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.

Reckoning

Christ before Pilate, 1910 - Jacek Malczewski - WikiArt.org
Christ Before Pilate, Jacek Malczewski, 1910

Christ the King Sunday (Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

Daniel 7:9-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4-8

John 18:33-37

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more… 

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

It’s easy, given the chaos of the past few years, to wonder from time to time just who the hell is in charge around here. In a world where “truth” about everything from pandemics to politics is cobbled together like a mobile meth lab and sold cheap to the bored, angry, and gullible, it’s no longer a surprise when suburban parents scream threats of violence at school board members over whether their kids should have to wear a mask or be vaccinated, or when a white male member of Congress posts a cartoon image of himself killing one of his colleagues from across the aisle – a woman of color, no less – and then tells us we just need to relax. We live at the unlikely convergence of ostensibly opposite extremes, where those who aspire to amoral autocracy meet – and embrace – an increasingly gullible throng of ersatz would-be anarchists who reject all authority except the authority that makes possible their rejection of all other authority. 

We should be thankful, then, that on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, when we celebrate the now-and-coming reign of Christ the King, we’ve been given a collection of readings that help us separate the wheat of God’s peaceable reign from the chaff of every pretender to the throne. Each reading gives an account of the reign of God standing in judgment and demanding a reckoning of those kingdoms, powers, rulers, and authorities who would attempt to usurp or oppose God’s reign of shalōm.

Although the first reading, from Daniel, offers the most vivid account of this reckoning, it and the other texts are animated by the gospel text, from John 18. The Temple authorities have arrested Jesus and brought him to the father-in law of the high priest, Annas, and then to the high priest Caiaphas, both of whom have interrogated him before handing him over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The conversation begins with Pilate’s question, which sums up the Temple authorities’ charges: “Are you the King of the Jews?” To which Jesus eventually responds that his kingdom “is not from this world” (ouk estin ek tou kosmou). 

The word translated “world” here (kosmou/kosmos) refers not to this world in the geospatial sense – the earth – but to an organized way of thinking, speaking, and acting – a “system” characterized by self-interestedness and coercive violence (e.g., see Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus’s claim that his kingdom “is not from this world” says not so much that he reigns over another, transcendent dimension, but over this one, according to a logic born of God, one so different from the kingdoms of this world that those accustomed to those kingdoms don’t understand or even recognize Jesus’s reign as a kingdom. And yet Jesus insists that despite its strangeness to this world, his reign bears and declares the truth about creation and its Creator’s intentions for it. This, he is saying, is how things really are; we are made for love, generosity, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and not for the selfishness, suspicion, exploitation, and violence that characterize the kingdoms of this world.

That God demands a reckoning of the powers and authorities does not necessarily mean that we are called to be the agents of that reckoning, especially not by way of violence. The readings from Daniel and (less explicitly) Revelation remind us that this is God’s work, not ours. The Daniel text (7:9-14) concerns Daniel’s vision, which is described in the previous paragraph (vv. 1-8), where Daniel dreams of “four beasts… different from each other” emerging from the sea, which in Jewish apocalypticism represents the element of Creation that most stubbornly resists God’s reign. If we read further along in the chapter, we learn that the beasts represent four kingdoms which have risen and fallen in succession, each ruling, more or less oppressively, over the Jewish people.

Scholars of the text tell us that although the book of Daniel is set during the Babylonian exile, it was most likely written more than 300 years later, during the Maccabean rebellion against the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. By these scholars’ logic, the four kingdoms represented by the beats are the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek empires, respectively. The focus of Daniel’s vision is the fourth beast, which is terrifying and destructive and “different from all the rest.” Daniel attends particularly to this beast’s ten horns, which probably represent the Seleucid kings who serially succeeded Alexander the Great, and then to another, smaller horn, one with “human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogantly.” This horn likely represents Antiochus IV, the megalomaniacal Seleucid ruler whose aggressive application of the doctrine of Hellenization and repeated blasphemous attacks on Judaism and its Temple sparked the Maccabean revolt. 

What happens next, in the verses designated for lectionary reading (vv. 9-14), is for our purposes especially noteworthy.  As Daniel watches, he sees the thrones of the heavenly court being set in place, with a vividly described “Ancient One” taking his throne. Then he sees the assembled court sitting in judgment, its books opened. The continued arrogant yammering of the small horn evidently draws the attention of the court, which executes its judgment; the fourth beast is put to death, and its reign quickly replaced by a new presence in the court room, one Daniel describes as “like a human being” (often translated as “son of man”). The Ancient One gives him “dominion and glory and kingship/that all peoples, nations, and languages/ should serve him/His dominion is an everlasting dominion/that shall not pass away/and his kingship is one/that shall never be destroyed.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters have historically read this “one like a human being” as representing the Jewish community, while Christians identified him from the beginning as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.

I’ve left one interesting detail unattended. The great temptation facing Christians, who are members of God’s reign in a world ruled by violent domination, is (and always has been) to seek to secure the peaceable reign of God by means that have no place in that reign. We have often succumbed to that temptation, and just as often been transformed by our capitulation, such that the kingdom we imagine we are defending bears little resemblance to the one proclaimed and embodied by Jesus. One reason for this is that we have harnessed ourselves to this or that worldly kingdom, sometimes even confusing those kingdoms with the reign of God. In doing so we overlook something important that our reading from Daniel gestures toward. 

