by Donnie McDanielPsalms 25, 9, 15 Isaiah 5: 8-12, 18-23 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 Luke 21: 20-28
Advent is a season when we look at back at the First Advent of Jesus Christ and all that he did for the cosmos beginning with the Incarnation. Advent is also a season where we anticipate with our whole hearts his next glorious appearing, when he will complete his work of making all things new. While it may be easier on our human natures to reflect than anticipate, the readings today draw us into a period of anxious anticipation. Luke 21 invites us to contemplate the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 calls us to a sober expectation of Christ’s return. The Thessalonians passage has been so abused that I want to take this opportunity to do exactly what this text instructs us to—encourage one another.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing (1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11).
In the hands of modern fundamentalists, this text is an excuse to speculate about the return of Christ based on the latest news events or to identify America’s latest geo-political enemy as some long awaited anti-Christ figure, but that is not what we should glean from this passage. St. Paul’s clear imperative among the opaque warnings is a call to encouragement; in fact, he gives us three positive commands which are to be sober, to encourage each other, and to build each other up. These commands revolutionize how we should view this passage. Rather than the return of the Lord–and all the cosmological or metaphorical signs that will accompany that return–being a source of speculation and fear, this scripture passage is a call for Christians to encourage one another with the promise of the Lord’s return.
In our setting, however, Paul’s words seem strange as we do not think of Christ’s Second Advent as a source of encouragement. Years of abuse by would-be prophets and Christian marketers have reduced Jesus’ glorious return to little more than a horror story, but that is not how it has always been viewed. How can we regain the promise of Jesus’ return as a source of encouragement? The best way is to focus on what we do know clearly instead of speculating about what we do not know. The language which the Apostles, or their close associates, used to describe Jesus’ return is often couched in apocalyptic language that hid its message from the Imperial authorities and often this language uses militaristic terminology and cosmological metaphors to convey spiritual truths. For example, there is biblical precedent for viewing Revelation’s language of the moon turning to blood and the sun losing its light as metaphors for changes in the global geo-political scheme. So we not anticipate Jesus’ Second Advent well if we are focused on speculation. Rather, we should focus on what we do know.
Passages like Romans 8, Isaiah 65, and Revelation 21 make it clear that Jesus is in the world-renewal business. He is making all things new. Now, even in this aspect of his coming, we have to live with a certain lack of knowledge and uncertainty. We do not know how Christ will make all things new or how he will renew creation, but the scriptures make it clear that he will, and today’s passage from Paul in 1 Thessalonians uses this knowledge of the redemptive aspects of Christ’s return as a source of hope. This is what I pray you will take away from today’s reading and from this Advent season in general. For those of us in the household of God, the return of Christ is not something to fear, but something to yearn for as we live between the times. His return will mark the time of creation’s renewal; it will be the end of death, and it will be a time when “the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” The blessed Second Advent should be a source of hope and not fear. This is a message that we should use to build each other up as we make our way through this world.
So as you work your way through the rest of this Advent, I challenge you to rethink your perception of Jesus’ return. Do not allow the misinformation of a small minority with a subset of fundamentalist Christianity to dominate your conception of the Second Coming. Rather, remember that Christ’s return will be nothing less than the renewal of all of creation and the redemption of the universe itself. Allow this picture of Jesus’ return become a source of hope for you and one that you use to encourage your fellow Christians. If we would all do this, then the Second Advent would become again a prayer on our lips as we say, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”