The Hope and the Fear
A sermon onLuke 21:25-36 by Nathan Nettleton, 3 December 2000
Although the coming Christ is brings our deepest hopes to fulfillment, the transition will be traumatic and we still fear his coming because of our unhealthy investments in the present.
Advent is not a season that breaks you in gently. The lectionary writers, in their wisdom, have done their best to hit us hard with the Advent message in this first week. Each year in this week we read a gospel account of Jesus speaking about the day he comes to fulfil Gods Dominion on earth. This is what the theologians call eschatology, the knowledge of the last things. We start here by looking forward in anticipation to the day when our ancient destiny is fulfilled, the day when Christ brings all things to completion and the deepest longings of all creation are satisfied. Now that might not sound like what youd expect in a season that is, at least in part, a preparation for Christmas. What have these thunderous visions of the end got to do with the beginning of the life of Jesus. Well maybe its Christmas weve misunderstood. Maybe if we really get a hold of this central Advent theme, then wed begin to understand Christs first coming in light of his final coming. We will see that birth as a decisive move towards the ultimate establishment of Gods reign of justice and peace on the earth.
Now proclamation of the coming reign of God is not confined to Advent. It is there from teh first words of our worship every week. Blessed is our God and blessed is the Dominion of our God, now and forever, to the ages of ages. This theme is more dominant in our liturgy during this season, it is more sharply in the centre of our focus, but it is never absent from the way we live and worship at any time of year. Every week we sing Christ will come again. Every day we pray, Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven. Every time we come to this table we stand at the threshold of the new age and join our voices in the hymn of unending praise. In bread and wine we taste the first fruits of the Kingdom, we participate sacramentally in the coming fullness of Gods eternal reign.
We do not worship only in light of what God has done in the past. Our worship is always illuminated and shaped by what is to come, by what God has promised, by promises that find an echo with the ancient yearnings deep in our guts. This is always there in our worship, but in this season of Advent, God calls us to go more deeply into that experience, to listen to the hungers and hopes that well up within us and to stand on the tiptoes of our souls and crane our necks to peer over the horizon see if we can make out the source of the light that is drawing ever nearer.
The reading we heard from the prophet Jeremiah is a classic expression of the yearning, the hungering for Gods coming that we are talking about. In those days and at that time I will raise up a new and righteous king and he will bring about justice and righteousness and my people will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. Im sure the people of Jerusalem would have no trouble adding their voice to that hope at present, but it is not far beneath the surface in any of us. Even when we cant find the words to express it, that yearning is there. We long for the day when there will be no more fighting and no more lying and betrayal, when every tear will be wiped from our eyes and there will be no more sorrow and no more pain and death will be swallowed up forever and all will be one as God is one. Our hope is in Christ who has promised us that the day is coming soon and who allows us to glimpse it every time we eat and drink at this table.
But I discovered in myself this week that there is a flip side to this fervent yearning and expectant hope. There is also a fear - an covert and disturbing fear. You can sense it in the gospel reading. When he speaks of the coming reign of God, Jesus speaks in heavy apocalyptic language of the sun being darkened, the moon refusing to shine and the stars falling from heaven. The earth is shaken and there are terrors and traumas, and Christ coming on the clouds with great power and glory. There is a violence about these accounts, its like an earthquake heavy with threat and menace. And no wonder. As any woman who has ever had a baby can tell you, the new is never born without trauma and upheaval. And the bigger the thing being born, the greater the labour pains. And there couldnt be anything much bigge than a new heavena dn a new earth. The old will not be pushed aside and the new established without a cataclysmic disturbance.
For me though, and I know Im not alone, there is a very personal dimension to the fear too. It really hit me last year when the confession of faith that we will read together in a moment was first written. The final line suggested by a liturgical scholar whose comments I had sought and when I first saw it I thought, Yeah thats good, and I popped it in. It was only a few days later when I read it again that the line hit me like a brick between the eyes and confronted me with some deep fears in myself. The line says, For the coming of that day on this day, we work and pray.
Suddenly Id run into the outer edge of my own faith. I was confronted with my own lack of readiness. I find it easier enough to say Come, Lord Jesus, Come and to speak of the hope of Christs day of glory. But do I really want that day to come on this day? Am I ready for Christ to come now? Suddenly my language of hope and expectancy seems like a lot of hot air. Something inside me knots up in fear at the thought. It showed me the extent to which Im over invested in the here and now. As glorious as the vision of creation brought to completion is, I will always fear it as long as I continue to invest in and profit from the present brokenness and lack of integrity in the world. I am like the rich young man who went away sad rather than pay the price of following Jesus. I am like the mining magnate who opposes reconciliation because he might not be able to mine some traditional Aboriginal lands.
I remember at the time last year that Shelley, who winced at the same line, made the comment that once youd seen it, the whole creed would feel wimpy if you took it out. And I think shes right. That line is going to challenge me every week from now to Christmas. It is going to ask me every week whether my prayers are for real or whether Im just mouthing cliches when I pray Come Lord Jesus.
And thats as it should be. Every week when we gather to worship, and especially during Advent, the words we pray are by no means all true of us. But we pray them because the realm of God beckons us. The final fulfilment approaches us in our worship and we pray with the words that we know we need to grow into. And we keep praying them week after week so that we might stretch the envelope of our faith and push ourselves a little closer to actually living the words we pray. Our worship is not and should never be simply an expression of who we are now. It is also to be an expression of who we will become in Christ, for in worship, and this is all the more true during Advent, we stand with one foot in the present and the other in the completed Kingdom to come. And it is in that place of tension, and of eventual reconciliation that we know what Advent means and we can join our voices, hesitant though they may be, with the prayer of the church down through the centuries: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, Come!