Monday, December 04, 2006

Promises, Promises

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Even though we’re only a few hours into the Advent season, you can already tell it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Lights and wreaths are appearing around town. Plastered on the storefronts downtown are advertisements for different choir as well as announcements about different worship services including our own Taize service. Many of our own homes are filled with advent wreathes made out of fresh greenery, pine cones and holly – or some made of the less shedding plastic; we also have advent calendars that offer chocolate or toys to mark the countdown; there are even Jesse trees or Nativity scenes that will be added to as we get closer and closer to Christmas Day. Our own church was decorated just yesterday for the season – and this morning our wreath is in place and our first candle lit.

Evidence of the Advent season is everywhere. Yet amid all the sparkle and the greenery, there’s something I haven’t seen. Nowhere around town, in my own home, or even in this church, have I seen images of Jesus descending in clouds, a group of saints – any of the various imagery that is associated with the Second Coming.

When we celebrate Advent, we’re celebrating yes, the birth of Christ, as well as Christ’s presence amid us now, but we are also celebrating and looking forward to the Second Coming – when the baby who was born in a manger comes again in full glory and power.

The Second Coming – even though we proclaim belief in it every time we say the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed - is not something we talk about. At least not in great detail. Even though it’s certainly present in our sacred texts, it’s just not part of our daily faith life, not part of the active living of our faith. Last Monday I was at the Christmas parade downtown, and after the umpteen Corvettes and Mustangs that went past, a float went by with a manager scene, a Christmas tree, and a guy in white surrounded by two females in white with horns. It wasn’t until I saw the signs “past, present, future” that I got it. Or right. Rather embarrassing lack of awareness from a minister. The Second Coming is not something that’s part of my consciousness nor is it in the forefront of the minds of most people I know.

The early church was completely different. The Second Coming was a huge part of early Christians’ conversations – was part of their daily faith life. The first generations of Christians believed that Christ would be coming back in their lifetime. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that he wishes God would strengthen their hearts in holiness that they may be blameless before God at the coming of Christ not because it’s just something you say. It’s not as though he’s saying “hope you have fun ‘til Christ comes back.” Paul means and believes what he’s says. He believes that Christ is coming back – and soon.

The belief in Christ’s coming was one that was talked about and celebrated and looked forward to for centuries after Paul. Advent stems from the Latin word adventus meaning coming and when Advent was first officially established around the 6th century, the season was understood as one for preparing for the final coming of Christ even as the church celebrated the first coming. One of our favorite hymns we sang this morning –O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – comes from the traditional antiphons written during the 8th century which, using different names for Christ, call to Christ to come again.

The second coming stayed at the forefront of the Advent season truly until the time of World War II when Christmas became more of focused as a kid’s holiday. The focus of the season leading up to Christmas shifted from looking toward to the second coming to looking back at the first.[1]

Generations, not to mention religious and social changes, remove us from the community that first believed Christ would be coming any day now. We talk about grace, love, Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. But his coming again? I’d guess that for many of us, the only time we really talk about his coming again is when we here people proclaiming Christ is coming at 5:15AM next Tuesday or that he’s already here. When people like Jerry Falwell proclaim Christ is coming within 10 years – a proclamation made he made in 1999 by the way so keep your eyes peeled for the next few years – the second Advent may become part of our conversation. It shouldn’t take such proclamations for the Second Coming to grab our attention but it often does.

Confession: prior to my recent conversations about Advent, the last time I remember even thinking about the Second Coming was when I learned that Rastafarians believed that Haile Selassie – the Emperor of Ethiopia for which a great souvenir shop we went to in Addis Ababa was named after – was the Messiah. He never claimed to be such but it is said that Bob Marley’s wife Rita become a Rastafarian only after she met the Emperor when he took a trip to Jamaica. Although he died three decades ago, many Rastafarians refuse to believe in his death – the Messiah can’t die again, you see.

You don’t have to be a Rastafarian to have experienced the disappointment of mistaken identity or timing. I think we don’t really talk about the Second Coming in part because of false alerts throughout our history. The first Christians believed the Christ was coming back during their lifetime – understood that he had made that promise to them. When Jesus did not come back, the family of believers came to believe that they misunderstood Christ’s promise – that he would come back, yes, but not as soon as first thought. So they waited and waited and… well, it was worse than Waiting for Godot or Guffman.

Every now and again, someone would claim that Christ would come back in that lifetime or even to be Christ returned himself. But it never was true. Generations of waiting, centuries of people believing that Christ would return in their lifetime only to be disappointed, has translated into a current generation where we aren’t expecting Christ any time soon, where if we do think about the Second Coming we probably think it’s far off in the future. Nothing we have to address here and now.

