+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I’ve never been much of a doomsday “prepper” or a millenerian, but I might have to go onto the streets with a bullhorn and a floppy bible and a sign reading “the end is nigh” after seeing a headline this week. The Church of England suggested parishes consider moving traditional Advent carol services from the evening of the Fourth Sunday of Advent to the night before, so as not to compete with the final game of the World Cup. Lord Jesus, quickly come!
All joking aside, and in light of what I said last week about the Christian’s primary citizenship being in heaven, perhaps the church should be a bit counter-cultural here by keeping services as scheduled and including some prayers about human rights and the Qatari government and our complicity by sending our national teams to such a repressive country instead of boycotting like we did in 1980 when the Olympics were held in Moscow.
Today we enter the season of Advent, in which we are invited to consider Christ’s return and that which precedes and follows it. Several years ago, before I started my current practice of spending a little time on Monday mornings finding some piece of art to put on the front of the bulletin, I discovered that for some years we had been using some images (presumably from some church publishing software) which highlighted what were reckoned by somebody to be the themes of the four Sundays of Advent: hope, peace, love, and joy. Poor Deborah was taken aback when I told her we needed to find something different because these were not the traditional themes of Advent. This schema was popularized by church supply companies who wanted to sell more Advent wreaths and who, probably rightly, figured that focusing on the traditional themes of Advent–death, judgment, heaven, and hell–would not shift as much product.
I’ve wondered what it would be like to go on Shark Tank–the reality television show where people bring their inventions to try to get investors–seeking somebody to underwrite my idea of a theologically correct Advent calendar: open the little door each day to find a miniature calavera (one of those Mexican skulls for the Day of the Dead) or a chunk of brimstone or something like this.
Now, I am not as uptight as I used to be. I confess that I have come to love what we might call “secular Christmas” even when it takes up much of the season when we in church are observing a season of penitential expectation. I kind of love seeing the much too early Christmas lights and displays and finding the radio stations that change format entirely to Christmas music for a full month and digging out my VHS copy of the best Christmas program of all time–which is A Charlie Brown Christmas, there is no debate–and watching it before it’s even December. Don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to find the video released on November 1st by Queen of Christmas and faithful Episcopalian, Mariah Carey, in which she transforms from a witch into Mrs. Santa Claus and sings “it’s here” backed by the jingle bells and synthesizers of her perennial chart-topper “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I think all that is great.
That said, we are on a different time-frame here in the church, and this morning’s lessons should have made it clear, that while we are called to prepare not only for the coming of Christ in a manger on December 25th, but also his return at the end of time. I won’t belabor this point, since I know I’ve said it before from the pulpit, but the scriptural view of eschatology, of these last things, as it’s been understood and interpreted by the church over the last two thousand years is not what we see in The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind books and films. The idea of a “rapture” followed by a period of “tribulation” from which the faithful will be spared was a nineteenth creation of poor biblical scholarship, and it’s a bit shocking how much currency the view has received.
The lesson today from Matthew is not about Christians getting whisked into heaven to avoid difficulties. It is rather the opposite: the promise of persecution for the faithful in the face of the powers and principalities which wish, vainly, to silence the word of God, to snuff out the light of the Gospel. Indeed, the Christians of the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire would experience this, as have countless in the millennia since. Even today–though the situation is complicated by tribal histories and the natural antipathy between herdsmen and farmers–the participation of Boko Haram suggests that the thousands of Christians killed every year in Nigeria are victims of a fundamentally religiously motivated persecution.
I may get myself in trouble here for perpetrating what might be seen as committing a contemporary heresy, and I say the following not to denigrate the good work of Dr. King or of the 19th Century abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker, from whom he adapted his most famous quote, but here goes. I do believe the arc of the moral universe is long, but I am not convinced that it bends toward justice.
My own philosophy of history is best summarized by a fictional character, written by that eminent and eminently Christian writer and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien, when the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien told the hobbit Frodo that she and her husband, Celeborn, the wisest of elves, had “dwelt in the West since the days of dawn… years uncounted… and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”
So, I tend to believe the glorious battle which we are bound to fight against the works of darkness by donning the armor light is one which we will seem to lose as history comes to an end. We mustn’t lose heart, though, we mustn’t cease striving as those without hope, we mustn’t despair, because beyond history is victory. “For in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.” Lord Jesus, quickly come.
This is a teaser for my final church history class during coffee hour today–the great error of nineteenth century theology was to believe that we were all getting progressively better, the moral arc of the universe was reaching its positive conclusion, and that Christ returning to make things right and inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth was merely a metaphor for how the human race was about to solve all its problems through science and technology and the perfection of human moral reason. Then the twentieth century–the most violent century in human history–happened and reminded us that we were wicked and that in the end only Jesus could fix it all. This is not to say that nobody believes in this myth of human progress anymore. If you do, I bet Elon Musk has a seat on his first colony ship to Mars to sell you.
Even so, we are promised today that at the other side of that long defeat, the victory which Christ has won and will win at the last, is a promise whose glory is hard to imagine now in the time of this mortal life.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
And so I say once more, “Lord Jesus, quickly come.”
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.