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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 1st Sunday of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

The Unexpected Comes Only When Unexpected

Unexpected Events

With all the time, effort, and money spent on predicting future events by scientists, business leaders, economists, and sometimes even religious people, the most dramatic, history altering events have often happened quite unexpectedly.

Standing on the dock on a cool April morning, who would you have expected that the sleek, state-of-the-art ocean liner sailing out of Southampton harbor would never arrive at her final destination?

In the spring of 1914, who would have expected that an assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 would trigger the war to end all wars?

Investors were in a spirit of elation in July of 1929, because few expected their stock certificates would be trampled into worthless paper by a raging bull market within three months. Lest we criticize their shortsighted investment strategies, where was your money invested during the fall of 1987, or the last four years?

Had you been standing on a beach at Waikiki at sunrise on December 7, 1941, would you have expected that in a few hours you would be running for your shelter under a hail of machine gun fire?

If you had been standing on Elm Street in Dallas, TX on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, would you have expected to see the presidential limo race past on the way to the hospital carrying the wounded Governor and the fatally wounded President?

Or if you had been sightseeing in an east coast city during the fall of 2001, would you have expected that your plans to visit the Twins Towers would need to be changed?

These are just a few of the unexpected events that have changed history. Each one of them had a devastating impact upon our country. They have left a permanent scar on our psyche even for those of us who did not live through them. We learned about them in our history class. We have relived the catastrophic events through the cinematic epics. After each tragedy, they held hearings. They conducted investigations. They listened to testimonies and they wrote pages and pages of reports to tell us what went wrong and what should be done to prevent further catastrophes. Then they returned to the more important tasks of raising campaign money and getting themselves reelected by telling their constituents that they have made America safe.

A great deal of time has been spent studying the historical circumstances that preceded these unexpected events. Using the data, they attempt to predict the future. Their accuracy is usually very poor; a series of events develops that form an exception to the rule; something always seems to slip under the radar; something unusual, unforeseen, something totally unexpected always seems to happen. Jesus understood the unexpected ways of the Divine will and so cautioned his disciples about making predictions about the future.

Keeping The Future Unexpected

This morning’s Scripture passage is the conclusion to an impromptu lecture that stemmed from a comment about the beauty of the Temple. The disciples admired its physical structure and majesty. Built by King Herod to garner the approval and support of the religious community, the Temple projected an image of splendor, stability, and the sacred, but Jesus warned his disciples that nothing in this world is permanent. The physical edifices of this world will eventually crumble under the weight of the sovereign plan of God. Startled by the news the disciples wanted to know the ‘who, what, when, where and how’. They wanted the details, the facts; but Jesus cautioned them about containing their human curiosity. They would never know the exact day, or the particular hour.

Even with a written testimony announcing the futility of apocalyptic predictions, the Church has never suffered from a lack of creative Bible teachers who believe that they have been given special revelation into the future. The most spectacular occurred in the 1880s. After tending a farm in Vermont, fighting in the War of 1812, and serving as a justice of the peace, William Miller converted to the faith and began to study Scripture with a devout passion. He became well-read in the book of Daniel that the Temple would be cleansed in 2,300 days. Miller deduced that a day represented a year and the cleansing of the Temple signified the eradication of evil throughout the world, or the Second coming of Christ. Based on the work of an Anglican bishop who determined that Daniel had issued his prediction in 457 BC, Miller added 2,300 and decided that Christ would return in the year 1843.

Although he discovered this momentous revelation, Miller remained silent for several years but in 1831 he began a speaking tour and in 1838 he published a book “Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ”. A groundswell of believers took the message to heart. Miller predicted that Christ would return between October 23, 1843 and October 24, 1844. On the evening of Oct 24, many of Miller’s followers gathered in makeshift temples. Some had even sold their property and others had given away their possessions to prepare for the Second coming. The day has become known as The Great Disappointment because many of these devoted believers not only lost faith in Miller but became infidels when the prophecies proved false.

The history books are filled with other accounts of people being misled by charismatic and convincing Biblical teachers. Even with two millennia’s of embarrassingly wrong interpretations and predictions, end times prophecy is still big business. Tim LaHaye’s series, Left Behind, was created to put into story what it might be like during those final days. LaHaye is cautious not to commit the same mistakes of past generations. Rather, than make predictions with dates and places he tells stories. Many have found them fascinating modern day renditions of the Bible. Some have even been inspired to renew their faith and commitment after reading one or more of the books. This is wonderful so long as people remember that the books are fiction. They are not real or predictive. They interpret images and allegorical stories from the Scripture according to the author’s theological bias and transpose the stories into present day situations. So long as we understand these stories as fictional accounts they remain harmless reading. However, the books can become quite dangerous if we assume that LaHaye’s stories have real possibilities for the future.

Jesus was very emphatic about avoiding specifics even while he talked about the general state of disasters and chaos that would signal the proximity of his return. I believe he avoided detailed clues because he understood the obsession of human curiosity. The temptation would be for us to become so absorbed in wanting to know the future that we ignore living in the present.

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