In 168 B.C., the King of Syria—a man named Antiochus Epiphanes—mustered his armies to do battle in an attempt to conquer the land of Egypt. As he led his Syrian forces to the attack, he encountered, to his great surprise, Roman legions who had similar designs upon Egypt. In a climate of edgy confrontation, the Syrian king and the Roman commander met to confer. Antiochus Epiphanes wanted control of Egypt, but not at the cost of war with Rome. When the Syrian king asked for time to consider his alternatives, the Roman commander promptly drew his sword, and with the tip of that sword, he marked a circle in the sand around the feet of the Syrian king. Then he said: “Decide before you leave this circle.
It was with that same sense of dramatic urgency that Jesus burst upon the scene in ancient Galilee to deliver God’s ultimatum to the world. In fact, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ first sermon contained these words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The sense of urgency reflected in those words was characteristic of everything that Jesus said and did. His message bristled with a note of emergency. Even in His parables, which were simple slices of everyday life, He showed how critical moments lurk just beneath the surface of commonplace events. You cannot read His words in Scripture without understanding that there is a sense of urgency built into the nature of ordinary life as everyone must live it. As I have reviewed the teachings of Jesus, in that light, I have become convinced that Jesus’ sense of urgency was rooted in three dominant convictions.
First, Jesus was convinced that the times of crisis or decision in life come suddenly.
His stories were full of examples of unexpected developments which changed everything at a moment’s notice. He talked about a householder slumbering peacefully, when suddenly a thief broke in to steal. He spoke about a wedding party, awaiting the bridegroom, and suddenly the bridegroom appeared at midnight when some had no oil for their lamps and so could not see to greet him. He told the story of a house built upon a less-than-solid foundation, and suddenly, it was lashed by a storm and swept away in the resulting flood.
Do you get His point? Jesus was reminding us that times of crisis or opportunity or decision come as suddenly as a flash of lightning across the sky. We know He is right. We casually sort through the morning mail and out pops a job offer which alters the vocational course of our lives. We open the newspaper and stare at a headline which changes the way our children go to school. The telephone jangles with the message of a fatal accident and life is turned completely upside down…How suddenly parents discover that a son is on drugs or that daughter has run off with a boy she hardly knows. How savage is the swiftness with which we encounter the termination of a job or the necessity for surgery or the suicide of one who seemed so well adjusted. Yes, the significant moments of crisis or opportunity or decision in life come when we least expect them. Therefore, the time to get ready for them is now.
Leo Buscaglia, a professor in southern California often assigns a paper in which students respond to the question: “What would you do if you had only five days to live?” The responses are always interesting. Some say, “I would tell the people who are dear to me that I love them.” Others say, “I would thank my parents for all they have done for me.” Still others say, “I would apologize to a person I have hurt.” Buscaglia does not grade the papers. He simply writes on them: “Why don’t you do these things now?”
The point is that we cannot hold at bay the significant crises or opportunities of life. Life is too unpredictable for that. We never know at what moment we may be swept off our spiritual feet by the flood of tragedy or blown off course by the storms of circumstance or required to account for our faith by the icy winds of persecution. There are so many variables in our lives that we do not have the luxury of setting a private timetable for getting things right with God and with others in our lives. You cannot apply for fire insurance after the house has begun to burn!
There is a little piece written by a young girl about her boyfriend. It is about putting off the things that really matter. I came across it a few years ago and tucked it away in my memory. I share it with you now—as a reminder.
Remember the day I borrowed your brand new car and
I dented it?
I thought you would kill me, but you didn’t.
Remember the time I dragged you to the beach, and
you said it would rain, and it did?
I thought you’d say “I told you so,” but you didn’t.
Remember the time I flirted with the guys to make
you jealous, and you were?
I thought you’d leave me, but you didn’t.
Remember the time I forgot to tell you the dance
was formal and you showed up in jeans?
I thought you’d drop me, but you didn’t.
Yes, there were lots of things you didn’t do.
But you put up with me, and you loved me
and you protected me,
There were lots of things I wanted to make up to you
When you returned from Viet Nam.
But you didn’t.
The point is clear. Don’t wait. Do it now. So if there is a word of love or appreciation or encouragement which you would speak to someone else, if there is an act of kindness you would perform, if there is a change you need to make in your life, if there is a relationship you need to restore, if there is an evil habit which you desire to break, if there is a Risen Lord whom you would love to know and to serve in your life, then don’t let the sun go down today without doing what needs to be done. Now is the time to decide.
Everything could change tomorrow. As we are now being reminded by the tragic murder of a member of our own congregation—tragedy can fall with sledgehammer swiftness upon the most unsuspecting victim. Opportunities are so easily missed. The time to decide, the time to get ready, the time to make the most of our opportunities is now! “Decide before you leave this circle.”
A second conviction of Jesus was that the times of crisis or decision in life not only come suddenly—they also come surprisingly.
A long time ago, a wise medieval monk observed that when we get to heaven we shall be surprised by three things. We shall be surprised that many of the people we expected to see are not there. We shall be surprised that many of the people we did not expect to see are there. And we shall be surprised that we are there!
