First Sunday of Advent from San Miguel
Can We Really Believe In a Second Coming?
Matthew 24: 36 – 44
November 27, 2022
The First Sunday of Advent
Can we, do we, really believe in the Second Coming? The liturgy for Holy Communion includes these words, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Do we believe it?
It is the First Sunday of Advent. We think of Advent as a time to prepare for, and really, to celebrate Christmas, the first coming of Jesus as a babe in a manger. Alas, and to the regret of not a few preachers and congregations, Advent and its appointed Scriptures focus far less on that first coming than on the second coming of Jesus. Advent positions us between the times, between the first coming and the second. Advent asks us to defer our celebration of Christmas, at least a little, in favor of a quieter season of waiting, watching, even penitence.
Today’s gospel lesson is part of the lengthy response from Jesus to his disciples about the end times and a Second Coming. You may recall from two weeks ago we had a similar reading? Then we heard Jesus say the Jerusalem Temple would fall, an end of the world as they knew it would come. His disciples asked a quite understandable question, “When will this be? And what will be the sign of your coming?”
They want, as we all do, some sense of control over life’s uncertainties. If we know, we can prepare, or we think we can. The problem is that Jesus says we can’t know. Nobody can, not even him. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”
He is very clear . . . “No one knows.” But that hasn’t stopped all sorts of people from telling us they do know. Harold Camping, an enormously popular radio evangelist first predicted the end of the world and return of Jesus for 1988, which he then revised to 1994. Camping’s last date-certain for the end was May 21, 2011. I guess he was popular in the small town where my sister lived because I saw multiple signs there in the spring of 2011 saying, “The End Is Coming.” One date Camping did not see coming was his own death. He died as the result of a fall in 2013.
And there are all the books and movies about the so-called Rapture like “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” All claim to know that an End and a terrifying Second Coming are imminent. However, you can escape, be raptured, “taken up, up and away,” if you are in the know and among the right group or sect.
In today’s lesson, we hear Jesus say, “Two will be in the field, one will be taken, one left. Two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken, one will be left.” Hal Lindsey, among others, ran with such words and now its hard for us, hearing them, to not think that the one “taken” was “raptured” to heavenly safety, the other left behind to earthly chaos.
Only Jesus doesn’t say that. We don’t know which is better, to “be taken” or “to be left.” Or if that’s just the way things go in an uncertain world. One day you’re talking with a dear friend, the next day they are gone.
So a lot of weeds have grown up in the section of the Christian garden marked “Second Coming.” We almost need to preface such readings with a “trigger” warning. Such passages trigger anxiety, fear, even terror. Which is actually the precise opposite of the intent of such passages and teaching. Their intent is to inspire hope and confidence in God’s rule.
A gay man I know grew up in a fundamentalist home and church which embraced the teaching of the Rapture. When, as a boy he began to suspect he was gay, he was terrified that he would come home one day and find his entire family had been raptured away while he was left alone to endure hell on earth, because he was gay. For years, he rushed home every day, after school, frightened that no one would be there.
A lot of weeds in this part of the garden. Some of them poisonous.
Partly in response to these heretical teachings which play on natural human insecurity, which is amplified in times of great change, mainline Protestants more or less dropped any real proclamation of a Second Coming. It seemed out-of-date, kind of embarassing. Alas, we threw the baby out with the bathwater, dismissing the Second Coming no longer tenable or in any way relevant.
This neglect was not only our reaction to the fear-mongering, but also because we had embraced a modern belief in Progress with a capital “P.” We came to think we were bringing in the Kingdom of God. That a world where poverty, disease and war would be no more, was immiment. We thought that until the bloody wars and atrocities of history’s most brutal century, the twentieth, made belief in inevtable human progress hard to sustain.
So what is Jesus really saying here? Can we really believe in a Second Coming? What does it mean if we do?
He is saying two things. One, there will be an ending to life as we know it. There will a final consummation, a fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. For Christians history is not an eternally repeating cycle. There is a beginning in God, and an ending in God. I am, said Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last. Whether we go or he comes, there will be an ending.
Second, no one knows — or can know — when that will be. Life is uncertain. There’s a randomness to it. One in a couple gets Alzheimer’s, as did my father, and the other, my mother, doesn’t. Who knows why? A wonderful person dies in the prime of her life, leaving behind three young children; her sister lives on untouched but for a shadow of survivor’s guilt.
A flood, a break-in are other images Jesus uses to suggest life’s uncertainty, and to break through our natural and normal human tendency to assume we are somehow exempt from life’s crises and contingencies. It’s not exactly cheery stuff, but maybe the point is the same as in a verse from Psalm 90, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Not that different from the concluding words of our gospel lesson today, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” We do not control the future. So be ready.
But what does such gospel readiness look like?
I wrote this week in my blog, perhaps some of you saw it, of our experience in San Miguel. I’m sure you’ve heard many starry-eyed accounts of life here from new arrivals, but bear with me a moment.
