Apocalypse now: An Advent Reflection

images-3Advent Sunday sees the gospel focus switch from Luke, our guide through Jesus’ ministry over these last 12 months to Matthew, who will be our guide over the coming year. Advent Sunday 2016 opens with Matthew 24:36-44. In this little apocalypse  Jesus addresses the experience of uncertainty, loss, and expectation about the day and the hour no one knows. In a nutshell, Jesus tells his hearers that in the end, all is going to be as it should be according to the mind of God. However, the period of time between now and then involves a great deal of uncertainty and suffering. Can there be a worse message than this with which to open a new Church year? Uncertainty fills the imagination with dark foreboding.

So much of the way we manage our experience is to minimize uncertainty as much as possible. We are compelled to do this even if we are self-aware enough to recognize that our sense of certainty is nothing more than enveloping ourselves in an illusion of predictability. We need, it seems, a certain level of certainty predicated upon our faith in life as predictable. The past colors the present and sets the parameters for the future. What we can expect is conditioned by what we already know. How safe, and yet how limiting.

Apocalyptic writing emerges over and over again in the Biblical record. Its presence identifies periods of history when our ability to successfully envelop ourselves in the illusion of predictable continuity becomes impossible to sustain. When things get so bad, when social conditions break down under the weight of persecution, then the only option for believers is to project their hope onto the event horizon variously referred to as the end times, the Day of Judgment, the Second Coming of the Lord.In periods when apocalyptic language is the only language powerful enough to express a current experience of acute uncertainty and profound disappointment, hope leapfrogs into an imagined future.

Yet, apocalyptic writing is misleading if you think its attention is only directed to the end time event horizon. Apocalyptic writing is also focused on the response of the faithful to their experience in the present time. Scholars are divided on whether Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 are predictive of the fall of Jerusalem or a reframing by the Evangelist writing after the event itself. The use of apocalyptic language and imagery is uncharacteristic in Jesus’ teaching and this tends to lend weight to the opinion that chapter 24 is Matthew writing from within the acute social and religious dislocation following the destruction of Jerusalem.

Differing interpretations

Christian communities across America listening to this gospel reading on Advent Sunday will approach the text in three broad ways. [1]

  1. Strongly fundamentalist-separatist congregations whose approach to the world is inherently adversarial will see Jesus’ words as an accurate description of their experience in the present time filtered through a prediction of the immediate future. For these Christians, the battle is already joined and the victory of Christ’s return is nigh. In the meantime, the work is to remain pure, uncontaminated, and in some extreme cases to be prepared to take up arms to hasten the glad day of the Lord’s coming.
  1. Evangelical Christians, within the mainstream of evangelical thought, will tend to wonder more about the immediate predictive nature of Jesus’ words. For them, the Second Coming is a firm expectation, yet attending to the literal meaning of Jesus’ words will lead them to focus less on the when of the Second Coming and more on the need to be ready for it, no matter when it comes. Being ready is a matter of being watchful, vigilant, prepared for its arrival at any moment. In the meantime, it’s a matter of individual accountability in the work of conversion of souls as well as the transformation of society. Through whatever political means at hand, souls must be won and society must be conformed to an evangelical Christian belief in the Bible as an internally consistent rule book for modern government.
  1. Mainline and progressive Christian communities will understand Jesus’ use of apocalyptic language as metaphor, or even hyperbole, i.e. exaggeration for effect. Among these Christians, the Second Coming is no longer thought of as a once-and-for-all event, but as an evolutionary or unfolding process. Thus their understanding of the Kingdom is that it is already here and yet still in the process of unfolding – it is now and also not yet. Making the Kingdom a reality crucially depends on the capacity of God’s people to work in covenanted partnership with God as collaborative agents – working in the present time for justice and peace.

Confusing overlap

There is a temptation to mistake peace and justice for the metrics of the Kingdom’s coming. We so long to feel in control of events yet as Jesus reminds us all we can know is that in the fullness of God’s vision and in God’s own time the trajectory of the Kingdom always bends towards justice.