Our laissez-faire attitude about Christ’s return isn’t the only reason we don’t talk about the Second Coming all that much. We don’t talk about it not only because we can’t predict when, but we really don’t understand how or what or any of those basic journalistic questions. Christ’s first coming – the one we readily and easily celebrate year to year – we understand that. True, Jesus’ birth was a little different than most, but the basic idea of a baby being born – we GET that.

But God descending in the clouds, with angels and saints… that gets more confusing – we don’t have a point of reference for such an event. Just after Paul speaks with great affection to the Thessalonians, telling them to stay strong for the coming, he speaks to them in more detail of that coming. He writes of an archangel’s trumpet blaring, and Christ descending, and the dead rising. No, Paul isn’t writing the first Christian zombie story,[2] at least I don’t imagine he is. Paul’s words, which echo Christ’s speaking of the Son of Man coming, draw upon language and imagery of his time – from the Roman imperial cult and Jewish apocalyptic expectations.

We could read the descriptions of Christ’s coming and think we know how all will happen. But even if we can envision what Paul describes, we must remember that Paul also says the Lord will come like a “thief in the night” and Christ tells us no one will know the hour of his coming. Though we may read about the promise of the Second Coming, we have no guarantee that we “get it.” Throughout the history of God’s relationship with humanity, God has made promises we do not understand until those promises are fulfilled before our eyes – and even then we may still scratch our heads in wonder.

The words of Jeremiah we read this morning, the prophet bearing the word of God to a people in the midst of the fall of their nation, are words of hope in a time filled with despair. As the Israelites are being exiled from their own country, Jeremiah proclaims the promises of God, promises of a Branch to spring up for David – the most beloved of Kings – promises of safety. The people heard these promises and understood them to be about an earthly king like David, a king who would bring back the great nation they once where, make Jerusalem strong again, with power and might make them safe again.

We look at these promises of a Branch and see something else. We include this text in our Advent celebration because for us, it points to the king of kings, Jesus Christ. The Israelites never got their great king like David, never got an earthly nation like the one they knew under him. Instead, another kind of king came bringing with him heavenly justice and righteousness. When he did come, many of the people who had been waiting didn’t recognize him – he wasn’t what they had been waiting for.

God’s promises are true but as they are from God, we may never fully understand those promises until them have been fulfilled AND God points that fulfillment out to us over and over. God’s promises will be fulfilled – in those days and in that time – in God’s days and God’s time and in God’s ways, ways which are unknown to us.

The unknown of God can be intimidating and has been one reason we don’t talk about or focus on the final coming of Christ. We could continue to let the unknown about Christ’s second coming keep us from looking forward to that coming, preparing for that coming, talking about that coming. Or we could do as Paul suggests. We can abound in love for one another and for all, find ourselves strengthened in holiness. We can trust in Christ’s coming, await it, join together in the community of faith so that we may be blameless when Christ comes again – whenever that might be.

There are many ways we may live out Paul’s words. One of those ways is before us today. If you grew up Episcopalian, Catholic or Methodist (I happened to grow up two of those three) you probably heard the Mystery of Faith spoken during communion liturgy: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Even though we may not usually say it as part of our liturgy, at this table we do celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection AND look forward to his coming again. At this table we believe we are gathered in the presence of Christ, and the Saints – those believers in all time and place – and strengthened in our faith. At this table we experience the Advent of Christ here and now even as we await the final coming of our Lord.

As you celebrate this Advent season, do not forget the final Advent for which we wait. And when you come to this table, when you partake in this meal, this day and all days to follow, remember Christ’s promise to return, be renewed in your waiting by the power of the Spirit. At this table, may God strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may indeed be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

[1] Ace Collins. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. p22.
[2] Interesting note, there actual is a Christmas tide zombie story by Christopher Moore. Haven’t read it but it’s got an catchy title: The Stupidest Angel – A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

Theologically speaking, I think the Jehovah's Witnesses are nuts. That being said, they do some things extremely well. They raise up lay leadership well, they build real communities of faith, and boy do they evangelize.

They also believe, at least the older ones do, that the 2nd coming is quite literally at hand. It is interesting to watch people live their lives who really do believe that this could be the last days before the second coming.

Do they live differently? Sometimes. Would I live differently? Maybe, sometimes.

It is, however, an interesting thing to remember as you watch them move about town in pairs, tracts in hand.

Norman, OK