Advent is a season of anticipation and hope

Churches following the lectionary (a group of Scripture lessons determined by the Christian calendar) may take note of the odd fact that the scriptures in Advent focus not on the birth narratives of Jesus but on his second coming, what Jeremiah calls the coming “day of the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:14).

This Sunday’s epistle lesson (the second Sunday in Advent), for instance, includes 2 Peter 3:10, which reminds readers that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”  The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 40 challenges heralds of good news to proclaim the coming of God and of God’s glory.

While our society is consumed by holiday shopping, busy family schedules, and dinner planning, these lessons remind us that Jesus will come again and reclaim us as his own.  If we forget to prepare for that day or fail to meditate on the Lord, we may be caught off-guard, knocked off balance by that very thief in the night.

There are few phrases in the Bible that excite the imagination, ignite hope, and challenge the heart as, “The day is coming, thus saith the Lord.”

It excites the imagination because when God is the focus of what we know about the future, we realize that an era will dawn in which earth and heaven will dissolve like melting snow and all things will be made right (2 Peter 3:10).

It ignites hope because it launches us on a movement towards fulfillment as it overwhelms despair, promises justice and righteousness, and ushers in the life of God’s redeeming love.

It challenges the heart as we are called to anticipate the return of King David’s descendant, King Jesus, who will come to judge all people.

Advent encourages anticipation and hope.  It poses the idea that the past, present, and future collapse in on itself in that climactic moment when God came to earth in the flesh and promised to come back again to make a new heaven and a new earth where all tears will be wiped away and death itself will come to an end.

Advent is a protest that the current situations in which we struggle and wrestle do not have the final say.

Last week, when all the protests and media punditry surrounding the death of Michael Brown created a tornado of anxiety, I couldn’t help but grieve the deep injustice that continues to create fear in so many hearts.

Then I heard about the story of Maria Fernandes, a 32-year old who had to work three jobs in order to make ends meet and pay for healthcare benefits because no one job paid a living wage.  She took a nap in her car between shifts, letting the car run for the sake of getting some heat.  She died from exhaust.

These stories of uncertainty, grief, injustice–times in which violence has reached its height and minimum wage jobs perpetuate a working-class poverty level–remind us just how meaningful Advent is in our current milieu.

Advent assumes that when Jesus returns he will find us disciples doing the Lord’s work as being agents of grace and healing in this season of turmoil, economic oppression, and grief.  He will find us not fueling the flames of war and conflict, but meeting the needs of victims of violence with a resolve that rests on the fact that God’s future will call all creation to account.

We are to bring light in these dark days because the day of God’s coming draws us ever closer to His kingdom.

In the words of scholar, Jennifer Ryan Ayers, Advent, “points to the importance of waiting, anticipating, and trusting in a promised future that seems very removed from our current circumstances.”*  It is a time to “lean into God’s future” and share the good news that God’s reign of making all things right begins now.

This Advent season, don’t be caught off guard by the “day of the Lord.”  Embrace it, and let it drive your message of hope to others who face despair, disease, and dysfunction.

*Source: Jennifer Ryan Ayers, Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion eds. Barleett, Taylor, and Long (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), pp. 7-8.

Stay Awake and Be Prepared!

secondI don’t think I’ve seen a sadder moment in recent memory than when I witnessed three solemn faces–those of my wife and two children–last Monday morning as they headed back to school.

My wife (a teacher in Dekalb County) and children cherished the days off during the big snow storm last week.  Returning was a necessary part of work and education for all three, but they would have rather participated in just one more snowball fight.

The storm was fun for this family, but it was not all fun and games for so many other fellow Atlantans who had to endure hours in cars and the cold, only to have their elected officials make excuses as to why the city was not better prepared to handle the elements, traffic, and response.

When my wife went to work that Tuesday morning, we wondered why city officials and superintendents insisted on seeing the first snowflake fall before having to cancel school.  It didn’t make sense to us, and I hope that our officials learned the lesson: be prepared!

The Reverend Quincy Barnwell, pastor of Grace Christian Church (his church meets in Trinity’s building at 8 AM on Sunday mornings), reminded his congregation last weekend that we Christians are called to be prepared too.

Except, in our case, we are to be prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming.  This is a command from the Lord.

In Matthew 24 Jesus foretold his return to reclaim the earth as God’s own and judge all creation accordingly.

Jesus said two important things about that occasion.  First, no one but God knows the “day and hour” of Jesus’ return (v. 37).

