You might have noticed that May 21 came and went without anything too unusual happening. Likewise October 22 dawned in similar fashion to October 21. These two days were predicted by Harold Camping to be the end of the world (it is not clear to me what he actually predicted for these two days, but you get the drift). Camping is not the first to make such predictions, nor will he be the last. And as the year 2012 approaches (the end of the Mayan calendar), there will be yet more conversation about the world coming to an end.
Photo credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., via Flickr
I will not rehearse the history of Christians predicting the end of the world. I will not engage in a critique of the Left Behind series. An explanation of pre-, a-, and postmillennialism will have to wait for another time. What I do want to point out is that for a certain kind of Christian (of which I include myself), talk of “rapture” and even the phrase “Second Coming” provokes a kind of embarrassment. I assume that people hear that kind of talk and assume unkind things about the speaker, especially questioning their intelligence. As one who REALLY wants to be thought of as intelligent, I do not enter into those discussions. “I’m not like those folk who believe Jesus is returning next week.”
You might then imagine how I felt when I discovered that the season of Advent was a time to consider Jesus’ return!
Advent: Anticipating Jesus’ Return
Consider this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of
this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“He shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.” I knew that the great creeds of the Church proclaim Jesus’ return. But it has been the observance of Advent over the years that has made me face up to the hope offered to us by the promise of Jesus’ “return in glorious majesty.”
Consider that the first Christians hoped for Jesus’ return. Modern Biblical scholarship has made much of this. “They hoped for it, but it didn’t happen, so those first Christians must have been mistaken.” Those Christians don’t appear to have been bothered by this discrepancy as much as modern scholars are! 2 Peter 3 has an answer to the scoffers (I make no necessary connection between “scoffers” and “scholars”, but if the shoe fits…) who asked, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” Peter says to remember God’s mercy, “Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” If those first Christians thought it important to hold on to, then so should I.
What I most objected to in most “rapture” talk I heard was a denial of Creation. Christians would be plucked out to be with Jesus, and then eventually the Earth would be destroyed. But I was throwing the baby out with the bath water! Jesus is returning, but the fate of the Earth is very different from the standard “end of the world” scenario. As the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright likes to say, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” Back to that 2 Peter passage — yes the world is destroyed by fire, but then what? “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” ( 2 Pet 3:13, emphasis added).
Jesus’ return signals not the end of the world, but a “new heaven and a new Earth”! Rather than being world denying, “Second Coming talk” is deeply world affirming!
I leave for the reader this question: If in the end there is a new Creation, how should that affect my work now?
Do We Long for Justice?
Perhaps the most arresting reflection about my reticence to engage Jesus’ return comes from considering who has taken the most comfort from this promise: the marginalized, the poor, the weak, the down-and-out — those without power in this world. When this world gives you no hope, it is natural to go looking elsewhere. The promise of an end to this world is a great good when you have nothing to lose! Those of us who are comfortable now will not be as happy to see things end (even though we tell ourselves that things will be so much better).
How much do I long for justice? How much do I long to see things set right? Not much — I am too comfortable.
Mary’s prayer in Luke 1 puts an exclamation point on this:
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)
If Jesus’ first coming provoked this in Mary, how much more should his return provoke us?
This cuts right to the heart of the question: “In what (or more to the point, who) do I put my hope?” Advent is a time of challenging us as to where we place our hope. Where do you place your hope?
Less Embarrassed by Hope
Am I less embarrassed than I used to be? A little. I want to stand with Christian through the ages who have placed their hope completely on God. And rising in my heart more and more is the desire to see things as they will be in the end.
I end with this from Revelation 21:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
”Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
12/5/2012 8:15 AM Editors note: For ESN’s developing Advent archive click here.