Living in Hope as if King Jesus Is Coming

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Sun, 12/03/2017 - 10:30pm

Romans 8:22-25, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, December 3, 2017

            The word “advent” means “coming.” What is it that is coming? What is it that we are preparing ourselves for? From all appearances, you might think of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas. An old song says,

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.
Please put a penny in the old man's hat.

Well, I might be getting fat, but I don’t know anyone who is preparing a goose—or even old men with their hats out begging. Here’s a more modern song, about as old as I am:

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas 
Ev'rywhere you go; 
Take a look in the five-and-ten, glistening once again 
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow
[Meredith Wilson, 1951].

Now there’s an honest song, saying that Christmas is about shopping—even though you wouldn’t know Christmas is coming by looking at five-and-tens, long gone. Even Benny’s is gone.

            We know that Christmas is about more than gifts and festivities, and so is Advent. In some stricter and more “High-Church” congregations, they don’t even allow Christmas decorations or Christmas carols during Advent. In those churches, you’re supposed to keep everything pretty bare and somber during Advent—something like Lent—until all the happy stuff appears on Christmas Eve. Obviously, we are not strict. I think it would be ridiculous to observe Christmas a month out of synch with our culture, at a time when we are trying to remind people that the celebration is about Jesus. I watched the Rockefeller Center tree lighting show this week and noticed that every song performed was purely secular up until the moment the tree was lit and a recorded choir sang “Joy to the World!” The tree lighting on our own lawn is about Santa Claus and not Jesus. We’ve been talking about changing our Christmas Eve service because so many of the children on the island do not know the story of Jesus’ birth.

            So I’m fine with letting the Christmas season begin early—as long as it’s after Thanksgiving. But within the church, I do not want to lose the spirit of Advent. We are preparing not for a holiday but for Jesus himself. And this is where it gets confusing, I think. On one level, we are preparing for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the coming of the eternal Son of God to the earth in human flesh as a baby. But if you pay any attention to the readings from the prophets during Advent or to the words of Advent hymns, you realize that Advent is about preparing for the ultimate coming of the kingdom of God. It’s about preparing for that day when weapons of war are turned to farm implements, when peace reigns, and—as someone tweeted the other day— “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We still look forward to the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies. In the Common Lectionary, the gospel readings this time of year are about the second coming, not the first.

            If Jesus was in fact the Messiah, as we believe, the Jews are still right that he did not accomplish all that the Messiah is supposed to accomplish. He announced the coming of the kingdom of God, yes, but there is still so much more of the kingdom yet to come. Even now, we pray “Thy kingdom come”—it’s out there in the future. When the kingdom comes is when God’s will shall be done on earth, the way it already is in heaven. God’s project was not finished with Jesus’ birth, or with his death and resurrection. God’s project—the dream of God which he is bringing to pass—is still incomplete. We look forward to it and lean into it.

            Advent asks us to take the familiar story of the birth of Jesus and its anticipation by the prophets and overlay that with a second, unfamiliar story—the story of when God will come in judgment and victory and everything will be made right. Some of us grew up thinking that when Jesus comes he will take us out of this world; but the New Testament teaches that when Jesus comes again he will come as the ruler who brings peace and justice to all. God has no intention of leaving the world in the mess that it’s in. God’s plan is to restore all things, to reconcile everyone to himself and to renew the creation itself.

For many church members today, thinking about Jesus coming again is uncomfortable, because that story has been taken over by kooks. There are people who insist they know the day Jesus will return. There are the wrong-headed Left Behind books which teach the view that believers will be sucked out of this world instantly, a view that only became popular at the end of the 19th century. Many of us are put off by the dystopian sci-fi quality of the stories people tell: barcodes on our foreheads as the mark of the Beast, some form of restoration of the Roman Empire in a renewed Europe which oppresses Christians, in one version, or attacks by Russia on Israel in another version. It’s pretty much all hooey. The orthodox Christian view is that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead and to establish his kingdom forever, at which time everything will be made new and this world will be restored to its original glory as God’s dream for us becomes real.

            During Advent, we are asked to identify with Jews. I don’t mean that we are to pretend that we don’t know the story of Jesus’ birth or that we imagine what it would have been like to be in Israel in the first century. I mean that we are asked to identify with the whole spirit of hope that filled the Hebrew prophets. We are asked to become again people who are waiting for a world that is yet to come. We are asked to remember that to say we are the people of God means that we have been grafted onto Israel, and we are saved in the hope that God will act to make the world right again.