In the same part of the passage that describes the destruction of the fourth beast, Daniel also mentions the other three beasts. He says that “their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (v. 12). Those beasts have continued to rule on earth in various guises as the several iterations of the kingdoms of this world. Some have been horrific, others less so. Still others have been comically inept. A very few have been relatively just, and even, in a limited way, forces for good. It is these that Christians should regard most warily, even or perhaps especially when they adopt our most officious language and pieties. For when they do this, we are most apt to forget that they are still beasts, destined to rule “for a season and a time” and then to pass away. They may offer their friendship, but always for a price, usually one that requires us to look away from or even to take up their manners and methods. When we do this, whatever “victories” come our way will be Pyrrhic, and the God and kingdom to whom we bear witness will be pale simulacra of the reign of the Ancient One of whom Daniel speaks. 

We must remain patient, then, loving our neighbors, living peaceably with one another, and speaking truth to power, knowing that the vision of John the Revelator from the week’s third reading is, when all is said and done, true:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
    every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
    and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

When this reckoning takes place is none of our business. Our business is to embody, however partially and imperfectly, God’s reign of shalōm.  How we do this is something we have to figure out on the fly. Perhaps we might find inspiration from these words, from Wendell Berry poem excerpted as the epigraph above:

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it… Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts… As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.

Life Between Lament and Praise

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Psalm 16 or 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25

Mark 13:1-8


“Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” The story of Hannah begins as she is living with the raw reality that the Lord has “closed her womb.” And year after year she continues to go up to the house of the Lord to pray, fast, and weep before her God. And every time she goes, “Her rival would provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.”Hannah is distressed, weeping, full of anxiety and vexation. This would be enough for most of us to be driven away from the Lord. Why continue to long for something that only seems to perpetuate despair? Why persevere in a context or ridicule and harassment? Why persist in petitioning a God who seems to be stingy with the blessing of new life?And yet, there is a boldness within Hannah, a holy presumption that she would approach the God of the universe and presume to be heard. I thank God for Hannah’s courage because she helps us navigate times in our lives when we walk between lament and praise. Hannah’s song of praise that we hear in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 was conceived in a life of lament. This barren space of life between lament and praise is powerfully portrayed in a sequence of scenes from one of my favorite movies, Tree of Life. It captures the haunting juxtaposition of the particularity of our painful prayers going up before an infinite God. The movie begins with a quote from Job 38:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for Joy


The film then continues with two parents receiving the news that one of their sons has died. You watch them as they navigate through various areas of their lives while carrying the weight of this reality — the weight and sadness of their loss is palpable.  The movie then shifts perspectives from this particular family, in this particular moment in their life. The screen goes completely dark, and the mother’s voice echoes in the darkness,
Lord, why?  Where were you? Did you know?  Who are we to you?  Answer me?


It is as if these whispered words drift into the vastness of the universe. The movie then shifts to portray a cinematic representation of the world being created, stars being born, solar systems coming into existence. However, as these scenes of the birth of the cosmos are being portrayed, a rendition of the Lacrimosa begins to be sung over and over.  “Lacrimosa” is the latin word for “weeping,” or “full of tears.” It is also an allusion to Mary the mother of Jesus as the “Our Lady of Sorrows.”This song grows louder and louder, as images of the cosmos being created play out before the viewer. I am so moved by these scenes because it captures how small and particular our sufferings are in comparison to the vastness of God and the universe. And yet, the prayer goes up, the Lacrimosa is sung. It is a lament of humanity being sung out into a seemingly cold and relentless reality. That is what our prayers look like: The weight of our deepest pain, anxiety, and vexation being uttered in an overwhelmingly immense cosmos.  This is the weight of Hannah’s prayer. And there are a number of ways in which Hannah can inspire and empower us. First, the same conditions that could drive us away from God, can also be very conditions that helps us to pray to God in new in powerful ways.

The people who have doxologies like Hannah’s are also the people who have the courage to persevere in prayer out of their own contexts of weeping, anxiety, and vexation. How can we use our angst, depression, and even rage as a catalyst for our prayer to God?  We should do so with boldness, because these are precisely the prayers that God seems to answers from the saints who have gone before us.  Second, instead of viewing a context of barrenness, isolation, or betrayal as a context of God’s absence, perhaps it precisely this context in which we see God is longing to enter, if we would just invite Him. This is one of the realities we celebrate when we come to the table of our Lord. While our prayers might seem to be met with a cold absence of God, we are reminded that Christ is with us, uttering our prayers before the Father — and the Father listens to his beloved. 

The last thing I want to highlight is that one of the things at work in bringing Hannah’s prayer of anguish to a doxology of praise is also a movement from harboring her own private reality to bringing it to a more public posture of prayer. While Hannah did not broadcast to the world her deepest anguish, she did allow Eli into her prayer of anguish.  As the Christian year draws to a close our lectionary texts do not allude to bringing things to an end, but rather a new beginning. The texts hold within them a sense of anticipation. But in both our Gospel text and in the story of Hannah, it is a hopeful anticipation that is laced with distress and vexation.  In our Gospel text, Jesus points to the temple and comments that some of the things that the disciples think are permanent will actually come to an end.  And things that they do not yet see will hold a much weightier reality. He talks about wars, rumors of wars, the clashing of nations, earthquakes, famines. And he says these things are “but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  Not even the birth pangs, just the beginning of birth pangs.  So here, at the close of the liturgical year, we anticipate a new beginning. If Advent is a season of anticipation, then we are anticipating a season of anticipation. What are we to do in between these times? Between the smallness of our particularities and the vastness of God, between the pain of a broken world and the joy of the coming kingdom, we, like Hannah, live a life between lament and praise.