Its beginning to look and feel a lot like Christmas. And yet, for some reason, the tradition of the church is to spend the first Sunday of Advent holding in tension the memory of Christ’s birth and the expected second coming of Christ when God’s work will be complete in the world. It’s a strange way to start, but perhaps a healthy dose of both will help all of us to experience the profound story of God’s love.
My hope, is that through my clumsy perspective, Christ will tap on our shoulders and show each one of us at least part of what he meant in the apocalyptic words that Matthew recorded.
Rev. Sarah Varnell
To be honest, passages like I just read in Matthew make me nervous as a preacher. And most commentaries dismiss it as “apocalyptic,” with little explanation for fear of slipping into prediction mode. Help a preacher out!
I’ve been unpacking reasons why that may be the case for days...as far as I see it there are some positives about it and some negatives, let’s start with the positives:
(1) in talking about the second coming of Christ, we offer a proclamation of the hope we have that God is not finished with us.
(2) its a reminder that we need to be in a posture of living each day as though it is our last.
(3) the second coming is a sound teaching of the Church, we say in the mystery of faith, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
The negative aspects for me are,
(1) many preachers and theologians have used this text to scare people into believing for fear of judgment and hell
(2) truth is, though I believe in the second coming, most of what I know is that it is a mystery…no predictions here, and
(3) at first glance, it just doesn’t seem so “Christmas-y.”
Several years ago now, when I was a young sixth grader in my youth group, we went on a trip to a neighboring church for an event called “judgment house.” Being a child that from an early age majored in Sunday School answers, I was curious about judgment house. Some of the older members in our youth group attended the year before, and they were anticipating the outpouring of emotion as they refocused their lives on God. When we arrived they ushered us into a mock-living room. In the living room a parent and a teenager were eating dinner together, mostly fighting. The teen was obviously very rebellious and stormed out of the room against her father’s will. We walked into the second room where the same teen was participating in underage drinking with her friends and succumbing to all kinds of peer pressure, and then she got into a car to go home. The next room, the car was clearly in an accident, and then the next room was the judgment room. The young girl, recently deceased found herself in front of the throne of God, the person that played Jesus said to her, “I’m sorry, but I do not know you,” and with that men dressed in all black with their faces covered came from the shadows and drug her away as she screamed, begging for God’s mercy. As you can imagine, I was a bewildered 6th grader and I was in tears, literally sobbing. Then we moved into the final room-- the decision room--and one woman approached me as she figured my sobs meant that I was “ripe for saving,” and she said, “Would you like to be saved?” I couldn’t get past the scary men dressed in black that drug that girl away, and my head was filled with her screams, so I exclaimed “me??? What about her?? She’s the one that needs to be saved from those bad men!” And the woman instructed me that that was the point of the play, that if we are like that girl God will turn us away. All I could think was, “but I thought God loves everyone, everyone, even her!”
As Andy reminded us last week about Thanksgiving, if we don’t give voice and explanation to what we see God doing in the world, then others will do so on our behalf.
Our society already offers a dialogue for the second coming, articulated in the modern voice of the “end times.” The Left Behind series, and several movies including one of the most recent ones 2012. And, someone is always predicting the “day” convincing people they are the prophetic voice even though Jesus clearly states that NO one knows the day or the hour, not even Jesus himself knows, only God the creator knows the fullness of creation’s story. I can even recall a story about a church near my hometown several years back that the pastor convinced his membership that Jesus was returning, and to give all of their possessions to the church. After he got what he needed, he ran off, nowhere to be found, leaving many good-hearted people with nothing except a bunch of doubt in the hole where faith once was.
Even one of my most beloved modern music prophets, with a John the Baptist exterior and lyrics like honey, Bob Dylan sang in apocalyptic tone, “Ring them bells, ye heathen from the city that dreams, Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams, ‘cause they're deep and they're wide and the world's on its side and time is running backwards and so is the bride.” Just last week when we had that big storm I was listening to a local radio station, the DJs, with no religious context, and they commented on how apocalyptic the sky looked as a storm brewed above. Humans are curious, and culture leans toward provoking our fear, anxiety, and need for control.
