The Last Breath (A Lenten Reflection)
“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”
When I was fresh out of grad school, I gave a sermon on Jesus’ second coming. I felt at the time, that there had been a great deal of interest in the potential for the “end times” to be upon us sooner than later. In the span of a few short years, we collectively bristled at the thought of multiple predictions for Armageddon (spread across the “teachings” of such modern-day seers as Louis Farrakhan, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson), with millennial predictions of destruction stemming from as far back as Nostradamus and our own Jonathan Edwards. [Wikipedia has an amazing entry listing dates predicted for apocalyptic events.] In response, many of us bore the cloak of responsibility in declaring that our destruction would be self-inflicted, with the Y2K panic of the late 1990s. And culturally, you may recall one of the biggest book series of that period was the Left Behind collection by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. You could say that the Rapture was having its big moment.
On the heels of that mild hysteria, I set out to write about what might happen if Jesus really were to return in our lifetime. [You can read my collected thoughts on the subject here.] While I would debate with my fifteen-years-younger self on a few of the thoughts, and some of the finer points meander, I have a number of takeaways from re-reading that text today.
We are an inherently self-possessed species, maybe not to the degree of animals who have no idea of tomorrow’s existence, but in spite of our altruistic attempts to help our future generations or “make America great again”, there’s a fragment of self in each of us (variably-sized, depending on the day) that says “Honestly, I’m just trying to get by.” And in such thinking about my next paycheck, my next meal, we dramatically reduce the importance of those afore-mentioned future generations.
That being said, when something happens to us, we scramble to give it the utmost importance in the lives of everyone around us. A little piece of me crumbled today when I read that sermon, delivered in August 2001, a time when a few of the most dramatic disasters I could think to reference were the Persian Gulf War, some 10 years prior, and Pearl Harbor, an event whose repercussions are still being felt around the world today, but through which probably two or three people assembled had actually lived.
Things don’t begin to “get real” until they take on a personal dimension. One month after writing that sermon, I would learn in a heartbeat what it means to be invaded. I would’ve had a lot more to write later that fall when, with our collective innocence dashed, we Americans began to honestly assess our mortality (individually, as a country, a species, a planet). Preparing for our wedding in October, I spoke to our officiating minister at one point, “People are actually talking about God on TV.” It was a jarring time.
The immediacy of that cloudless Tuesday morning drove home my point in ways that my August message never could. We know what we were doing that day, that minute, that second, because we were not prepared for it. It was so far outside the realm of possibilities here in America, that there would have been no way to prepare for it.
Christ’s coming, we are taught, will take on a similar dimension. Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that “no one knows about that day or hour”. There won’t be time to change our behavior, reconsider previous actions, brush our teeth.
Is that something to be scared of?
No, I don’t think so, because we assemble on Sunday mornings, pray for each other as a community of faith, gather at social events and care for each other throughout the week. That should be evidence enough of our intentions.
Is it something to keep in mind?
Absolutely. If all of this could end with my next breath, I want to be sure that my actions up until that inhalation speak for themselves, and are enough to get me where I need to be.
Now, I guess I better go brush my teeth.
Lord Jesus, you teach us that you will come as a thief in the night, at a time unknown to us. Guide us, that we may live in awareness of that understanding, but not to our own destruction. Amen.