Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Hope or Fear?

Sometimes I think the doom-and-gloom branches of Christianity have ruined Advent for the rest of us. This is supposed to be a season of hopeful expectation, but, anytime a preacher starts talking about the coming of the Son of Man, the congregation seems to tense up. "Uh oh, he's at it again!" they might mumble to themselves. Somehow one of the central hopes of our faith has become something we fear, and I think it's time for the followers of Jesus to reclaim the end as something we all look forward to.

This Sunday, we will hear Jesus speak of the coming of the Son of Man at a day and hour that no one knows (Mathew 24:36-44). This week's gospel lesson contains images of Noah and the Flood and how everyone except for Noah's family were caught off guard when the flood waters swept them away. Jesus uses the example of field hands working alongside each other when one disappears and the example of two women grinding meal together when one of them vanishes. To me and my apocalyptically conditioned ears, that sounds like bad news. This sounds like a warning. But I think Jesus means it as encouragement.

What did the coming of the Son of Man mean to his earliest followers? Jesus' death and resurrection were the inauguration of God's kingdom, but Rome--not God--was still in charge. Disciples were killed. Christians were expelled from synagogues. The church went underground. And the followers of Jesus waited and watched for signs that the fulfillment of the kingdom were coming. "Is this it?" they asked themselves when one emperor succeeded another. When Rome burned, I bet they imagined that God's final judgment had finally arrived. The believed that Jesus' return would come at any minute, and, for them, that was a source of pure hope. If those first generations of Christians believed that 2,000 years would come and go without the return of the Son of Man, I wonder whether they could have stuck with it. They were fuelled by the hope of Christ's return.

And what is our response? We portray our attitude toward the fulfillment of God's kingdom with a mixture of terrifying and hopeless proclamations. Billboards proclaim, "Look busy; Jesus is coming." Movies and television shows and works of fiction depict the lives of those "left behind" or the zombie apocalypse that gives most of us irrational nightmares. Where is the hope? Where is the belief that at any moment God might finally make everything right? Where is the "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" sentiment that Jesus offers in the verse immediately before this week's gospel lesson?

So what is our attitude supposed to be? One of watchfulness. We watch and wait not in irrational fear or paranoia but in hopeful expectancy. We believe and know that God is making all things right and one day will complete that work. We watch for it as if it is happening. We wait for it as if it will come at any minute. We let that hope pervade our daily life--not supplant it with baseless apocalyptic expectations. People of faith are supposed to view the end of the world as the long-awaited answer that we have been hoping for for all of human history. Will that be our hope this Advent?

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