“The First Coming of Jesus”Dr. R. Dale McAbee Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44. Year A: First Sunday of Advent.
Happy New Year! Now lest you think you’ve missed a month or that I have lost my calendar, no it’s not January 1st. It is December 1st. But for us who follow the Church Year, it is a new year. For Christians who follow the church’s calendar and with it frequently, the three-year set of readings called the lectionary, we begin the new church year with Advent’s longing for the coming of the Christ.
In our church we light a candle on the Advent wreath each Sunday until we get to Christmas Eve when we light the Christ candle and sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves like the mall typically does. Christmas decorations seem to come out earlier and earlier each year. The discipline of Advent invites to slow down and wait. Some churches don’t sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. We wait as long as we can but I usually give in by the Fourth Sunday of Advent and sneak in a carol or two.
The first Sunday of Advent is also devoted to the theme of hope and our readings for today embody hope in unique ways. In “The Hopeful Heart” John Claypool says, “Hope is to the human spirit what breath is to the physical body—the very fuel that animates our being.”
Isaiah’s words envision the transformation of the world. He sees a virtual United Nations where all are committed to justice and ending wars.
In his hopeful vision old animosities can die and destructive force can be replaced with cooperation. He ends with “let us walk in the light of the Lord.” That is why we sang “Siyahamba,” the South African freedom song this morning. We are marching, dancing, singing, and living in the light of God. It is a hope. In a few moments we’ll examine what it actually looks like in the real world.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 122 is a Song of Ascent. It too was a marching song for pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the important festivals described in the Torah. Hence it is called a Song of Ascent. I always love it when this psalm is used because we get to hear two beautiful anthems based on it, the Howell’s “Pray for Peace of Jerusalem” and the Parry “I Was Glad” written for coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
This text is less universal than Isaiah’s oracle but it does end with a hopeful attitude, “for the sake of my relatives and friends, I will seek your good.” Someone has said the most mature form of love is to seek the wellbeing of another. If you are seeking what is best for another’s flourishing you have transcended what John Claypool used to call need-based love and have found in yourself the capacity to offer gift-based love.
Paul in our reading from Romans in three verses captures what Claypool understood as mature love by making love the foundation of the Law. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you have fulfilled the law. It’s as though you don’t need to think about specific rules or a list of do’s and don’ts.
And then he does something interesting in the last four verses. He lifts Christian existence into the realm of a new age about to break into human history. The imagery suggests it is near dawn and we are about to experience a glorious sunrise. And if that is the case, we must lay aside the works of darkness and pick up the armor of light. Again, we must flesh out what that might mean at the end of 2019.
The final reading today is from Matthew’s gospel. Every year on this Sunday the lectionary gives us a gospel reading that addresses the hope of the second coming of Jesus. The gospel reading today ends with the admonition, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Because of Hal Lindsey and his 1970 book “The Late Great Planet Earth,” I grew up believing in something called the rapture and that it could occur at any moment. The basic idea is that a trumpet would sound and the dead in Christ would be raised and all Christians would fly up into the clouds to be with the Lord forever. Planes and cars would crash as all the Christians were airlifted right out of their vehicles.
The basis for that belief was 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, which states, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” book series, sixteen volumes written between 1995 and 2007. LaHaye basically repackages the themes of Hal Lindsey’s book and turns it all into a multi-million-dollar industry.
Advent, from the Latin for “coming” is the season of preparation for the first coming of Jesus into human history as the infant born to Mary and laid in the manger. Christmas is about Jesus’ first coming. But later in the gospels and frequently in Paul, much attention is giving to the second coming of Jesus.
In some Christian communities preparing for the second coming of Jesus is the primary understanding of faithful discipleship. There are even some people who say, “There’s no need to worry about global warming and going green to save the planet, Jesus is coming soon.”
Since so much of the Bible contains apocalyptic thought, it’s hard to know how to approach a text such as our reading from Matthew’s gospel today. (“Apocalypse” (ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation”, “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.”)
Preaching Professor Ron Allen offers three possible frameworks for interpreting these interesting but confusing texts:
- Some preachers (and listeners) believe we are living in the last days. These ministers can use the imminence of the second coming as an immediate reason to prepare in Advent.
- Many congregational members believe a final manifestation of the Realm is ahead, though they are ambivalent as to when. It might be soon, or it might not be. The preacher who addresses this group encounters an audience much like Matthew’s, and will do well to encourage listeners to stay alert in spite of the delay.
- Still other congregational members take apocalyptic language as figurative and as tied to a first-century world view that is no longer their own. They do not anticipate a singular event that will instantly transform the world. Instead, they believe God is constantly present, luring the world toward Realm qualities. The preacher can invite these listeners to participate with God in bringing about such realm-like life.
