READ : Luke 21:34-36
But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.
Luke 21:34-36 rsv
I don’t need to tell you that this is a troubled world, full of uncertainty and danger. People cope every day with the realities of heartbreak, suffering and death. The pace of change has become so breathtaking that no one can predict what lies ahead. How would you like to be ready for anything – anything that comes? Ready to endure, ready to come through it all in the strength of the Lord, and finally to stand before His face?
That’s possible. The Lord wants it for you. Here’s how it can happen. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 21, verses 34 to 36: “But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that the day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”
Practically every day, it seems, you and I read something about prevention. There’s even a magazine by that name. It’s published by specialists in the area of health foods and is designed to help people stay well. The title intrigues me. Maybe it’s drawn from the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The idea, at any rate, is a common one. By improving your all-around health, you build defenses against disease. Preventive medicine is the theme.
As I think about that, I seem to see this note of prevention everywhere. Pick up almost any periodical these days and you can read about what to do before the ozone layer is depleted, before the rain forests go, before the endangered species are lost forever. Americans read about how to keep the economies of other countries from outstripping our own, what the birth rate needs to be to avoid overpopulation, physical checkups that can save our lives, gun laws that can prevent killings.
In each case, there’s both a danger we’re being warned about and a course of action recommended to keep the feared result from happening. We have everything from preventive legislation to preventive ecology. Someone is spelling out for us the steps we have to take to be ready, to avoid the peril.
Now we don’t swallow all of this, at least we shouldn’t. In each instance, we need to weigh what’s being said and ask ourselves, “Is this a real danger? Is it something I need to guard against, to get ready for?” And if it is, will this policy recommended, this preventive action, actually keep it from happening? With that in mind, listen again to these final words of Jesus in the passage we read, “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”
The Lord has been speaking of the things that will come to pass as we move toward the end of the age, as His coming draws near. He’s been warning His disciples of perils that may threaten them. Some, He says, will grow faint with fear, anxiety and foreboding at the things taking place. Because evil will abound, the love of many toward Christ will grow cold. Further, many will be led astray by false prophets and deceiving spirits. The hearts of some will be weighed down through dissipation and stress. The result will be that the day of the Lord will come upon such people as a snare, unexpectedly, unhappily.
IS IT I?
Now it’s hard for us to look seriously and personally at such warnings from the Lord. We can read in the gospels about those who left Christ, who walked no more with Him. We can read Paul’s words about a fellow laborer named Demas who left the Lord’s work, “having loved this present world.” But it doesn’t often strike home that things like that could happen to us.
When we learn of believers in other ages who seemed to begin well in their discipleship but later fell by the wayside, that still seems remote from most of us. But now and then, something stabs us awake. I’m thinking today of two men who played significant roles in my early experience as a Christian. One was the teenage friend who led me to Christ, who helped me to get started in the life of faith. He later became a prominent, highly respected believer in the area where he lived and worked. The second was a friend in college, a fraternity brother whose Christian testimony I greatly admired. He seemed to me as winsome, consistent, and devoted a Christian as a guy could be. I really wanted to be like him.
Today I have a deep ache in my heart about both of those men. One has died. Both became in time deeply unhappy, separated from their wives and children, seemingly far away from the Lord they once had served. It weighs on me to think about them.
You probably know people like that too. So you know this kind of thing can happen. Yet it’s still hard for each of us to face that it could happen to us. In that, we’re like the disciples. Remember how the Lord told them, “One of you shall betray me”? One by one, they asked, “Lord, is it I?” In the Greek language, the way the question was asked implied that a negative answer was expected. It was as though they all had said, “Lord, surely I’m not the one, am I?”
When Jesus continued, “You are all going to be offended, all caused to stumble because of me this night,” Peter said, “Not I, Lord. The others may forsake You but not I. I’m ready to go with You to prison and to death.” And, the record says, all the others said the same thing. Each disciple was confident at that point about himself. He certainly wouldn’t stumble in that way.
That’s how we usually feel, isn’t it, those of us who have trusted Christ? We are the Lord’s followers. We have claimed His name. We have confessed Him before the world. We have no intention of denying or leaving Him. But like the disciples, we also have no idea how weak we are and how strong temptation can be.
When the Lord went into the Garden of Gethsemane, He took with Him the inner circle of three: Peter, James, and John. These men had been with Him at many of the crisis hours of His ministry. “Watch and pray,” He warned them, “that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). He warned them twice, warned them three times. But they were tired, they were confused. More than that, they were heavy-hearted. They didn’t see any real danger and proceeded to fall asleep. It was after that that all of them forsook Him and fled. After that, Peter denied ever knowing Him – with choice profanity for emphasis.
“But,” someone asks, “doesn’t God promise to keep us from falling? Doesn’t He say that He will deliver us from every evil work and preserve us for His heavenly kingdom?” Yes, He does. The question is, “How does He do that? Are we passive, careless in the whole process? Is it an automatic thing, or does He keep us as we watch and pray? Does He work in us as we work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling?”
