Jesus is Coming!

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First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

As a kid, I grew up in churches that were fascinated by apocalyptic themes and speech, including predictions of Jesus’ return. Some of the most talked-about sermons were about what we called the “end-times.” Christ’s arrival was discussed as a moment of terror and confusion for many as he came as the final judge. Even in my youth group, this was the main topic of interest, especially for high school students who were looking to go deeper in learning about their faith. As a result, we spent many senior Bible study sessions talking about when Jesus will return, discussing what will precede that return, and watching movie versions of our premillennialist theology.

For a variety of reasons, I do not attend this church (or this kind of church) anymore. As a result, I hear less emphasis on Christ’s return. Those images of judgment have been replaced, and there is less fear in our church services. It can give the impression that my earlier church’s obsession with “end-times” was based on a silly misunderstanding. 

However, when we turn to the lectionary passages for this week, we find plenty of apocalyptic material, especially in the gospel lesson. Jesus tells his disciples about “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” and discusses nations that are “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25). People are fainting from fear. He says, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Luke 21:33); it is quite a scene that Jesus describes.

This week, we find ourselves, of course, at the beginning of the season of Advent, a season that begins each Christian year and places us on a path of preparation for Christmas and the coming of the Christ-child, the “righteous branch” that Jeremiah mentions (Jeremiah 33:15). We travel this path to Bethlehem every year, methodically lighting the candles on the Advent wreath until we arrive at Christmas Eve.

But there is more to this season. Advent is also our preparation for the return of Christ, an event that is yet to come. This is where we come back to apocalypse, but not exactly in the same way as the church of my younger days. According to Barry Harvey, we can get confused because our English word end is ambiguous, meaning either the termination of something or the goal of a particular act. Sometimes – as with apocalypses – it can actually mean both. As a result, “In apocalyptic thought there is an intrinsic relationship between purpose and finality, between speaking of the aim of life and its limits, between the course that creation is taking in history and the consummation that awaits it.”1

Christ’s return in the end-times is also the end that shapes all of the story, including our present. Our sense of time changes as the future forms the present. In our usual encounter with time, we ask questions like: Do I have enough time to do a set number of tasks? Where is my next appointment? How long until we do something else? When we experience time in this fashion, waiting can be boring and unproductive. 

Advent’s sense of time is far more dynamic and even chaotic. Not only is the future impacting the present, but time folds in on itself in such a way that things can change in an instant. Jeremiah’s phrase “In those days” might actually be right around the corner. Even when we are waiting, then, we are not simply counting seconds and minutes on a countdown; there is an active expectancy that demands vigilance.

It also prompts us to hope – a focal emphasis during this week of Advent. As the Luke passage displays, when all of the confusion and chaos unfolds, Jesus appears “with power and great glory,” the people of God “stand up and raise [their] heads because [their] redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Jesus’ arrival – both in Bethlehem and at the end – upends the existing order for “all who live on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:35).

Our senses and experience of the world are reshaped in this sort of apocalyptic language. In short, we see the world through a different set of lenses and see more as a result. Jesus talks about being alert and being observant, paying attention to what the Second Vatican Council called “the signs of the times” or what Karl Barth named as “secular parables of the Kingdom.”2 

Our yearly journey through Advent is designed to school us in precisely this sort of apocalyptic thinking. Only by learning to see the world in this way can we wait on the Lord.

1 Barry Harvey, Baptists and the Catholic Tradition, 8.

2 Gaudium et Spes, 4; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3, 113-17.

Taking Sides

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 124

Mark 9:38-50

One of the frustrations of our present moment is the constant attempt to draw lines in the sand, to make almost every hill one on which to die. One group or person will agree with another on most things (and likely all essential matters), but the remaining disagreements – no matter how minor – become a bridge too far. We see it both inside and outside the church. Every difference becomes a potential point of division. 

The results are all too familiar. Constant anger at someone else and their tribe. Frustration at the ongoing tension, which is often exacerbated by the trivial nature of the disagreement. Isolation as we slowly cut ourselves off from others. And exhaustion as the mental and emotional weight of such tension takes its toll.

Sometimes the history of the church can occasionally offer some solace. Perhaps we can find some context to our present perception of the world. Perhaps we realize that it is not as bad as it was in the past. Of course, it is also possible that we discover things have been like this for a long time, which can actually add more frustration.

Recently, I was struck by the similarities between oft-used contemporary rhetoric and that of Charles Spurgeon within the so-called Downgrade Controversy of the late nineteenth century. Among other things, Spurgeon was concerned about the embrace of new methods of biblical interpretation that he saw as threats to the Bible’s authority. He also railed against violations of expected moral guidelines such as ministers going to the theatre.

While there were some serious theological concerns that needed to be addressed, Spurgeon did not seek to address them through conversation. Instead, he offered divisive rhetoric, declaring that a “new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” 

This view further contributed to division, as Spurgeon argued that “Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth?” It is quite easy to hear echoes of these sentiments in some contemporary tribes of Christians. Even if his opponents approached him with openness to conversation, Spurgeon expressed his skepticism of their sincerity: “Let every believer judge for himself; but, for our part, we have put on a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up.”

