We are well into Advent. Less than a week until Christmas, actually. And yet I continue to reflect upon the BEGINNING of Advent season. At the start of each Advent, in the lectionary (the three year cycle of Bible readings used by a whole whack 'o churches), the gospel reading is about Jesus coming back. It doesn't contain any of the details about the story that culminates in the birth of baby Jesus, and instead propels us into the future - the future when Jesus comes back down out of the sky, after a 2000+ year hiatus. This year the reading is Mark 13:24-37.
The word “Advent” means the coming or the dawn of something – like the advent of the wheel, or the advent of ultra light backpacking gear, or the advent of bipartisanship.
But there’s more to the meaning of “Advent”. The Latin root of Advent is “adventus”, which is the Latin translation for the GREEK word, “parousia,” and “parousia” is the word in the New Testament that refers to the second coming of Christ. (Oooooh, right?)
So Advent has a few layers – it looks back at the FIRST coming of Jesus, and Advent looks forward to the SECOND coming of Jesus. Thus the passages about the second coming of Jesus to start out the Advent season. In this Mark 13 passage, Jesus himself is talking about his second coming. In other parts of the New Testament others talked about his second coming. He says some odd, contradictory stuff, like “Don’t even try to predict when this is going to happen,” alongside, “Study the fig tree to know when this will happen.” The overall gist, though, is fairly obvious that Jesus states unequivocally that he will be coming back. And, it appears that Jesus says he will come back within the same generation as the Biblical writers.
But…Jesus hasn’t come back. We celebrate his coming back every year at this time, and he’s still not back.
A few weeks ago, in the midst of writing a sermon on this topic, I was explaining the concept of the second coming to someone who did not grow up in church (like, at all). My words sounded so strange even to me: Jesus, this guy who died and came back from the dead eventually ascended into heaven, and he was going to come back and everything, all things, would be okay again. Seriously, this sounds loony.
For 2000 years our faith has held this. Two thousand. When it was first prophesied there were no cars. There were no flush toilets. No one had any idea the world was round. There had been no popes, no wars between Protestants and Catholics, no vaccines for common diseases, no knowledge of distant continents, no synthetic fibers or eyeglasses, and only 3-10% of the population could read.
I wrote that paragraph for the sermon and thought, “am I crazy to stay in this faith?” TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO this was prophesied, and they had no clue about rationalism or psychology or historical criticism. I began to think the sermon had taken a really bad turn…
And then I started thinking about astrophysics. (Because, of course, duh.)
I’m in book club, and we’ve started to read this super-nerdy book by Neil DeGrasse Tyson called “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” It’s supposed to be a beginner’s book for astrophysics, but geez, so much of it floats at least one pool length above my head. What I am understanding, though, is that two thousand years is barely a drop in the bucket. (And no, I haven't finished the book, but I hear the last chapter is awesome.)
In one millionth of a second after the big bang the universe had already grown the size of our solar system. One millionth of a second. By one, full second it was already a few light years across. One second. A lot can happen in a small space of time.
And when did the big bang happen? Scientists estimate 14 billion years ago. It took nine billion years of universe expansion before our own star, the Sun, was even formed.
Two thousand years? Pffft.
DeGrasse Tyson states that scientists do not know what was before the big bang, how the big bang got its start, nor how “organic molecules transitioned to self-replicating life” in the oceans of planet earth.
He doesn’t seem to have much patience for religious persons saying that it was God who started this whole thing off, but it makes sense to me. deGrasse Tyson completely reasonable to say that we *might* find an explanation for these mysteries some day, but I'm going to fall back on the insane number of mystics in history who have communed with some semblance of the divine and chalk it up - with a large dose of humility - to God.
Jurgen Moltmann is an awesome, influential theologian. He was drafted into the German army in 1944, so he fought for the Nazis. Moltmann surrendered to the first Allied soldier he saw, and then dealt with his complicit guilt in the war while in a prison camp. His seminal work is titled, “The Thelogy of Hope,” in which he says that eschatology, or the study of the end of all things, is THE cornerstone of the Christian faith. He writes, “the eschatological is not one element of Christianity…but it is the “key in which everything in it is set.” The future is “God’s essential nature,” and we strain after the promise of the universal future of Christ. (pg. 16)
In the hope of this universal future of Christ we find not only “consolation in suffering, but also protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Moltmann writes that this is “why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience, but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself the unquiet heart [in each person]. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with the world, for the [prodding stick] of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope.” (pp. 21-22)
In other words, our unrest with the present is in itself evidence of hope. It’s evidence that God is also experiencing unrest with the world continuing on as it is.
