People get ready
There's a train a-coming
You don't need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels humming
Don't need no ticket
You just thank the Lord
—Curtis Mayfield, People Get Ready, 1965
In 1992, my sister was entered into the Washington Junior Miss pageant. I was a proud little brother. Her talent was a monologue about thoughts running through your head while listening to a boring sermon — she killed it. At the end of the second day of competition, they gave all 200 young women a list of questions that would be asked to the ten finalists. Judges told all of them to go home, study the questions, and be ready to give thoughtful answers, should they make the top ten. My sister never thought she would be top ten, so she didn’t look at the questions.
Wouldn’t you know it? Her name was called — she had made the top ten. What were those questions again? It was too late. She was the second person called out on stage. And the question was a doozy. There she was in her gorgeous evening gown, in front of all the judges and hundreds of audience members when they asked her, “As a society, what can we do to limit the amount of sexual harassment in the workplace?”
Her answer, 24 years later, has become the stuff of Armstrong family legend, providing many a good laugh at family get togethers. Tragedy + time = comedy. She put on a good face, but mumbled something about sexual harassment being unacceptable whether employee to employer or employer to employee and gave the biggest eye roll you’ve ever seen walking off stage.
Even though the judges were very clear with all the ladies to go home, do your homework, and research the questions, my sister wasn’t ready. There is wisdom in being watchful. It could be for a big presentation at work or preparing the home for a new member of the family. But how much more important is it to be ready for when Christ returns? The moment when this world is renewed. When every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Part of our calling as pastors and church musicians is to prepare people to live with eyes wide open, wrestling with the truly big questions of life, such as “What is the last chapter of the story?” We can absolutely do that in the ways we plan thoughtful worship, in the songs that we sing and certainly in our sermons. So that when Christ returns, as He speaks so frequently of in the gospels, people are not just ready but rejoicing.
Recently I’ve been in an eschatological mood. It was actually a course on eschatology I took in the fall of 1999 that made me want to study theology. I had never before seen the way Jesus spoke about ‘the last things,’ not as way to frighten people but to give them hope. There must have been plenty of interest in that course in the fall of 1999, as I recall my professor saying that they had to offer three sections instead of the normal one. With Y2K looming, my fellow students must have been scared, curious or hopeful.
But the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on the way one of the biggest questions of life — how will Jesus wrap it all up? — can impact my worshiping community. It is difficult to get my congregation of folks born in the 1980s and 1990s to think about their own mortality, much less the new heavens and the new earth. But I want them to be ready! I want to them to live their lives in such a way that when Jesus returns to make all things right, they rejoice along with Him. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? We need artists, songwriters and poets to help us see it. I would like to propose two approaches in order to make our congregations more watchful.
The first is to think outside the box. Most of our churches need more creativity within the liturgy. It is really hard work! It’s difficult to get people together to think and pray about worship. We can always just do what we do last week or last year. But what’s the fun in that? Like most great things in life, creative, thoughtful worship doesn’t come easy. It takes planning, prayer and prioritizing. I believe it will take great leadership, not just from pastors or staff but from lay people, many of whom work in creative fields. We can generate ideas and creativity when we pray and when we pull together a diverse group of people.
The second suggestion is very traditional. My eyes have been awakening to Jesus’ teaching on watchfulness and eschatology by doing the most uncreative, “boring” thing: preaching the lectionary. All summer we’ve been following the lectionary and I’ve been preaching the gospel passages. It’s been wonderful because it’s given us a balanced diet of Christ’s teaching, including on the last things. This has brought the incredible, all-encompassing hope of the gospel into our lives today. This framework has impacted my walk with Christ, helping me to think of the bigger picture. I know it’s forming my people as well.
I hope that as you think through Jesus’ teaching on the last things, you’ll be motivated by the gospel to bring all of His teaching to bear, through the wonderful art and music you bring to worship.
A good resource for further reading, is Anthony J. Hoekema’s book, The Bible and the Future (Wm. B. Eerdman Publications). More thoughts on preparing for Jesus’ second coming found in this RW article by John Witvliet. (Korean and Spanish as well as English).