The result of this controversy was a split between Spurgeon’s church and its denomination, and his censure by that denomination. While there is quite a bit to lament in this story, in recent years (and quite recently), Spurgeon’s actions have actually been hailed as heroic and as an example to emulate.

The appointed Psalm reading for this week echoes this perspective as well. In it the psalmist gives thanks for God’s actions on behalf of Israel. The repeated phrase, “if it had not been the Lord who had been on our side” (Psalm 124:1-2), speaks with certainty that God was (and is) on their side. For the psalmist, this is about the futility of Israel to save itself from the grasp of its enemies or from the overwhelming flood. Gratitude becomes the result here. However, from another vantage point, we can easily project the psalmist’s certainty forward, concluding that since God is on our side, who can stand against us?

The gospel lesson enters the conversation at this point. As Jesus is traveling with his disciples, John states that he and several of his companions saw a person invoking Jesus’ name in order to perform a miracle to help someone. In response, they worked to stop that person “because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). This exchange is placed immediately after last week’s gospel lesson, where Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

We are not told what motivates John to speak up in this moment and tell Jesus this story. Perhaps he is concerned that this new miracle worker is usurping the disciples’ self-described importance. Maybe he thinks he is protecting Jesus from outsiders. Perhaps he simply picks up on “in my name” in Jesus’ previous instruction and proceeds to talk about another instance where his name was used. Of course, Mark’s gospel is filled with examples of the disciples simply failing to understand what Jesus is talking about. That is especially true in this particular section of Mark.

Jesus’ response is simple yet profoundly helpful: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He notes that anyone who can support Jesus to the extent of performing a miracle cannot truly betray him elsewhere. 

As we saw in last week’s lesson, Jesus uses a single word to open doors to the marginalized: whoever. There is an inclusivity here that holds off on painting lines of division. Whoever. This word seeks to find friends and allies in unexpected places. Whoever. Rather than taking sides against our neighbors, we are urged to take sides with God and find fellowship and common ground with whoever we find there.

Contemplating these passages in light of our present experiences (and even reflecting on older events such as the Downgrade Controversy), we see Jesus unsettling our certainty about God being on our side. More importantly, we see Jesus blurring any lines we may prefer to draw or divisions we might like to solidify. This undermines the entire project of excessively drawing lines in the first place.

This does not mean that there will not be serious doctrinal differences that might be problematic, but Jesus cautions against seeing every difference as a fault line and point of division. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is crucial for taking Jesus’ closing admonition in this week’s lesson seriously: “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

Image Credit: Chris Goldberg

The Time Has Come

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 119:9-16

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12:20-33

We live in a world that is consumed with time. In our personal lives, this takes the shape of making sure that we have arrived at a particular place at a particular point in time: When does my class begin? When does work shift start? When do I need to pick my kids up from school? When does this appointment, event, or Zoom meeting begin? This is seen in larger systems as well. Trains and buses in large cities arrive and leave at specific times, and we are reminded about this constantly at the platform or the bus stop. In financial transactions, profits are often earned through the precise timing of buying and selling commodities, with any minor variation effectively ruining such gains. In many parts of the world this past week, we were confronted by time by adding one hour to our clocks. We are also attentive to times that are not marked by a moment on the clock, such as charts indicating when we might be eligible to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine. Through all of this, we discover that our lives are dominated by timetables, schedules, and appointments, some of which are posted on office doors or recorded in daily planners, and some of which are simply inscribed in our daily habits. And while some of these time-consciousness matters have been upended, in many cases, they have simply been replaced by others (trading in-person meetings for virtual appointments).

Because of this formation, we may find ourselves somewhat perplexed by Jesus’ declaration in the gospel lesson: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23, NRSV). We might link this statement to our own preoccupations with time, as though a preplanned alarm has just sounded, alerting Jesus to this temporal marker. Like the schedule of our days, Jesus has arrived at his next appointment, right?  Read more

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Second Sunday of Advent

 

 

Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

The musical Godspell begins with John the Baptist’s character singing the opening song, which only has one line: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The song begins slowly, broadly calling an assortment of characters to the song’s source. Once they arrive, John baptizes them. After an introductory sentence, this is how the gospel of Mark begins as well. The impression from both the biblical text and the musical is clear: John the Baptist is the one who prepares the way of the Lord. The focus on this forerunner is typical for the second Sunday of Advent. However, this should not make us too casual, as though we are very familiar with John; because he points to the way of the Lord, there will always be more to see. Read more

The Vocation of the Vineyard

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm 80:7-15

Philippians 3:4b-14

Matthew 21:33-46

Crying to God for justice in a world of violence.

Recognizing inherited privilege.

Hoping for a future of reconciliation.

We are witnesses of the outcries against racially-charged violence and the reactions of white supremacy to those laments. We hear the longsuffering pleas of “How long?” in the midst of an ongoing pandemic (one that seems destined to get much worse before it gets better), and we sense the faint hope and longing for a future of reconciliation beyond these struggles. We know and experience what these opening lines describe. They are preoccupations that are very familiar to us, yet this description is not drawn from our current crises but from our appointed lectionary texts for this week, speaking to us in powerfully new and relevant ways. Read more