Saturday, December 08, 2007

the first advent question: how will it end?

There is a natural fascination with how something will end. For a long time now people have used calendars and calculators to predict the end time; if we can predict something, we can control it. The atheistic scientists and the religious millenialists are close cousins here---the end is precise, Tuesday, at 4:00 p.m., or whatever. It could be jihad or global warming, survivalists in the mountains or pessimists about anything in general, it is on the minds of many. How will it end? Of course, it could also be and often is personal: we sit and wait in a hospital room, surrounded by technology, watching the numbers, listening the sounds, the labored breathing of a loved one, or the chirping sound of a machine. How will it end?

The disciples wondered about this, we overhear their conversations with Jesus, recorded in various places throughout the gospels and even in the beginning of the Book of Acts. The earliest Christians must have been preoccupied with all of this, because the end had not come, Jesus had not returned, some were beginning to die natural deaths, and there was a crisis of confidence. They wanted certainty. Inquiring minds wanted to know. How will it end?

On this the scripture is clear—no one knows. The angels do not know, Jesus does not know, and it follows, we don’t know.

In my younger days, there was a book called “The Late, Great Planet Earth”. As I moved out of young adulthood, the “Left Behind” series emerged. Around 2000---remember Y2K---a whole spate of movies came along, all of them having to do with the end of time---the earth would freeze, or melt, or flood. Along the way two people would fall in love. But everything would still freeze, melt or flood.

These were attempts to feed the hunger for a world, even a Christian world, that wanted to know the answer to the first Advent question: how will it end? This has always been connected to the belief, among Christians, in the second coming of Christ.

This idea is 2000 years old, passed around from one generation of disciples to the next, and frankly the church has almost relegated the second coming of Christ to the sidelines, to the crazy person who holds a sign at the intersection of two busy roads, or the gospel quartet that sings in a monotone on a low frequency radio station. We are more like the people who have waited and waited and gone on to other hopes, lesser hopes, little advents, the coming, maybe not of the messiah, but of a lesser good:

the next president,
the next head coach,
the next economic forecast.
There is a problem here. We should not shrink away from the idea of the second coming just because the books and movies that exploited all of this seem, in hindsight, to have popularized something for material gain. There is something there. In the creed we say the words, “He shall come again to judge the living and the dead”. In the communion liturgy we profess the mystery of our faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.

Orthodox Christianity has never had a problem with the second coming of Christ. We take the second coming seriously because of the first coming. But having faith in the coming of Christ, which is what Advent is all about, the promised coming, is different from having certainty about when or how it will happen. I love the words of the ancient church: “faith seeking understanding”, or “I believe in order that I might understand”. To say it another way, there is humility before the mystery. On the question about how it will all end, we are agnostic. No one knows.

Well, humility and mystery are wonderful words, but they conflict with a part of our human nature: we want closure. We want the bad people to be punished. We want the good people to be vindicated. We usually put other people in the first category and ourselves in the second one----the prophets continually reminded us that this was a dangerous thing to do, and Jesus, teaching people earlier in the gospel who wanted this kind of closure, gave a parable (Matthew 13. 24ff.) about the weeds and the wheat. Don’t be so quick to pull up the weeds, he said, in so doing you may uproot the wheat. Let the harvest be on God’s timetable. We want closure. But the New Testament gives us none of it: no one knows. Not the angels, not even the Son.What does the New Testament give us? The affirmation, the promise, the warning, that he is coming again, and then a teaching of Jesus about, of all things, Noah and the Ark.

As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

The early Christians had grown tired of waiting. Those who had known Jesus had begun to die, and they needed to write down his words, his teachings. These became our gospels. They remembered a reflection by Jesus about Noah and the ark. Jesus’ point is not the immorality of that generation, but about their busyness in the midst of the one thing that was needed---they were carrying on with their activities, and all the while Noah is building the ark. The point: the ark is the church, and we are called to build an ark even when it is not raining. We wait even when there is little hope. We persevere even in the midst of discouragement. Advent helps us here. I love the words of the hymn:

O Come thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thy justice here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Then Jesus tells it from a different slant:

Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

This is a parable is about everyday life, how to live in the interim, how to go about our lives and responsibilities. We are to keep awake, pay attention; there are echoes here of words Jesus would share with his disciples at Gethsemane (Matthew 26. 30ff.). Keep awake, pay attention.

Then Jesus says something that is disturbing: He (Jesus) is like a thief who enters at an unexpected time.

When I was a kid, our family had the experience of our home being robbed. We were three hours away, I was playing in a baseball tournament, the game had been announced and reported in the newspaper. We returned, late in the night, to an empty home. Someone had pulled a transfer truck up to our front door, we lived on a cul-de-sac in a relatively new neighborhood. It was devastating. The end will be like that, Jesus says. Get ready.

What does it mean to get ready? To be doing the things that will establish God's kingdom: acts of compassion, justice and peace--sheltering the homeless, visiting those in prison, laying down our weapons, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, forgiving those who have harmed us. The clues are there for us, just into the next chapter, in another parable of Jesus, the great judgment of Matthew 25.

Get ready. Be prepared. The unexpected will happen, it will catch you by surprise. Why does God want it to be a surprise? Barbara Brown Taylor, of Piedmont College in the North Georgia mountains, a wonderful preacher, has an interesting take on all of this. It has to be a surprise, she says--otherwise, we would build up our defenses, we would fill our schedules, we would be conveniently away.

In Advent we confess that we would like to get our houses in order: what if a neighbor stopped by, unexpectedly? Or maybe we are thinking of our spiritual houses? What if Jesus is coming again? Or we would like to line up our rationalizations, like a student appealing to the professor: my computer crashed, my alarm clock didn’t work, the dog ate my paper. I wish I were more…prepared.

The first Advent question is one of urgency, clarity and accountability. We ask, “how will it end?” Jesus asks, “Are you ready?” The answer to the first question is no one knows. The answer to the second question is ours to work out.

We don't really know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. In the meantime, Jesus teaches us how to live as people of hope: to focus on the everyday signs of God's kingdom, to stay awake, to be ready. He will come like a thief, like a heart attack, like an explosion in the sky.

Get ready.


Sources: The United Methodist Hymnal; Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way; Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew.


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