and wonder and romance.
In one he describes Nancy. Most of her life she has lived in the safety of sleep. She may be on the road, but the road is all she sees.
Then, one Christmas morning, she goes, because of duty, to a tiny country church. A voice announces the first hymn, and they turn in their books to number 61. They stand with the choir and mouth the words:
Christians, awake! Salute the happy morn
Whereon the Savior of the world was born!
Suddenly Nancy wakes up. Her voice catches. She can’t go on, because the words stare up at her and bring tears to her eyes:
Rise to adore the mystery of love …
Suddenly she wants to see Jesus. Suddenly she wants to look into eternity. Suddenly she wants to know and to feel and to do the best she can in life.
Rise to adore the mystery of love …
She feels herself standing suddenly on the brink of eternity, where the road runs parallel with heaven. Where Jesus steps into our lives and suddenly we wake to the glories of His love.