We were riding home in a taxi, with Robert, after church last Sunday. Because of the parade, we came the back way, down those narrow, steep cobbled streets, moving slowly as many others had taken the same route. Finally, we came down by El Chorro, the site of the springs. I saw a place I’d walked by that looked intriguing. In a burst of spontaneity we jumped out of the taxi and walked in, finding it was a hotel with a restaurant in its lovely courtyard. We had a beautiful lunch surrounded by the cascading flowers, in the care of gracious servers. Though we had not ordered an appetizer, they brought us one, a colorful and tasty gift.
After a slow, happy lunch we left the hotel to find that a jazz singer and pianist were just getting set up in the square across the street. We settled on a bench to enjoy the music, the kids who played in the square and the company of strangers in an unanticipated, unplanned bit of Sabbath joy and rest. The wholly unplanned nature of it all was key. It all seemed a gift, unanticipated and wonderful.
In my blog I noted that vistors to San Miguel often use the word “magical” to speak of your city. I totally get that. But another word came to mind for me. “Gracious.” The flowers and smiles, the food and music, the colors. We felt so blessed.
Now, I know that San Miguel, inevitably, has its own problems and that not everyone here is kind or joyous at all times. Still, for us, coming from a wintry Seattle pocked with homeless encampments, bedeviled by drug addiction, stunned by a recent school shootings and all the fears and anxiety that goes with all of that, what has struck me most here is a graciousness one does not so often experience in the States these days.
In a climate of hyper-anxiety and division, readiness often means being on your guard, wary and suspicious. Watching isn’t so much watching for Christ’s surprising presence, as watching for danger.
But what if the graciousness that we have experienced here, and did so delightfully, last Sunday is not just a moment or a season’s good fortune, but a window into the life of God, a foretaste of God’s consummation of all things, when Christ will come again? What if God’s gracious mercy for sinners and for every broken heart is the really real? What would it mean to live prepared for that as the true end of things? By “end” as I use ithere I don’t mean in a chronological sense, but “end” as in the purpose of all things?
We ask for signs. Here’s one. One of the delights of this community has been getting to know several couples among you that are late in life marriages. After loss, finding — being found by — love, again and anew. What grace!
Can you think of a time in your life when you experienced grace? Perhaps it was, as for us a week, a unexpected meal in a beautiful place, then beautiful music and the delight on the faces of strangers. Several of those snapping pictures took pictures of us, Linda and me. They weren’t trying to selll us anything, they just seemed to want to capture the joy that we were all in that moment sharing.
Or perhaps it was the grace of experiencing God’s one-way love mediated through another human being at a time when you had really messed up, when you had done something that makes you shudder now to think of it . . . and yet that person did not condemn you or abandon you, but loved you and stood by you.
When I was a teenager, we returned from a church summer camp. After dropping the other kids off, I helped our minister, John, unload the car. At some point I said something terrible. I don’t know what came over me. I lived in Northern Virginia. There was a lot of racism, but our family wasn’t like that. Yet something popped out of my mouth that was gross and ugly. In response to something John said to me I said, “That’s white of you.” It was a racist expression I had heard but never used, nor did I ever use it again. I was mortified, filled with sudden shame.
John said nothing about my racist remark. I hoped that maybe he hadn’t heard it, but I knew he had. We went on unloading the car. His bearing toward me did not ever waver, did not change. I was not cancelled, as people say today. I was not shunned. I experienced God’s one-way love, God’s grace for a sinner. Teenagers, most especially, need that unwavering grace, for they inevitably mess up.
What if what it means to be watchful for the coming of our Lord, to be prepared for what we cannot know any specifics about, is to be gracious, to be kind — especially when people fail or disappoint — to step back from judgment and condemnation? What if, living in the light of the end that is Christ and his mercy for sinners, means that we make ready by ourselves extending grace and mercy to those with whom we walk the way when they have failed — as every one of us does or will do — at some point, in some way?
Do you harbor a judgment against someone? Are you carrying a grudge? Might we prepare the way of the Lord by extending mercy? Might we be ready for the coming of grace but extending grace to others, even to one who has offended us or hurt us or betrayed us? It’s not easy, I know. And we can all think of times we have failed. But there’s still time, the end is not yet. The Lord will guide you, and give you the words.
To believe in the Second Coming, that life’s end is Jesus and his love, is to believe that the nature and end of all things is grace, is mercy, is love for the loveless, for the broken, for the failed.
Have you ever said to yourself, “If only I knew then what I know now.” “If only I knew then what I know now . . . I would have handled that differently. I would have lived differently. I would have been less quick to judge, more quick to forgive.”
Here’s the meaning of the Second Coming, we can know the future now. Here’s what we are saying when we say, “Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again.” The future is Jesus Christ and his grace. We make ready by living today the light of God’s promised future. Amen.