In the Lord’s Prayer (which we judge He wanted us to pray every day, since He told us to ask for our daily bread), Jesus also calls us to ask, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” He’s implying that if we don’t pray, we may come under temptation’s power. The command to watch and pray stands together with the promise that He will keep us from falling. As we seek in faith to obey the command, we can live in confidence. That’s how we can be ready.
What does it mean to be watchful? It means realizing that sin is a deadly, deceptive reality in our experience. It can steal upon us very suddenly. To be watchful means staying on the alert against slipping into it. It means knowing the Scriptures, hiding the Word in our hearts, allowing the light of God to shine upon our lives so that we become increasingly aware of what we ought to be and warned against the pitfalls Jesus was speaking about.
Being watchful means observing our lives so that we know where our weak points are. What is the area in which you and I are most likely to stumble? Is it laziness or titanic pride? Is it a bent toward immorality or toward a self-righteous criticism of others? Is it dishonesty or petty gossip? To watch is to be aware of where we’re vulnerable, to know ourselves and our weakness and avoid those situations which are likely to give us trouble. “Watch at all times,” Jesus said. It’s a vigilance that has to go on constantly. We’re always in a battle, always up against a cunning and powerful enemy.
But watching in itself is not enough. As someone has said, “To watch is to sight the enemy. But to fight the enemy, we need prayer.” Jesus Himself knew how vital prayer was in facing the crises and battles of life. Remember how He prayed in the waters of Jordan before He faced His temptations? How He prayed all night before He chose the disciples? How He prayed just before Peter’s great confession and before He taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer? Remember His prayer in Gethsemane and on the cross? He faced every crisis that way.
But we can’t always anticipate crises, can we? We don’t always know when the test is coming, when we may have to face a turning point of great importance.
Remember when Jesus came down from the mountain and found the demon-possessed boy and cast out the evil spirit? The disciples had been powerless to do it. They asked, “Why could we not cast it out?” He answered, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:28-29). They may have wondered what He meant by that. They knew of no prayer meeting He had been involved in. And He didn’t pause to pray right on the spot, as far as we know. But He had been spending time apart. He was ready and they were not.
Friends, in your life, prayer determines in great measure the kind of person you are, the kind of Christian you are becoming. Maybe that doesn’t become evident in the midst of the ordinary round in life. Maybe there are two Christians, one who is regularly seeking the Lord, listening to the Word, praying for strength, another who is letting these things slip. You can’t tell by superficial observation, perhaps, which is which, but when the testings come, there won’t be much doubt who is ready and who is not.
It’s not that prayer is a kind of fetish, a magic charm. But it does for your religious life what original research does for science. It brings you into direct contact with reality. In this case, it’s the reality of the living Lord Himself. In hours of worship, in small gatherings for prayer, sharing and study, in your own personal prayer life, Christ is building into your life His strength, His spiritual vitality. And so the sober warning has a bright promise in it. As you and I watch and pray, He will make us sufficient for anything that comes. We will prevail to make it through the dangers and to stand before the Son of man. And that must mean to hear His “Well done.”
WHAT TO DO
How will you respond to this? If you’re not a Christian today, will you put your trust in Christ? Will you call on Him to be your Savior, your Master, your strength to make you the person God wants you to be? What an hour to do that! The greatest readiness for all that you will face in life will be in committing your life to Christ.
That’s what I told a number of high school young people in Albania some months ago when I was visiting there. Albania is facing a new day, learning what it is to live under democracy and to develop democratic institutions. I tried to say to them that those institutions only work well when a society has in it good people, people of good will, of integrity, of a servant heart. The best thing these young people could do for Albania, as well as for themselves, was to commit their lives to Jesus Christ, who could give them a new beginning and make them the kind of people through whom the future could be bright with hope.
If you are a believer, will you heed today the Lord’s call? Will you set apart time at the beginning of each day and at its close to meet the Lord, to call on Him? Will you begin to appeal to Him for strength in every difficulty, light in every decision? Will you take hold of what He offers you by prayer?
There’s more to prayer, of course, than that. We ought to pray because the need of others calls for it and most of all because God richly deserves our praise. But we surely need to pray also that we may be strong to serve Him to the end. Archbishop Trench had a great word about what the result will be:
Lord, what a change within us, one short hour spent in thy presence can prevail to make!
What heavy burdens from our bosoms take!
What parched grounds refresh as with a shower
We kneel and all around us seems to lower.
We rise and all, the distant and the near,
stands out in sunny outline, brave and clear.
We kneel how weak, we rise how full of power.
Lord, why do we do ourselves this wrong or others
that we are not always strong?
That we should ever weak or heartless be
when with us is prayer
and joy and strength and courage are with thee?
Yes, why do we do ourselves this wrong? Dear friend, listen to the word of Jesus and take it to heart, “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” That’s how to be ready.