Advent


1 Thessalonians 4.13-18

13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Had a chuckle when I saw what today’s lection is.  See, I spent about 10 minutes trying to convince my students on Thursday night that this infamously notorious “rapture” passage is not in Revelation, but here in 1 Thessalonians. Amazing; they eventually conceded it was indeed here, but some of them continued to resist the idea that the rapture is part of John’s vision in Revelation. Anyway…

What does this have to do with Advent? Well, Advent not only deals in the hope of Incarnation and Nativity. It also has deals in the expectation of Return and Consummation. Which is what Paul is dealing with here. The passage is a favourite of dispensationally-inclined believers and of evangelicals and fundamentalists generally. Orthodoxy is defined in some churches on whether you believe this will occur at certain points in various theological chronologies developed in the nineteenth century.  Whatever, man. As an Advent passage, located in the context of the hope for the arrival of Messiah and the Word dwelling among us, we have to see it as Paul and the recipients of the letter would have. And it connects well with the magnificat and with Isaiah’s passage from two days ago.

Paul isn’t giving a blueprint or play-by-play of  “the rapture” or describing in detail how this is going to transpire. Far from it, and in fact, quite the opposite. When Christ returns, Paul is saying, it will be like how the Emperor (of Rome) arrives in a city far away from home. When the Emperor/King/basileus arrived, the loyal citizens of the city would meet him “halfway” amid trumpets and much fanfare, welcoming the savior of the world (as he was known) and then escort him back to the city. They aren’t being caught up with him to be taken away back to Rome! By describing the Advent of Christ’s return in this way, Paul is effectively saying that Christ is the Basileus, the Emperor, the King, who has auctoritas and imperium and Caesar doesn’t.

The question then today is “who is Caesar?” Who does the Advent of the Savior Challenge? It’s a disturbing question, one that most of us Christians in 21st century America try to dismiss by answering “well, the Devil/Satan” of course. Sorry. This is a cop out. For Paul and Mary and for Christ, the competition was much more “real” than a cosmic spiritual being responsible for evil. (Frankly, I’m not sure that we need that kind of help.) It was the powers and principalities of Paul’s own day who presented the challenge to Christ and his inevitable return.

Do we dare name it for what it is?

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Isaiah 2.12-22

12For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high; 13against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; 14against all the high mountains, and against all the lofty hills; 15against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; 16against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft. 17The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. 18The idols shall utterly pass away. 19Enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. 20On that day people will throw away to the moles and to the bats their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, 21to enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts in the crags, from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. 22Turn away from mortals, who have only breath in their nostrils, for of what account are they?

If Advent is a season of expectation, hope, and preparation, this reading seems to indict us for the wrong expectations. In the American Christmas, we expect – we think we’re owed – what is high, lofty, exotic, fancy, and indeed idolatrous. But Mary tells us what Isaiah tells us here; all that will be brought low. How can we learn to expect and hope for things other than the trappings and pomp and rites of American Empire and its annual imperial festival that is Christmas?

Waiting for GodotThis week’s message was a bit related to my own from a couple weeks ago, specifically the idea of Advent being a season of waiting in hope and expectation for “something.” My point (here) was precisely that Advent was the season of waiting and hoping and yearning for something new, but that we are too damn blind, stuck and stupid to really recognize anything new, because “everything” is new every year. Reverend Doctor left us with a challenge to think of something we are waiting for this Advent.

But as my five year old son asked (turning to his mom during the message, in fact!), “What are we supposed to be waiting for?” Indeed! and even better: “waiting is BORING. I don’t wanna wait and especially for something I don’t even know what I’m waiting for.”

Holy smokes, we have a critic in the making. Talk about the faith of a child. My kid’s question and complaint was more prescient than the message itself. Leave it to a 5 year old to liken Advent to Waiting for Godot.

But the kid’s right. That was the impact. In taking up Reverend Doctor’s challenge, you’ve got to ask this question and address the inevitable boredom if you do, in fact, decide to wait around for Godot. Because other than the usual suggestions (at least in liberal protestant sermo-theology) of justice, peace, civil rights in various formats, economic equality, healthcare, and unstated other possibilities (next paycheck, serenity at home, a sex life, overcoming addiction, etc) there wasn’t much of an answer. Is Advent about the possibility of all these? Well, sure. And I’ll be the first to say that these are all vital, essential, biblical, Christian ethical values we should indeed hope for in expectation. But is this any different than the rest of the year? No, and my kid knows it. Advent shouldn’t be just another opportunity to preach the same-old-same-old. This is exactly why we can’t see newness, and power, anymore; liberal churches continue with the program of justice, while conservative churches continue to drill home the narrative of Christ’s coming, his being born-to-die at the expense of really looking at the implications of this for social, prophetic justice. The former leaves out the narrative; the latter leaves out the prophetic (and I’m not referring to the apologetic “prophetic foretellings” of conservative and evangelical churches).

So what am I waiting for here? How about hearing from our pulpits a message that fuses the two? A prophetic message of justice that includes the narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2? We liberal church people can’t assume that our fellow parishioners are biblically literate enough to simply assume the prophetic and Gospel material is common and assumed knowledge part of our social mnemonic makeup. We’re generally not. That much is clear. We evangelicals can’t assume that we have any clue on what is really going on in the prophets when we read them for Advent. Thirty something years of being brought-up-born-again has revealed that to me as well.

This Advent, I’m waiting for something new. My prayer is that when it shows up, it’ll be like porn; I’ll know it when I see it. This Advent, I’m waiting for nothing less than something as radical and ridiculous as the idea of an unwed pregnant teenage mother bearing a baby at once human and divine who would scatter the proud-hearted, forgive sin, give light to us who sit in darkness, and speak through the mouths of the prophets of old. There is a waiting for this newness, but this waiting is a vigil, and it requires alertness, awareness, sensitivity, and vigilance. It’s not a passive waiting. It’s a waiting that involves getting off our ecclesiological asses and being vigilant in the dark. It’s nothing less than being vigilant for the Kingdom, a Kingdom here and now, always and already and to come. That’s what I’m waiting for. Not the usual; waiting for the usual is, as my son says, boring. If he knew the expression, he’d be dead on if he said “boring as hell.”

Exactly. Come, Lord. And FTLOG, bring Godot with you.