This is the first week in Advent. What is Advent you ask? Simply, it is the four Sundays before Christmas (see my post from last year). As a separate liturgical season, Advent has its own areas of focus. Perhaps the strongest emphasis (besides preparing to celebrate Jesus’ first birth) is on Jesus’ return.
Jesus’ Second Coming can have unpleasant connotations in many modern minds. Popular authors have spun out scenarios of empty cars on the highway in the wake of “the rapture” (the idea that Christians are taken out of the world at some point in time relative to Jesus’ return). Non-Christians have poked fun at rapture talk, going so far as to offer services (at a cost) to care for the pets of people who are taken away.
Conjectures aside, the Second Coming of Jesus is part of Christian hope! This is true for a number of reasons.
Resurrection of the Dead
First, when Jesus returns, the dead will be resurrected. Talking about Easter right before Christmas might seem strange, but consider 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (NRSV) :
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (emphasis added)
Notice how Jesus’ return marks the raising of the dead. Yes, this is a central hope!
Restoration of Creation
Second, Jesus return and the resurrection of the dead is linked to the restoration of all Creation:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–23 (NRSV))
This has consequences for us as members of the academic world. God will not abandon Creation, but plans on redeeming it. So our study of that Creation (both the so-called natural world and the Human world) can be seen as a foretaste of that time when we will be restored to our proper relationship with all Creation.
Adam and Eve, the first humans, were placed in a Garden, but their rebellion caused them to be exiled from that Garden. When Jesus is raised from the dead, John the Gospel writer wants us to see that this primordial exile has ended. So he makes sure we see Jesus in a new garden, mistaken as the gardener! Jesus resurrection has restored humanity’s relationship to Creation, a restoration to be fully seen when Jesus returns.
Finally, Jesus’ return means judgment. We don’t like the word judgment. It has a negative cast to us. We associate it with punishment. And certainly the Final Judgment means punishment. Our rebellion has called down punishment on our heads, but this is a good time to be reminded that Jesus’ death has paid the price for our rebellion! [1. Friends, if you haven’t availed yourself of this payment by confessing Jesus as your Lord, Advent is a good time to do so!]
Over the eons, our collective disobedience has had deep and powerful effects. As we saw above, one effect was the corruption of Creation, an effect with which God is dealing. But there remains the disorder in the world down through time even to the present. The Good News is that in Jesus’ death and resurrection God will deal with this as well! Judgment is the idea that all will be set right!
We who are comfortable now find this uncomfortable. We worry that we will lose out in this new order. And it is true, that many “who are first shall be last” (we should remember that God does love us, and wants the best for us, and this change will be for our best). The ones who most yearn for this revolution are the poor, the downtrodden, the lowest in the eyes of the world. Mary gets at this in her song of praise when she visits Elizabeth:
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46–55 (NRSV))
As Christians in the academy, many of us have the chance to join in this judgment work now. As we work for justice in society, we participate in God’s work of judgment! The lawyer who defends the accused, the engineer who brings clean water to the thirsty, the writer who paints pictures of reality with her words, and many others, are bringing judgment into the world. Make no mistake: it is God’s work, and we are but partners; only he can bring it to completion. And yet, we have our part to play.
We await Jesus’ coming in glory – his return will mark the completion of God’s redemption of us and all Creation. This Advent, let us ponder this Good News, and renew our commitment to our role in this drama.
For the Emerging Scholars Network’s growing Advent collection click here.