Donne on the Brain

May 21

A couple of recent events…on national, one local…are the genesis of this sermon. Well, I should probably say one non-event, and one tragic event…birthed these words. Perhaps the incidents will cause you to consider some of the same things I did.

First, the national non-event. As most of you are probably aware, non-believers (and quite a few Christians) had a field-day as May 21 approached because an aging preacher, Harold Camping, was predicting the Rapture on that Saturday. As the complete lack of an increase in missing persons reports attests, Mr. Camping was mistaken…something he even admits. However, he is convinced his error was only in thinking something physical was going to happen that day…instead it was a spiritual Judgment Day…

But he is sticking by his prediction that the world completely ends on October 21.

Boy, I can’t wait for the ridicule to be repeated weeks leading up to that Friday…as we Christian believers are often lumped in with that false prophet, even if it is only implicitly…

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the “extras” that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

No one knows the day nor the hour…

For instance, one news article I read ahead of May 21 called him an “Evangelical broadcaster.”

And…if one was using the word “evangelical” in the sense of evangelism (albeit false), then it is accurate. However, it is more likely they were using the term in it’s modern sense, which is to describe a flavor of current Christianity.

In which case they should have also noted that the very fact Camping predicted a date means, by Evangelical standards, he isn’t one of us. If asked, the vast majority of orthodox Evangelicals would have immediately pointed that numerology-driven speaker to Matthew 24:36:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

Now, in fairness to Camping, I don’t think you can use that verse to prove that God would never reveal an end-time date to anyone…theoretically, Jesus was only saying at that point in time nobody knew. I tend to believe it’ll remain that way, although it seems to me that now that Jesus has returned to the glory He had before it is likely He is fully omniscient again—that His limited ability to see into the future while here on earth was a result of temporarily giving up the independent use of His divine powers.

Regardless, I think if we look at that section of Scripture that verse is from and just leave with an aversion to date-setting, we are missing the real point Jesus was trying to make. Our Lord had been giving some insight into the signs before the both destruction of Jerusalem and the very end…and the verse we read was a segue into an imported connected thought. Let’s read it again, but this time with the verses that follow:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Matthew 24:36-44).

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Kind of an odd statement considering Jesus had just spent a good amount of time describing events and conditions that would lead up to it…but it does make sense.

We humans get so caught up in our day-to-day life we could have an eschatological gun pointing us right in the face and we will still keep all our attention on eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and the myriad other activities and entertainments that will allow to fill our lives.

Jesus’ main point in that “don’t you dare set a date” verse was that our end will come upon us unexpectedly…not that setting dates is wrong…although I do think that the larger biblical theme (of the end coming unexpectedly) does speak to the error in trying to predict Christ’s arrival. For instance, Paul echos Jesus in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-7).

Jesus said he would come at an hour we didn’t expect…and Paul says, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

The good news for us Christians is both implicitly say that even though we don’t know when exactly it is going to happen, we can be prepared. Jesus advises, “Therefore you must also be ready” and Paul notes, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.”

Drunkenness

I also found it interesting that both Jesus and Paul mention drinking…although I suppose Jesus didn’t necessarily mean alcohol in “for as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking” and Paul’s use is mostly metaphorical in “then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night.”

However, the subject of drinking is a good transition to the second event that wore heavily on my mind this week.

John Donne

Before we discuss that tragedy, I’d like to share a related excerpt written by the famous 16 century poet, priest, and lawyer John Donne. Ernest Hemingway’s use of part of this may be the most significant reason you’ll likely recognize it:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.1

“For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Such ominous words…and ones that I couldn’t help but thinking this week. I didn’t know that Donne had written them…I thought it was Hemingway’s genius. When it comes to Donne, the only work of his I was familiar with this…a poem that became my favorite thanks to an English class at Liberty University:

Batter my heart, three-personed God ; for, you

As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end.

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy ;

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

That paradoxical poetry was from his Divine Meditations…and although it does not directly speak to our subject today…I suspect you can see why it became my favorite Christian poem.

And I suspect, if you think about it, you can also see how if we allow God to do to us what John Donne prayed for, Jesus’ return will not catch us like a thief in the night. We will be “awake and sober”…and prepared.

“For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

I’ve mentioned before that ultimately the day and time of Jesus’ return does not matter. No…I don’t mean, “Who cares?”

What I mean is that…well, let’s let James say it better than I will:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15).

We do not know what tomorrow will bring…we don’t even know what 30 seconds will bring. As we learned earlier this week, even in Antrim…which had a tornado watch…our death can come upon us suddenly.

We are but “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

Which is why we should pray like the psalmist did and ask that the Lord “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12) or “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Psalm 39:4).

Three Twenty-Somethings

Early one morning this week, three twenty-somethings climbed into a car. Every indication is that they were not sober, and shortly thereafter the bell tolled for one of them.

As for the other two…they are guaranteed months of painful treatment…and one of them may spend a good portion of his or her life in jail.

All three of them can attest the folly in saying, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such town and…”

One life is no more and two others are forever changed…beginning with an unplanned and extended stay in a hospital after an unanticipated ride in a helicopter…

Well, more than just two lives have been forever changed…because…as John Donne so rightly noted…”No man is an island, entire of itself.”

All the more true of the family, friends, and community of those three occupants of that demolished car.

“Any man’s death diminishes [us], because [we are] involved in mankind.”

Lord, “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Death’s Day’s are Numbered

Considering what transpired this week, and the effect it has had on a member of this congregation, it is hard to have this sermon be anything but somber and gloomy. However, let’s not forget that the man who wrote of “for whom the bell tolls” also pointed to the One who made it so that it really doesn’t matter how early or late in your an my life it rings…as long as we trust Him.

Additionally, that same Messiah…after already finishing the work our salvation required…has promised to destroy something so that we’ll never again have news like that which arrived Wednesday morning…

You can look at Revelation 20:14-15 and 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 to see the Bible speak of it, but I would like to quote some more John Donne instead:

DEATH, be not proud, though some have callèd thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.

From Rest and Sleep, which but thy picture be,

Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;

And soonest our best men with thee do go—

Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!

Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke. Why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!2

“Death shall be no more: Death thou shalt die!”

I really know nothing about the young man who passed away, but I do know that everyone sitting here who has repented, believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and been baptized can also laugh at death because “one short sleep past, we wake eternally.” That is the good news that we’ve been given the honor of sharing with our family, or friends, and our community. But, the gospel would be incomplete if we do not also pray…

Lord, teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom…for today the bell may toll for us.


Footnotes

1Federer, W. J. (2001). Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced according to their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions. St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch.

3Smith, A. J. (Ed.) (1996). John Donne: The Complete English Poems (Kindle Edition.). New York, NY: Penguin.

2The Harvard Classics 40—42: Complete English Poetry, Chaucer to Whitman. 1910 (C. W. Eliot, Ed.) (313). New York: P.F. Collier & Son.


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