Being ready depends on knowing what’s coming and how to prepare for it.
There’s 2018’s New Year’s Eve: 12.31.17. And then, or before, there’s eternity. And everybody needs to be ready for both. At least we do for the latter—eternity. And putting it second in our heads, focusing on 12.31 more than on forever and ever may be the most tragic sequence of thoughts in anyone’s head that could ever take place.
Billionaire Bill Koch has an outrageous story for Adventist Review (AR) readers, and other folks too, who are getting ready—either for forever, or even just for New Year’s Eve. The folks in Bill’s Billionaires Club are quite an extraordinary lot, though there is probably no great coincidence between his group and the extraordinary mortals who make up AR readership. Bill’s league, the “B” league [“B” for billionaire], with its 2017 list of 2,043 individuals,1 or 0.000027 percent of earth’s population, is rather more restricted than the “A” league (“A” for AR), with its scores of thousands of readers and sharers online and in hard copy.
If we’re thinking of forever preparation as a New Year’s Eve experience we’re actually preparing to be surprised.
The United States, where AR is published, is also the country with more billionaires than any other. This year’s list included 565 names. Reasonably enough, most people in the United States and elsewhere entertain very little expectation of ever getting called up to play in the “B” league. But that doesn’t mean that we of the “A” league cannot profit from them. Dissimilarities notwithstanding, we may yet be able to learn personally applicable lessons from Billionaire Bill Koch. Also, engaging with other individuals, “B” leaguers or other, from the United States or from wherever else, may introduce to them the scope of benefits of joining the “A” league.
I do not know how many AR readers Billionaire Bill has ever met. He has never met me, though I have met him: to be precise, I have encountered him on TV and online.2 But in search of life lessons for myself and my “A” team—you, I tried engaging him in an imaginary conversation about imaginary wines. Imaginary wines? Yes, imaginary wines. “A” teamer endowments include the virtue of patience. And patience will help us understand about imaginary wines by sustaining us through our imaginary conversation with Billionaire Bill. Here goes:
“Are you ready, Billionaire Bill?”
“Ready for what?”
“For what’s coming.”
“I don’t know what’s coming. Can’t know if I’m ready if I don’t know what’s coming. Being ready depends on what’s coming: on knowing what’s coming, even if it’s just a ball drop, and knowing how to prepare for it.”
Now and then, looking at my office printer, I see that it is saying “Setup Menu”: it may be giving a “not ready” notice: I may need to push some buttons to get it ready to work. Sometimes, though, it will say “Supply very low,” which is also a “not ready” note. Except that this time it is not button-pushing time: it’s just paper-stuffing time. Sometimes, especially at first, I bewildered the machine by pushing buttons out of turn. Of course, I ended up bewildered myself when the machine did not know how to respond.
So Billionaire Bill is correct: being ready usually includes knowing both what has happened and what is coming. Let’s resume our conversation with him:
“I understand, Bill, that your wine cellar ended up stocked with Hardy Rodenstock’s fake wines. Why would you have allowed that to happen?”
“Probably because I wasn’t ready for tricksters—given that people aren’t usually defrauded if they’re ready for the scoundrel. Wasn’t it Jesus who told those stories about people being either ready or unready? In one of them He speaks of people having to stay awake until midnight, and even until 3:00 a.m., because they’re expecting someone: they don’t know exactly when that person’s arriving, but they’re determined to be awake and ready when the individual shows up [Luke 12:35-38]. He tells of another person He calls ‘the goodman of the house’: even though he’s good he still gets robbed. Just being nice isn’t enough to protect yourself. Being ready is. Jesus says that if Mr. Goodman had known when the thief would strike, ‘he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through’ [verse 39, KJV]. Sometimes the goodman isn’t ready. I wasn’t.”
Billionaire Bill has a lesson for us—not only about “[un]readiness,” but about what to do if you’re caught unready. Bill didn’t sit on his hands or wring them forever once he knew that he had been had. He figured out what to do after he was defrauded: he both figured out what to do and did it (I’ll admit that “B” leaguers are well positioned to do what Bill did).
Bill had collected hundreds of bottles of wine he thought was pure class and age: four bottles from Thomas Jefferson’s cellar, for which he paid $100,000 each; more than 200 fake bottles from a dealer in Los Angeles, California, named Rudy Kurniawan. But somewhere along the line Bill became sensitive to the possibility of charlatans in the wine business, people who were making up exotic back stories about their wine production and ownership: on a CBS show presented Sunday, October 22, 2017, Bill displayed a bottle labeled “Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1870.” The materials expert he hired to examine his prize catch, told him that the bottle and its label were joined together with Elmer’s glue. Turns out that Elmer’s glue came along 77 years too late (1947) to be part of an 1870 original.
Bill came to realize that farce was a significant element of the sophisticated wine business, involving flashy dealers traveling by private jet financed through their fabulous concoctions: not their wines; just their stories about aged burgundy. Bill discovered that even famous auction houses selling the wines needed to be held to account for auctions that advanced the cause of deception.
So Bill set out to fix it. By the time CBS ran his story in October 2017, Bill had spent more than $35 million tracking down the frauds responsible for selling him wines that “never existed”—as Sharyn Alfonsi and Brad Goldstein put it on CBS’s 60 Minutes.3 Precisely here, on his hunt for fake-wine purveyors, Billionaire Bill fits right into an article on being ready. But whereas I could not more fully agree that fraudulent and criminal activity and its perpetrators should be investigated and rooted out, that didn’t keep me from reflecting that $35 million of Billionaire Bill’s good money spent in pursuit of elusive tricksters could supply 1,754,386 conscientious, truth-seeking individuals with “A” league subscriptions in 2018.
