November 27, 2016
First Sunday in Advent
Do you believe Jesus will come again, anytime, maybe soon? Don’t say: “The Bible says he’s coming.” Do you really believe it, in your heart of hearts? Do you live every day with expectation?
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most of us in historic denominational churches don’t really believe Jesus could come back in a recognizable form anytime soon. We take the predictions with a heavy dose of salt, peppered with stories of the many disappointments expectant believers have experienced. Some of us might say we figure we’ll see the predictions come true in some way when we close our eyes in death. Not while we’re still alive.
We know, after all, that the first couple of generations of Christians expected to see Jesus split the sky and come back down to earth while they were still alive. The hard path of discipleship they were on wouldn’t be too long, and there would be a reward at the end of it. Some were afraid they wouldn’t see what they hoped for as they saw other disciples end their journeys in natural death. That’s one reason Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. But even he thought he might still live to see the great and glorious day of Christ’s reappearance.
We have to put predictions back into their frames, in days of distress and confusion. The whole New Testament comes to us from a time when followers of Jesus were still figuring out what they believed and how they were supposed to live. How and where did they fit in the world in general and the Roman Empire in particular? Hoping, longing, waiting impatiently for an end kept them going. That’s “end” in the sense of fulfilment, and in the sense of an ending. And in the sense of just desserts: vindication for them and condemnation for others.
Put the predictions back into their frames. Don’t try to squeeze our times, our challenges, our crises into those old frames. They don’t belong there. We don’t, either. Our ancestors in faith needed to remember Jesus in a particular way. They repeated and coloured his words to meet their needs. They didn’t have the inheritance of faithful, Spirit-guided reflection on the story of Jesus that we take for granted. Time was running out for them. We could say it is for us, too. But we can’t say it and mean exactly what they did.
What can we say? We’ve lost the certainty of the first generations of believers that Jesus would come back soon, and the reason for it. We’ve also lost the sense of both the immanence and imminence of God in Jesus that they took for granted. God, as we know God in Jesus, is already, always present with us. In our world. In our time. Moments of decisive encounter with God, as we know God in Jesus, are always imminent. In any hour. In every crisis. With every person we meet.
If there’s an advantage to hearing these predictions in our run-up to Christmas, it’s this: For us everything is within the frame of Emmanu-el, God-with-us. The Incarnation of the Word, God-become-flesh like us and for us, is the end of all our hoping, longing and waiting. That’s “end” in the sense of fulfilment. Maybe in the sense of an ending, too. We don’t need to watch and speculate, and try to rationalize our disappointment. We’re surrounded with signs of presence and calls to action.