As a preacher, I believe my task is to address Jesus’ words for a community within a mainline-progressive Christian perspective. For many in my community, it feels the work of agitating for the expectations of the Kingdom just got a little bit harder with the loss of an attentive ear of government. Understandable though this perception is, it is nevertheless mistaken. Progressive Christian and secular humanist perspectives overlap considerably, yet they have quite different origins and motivations.

One of my tasks as a preacher within a mainline-progressive Christian context is to more clearly differentiate between the coming of the Kingdom and the Post-Enlightenment socio-political agenda. The latter focuses on the perfectibility of human society by its own means and according to its own insights. This is a boastful agenda that believes it has grown up and moved beyond any need to recognize the spiritual dimension in human experience.

In differentiating between a progressive Christian vision and a secular-humanist agenda, this Christian vision’s emphasis falls on the partnership between God and human agency. it is this partnership that provides the engine for social change as a fulfillment of the expectations of  God’s reign.

In contrast to the secular humanist belief in human society’s potential for self-perfectibility through political progress, i.e. with the right policies things will always get better and better, the mainline-progressive Christian vision is a sharing of the divine vision. This is a vision in which human beings’ have a part to play, but the vision does not originate with us and will not be accomplished by us without God.

A theology of covenant

This is the tradition of Covenant Theology, a continuous theological thread woven into the heart of the Hebrew and Christian understandings of the human-divine relationship. How does this task look on Advent Sunday 2016 in which we continue to find ourselves living in a world of increasing uncertainty? How do we maintain a hope-filled orientation to the world?

In confronting our experience  Jesus reminds us that uncertainty is not only natural but might even be desirable. Because we cannot know the day or the hour, we live in the hope of God’s promises. We implement our hope through the agency of human action, i.e. doing our part in partnership with God. If we do our part, God promises to do God’s part. This is not a matter of contingent promise – I will do my part only if you do yours – it’s a recognition that in accordance with our creation in God’s image as beings with free will, God chooses not the encroach into the areas for which we are the accountable party in the contract or covenant.

The paradox

We remember that to have hope, to expect is to live as if that for which we hope is already available to us. Hope moves well beyond any notion of pie-in-the-sky wistfulness. Hope costs, hope pains, hope risks. Hope is somewhat paradoxical in that it is the transformation of our experience of loss and disappointment into an alliance with the purposes of God.

Advent is a time for facing our disappointments and letting them become for us an opportunity for the transformation of our experience of pain, loss, and disappointment. Through grace pain, loss, and disappointment become reframed within a larger meaning.

st_johns_church_little_giddingWith the commemoration of Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon 1637, in the first week of the Advent Season, I am taken back once more to T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding -the fourth in his extended series Four Quartets. The poem was inspired by his visit to the little church in the Huntingdonshire village of Little Gidding during the depths of the dark, war-weary winter of 1941. If you are looking for an Advent meditation, I commend the poem to you. In a Wikipedia entry, the editor speaks of the poem:

as a discussion of time and winter with attention paid to the arrival of summer. The images of snow, which provoke desires for a spiritual life, transition into an analysis of the four classical elements of fire, earth, air and water and how fire is the primary element of the four. Following this is a discussion on death and destruction, things unaccomplished, and regret for past events.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 are echoed in Elliot’s exploration of the play on time – endings being also beginnings, and the familiar providing an opportunity to know something for the first time. In juxtaposing winter and summer, regret and hope Elliot makes Little Gidding particularly pertinent for Advent reflection.

As we commence our own Advent preparations amidst the  commercial distractions of a premature Christmas, we might pay especial attention to the actions of God’s grace. Grace (Elliot’s fire) transforms thwarted emotional energy to become the engine of our hope. In hope, we discover the paradox that hope does not need to know the day or the hour, the time or the place. Being a transformation of the energies of loss, hope becomes the compass, the directional finder aligning us with the expectations of God’s Kingdom.

This Advent Sunday what kind of place is it we have arrived at? Are we not so sick and tired of ourselves that we long for something to be different and so are ready to risk in order to move forward? The apocalyptic language of Matthew 24 is a reminder to us of Elliot’s immemorial lines:

What we call the beginning is often the end
/And to make and end is to make a beginning.
/The end is where we start from. …. We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3089

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