I’m sitting here in the coffee shop at Books-A-Million trying to write a sermon on, of all things, the second coming of Christ because the passage given by the lectionary references that topic. I like writing here. There are enough people around to provide some background noise but they’re not distracting. You know, you hear things like the turning of pages, the subdued conversation between the old man to my left and the blond woman who appears to be his daughter. And of course there are the sounds and smells of espresso being made. I find these sounds and smells comforting.
I also appreciate the discipline writing in this place requires. It would be easy, very easy indeed, to get up and browse the shelves or read a magazine or, better yet, just put my glasses on and sit back and watch people. But I can’t do any of those things right now. No, it’s Thursday and Sunday will be here before I know it. I’ve got to do this sermon.
So, I take the cap off my pen and stare at the legal pad in front of me. I’ve sketched an outline on it. Nothing else comes. Just the outline. I glance upward and see the huge white letters on the wall: “Bible and Inspiration.” Inspiration: I could use some of that about now. You know, I’d bet good money there are at least a hundred titles in this store about the second coming of Christ; fiction and nonfiction. I wonder, if you write a book, a novel, about the second coming, is it science fiction/fantasy or would it be historical fiction, since so many American protestants seem to blindly accept some version of a sudden and physical and historical, albeit future history, reappearance of Jesus as fact.
I look back at the page in front of me and study my outline. The first part briefly presents how the doctrine of Christ’s return has been formulated throughout history, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how most evangelical types believe in what’s called the Rapture. My mind drifts away for a moment, away and back to when I was a teenager and we would visit my grandparents up above Seneca on Sunday afternoons. My father’s people. They were simple mountain farmers. I see their small TV and on the screen are a group of people singing. They’re called the Happy Goodman Family. They’re all happy, that’s for sure, and quite large. They are singing, “Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon, many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound…rising up in the air…..” The words fade away and I think, yeah, that’s the kind of stuff most people around here who go to church believe.
My outline contains a notation about Presbyterians and how, for the most part, they have adopted an agnostic point of view and teach that Jesus will return but don’t say a whole lot about it other than to mention the final judgment.
I look up at the “Bible and Inspiration” section again and see this cute guy walking past it and toward the cafe. Of course, at my age, any guy under thirty-five is cute. He orders a frozen cappuccino. He pays for his drink, picks it up and starts walking by my table. I look up and smile and speak a courteous hello. He stops, returns my greeting and looks at the legal pad in front of me.
“What are you working on?” he asks.
I’m hesitant to say but do it anyway. “A sermon.”
His eyes glisten. “A sermon? Really?”
“Yeah,” I say and he says, “Mind if I sit down for a minute? Oh, I’m Greg, by the way.” He extends his hand as he sits. I shake it and say, “Hi Greg. I’m David. Good to meet you.” I’m so polite, I think to myself. This facetious thought is quickly followed by who in the hell is this guy and why is he sitting across the table from me.
“So, are you a preacher?” he asks.
I chuckle. “Lord no,” I say. “I’m just filling in at my church for the minister who’s away on vacation.”
“Cool,” he says and I wonder what is so particularly cool about my minister being away or my speaking at church for that matter.
“So what are you preaching on?” he asks and I tell him and he says, “Great!”
Why is it great, I wonder, but say, “You go to church, I take it.” And he says, “Yeah, Friendship Fellowship.” I think to myself what a redundant name but don’t say it. I know I’m asking for it (but he is pleasant, not to mention good looking) so I say, “It’s an interesting topic. So, what do you believe about the second coming, Greg?”
He gives me the usual spiel about how one day, without warning, all of the people who believe in Jesus are going to be snatched off the earth (though he doesn’t say snatched, he says raptured) and then all hell breaks loose on the planet for seven years (he calls that the tribulation) and then how Jesus will come back to earth with all the believers and will physically reign on earth for a thousand years and then how every one will be judged. You know, the whole goats and sheep thing.
By now I’m feeling brave, if not a little devilish, so I ask, “Does believing that make a difference in how you live, Greg?”
For a moment he looks at me as if I had just asked him to explain Kantian categories, but then says, “Well, it means I need to witness to as many people as I can before the rapture.”
“Oh,” I say. “I see. Let me ask you this, then. How would your life be different if there was no mention in the Bible about Jesus coming again?”
“But there is,” he says, sort of surprised I guess that I would even venture to ask such a thing, seeing how I am writing a sermon on the subject. “He is coming back,” he says.
So I say, “I know some people think that the Bible teaches that. I’m just asking, What if? What if what Jesus was really trying to say was to live each day as if it were your last. You know, kind of a carpe diem thing. What if he was saying, as you live each day, how you spend your time and money is going to show where your heart really is?”
Greg is looking a little uncomfortable now but I think he’s seeing me as a challenge because he doesn’t stand to leave. Instead, he says, “But Paul clearly teaches in Thessalonians…” I shouldn’t but I interrupt him and say, “I’m not talking about Paul. I’m talking about Jesus. It seems to me, Greg, that each time Jesus speaks about what we have come to understand as his return, the only unambiguous thing he says is be ready, be alert, and he inevitably couches his speech in terms of since you don’t know when the master is returning, so to speak, concentrate on today and how you live and how you use what time and resources you do have, to find each moment every way possible to show the love of God.”
Now he glances at his watch and says, “Well, David, I’ve really enjoyed meeting you but I’ve got to get going.” He stands, as do I, and we shake hands. “Good luck with your sermon,” he says and I thank him. Then he walks away and I sit back down.
I sit for a few minutes, sipping on my coffee and then stand up and walk over to the “Bible and Inspiration” section and my eyes immediately fall on a book written by a well known evangelical author. It’s title, The Second Coming. I pick it up and thumb through it and there are chapters on signs and false prophets and Old Testament foreshadows and immanency and preparedness. It all of the sudden dawns on me. I can understand why some people want to believe Jesus is coming back to earth. I’m sure it offers them some sense of comfort and gives history, both their own and that of the universe, some sense of purpose and goal and direction. But I also understand that my life, in and of itself, already has purpose. I understand that regardless of whether history is linear or cyclical, regardless of whether human life continues for a hundred, a thousand or a million more years or if we are soon supplanted by insects as the dominant species, it is still a good and right thing to live by the truths and principles that Jesus both taught and personified and that each time I do that, in every act of compassion or healing or sacrifice, there Jesus returns again and again and again.
I put the book back on the shelf and return to my table in the cafe. I pick up the sermon outline, look at it, then walk over to the trash can and wad the papers up and throw them in.