Jesus spoke of those same surprises in His parables. He told of a rich man who lived extravagantly while a beggar languished at his gate. However, when they both died, the rich man was consigned to Hades while the beggar was lifted to the glory of heaven. He told of a Pharisee who prayed like a virtuoso in contrast to a lowly publican who stammered out a whispered prayer for mercy. The shocking result was that the sinful publican rather than the pious Pharisee was honored by God. He told of tenants entrusted with a vineyard who tried to cheat their absentee owner. To their dismay, however, they discovered that the landlord’s patience had been pushed too far and he personally came to destroy them. The rule is constant all the way through the teachings of Jesus. When dealing with God, always expect the unexpected.
In other words, Jesus insisted that our confidence must rest not in anything earthly, but only in God. If we put our trust and our security in our family, our nation, our denomination, our baptism, our public decency, or our private piety, then we are in for a rude awakening. “Repent,” Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Put your trust, your faith, your security and your life into the hands of God—and do it today. There is a wonderfully climactic moment in the play “Les Miserables,” when Enjolras is calling his compatriots to the fight for freedom and he cries out: “It is time for us all to decide who we are.”
It may be that today you are deeply impressed with the Gospel and you feel drawn to the Christ who is revealed there, but please know that if you wait until tomorrow to act on that impression, you may discover that tomorrow the feeling is no longer there. That is what happened to Felix. His story is spread upon the pages of the Book of Acts. We read there that Felix, the Roman procurator, invited Paul, the great apostle, to come and preach to him. That is what Paul did. In fact, this is how I know that Paul was a Presbyterian—his sermon had three points! He preached to Felix about righteousness, about self-control, and about judgment. Felix was moved by the sermon. The Bible says that “his heart trembled within him.” But when Paul finished, Felix said: “Go away for now, and we will discuss this at a more convenient time.” It was a moment that could have changed the direction of Felix’s life, but he delayed. He procrastinated. He deferred action. Consequently, he missed his moment of opportunity—and ultimately he came to a sad and tragic end.
Jesus says: “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” There is an urgency in His plea. If we would be ready for any surprising reversal that may come our way in life, then, Jesus says, deal decisively with God on His terms and do it now. “Decide before you leave this circle.”
The third conviction of Jesus was that the times of crisis or decision in life not only come suddenly and surprisingly—they come soon.
Everything in the preaching and teaching of Jesus breathed this note of urgency. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” He said. Already the seed was growing, therefore, the harvest could not be far behind. Already the fig tree had put out its spring foliage, therefore, the summer fruit would soon appear. Already the power of the spirit was evident in His healing miracles. Therefore, the days of Satan were numbered. The day of the Lord was beginning to dawn. In fact, the coming of the Kingdom is so imminent that every person would have to take sides now. Neutrality is no longer an option. There is no fence to straddle. Either we are on the Lord’s side in our lives or we are not. Decide now, the kingdom is coming soon.
J. P. Marquand captured this truth at the personal level in his book, So Little Time. The story is of a playwright with good intentions of being a good parent while pursuing his literary career. His intentions were not enough. The day came when his eldest son put on a uniform and prepared to go off to war. The father suddenly realized that life might be briefer than anticipated for his boy. So frantically and feverishly, this father set out trying to overcome the years of neglect, only to discover, in the tragic lament of the title, that there was “so little time.” How often is that our anguished realization. Before we know it, the children are gone, the job is stale, the marriage is empty, and life’s over. So little time.
My friends, Jesus Christ is calling us to come to Him in faith and there is a sense of urgency in that call. There is so little time. That is why the Bible never says “tomorrow.” Frank Harrington says “Tomorrow is the devil’s word—God’s word is today.” He is right. The Bible never says: “Believe in Christ tomorrow.” The Bible never says “Repent and be baptized tomorrow!” The Bible says, “Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of your salvation. Now is the time to decide.” There is reason for that urgency. David in his last conversation with his good friend, Jonathan, said: “There is but one step between me and death.” That is true. It was true for David. It is true for us. Just a step. So one day the old rabbi said to his people: “Repent on the day before you die.” And the people said: “But, Rabbi, we do not know the day of our death.” And he said: “Then repent today.”
“Preaching is wrestling with individuals over questions of life and death” (Harry Emerson Fosdick). That is what I am doing with you today. I feel the same sense of urgency Jesus felt. I feel it passionately. A young man came to the great evangelist Gypsy Smith asking for help in getting a call to a church. Needing to know something about the young man, Gypsy Smith asked him the obvious question: “Can you preach?” Not wanting to seem immodest, the young man replied: “I guess I wouldn’t set the Thames River on fire.” The great evangelist replied: “No, I suppose not. But if I threw you in, would you make it fizz?” Today, my beloved, if you threw me in, I could make the river fizz! Because with all of the power and all of the passion and all of the love I can muster, I say to you: Jesus Christ is here in this place and He is calling us to be His own.
“Decide before you leave this circle.”