Ever since my experience with the judgment house, I have been convinced that the way to the gospel is not fear, but that we are ushered into God’s fullness by God’s overwhelming love and convincing grace. In our United Methodist heritage, we affirm the Second Coming of Christ, and God’s saving work in each of our lives through prevenient grace that knocks on the doors of our hearts and our part in receiving the grace through sanctification and justification as we repent of the sin in our lives.
For many of us, this happens most everyday... somewhere along the way we are convinced that we live by the grace of God.
In the passage from Matthew, the people are doing ordinary… everyday things, and we’re told that Christ comes like a thief in the night. So often, death and illness come that way, taking us from health and life…or an accident that changes everything. Most of us know what it is like for life to suddenly change in the blink of an eye.
So, the obvious question is, should we fear Christ the same way we fear a thief breaking in to our warm home?
Let’s consider that the first time Christ came into the world it interrupted creation, and though the ripples extended into all of human history, initially it only changed the life of a young mother and her husband, a motely crew of shepherds, and some wisemen from the east. The only one who worried was a king, who feared that a tiny baby would threaten his kingdom, and he was right… that baby had more power in his little finger than that king even knew was possible.
In this season of Advent, we still come expecting to hear a word from God. We come, like young parents expecting a second or third child, wondering if the spark felt at birth will be the same as it was the first time we heard that God was coming as a baby.
During college, I had the privilege of working at a camp in the summertime, and also for a weekend during Christmas break for the traditional “Christmas Camp.” Christmas Camp is exactly what you would expect it to be- we made all sorts of festive crafts, sang every carol we could play in the key of C on the guitar, told the story of Jesus around a campfire, and lit candles under the stars as we sang Silent Night. The preacher for the weekend spoke mostly about looking for God in unexpected places, that the season of advent is a promise that God is always doing a new thing- no one expected that the Messiah would come as a helpless baby, but that’s exactly what God did. She encouraged the kids, and the counselors for that matter to be on alert for God. One of the kids in my group, Levi, happened to be autistic and had a very big personality and he took this quest for Jesus very seriously. At breakfast one morning, as we sat in the lodge with the mountain fog around us outside the windows, Levi looked up at me with wide eyes and said, “Jeeesus is here.” I laughed to myself, but smiled as I encouraged him to stay on the look out as we watched the sun poke out and melt the fog around us. Later that day as we hiked through the cool forest, we heard the leaves crinkle behind us and he tugged at my arm asking, “Jeeeesus is behind us!” We peered into the brush to find a deer, standing perfectly still. Since we were at camp, it seemed logical that he would find God in the beauty of nature, so we celebrated the deer and went on our way. Later that night as we gathered around the campfire, with the stars shining beautifully above us, and as each of us held our candle to match the starlit sky, Levi’s eyes were as wide as could be, and with the tenderness of a new mother he said, “Jesus is here.”
In every moment of my life, the happy, the sad, and the indifferent, I try to have the hope and the faith of Levi that “Jesus is here,” and the Jesus foretold in scripture is, so good that he does not need our weapons or our wanting… and that when we are judged, we will be judged through the nail-scared hands of Jesus… love that compels, convicts, and has the power to change us…love that bids us come, as advent would suggest, expecting…
My favorite scene from C. S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is when the children learn that Aslan is a lion, which raises concern. The older sister, Susan states that she will be nervous meeting a lion, and Mrs. Beaver responds, "That you will, dear, and no mistake, if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly." The younger sister Lucy, looking very worried asked, "Then he isn't safe?" And Mr. Beaver replied, "Safe? Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
In the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The invitation this advent season is to simply be on the lookout-- to expect that God will do something new-- to clean out all the clutter of consumerism and sugar plum fairies long enough to expect that God will reveal fullness of grace and love in your heart, if there’s room.