One of the great things about Advent, is that you don’t have to figure out whether you are coming or going. On the one hand Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year and looks back to the historical coming of Jesus, a kind of preparation for Christmas. The overwhelming emotion for this sense of Advent is gratitude, gratitude for the birth of the Christ, gratitude expressed in the giving of presents to those whom we love and who are in need. Our Marshian Fellowship next weekend, in cooperation with a high school youth group, will take presents to the children of people who are incarcerated. We all will do special deeds of kindness this next month in gratitude for God’s grace. People will make extra charitable donations between now and Christmas not only because of the tax advantage, for which God be praised, but also because it is the season of sharing out of gratitude. (Please remember Marsh Chapel, you in the radio audience as well as you in the building!) The Thanksgiving celebration this past week has been a liturgically appropriate warm-up for the Advent remembrance of Jesus’ first coming. When we sing carols such as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” we celebrate the commemorative interpretation of Advent, looking back to the first coming of Jesus. The text from Jeremiah is about the promise of that.
On the other hand, Advent looks to the second coming of Jesus, which is the subject of the texts from First Thessalonians and Luke. First Thessalonians begins with the gratitude theme: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” The apostles preaching the historical Jesus had birthed this wonderful congregation of Gentile Christians. The passage ends with reference to the second coming: “And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” In the passage from Luke, Jesus was speaking of the coming cataclysmic judgment of the world, not necessarily his own second coming. Nevertheless he was sharply clear that we stand under judgment, that the signs of the times showed his audience that they were ripe for judgment, and that people should live always on the edge, ready to face judgment.
Biblical scholars are rather agreed now that Jesus himself, from what we can find in the New Testament, believed that the end of the age would come within his lifetime, that God would overthrow the powers of injustice and set Jesus up as the messianic ruler over the entire world, established as king in Jerusalem where all the nations would come to acknowledge the God of Israel. One tradition in scripture is that he elevated twelve disciples because there were twelve tribes of Israel that needed special sovereignty. What a shock it must have been when Jesus realized he would be crucified instead, with no angels to save him at the last moment! His cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was all the more heart-rending in light of his earlier expectation. Amazingly, after he was crucified the disciples did not collapse in shock but met him raised in many places. They spread the word that he would come again soon and bring about a truly world-changing judgment. Paul reflected this belief in 1 Thessalonians when he said that, although a few of the congregation had died before Jesus’ second coming, most of them would still be alive. He wrote in chapter 4, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.”
Now I don’t know what you think about this marvelous vision of Jesus coming from above to bring his people out of the sinful world that we know. It certainly is a different tradition from the alternative vision Jesus himself seems to have had in which the world we know would be changed and ruled with righteousness. Many Christians today prefer the latter, hoping for divinely enabled liberation and the establishment of a just society. Many others, however, find inspiration in the Left Behind series of science fiction books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHayne. That series picks up on images from the Book of Revelation to depict a titanic struggle between God and the Anti-Christ that ends with a Pauline-like destruction of the world and a heavenly fulfillment for the relatively few righteous people.
Jesus of course did not come back according to Paul’s timeline, and the New Testament writers had to cope with that. The author of 2 Peter held that Jesus would return and destroy the godless, but much later because a day for God is like a thousand years for us. The author of Ephesians and Colossians, as well as John the Evangelist, rethought matters of the end-time to invent what is called a “realized eschatology.” A realized eschatology says that Jesus has already established our right relation with God and that we already have our place with God eternally even though we have to live out our lives within the ambiguities of history. If Paul was the author of Ephesians and Colossians, as the tradition holds, he must have changed his mind when Jesus did not return as expected.
I hold to a realized eschatology myself and believe that we have eternal life within the eternal life of God. Our temporal life that we live a day at a time is only a part, an abstract part, of who we really are and we can expect historical life to keep on going pretty much the way it has, with trials and tribulations, ambiguities and fragmented projects. Our temporal obligation is to live as justly, piously, faithfully, and hopefully as we can. The historical Jesus was received by the first disciples in a way that began the extraordinary Christian movement of people who know how to live their lives in time with their eyes on eternity. Whereas most people think temporal life is all there is, and are alienated from a God who would create them in such a life filled with suffering and death, Christians know that wholeness is only within the eternity of God. Christ’s faithfulness on the cross to commend his soul to God even when he believed God had forsaken him points to that larger reality. Temporal life is transformed as resurrected life when, like Jesus, we live in that faith. We are New Beings in Christ because we live with an orientation to God’s eternal life in which the entire created cosmos lies.
Or are we such New Beings? All the imagery about signs of the end and Jesus’ second coming makes us ask whether we do in fact live with a proper orientation to God. Do we live with charity like God’s fecund creativity, or do we hoard and cheat to make a buck? Do we insist on justice and suffer the consequences of that insistence, or do we temper our righteousness to accommodate the powerful. Do we study to understand, and practice to perfect, our piety before the eternal God, or do we leave holiness for holidays? Do we conform our temporal lives to the joy, humor, and seriousness of God’s eternal, ultimate perspective, or do we look to religion to get out of life more?
Jesus’ warnings about the signs of the end are good ways to think about our temporal lives in light of eternity. If this were our last day, are we ready for judgme
nt? If not, then please attend to what must be done. Our eternal identity is to live out our lives in time, responsibly, and under judgment. God is incarnate in temporal life precisely so that we can live concretely in time for eternity. Jesus’ first Advent was quite sufficient to give us the direction, power, church institutions, and loving friends we need for living life to the full all our days. No suffering exists that we cannot bear, because grace abounds. No justice obliges that we cannot die for, because God’s grace abounds. No creature exists that we cannot love, because grace abounds. No situation is so bad we cannot engage it with faith, because grace abounds. No separation from God can destroy our hope to see our eternal home, because grace abounds. God’s grace is sufficient, and the church proclaims Jesus Christ as the Lord of grace. Jesus came once and changed the world. He comes again every day to measure our temporal life by its eternal standards.
I invite you therefore to enter into Advent by making Jesus’ story part of your life. He was a young man so winsome, the story goes, that people gave up their livings to follow him around. He taught them to be peacemakers, to be non-judgmental and merciful, and to figure out ways to love one another with a divine passion. He told those who would hear to wake up to the fact that their small lives were part of a divine reality, and not to sleepwalk their days. He showed people by innocent parables that they were under judgment for how they love their neighbors and God. Though innocent of wrongdoing he ran afoul big-time politics, according to the story, and was crucified to death as a criminal, a winsome young man racked to gore. Then he rose from the dead in a victory over suffering and death, and the story becomes cosmic. He turned his disciples from distraught losers into apostles of new life. He became for them a deity from heaven, not only a man from Nazareth. His story grew so that he was one with God, as much God as the Father, King of the universe, Creator of the cosmos, Savior of all souls. And yet his story is that he can be your friend and mine as we imagine a way together with him, our confidant, the one who knows us best, who demands honesty, who leads us through despair to more life, our best lover, our winsome beloved. His story is that we can look upon our death as going home to him, a joy that defeats death’s sting. I invite you to tell yourself into Jesus’ story and become a New Being, free, unafraid, a lover of God and God’s creatures. The Church is a way into that story, and I invite you to join your story with those of other Christians as part of Jesus’ life. We do that now by calling for the Christ who came once to come again, now, that we might be in him in eternal living, deniers made penitent, losers made winners, sinners made saints, the corrupt made holy, the dead made live, awake, attuned, engaged, embraced, beloved, lovers.