Fear or Love for the Last Days?

As we begin this new church year and the season of Advent, I have a confession to make: I’ve never preached on this gospel.

While you may not think this is a big deal—this reading from Luke’s gospel only comes up every three years, I’ve only been in ministry 14 years, so mathematically that’s not much of  chance at all.  But if my ministry lasts 30 years or so, that means I’m nearing the halfway mark and so the question begging to be asked is what am I avoiding.  A commentator on this passage writes, “Preaching on the Second Coming, the coming of the Son of Man, has fallen into disrepute in many churches. It is one of those themes that has been given over to churches that advertise their emphasis on Bible prophecy.” Having grown up in just such a church, I recognize my own proverbial baggage when I see it.  The church of my youth and the pastors there spent a great deal of time showing charts about what the Second Coming of Jesus would be like, what things needed to take place, what would happen to those who believe in Jesus and what would happen to those who don’t.  

Much of the conversation was driven on fear.  You can see this in just the title of the fictional book series about this that blanketed that branch of Christianity in the late 90s: Left Behind. According to that belief system, one would only find oneself left behind on earth at Jesus’ Second Coming if their life wasn’t in a right relationship with him. And so when I read lessons like the one we heard from Luke, my conditioned pavlovian response points me toward the fear and foreboding of my youth.  I automatically conjure up the teachings that I won’t be good enough or believe correctly enough for Jesus to love me.  Like I said, I recognize my own baggage when I see it.

[callout]A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent on Luke 21:25-36. [/callout]

Yet my aversion to this isn’t allowing me to find good news in the midst of this passage and to share that with you. So rather than avoiding this passage again, I thought I’d spend time in study, and prayer seeking out the gospel—the promise of good news—that clearly can be found in these words of Jesus if I could look at them with fresh eyes. 

First, the obvious thing that stands out: fear is indeed present in this passage.  Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Certainly Jesus points to anxiety that will come.  And I’ve been around long enough to know poetic language when I hear it.  I know that when a parent dies it feels like the sun and the moon and the stars are shaking, or that when trouble comes to a relationship the seas of life becomes tumultuous. And this anxiety doesn’t only happen on a personal level.  In the wake of the attacks on 9-11 over 17 years ago now, I remember climbing into bed with intense fear wondering what the next day would bring, or even if we’d make it through the night without more attacks.  

Jesus’ language in this passage suggests that there will be times when the world appears to be crashing in around us, and, he tells us, that when these things happen we need to get up, and lift up our heads because our redemption is drawing near.  Our liberation is coming.  We will be rescued from the fear and worry and anxiety that pulls us deeper and deeper into the raging waters.  We will not drown.  We will be saved.  That is good news.

Taking it one step further—since Jesus himself does—while these words point to our own times of tumult and the salvation we can hope for, they point most of all to the end of things in our world and the uncertainty of those future events.  We say it this way each Sunday: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

We say it each week, but I’m not sure we think about it or even if we know what to make of that last line.  It’s easier to think of this with a wink and a nudge—like the comics of street evangelists holding up placards proclaiming “The end is near” — rather than the reality that this will one day happen.  In theology it’s called the Parousia which means simply “arrival,” and denotes “the future return of Christ in glory … to judge the living and the dead.”  Our Prayer Book adds this to the definition, “By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ will come, not in weakness but it power, and will make all things new.”  

What needs to be made new in your life? Is there a relationship that is hurting? Or a vocation that you wished could bring you more joy? Is it loneliness or the impact of depression? Has an addiction gripped your family life? 

The Second Coming of Christ will usher us in to the peaceable kingdom—that era when weapons will be fashioned into agricultural tools, and where the lion will lie down near the lamb, and—the Prophet Isaiah tells us—a little child will lead them.  I think it takes a child to do this, because we adults think we have it all figured out.  We think we know better, that people will never —even, can never—change.  That while there may be times of joy, they will be fleeting.  But children truly believe in the goodness of this world, and the love that can make so much of a difference.  And so when Jesus comes again, he will usher in that era when pain and sorrow will be no more and all things will be made new like they were always intended to be.  

We get snatches of that kingdom in this life, like the recent interfaith events here at St. Mark’s when our Parish Hall was filled with people of different skin colors, and places of origin, and ways of praying and we found common ground as we shared our yearnings and hope for a better world.  Or the joy of watching a child discovering something new.  Or the reaction so many have to a glorious sunrise or the view from a mountain peak.  In that kingdom of Christ the ways of this world will be turned from the seeking and abuse of power to the sharing of joy and love and peace.

And that kingdom is pure gift.  It is grace.  I think that’s what the church of my youth gets so horribly wrong.  In that way of thinking fear drives you into the kingdom—fear of rejection by God, fear of getting something wrong.  But the way of Jesus focuses on love, on lifting up our heads which far too often are downcast.  The kingdom of Jesus will bring us to a place of liberation when we will finally fully become who God created us to be, and take our place in that glorious kingdom.

As we begin Advent—this season of preparation and waiting—we try our best to live into that kingdom.  To believe fully that one day Jesus will return, and he will bring us more love and peace and acceptance and grace than we will ever know. This is exactly what he brought at his coming as a babe.  If you want to get an idea of what that future kingdom will look like, look at what Jesus did while he lived on this earth.  He healed the person who was blind so he could see his family again.  He straightened the back of a women who was bent over in half so she could look up at the sky.  He restored life to a woman who had been ostracized by her community.  He forgave the weight of sin that another person had carried for a long, long time.  He taught about the goodness and love of God, and fought for the better treatment of the poor.  He shared meals, and turned water into the best wine, and told stories, and encouraged people to share from their abundance.

He came once showing us those things, but we we don’t fully live in that way—we still live in a place where there is distress and pain—so he’s coming  to us again.  At his return, he will lead us, bringing us liberation and freedom so that we will live into this new way of life.  So be alert, and pray that you may stand before the Son of Man, who will raise up our heads and bring us salvation.  He will come again soon.  May we be ready to truly receive him into our lives and hearts. 

Photo Credit: lukas schlagenhauf Flickr via Compfight cc

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