I find Allen’s third framework to be the most helpful for my understanding of the Bible and my understanding of faithful discipleship. Regarding the “left behind” theology of Tim LaHaye, one mainline denomination at its annual meeting passed a one sentence resolution: “The theology of
Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series is inconsistent with our Reformed heritage.
And theologian Jurgen Moltmann in his Ethics of Hope speaks to the dangers of “Left Behind” theology as a denial of the Incarnation and an exchanging of Biblical faith for “a vague Gnostic religiosity of redemption.”
Stephen Morrison notes: When our Earthly/bodily life is not loved, affirmed, and accepted, we either resign ourselves to a religious escapism or numb our senses with hedonistic pleasures. Moltmann’s ethic of hope insists that a truly Christian ethic, based on the bodily resurrection of Christ, says Yes to this life; it must include a love for our life on this Earth as human beings (not as disembodied souls).
A few years ago, I wrote a book called 10 Reasons Why the Rapture Must Be Left Behind. One of the ten reasons I argued against the rapture was that it promotes a kind of gnostic escapism. The rapture plays into the idea that we do not have to take care for this world (the ecological crisis is a result, in part, of this neglect), that we are not responsible for the Earth, and that we do not belong to it—because one day we will escape the Earth for a spiritual world somewhere else, while this world is annihilated.
But this is not the Christian hope. The Christian hope is hope for a new heaven and a new Earth. With Paul, we must recognize that the whole creation is groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:22). We belong to this Earth. Redemption does not mean an escape from this world, but we hope that together with creation, we will be made new.” https://www.amazon.com/Reasons-Rapture-Must-Left-Behind/dp/1631741160
But we do say every time we celebrate Holy Communion, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Every time I say “Christ has died” (past tense) I acknowledge the amazing love of God coming to us in suffering love on the cross. Every time I say, “Christ is risen (present tense) I affirm the amazing power of God to raise the dead to new life and empower the church to be the risen body of the crucified Christ in the world today. But when I say, “Christ will come,” (future tense), I am a little less clear about what that looks like.
Going back to the Isaiah reading, I think whenever we observe concrete evidence of “walking in the Light of the Lord,” we are witnessing the second coming of Christ. From the Romans reading, whenever we “set aside the works of darkness and pick up the armor of light,” then we are witnessing the second coming of Christ.
In 1993, someone threw a brick through the window of the home of a Jewish family where a Menorah was displayed. A picture appeared in the local newspaper. An editorial read
Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah as a symbol of our determination to live together in harmony, our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America and to stand in solidarity with our Jewish neighbors. We urge all citizens to share in this message by displaying this menorah on a door or a window from now until Christmas. Let all the world know that the national hatred of a few cannot destroy what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so long to build.”
By the end of the week thousands of homes in Billings displayed menorahs. Christ will come again.
As Ron Allen said, “God is constantly present, luring the world toward Realm qualities.” Every time love wins out over hate, every time violence gives way to peace, we experience the second coming of Christ. To believe tenaciously that Christ will come again, is to trust against all odds, that one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ and he will reign forever. Until that day, our only mission is to keep finding Jesus in all the broken places, and serve as instruments of God’s amazing love. When that happens, Christ has come again, and again, and again.
About the writer: For twenty-three years the Reverend Dr. R. Dale McAbee worked with Rehabilitation and Psychiatric patients at Baptist Health Louisville as well as those in treatment for Substance Use Disorder. He taught classes on the Spirituality of the 12 Steps and the Spiritual Wisdom of the Serenity Prayer. In March of 2018 he became the chaplain for Oncology and Palliative Care. He is a Pastoral Counselor certified by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. For the last nine years he has been Choirmaster at Concordia Lutheran Church.
A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dr. McAbee earned a BA in Music from Furman University, a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Southern Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Seminary. In the spring of 2009 and summer of 2017, he served as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care at Saint Meinrad Seminary, Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Scripture and Music:
We ve A Story to Tell to the Nations
Watchman, Tell Us of the Night
Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying
O God of Every Nation
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The Advent of Our God
Lo, How A Rose E er Blooming
Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Lo, How A Rose E er Blooming (Michael Praetorius)
Arise, Your Light Has Come (David Danner)
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (Mary McDonald)
Advent Alleluia (Douglas Wagner)
E en So Lord Jesus (Paul Manz)
Of the Father s Love Begotten (Paul Wohlgemuth)
There Shall A Star Come Out of Jacob (Mendelssohn)
Dona Nobis Pacem (Hal Hopson, Carl Nygard)
Come Peace of God (Eugene Butler)
Comfort Ye My People (Handel)
Every Valley Shall Be Exalted (Handel)
The Gift of Love (Domingo)
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (Plainsong)