(First Sunday of Advent)
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. We usually think of Advent as the season in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But, if we are to be faithful to the lectionary readings that is not accurate. Instead, the focus is less on the birth of Jesus, which is saved for the Christmas season, and more on the return of Jesus. On what is known as the Second Coming.
This probably surprises you since in most mainline churches one does not hear a lot said about the return of Jesus, about the Second Coming. Gary confessed to me some time ago that he was gun shy about preaching on the Second Coming and I confess that am as well.
In part, this is because of the influence of modern science on our understanding of the Bible. Most of the attention in this regard has been on the controversy surrounding the creation of the world. We all know the story of Charles Darwin and evolution. However, the same problems that science has caused for traditional understandings of creation also hold true for the return of Christ and the end of the world. How do the passages predicting Jesus’ return fit with modern scientific theory?
But perhaps even more challenging is not the scientific one but rather the sorry example of individuals and groups over the years who have predicted the end of the world only to be proven wrong, time and time again.
I attended Divinity College at a time when anticipations of the end of the world were are their height due to the popularity in conservative Protestant circles of what is known as premillennial dispensationalism.
Don’t let the fancy name throw you off. It is actually a very simple theory. In premillennial dispensationalism, world history is broken up into distinct periods with the claim being advanced that we are living in the last period, the final dispensation. This was dated usually around the time of the birth of the modern Israelite nation. In this period, the wars and diseases and famines written about in the book of Revelation would be unleashed on the world, leading up to the time when the Antichrist would take over power and institute 1,000 years of demonic rule before the great battle of Armageddon when God would finally destroy Satan and all his followers. However, the true Christian would have nothing to fear because he or she would be raptured (that is, disappear) up into the heavens and escape all these problems and hardships.
A popular modern Christian song of my Divinity College days talks about two men working in a field, one is taken and the other is left. And woven throughout this song is this haunting refrain, “I wish we’d all been ready.” And I remember driving in cars, owned by friends of mine, with plastic plaques attached to the dashboard and these words on them, “In case of the rapture, this driver will disappear.”
When the rapture didn’t come in the seventies like it was supposed to this theory waned in influence, although recently it has made a comeback as people have grown frightened that the world, or at least human life on the world, will become extinct due to environmental problems. The show on the History Channel entitled “the Nostradamus Effect” is really just a repackaging of premillennial dispensationalism.
Little wonder, then, that many ministers shy away from preaching about the Second Coming, the Return of Christ the King. As one United Church minister confessed to me, “I don’t know what to make of it, so I stay away from it.” I sympathize. Much easier to talk about the baby Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem.
And yet, if we ignore the biblical teaching about the Second Coming entirely we miss some of the richness of the biblical story. Because this teaching about the Second Coming or the Return of Jesus underscores three very important lessons.
The first lesson is that we live in a transition period of history.
Let me explain. The Christian teachings about the Second Coming are all based on the Old Testament prophecies of what is called the “Day of the Lord.”
When the “Day of the Lord” came, the Jewish people who had experienced so much persecution would finally be vindicated. Their Middle Eastern neighbors would see that they were right all along. Instead of a tiny nation alternatively conquered by their neighbors in Egypt to the South or Babylon and Assyria to the north, the nation of Israel would become a powerful nation. It would recapture the glory days when there was a power vacuum and King David was able to establish his empire. Little wonder that this Day of the Lord was to be ushered in by the birth of the Messiah, by a descendent of King David.
The early Christians, were all good Jews. They inherited this teaching and were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah but when the end of the world did not come they began to rethink the Jewish teaching on the Day of the Lord. And they did this by claiming that Jesus was the Messiah and that he had inaugurated the Kingdom of God but that the end was not yet. We were and are living in a time between times. During this period of human history we appropriate the richness of God’s love by faith but not yet by sight.
The great biblical scholar Emil Brunner compared it to the difference between D-Day and V-Day in the Second World War. After the allies had successfully landed on Normandy and were not thrown back in the sea by the Germans it was obvious to all but the most fanatic Nazi that Hitler’s rule was fast coming to an end. However, between D-Day and V-Day when Germany was finally defeated there was still a lot of work to do and a lot of suffering to experience.
To me this rings true. Because of Jesus, I believe that God is love, that grace, will conquer hatred and injustice but I also recognize that there are and continue to be many problems in the world.