Bill may not have been ready for the frauds who outwitted him and many other people. But he has dedicated himself to pursuing and correcting what went wrong.
Jesus’ stories about readiness, however, stand in dramatic contrast to Bill’s cause célèbre. They mark a crucial difference between getting ready for New Year’s Eves that come, and go, and come again, and getting ready for forever. Jesus’ stories seem to go consistently in the opposite direction, leaving no place to apply Billionaire Bill’s hunt for criminals.
Consider Mr. Goodman: his entire story takes up no more than 20 words (in the Greek). Jesus’ application takes up another 14. Jesus’ point is sharp, narrow, simple, and categorical: if Mr. Goodman had known the thief’s hour of striking he would have been able to stop the criminal. No room here for time and outlay of millions of possible feed-the-poor or clothe-the-naked, or provide-the-subscriptions dollars to correct what went wrong; no time to call the cops or pursue the thief yourself and recover your stolen goods (Luke 12:39, 40).
And the five foolish girls at the pajama party sleepover in Matthew 25 get no second chance to catch bouquets at the wedding celebration (Matt. 25:10-12). Evidently Jesus’ interests in our being ready signify considerably more than staying awake, with most of America (78 percent!), long enough to see the 12,000-pound, Waterford crystal ball drop, and sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
Moreover, without taking anything away from your New Year’s Eve excitement, getting ready for eternity is for Jesus, in a very real sense, the opposite of many people’s perception of New Year’s Eve preparations.
In His stories about coming back Jesus sometimes speaks of Himself in the third person, as the Son of man (Matt. 10:23; 13:41; 16:27, 28; Mark 8:38; Luke 12:40), emphasizing His humanity and personally engaging with prophetic language from Daniel’s judgment vision (Dan. 7:13): He’s the judge who rules in favor of His people, clearing the way for coming to take us home.
If we give His stories the attention they deserve, we may realize how much more important is the coming of the Son of man than the coming of New Year’s Eve. Also, we may recognize that His coming is climax, not buildup; conclusion, not introduction; the end, not the beginning. So that being ready for it is critical, a matter of life or death. Popular perspectives on New Year’s Eve are so diametrically opposed to Jesus’ “get ready” stories that a New Year’s Eve fascination could seriously threaten, or even tragically compromise, our readiness for the Son’s appearing. It could be the saddest, most dangerous, most ill-advised arrangement of thoughts in my head or yours that we ever did.
A quick review of our New Year’s Eve get-ready items, compared with the essentials in Jesus’ get-ready lists, will readily confirm or disconfirm this sober truth.
While preparing this article, I read of a man named Vasily who had many friends with birthdays in late December and early January. Because of how his friends’ birthdays coincided with year-end festivities, New Year’s Eve preparations meant even more preparation than otherwise: for Vasily and his friends, getting ready for New Year’s Eve and beyond meant stocking up two solid weeks’ supply of cigarettes and vodka. Vasily’s thinking and actions at that point4 show that the more we think of readiness in purely New Year’s Eve terms, the more we jeopardize our eternal future.
His New Year’s Eve-style preparation is so dangerous for Christians that it earned the specific focus of three church leaders who were messaging big-city Christians in the Roman province of Macedonia around A.D. 50 to 51: drunkenness and sleeping are things you do at night, Paul, Silas and Timothy wrote to believers in Thessalonica, Macedonia’s New York: but we are people of the light, not people of the night (1 Thess. 5:5). Understanding Paul and his colleagues in the context of 12.31.17 and the 60-second ball drop tells us that if we’re thinking of forever preparation as a New Year’s Eve experience we’re actually preparing to be surprised; disappointed, in fact.
As the message to Thessalonica explains, Jesus’ coming will then be like that of a thief sneaking up on you (verse 4). For too many Vasilys in the world, being ready for New Year’s Eve means having enough vodka at hand to ensure themselves of a time of revelry and carousal purchased by mind-blowing intoxication. By contrast with the world’s vodka-swigging Vasilys, we as people of the day must maintain our sobriety, while those of the night intoxicate themselves; and we must watch while they choose to sleep (verses 5-8).
The greatest thing about getting ready for eternity, and the thing that sets it apart from any New Year’s Eve jollification, must be that when the climax comes we’ll meet Jesus. Yes, we shall meet Jesus, and get to spend all of forever—gloriously, interminably all—with Him whose love and sacrifice make eternity possible, with Him who has prepared it for us and us for it: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).
Jesus is coming back to take us to Himself. It may be a New Year’s Eve event. I can’t say. But being ready for Him every day, every moment, guarantees readiness for New Year’s Eve and way beyond: 12.31.17 will find you ready. And if your destiny is sealed before that, you’ll be ready too. Being ready for Jesus every day guarantees a championship 2018 season, and winning every day beyond, until the day we see Him for ourselves and He takes us to Himself to celebrate the endless endlessness of life with Him in glory in His heaven and in our earth made new.
Lael Caesar, an associate editor of Adventist Review, is not always awake at midnight, 12.31, but looks forward to being for Jesus’ arrival.