            The first Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Hope Sunday. But the hope that we enter into is not just a pretend hope that Jesus will be born on December 25th. The hope we enter into is the hope that Jesus will finish the work he began and make his kingdom complete and final. The hope is that we won’t live forever in this tug of war between good and evil, between justice and politics-as-usual, but that one day Jesus is going to put his foot down and put an end to all this nonsense. To say that Jesus will reign as King means that all the horrible Caesars that have taken advantage of their citizens and all the rich who have oppressed the poor will finally have their comeuppance. Everything will be the way it’s supposed to be. When you see the word “hope” in the New Testament, it usually refers to a hope directed toward that time—either conceived as the day when everyone is resurrected from their graves, or the day of judgment, or the day Jesus returns, or the time when all things are reconciled and restored. Those are all the same thing. That is what we hope for.

            In the passage we read together from Romans 8, Paul says that we humans are living in a world that itself lives in hope and longing for transformation. The creation itself has experienced the effects of human sin, and it waits as we do for God to finish the great work Jesus started. The rabbis in Paul’s day who were looking forward to God coming to change the world often used the term “labor pains” to describe the tough period we are going through. Don’t worry, they said. It will not stay this way. These times of pain are like labor pains we experience as a new world is being born.

            Paul says that if we sense that the world is groaning, it is not groaning in despair but in hope. Eugene Peterson expresses it in The Message as observing “a pregnant creation.” You might think, watching the news, that the world is in its death throes, but the truth is that the world is about to give birth to a new world. Does it hurt to give birth to a baby? So I am told. Pain in the world does not mean that something good is not in process.

            But, Paul says, it is not only the creation out there that is groaning. We ourselves groan. We are, in a sense, giving birth within ourselves to new selves. We have the first signs of God’s Spirit in our lives, but we are waiting for so much more. We groan as we long to be completely transformed, just as the world does. Hope is the opposite of contentment or satisfaction with the way things are. Hope is the confident assurance that God has more for us and that God is going to make it happen. “We were saved,” Paul says, “in hope”—not by hope. We were saved by Jesus from sin and death, not so he could leave us as we were in the world as it is. We were saved in hope that we will one day be so much more than what we are, in a world that is so much better.

            Hope is not a young man’s game, as we might assume. Paul was near the end of his ministry career—likely about my age—and he did not know how his legal problems would turn out. In the end, he spend his last years in house arrest, the Book of Acts tells us, still teaching, until—as tradition tells us—he was put to death by the Roman Empire. But Paul was not hoping just for immediate things like the trip to Spain he says he was hoping for. Paul was hoping for a transformed body and transformed self in a transformed world where God has made everything right and new. I don’t think he could have kept going without that kind of hope. For Paul, this was the meaning of the resurrection and the meaning of the fact that the risen Jesus had encountered him one day on the highway. The resurrection was not the end of the story but the beginning. The resurrection meant that the kingdom God has promised was really going to happen—that Jesus was only the first of us to be raised, that all of us would share that experience and victory over death, and that this was the first sign of the world being made new. Even at the end of his life, Paul lived in hope.

            One opposite of hope is despair, which we are certainly tempted by, especially in our national life. Despair says that nothing will get better, that there is ultimately no one to help us. It says that we are on our own and do not have the power to change our circumstances. Hope says that we are not alone and there is an alternative narrative which says that the world ends not with a bang or a whimper but with glory, with a flood of justice and the triumph of love.

            But another opposite of hope—to which we are tempted mightily in this season—is nostalgia. Nostalgia says that there was once a better time to which we can never return. It fills us with longing for what has been lost, and the fond memories even of Christmas have a bittersweet taste to them—and ultimately when the sweetness fades we are left with the bitter. In many ways, our celebration of Christmas in our culture is about nostalgia rather than hope. It operates on the assumption that joy and peace and good cheer and neighborliness are things of the past. They are things to which we should return, but there is a grief in their loss and a fear that the return is impossible. Hope operates on the assumption that all those things are in our future, where God is at work, preparing a world for us. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith, out ahead of us in the bright and peaceful future, pulling us to himself by the power of his Spirit.

            The Lord’s Table as a symbol operates in two directions. On the one hand, it is an act of remembrance, looking backward at what Jesus did for us and filling us with thanksgiving and wonder. On the other hand, it is an act of hope, looking forward to the day when we will gather with people from the east and west, the north and south, and sit down at table in the kingdom of God. It looks forward to the great feast that Jesus made a symbol for his kingdom, that feast which includes the outcast and the disabled. Paul says in his instructions about the Lord’s Supper, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." We eat always in anticipation and hope—hope of seeing Jesus face to face, but also in hope for the day when he will make everything new.

            Advent forces us to ask ourselves whether we believe that the kingdom Jesus taught about is really coming. If he was right, if God is going to make things right and change everything, then we have a lot to look forward to. It’s not just presents under the tree or a gathering of family that we hope for. Our hope is in the Lord and in his reign as King of the world. Many of our Christmas carols remind us of that hope. Let us not sing them as exercises in nostalgia, or as relics of the misguided expectations people once had. Let us sing them in hope, with our faces turned to the future in which our God is at work.