With the return of Jesus is the return of all good to the earth: no more pain, no more tears, no more war, no more unjustness, no more harming the planet.
Moltmann says, “Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.” (pg 16)
As church, we work toward this reality of transforming the present because of the chafing and unrest that Moltmann talks about, and because this universal future of Christ is the end of all things, it’s how all things end; when life as we know it utterly transforms into a global community that lives in harmony and peace with the principles of Jesus.
We do what we do because the God of the future is ultimately moving towards this transformation and we participate in this, too, by pushing back against those places in ourselves and in our systems that create pain and oppression.
It can be hard to see God. But it’s not hard to see the pain of the world, the pain of our friends and family, the pain of this community. And it’s the pain that kindles the hope.
The very thing that looks like it robs us of hope is actually what causes it. The world isn’t supposed to be like this.
One of my most helpful theology books in seminary was on the topic of sin and was called, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be,” by Cornelius Plantinga. The premise is that the world isn’t supposed to be led by sin; that’s not how it is designed, and it’s not the direction God is leading it.
On Thanksgiving Eve this year I had the chance to speak at our local Interfaith gathering. It’s an annual gathering and often I’m unable to attend. This year, instead of offering some sort of blessing from the Lutheran tradition, I decided to tell of some good things that have happened in the world in the past few years.
- We are close to eradicating diseases like Polio, Guinea Worm, and leprosy, and advances are being made in treating Alzheimers
- Many scientific papers are now offered online for free
- The giant panda and the manatee were downlisted to vulnerable, taking them off of the endangered species list
- High school graduation rates are increasing, teen pregnancy is down
- The number of deaths across the globe due to war continues to decline
- 800,000 people in India planted almost 50million trees in one day
- US Veteran homeless rates continue to decline
- Scientists have identified caterpillars, fungi and bacteria that can actually eat and digest plastic
- In Texas, Christians, Jews, and Muslims came together to rebuild a mosque that had been burned to the ground
- A high school student in Florida started a club so that no one would ever have to eat lunch alone again.
- There is a giant project underway to start to clean up the ocean
- Vertical farming is gaining momentum
- Thousands came together to watch a total solar eclipse
- The number of people in extreme poverty continues to decline
- Chile converted 11 million acres of land into protected national park
- A human chain of people rescued swimmers who had been pulled out to see at a beach in Florida
- 81 yr old Masako Wakamiya taught herself how to code and launched an iphone app
- The ivory trade was banned in China
- The number of children who die before age 5 has been cut by HALF since 1990
- Two Texas Representatives, a Republican and a Democrat, decided to drive together to DC, live-streaming a bipartisan road trip, showing that these two sides CAN work together
- World hunger has reached its lowest point in 25 years
- The first truce was called in Colombia in 50 years between the government and rebel fighters
- 24 nations worked together to create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica
- The first openly transgender person was just elected to the US State legislature
- Tiger populations are growing for the first time in 100 years
- Dr Who will finally have a woman in the lead character role
These things fuel some hope. The harsh things in the world fuel hope as well, according to Moltmann, even though I don’t even actively realize the harsh things ARE fueling hope in me.
But the world is moving in some kind of direction that will eventually lead to the universal presence of Christ. The idea is only 2000 years old.
We can keep looking. We can keep looking for the wonder of the world that is being redeemed on very small scales every day. We can keep actively chafing against the Unlikeness of Jesus in ourselves and in our communities, and in our world, by spreading compassion, by living justly, by promoting justice, by not succumbing to despair.
The sights and sounds of the coming Jesus may be faint, but keep listening and looking.
It may be well into Advent, but it also may just as well be the beginning of Advent every day: "In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen." (Frederic Buechner)
May we not only hold our breaths to listen, but breathe out the movement of Christ, the returning Christ, into the world.
- Charis Weathers