Second, Jesus’ return will be like the coming of a thief in the night.  We are called not to slumber or be distracted, but to be alert, awake, and prepared (vv. 38-50).

When Jesus returns, then, we Christians will not have the privilege of saying that we were not prepared.  We cannot wait for the first snowflake to fall in order to hear God’s call, repent of our sins, and live a life of holiness with God.

What is interesting is that Jesus tells us that being prepared for his return means more than merely being in a certain state of mind.  He also asks us to stay awake regarding the needs of others.

Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 24 leads into Jesus’ ethical commands to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the captive, and welcome the stranger in Matthew 25:31-46.

The way we stay alert is to remain in a sort of constant motion to fulfill these needs.

It is easy to fall asleep in our obligations to our neighbors.  We are distracted by the many things that surround us, beautiful things like cars and computers and fancy wardrobes and ostentatious homes (for me, its books…I get distracted by reading too many books!).

These distractions start to pull us away from the Lord, and we end up working day in and day out in order to afford more things that only distract us further.

No wonder Jesus likens his return to being like a thief in the night.  When Jesus comes, he will steal away all those things we’ve lusted after only to leave us naked and vulnerable.

Only then, when he shows us for who we really are, will Jesus ask: What have you done with your life apart from hoarding, collecting, and consuming things?

As a Baptist, I know this question comes awful close to the idea that we might be “saved” by our works as much as by our faith, but that’s not the case.

In Scripture, faith is a catalyst for works.  Works is the evidence that Christ has made a difference in our life, a difference that others can see and experience for themselves.  Jesus continues to call us even today to “stay awake!” in both our faith and our works.

“About that day or hour no one knows”

btfOver the past few weeks, my wife and I have been catching up on the classic Back to the Future trilogy.  We haven’t seen the movies for quite some time, and its been a real treat to see how that DeLorean time machine brings all kind of trouble.

I get a kick out of the second movie in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) goes into the future to the year 2015.  It is fun to see how the director and prop artists envisioned our future from the mid-1980s, and how far we have yet to come considering 2015 is only two years away.

I doubt very highly, for instance, that we will have flying cars or hoverboards in the next two years.  We are still trying to figure out how to get 100 miles out of an electric car, let alone how to make Fords fly.

Then there is the futuristic soda shop in the movie.  In it, robots with screens take orders from patrons.  They got the screens correct in some respect with the internet, but I don’t think we will have any “Max Headroom”-like images of Ronald Reagan asking us if we’d like cheese on our burger.

This vision of the future, as fantastic as it is, simply reminds us that for all of the predicting we do, we don’t know what the future holds.  We don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.

By the way, wasn’t it just last year that the world was supposed to end?  So much for Mayan math.

Now consider that nearly 2000 years ago, someone who was quite close to God–was God in the flesh, in fact–told us that we will never know the “day or hour” of God’s ultimate return to earth (Mark 13:32).

No, Jesus didn’t leave any room for interpreting when the end will come, but he did warn his disciples that they are not to sit around and wonder either.

If you read Mark 13, Jesus gave a long lesson about what things will happen in the future and what his disciples were to do.

One thing on the disciples’ to-do list was not to let anyone lead them astray (Mk. 13:5, 22).  Some folks think this means that false prophets will come preaching all kinds of explicitly false gospels.  I think it is more subtle and insidious than that; perhaps Jesus was referring to the nearest salesperson who scares you into thinking that you need a new car (instead of that old 3-year old one) that might lead you into deeper debt.

Or maybe its a commercial that distracts you with the next “big thing” instead of inspiring you to use your resources for the mission field.

Another thing on the to-do list was not to worry about what to say when being persecuted (Mk. 13:11).  If Jesus’ disciples are living and embodying the Good News of the Gospel, then their lives should speak for themselves.

Disciples only bear witness to their experience in God, not try to focus on some big, long explanation that tries to defend a God who needs no defending.

Lastly, Jesus encourages his disciples to “keep awake” (Mk. 13:37).  I had a feeling that Jesus knew that his return would not be as soon as the early church first suspected.  He knew that the longer the anticipation, the more people tended to get bored, give up, or simply turn away.

Jesus insisted that they–and we–stay “awake” and to spread the gospel as if every day is the last day before his return.

Back to the Future is fun because it inspires us to predict the future, but we Christians must always keep in mind that God cannot be predicted.  We are to simply stay alert and be on guard, for only when the gospel has spread to the whole world will the end come.