And not only in the world. I recognize within my own life there is much that is wrong. Like the apostle Paul, I often do not do the good that I know I should do but instead the bad that I know I should not do that I do. Sin and the power of sin are defeated on the cross of Calvary. D-Day has taken place but V-Day, Victory Day is not yet here.
Recognizing that we live in this transition period, this time between times, as it has been called, helps guard against two extremes – that of despair and that of perfectionism. We should not give in to despair, there is much good in this world, there has been progress. But neither should we be caught up in perfectionism, in triumphalism, there is evil and sin and we need to take a stand against it. Police forces are still needed, armies are still necessary much as I wish they were not.
And increasingly, as I have grown older I have come to see that despair and perfectionism are two sides of the same coin. I have come to appreciate the saying that “the enemy of the good is the perfect.”
The second lesson we can garner from this emphasis on the Return of the King, the Second Coming of Christ, is that God is not just concerned about our individual salvation and well being but that of the entire world, human and non-human alike.
The United Church minister I referred to, who did not preach about the Second Coming of Jesus, about the end of time, said it was irrelevant anyway since we are all individually going to face our own end of time with our death. He had a point. But if the emphasis is just on our own death and on making a decision to follow God so that when death comes we experience the resurrection of the dead, then we miss the glorious insight of the teaching of the Return of Christ. And this teaching is that we are all connected with each other and with the world in such a way that we cannot and should not be concerned only with our own individual salvation.
There is a wonderful passage in Paul’s Letter to the Romans where he writes about the created order groaning in the pangs of giving birth. Not, Paul adds, because the created world disobeyed God but because we humans did and so creation suffers in the meantime and waits with eager longing for the Return of Christ. Paul puts it like this:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
You see, when it is true to its best insights, the Christian faith, like the Jewish faith before it, does not denigrate the physical. It does not look down on the physical world, on the flesh, as the locus of sin. Sin, according to Saint Augustine, is not centered in the flesh but in the broken will, which refuses to obey God. Sex, the pleasures of a good meal, the beauty of nature are all God’s gifts. We need, of course, to discipline ourselves in our enjoyment of them but they are not bad in and of themselves, only when they are misused.
That is why when Isaiah writes about the Day of the Lord, he foresees a time when not only human beings but the natural world would be restored to harmony. He looks forward to that day when:
The wolf will lie down with the lion; the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, . . . . The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Finally, the third lesson contained within this emphasis on the Second Coming of Christ, the Return of the King, is the insistence in the Christian faith that the future is not one of decay and destruction but rather one of hope.
That is why in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, while there is much suffering and the four horseman of the Apocalypse — the horseman of war, famine death and disease — have their way in the future as unfortunately they do in the present, the final image of that book is not one of despair but of hope. The author, John writes:
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.
When I was kid growing up in Bolivia there were not many English books to read and so starting at age twelve I read the trilogy of the Lord of Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. And I reread it every year after that for at least four years in a row.
J. R. R. Tolkien was a committed Christian and, in fact, was one of the people who helped convince C. S. Lewis of the truth of the Christian faith. It is no accident then that the third and final book of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings is entitled The Return of the King. For with the return of the King, the final rule of evil is broken and peace and harmony break out upon the land of Middle Earth.
Of course, Tolkien knew as C. S. Lewis knew when he wrote the Narnia Series that their stories were pointing to the greater story, not the return of the King of Gondor as in the Tolkien trilogy, nor the return of the Kings and Queens of Narnia as in C. S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle but the return of a much more important King, the return of Christ Jesus, born as the baby of Bethlehem.
Is it true? How do I know for sure? And here I remind you of my first point that we live in the time between times when we possess this hope by faith and not yet by sight.
But I do know this. Faced with choice between believing that all humanity will wind down, that death is the end for all of us, and that in thousands and millions of years this world itself will burn out or faced with that beautiful image of the new heaven and the new earth where death and pain and suffering are no more, I will choose the later. And I will seek to live my life by that choice because like the men and women of old, even in the midst of pain and suffering I have seen too much beauty, too much love, too much goodness not to know deep within my heart, in reason which is beyond reason, that hope not despair is the last word. Not to believe that:
The King shall come when morning dawns
and light triumphant breaks;
when beauty gilds the eastern hills
and life to joy awakes.
Not, as of old, a little child,
to bear and fight and die,
but crowned with glory like the sun
that lights the morning sky.
The King shall come when morning dawns
and light and beauty brings:
Hail, Christ the Lord! Thy people pray,
come quickly, King of kings.