The Signs of the Times

As I looked outside this morning, it was well past time for the sun to be up, but a lower, lingering gray continued to hold court in the sky.  Snow flurries were dancing along the tops of the leaves that are begging me to rake them toward their final resting place.  The trees, through which I’d normally see the sun coming over the horizon, are mostly bare, with only the last few holdouts just barely hanging on.  Looking outside, it wasn’t hard to tell that today was going to be a cold, wet, and dreary kind of day.  No matter how much I might wish for a sunny day in the mid-50s, it isn’t going to happen, and this morning’s snapshot out my front window betrays that reality.

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As a new Church Year begins, we move the focus of our Sunday Gospel lessons from Mark’s brevity to Luke’s more expansive theological story-telling style.  On this First Sunday of Advent, we jump deep into Holy Week for another foray into apocalyptic literature.  Unlike in Mark, where Jesus offered his eschatological reflections from the Mount of Olives to only a select few hearers, here, Jesus is in the Temple, talking to whomever will listen about what is to come.

“When you see the fig tree come into bloom, you know summer is at hand,” Jesus tells the crowded Temple court, “so pay attention, for you will see the signs of the times for the coming of the Kingdom of God.”  As with most visions of the End Times, Jesus’ imagery is full of war, famine, fear, are foreboding.  He tells the audience that in those moments, they shouldn’t cower in fear, but rather, “raise up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.”

In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many a charlatan, of the sort that Jesus warned the crowds about earlier in Luke (a version of which we heard from Mark two weeks ago), have made themselves rich and powerful by a false reading of these signs.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.  In a world that constantly looks like it is coming to an end, and most often so due to the sinfulness of humanity, are we able to read the signs and raise up our heads?  Will we be willing to stand up and invite others to join in the work of restoration to which we are invited?  Are we able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and restore?

Let’s be honest, the times don’t look that good these days.  Signs of the end are as prevalent as they’ve ever been.  Will we cower in fear?  Will we resign ourselves to anger and sadness?  Or, will we raise up our head, roll up our sleeves, and join with God’s redeeming work?

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[Don’t] Get Caught Up

Last week, I noted that the Revelation of John is very rarely preached on in Episcopal congregations.  As it is with evangelism, the call to repentance, and discipleship, the lack of attention we Episcopalians give to the eschaton is to our detriment.  Rather that offering a positive glimpse into what God might have to say about sin, salvation, and the end times, we instead focus on not being “like them.”  We castigate the bad theology of rapture preachers, while offering little, if any, in the way of a coherent theology of the final judgment. This Sunday, as our congregations hear Paul’s description of the final hours from 1 Thessalonians, their minds will immediately gravitate toward that bumper sticker they might have seen on their way to work last week, and we will have nothing to offer them.

 

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What if preachers did take some time to carefully consider the final days?  What if, instead of laughing at those who read the Left Behind series and take is seriously, we presented an alternative vision of the triumphant return of Christ?  What if, instead of simply lamenting the clothesline theology of apocalyptic preachers, we offered a glimpse into the hope we confess at least once, and often twice, each Sunday, that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead?

Remember that Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings that we have.  In this first generation after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the prevailing wisdom was that Jesus would be coming back, like, tomorrow.  When he didn’t, and when people of the Way began dying, their fellow Christians weren’t quite sure what to do.  These words from Paul are a pastoral response.  Unlike Daniel or John, Paul is not writing from visions, but is offering, as best he can understand it, an idea of how God might handle the problem of “the quick and the dead.”  As William Barclay notes in his commentary, “It is not the details which are important.  What is important is that in life and in death Christians are in Christ – and that is a union which nothing can break.” (p. 235)

Two thousand years later, our people still wonder about these things.  As I noted above, we say we believe that Christ will come again every Sunday (and at least twice a day if we follow the Daily Office), but what does that mean in a world where some say we might we swept up into heaven with no warning?  It means that God’s grace covers us.  It means that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.  It means that when Jesus does return, whether today or a million years from now, we who call on his name have nothing to worry about.  So don’t get caught up in the rapture hype, but certainly, get caught up in the salvation that belongs to our God.

Many will say “the time is near”

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Late last week, the Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news site made in the image of the Onion, posted an article entitled “Second Coming of Christ Scheduled for Game 7 of Cubs-Indians World Series.”  Quite honestly, that Jesus didn’t come back during that rain delay is surprising to me, but who knows, perhaps God’s omnipotent plan for all of Creation doesn’t revolve around the decaying pass time of the current largest empirical economy in the world.  I’ve seen others who think that maybe tomorrow will be the day.  This is again an American-centric plan that suggests that the 2016 Presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might be the catalyst for Jesus’ Second Coming.

Of course, Jesus warned us about such foolishness. In Sunday’s timely and unavoidable Gospel lesson, we find ourselves jumping ahead to Holy Week.  Since most Episcopal congregations skipped over Proper 27, Presumably in order to transfer All Saints’, but likely because nobody wanted to preach levirite marriage, after almost four months of walking with Jesus from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, we all of a sudden find ourselves in Jerusalem in the thick of Jesus’ struggle ahead of the cross.  Last week’s lesson was h the first of several encounters with the religious powers-that-be.  This week, we hear a portion of Jesus’ ongoing lament over Jerusalem, and how the central image of God’s steadfast love for his people has been sabotaged, and now has to be torn down.

Even then, Jesus says, even when God allows his very home to be destroyed in your midst, don’t let people fool you into thinking it is something bigger than it is.  There will be wars and rumors of wars.  We’ve got that.  Earthquakes.  See Kansas and Oklahoma.  Famines. Check. Plagues.  Isn’t Whopping cough making a comeback?  Portents in the heavens?  A Wrigley Field sign that reads “World Series Champs” would seem to qualify.

If you are looking for signs, they will no doubt seem to be there, and yet, we do not know the day or the hour.  Instead, rather than getting caught up in the signs and the scare tactics, Jesus invites us to trust that he will be by our side.  As we go to the polls tomorrow, fueled by a healthy dose of fear mongering from both sides over the past year or more, remember that even if the world were to end tomorrow, not that I think it will, God is still in control.

A Peculiar Ending

As I noted in yesterday’s post, this parable of the unjust judge or the persistent widow is a troublesome one, and it is made all the more convoluted by a rather peculiar ending.  Jesus, having told this parable and laid out a “how much more” or “how much different” or “how much better” argument for God’s willingness to give justice to those who ask for it, brings it to a close with a) a difficult conjunction and b) a strange exhortation.  Here it is in context:

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The Greek for this phrase includes a word “ara” that is “an untranslatable interrogative participle implying anxiety or impatience.”  What does this desire to find faith at the parousia (eschaton, end times) tell us about the difficult stuff we’ve just heard from Jesus?

Again, context helps.  Thanks to the way somebody set up chapters and verses in Scripture – that weren’t there to begin with, mind you – and thanks also to the way the Lectionary necessarily breaks the Bible up in to reasonable bite-size chunks, Luke 18:1-8 is set up at an isolated interaction between Jesus and his disciples.  What we miss out on, however, is how these verses are setup by a question from the Pharisees back in chapter 17, verse 20, “One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” (NLT)

Jesus spends the next seventeen verses discussing the end times (in a way that gives rapture theology enthusiasts way too much to build upon).  It is in the midst of that context, “when will the Kingdom of God come?” that Jesus tells his disciples about their need to keep praying and not to lose heart.  It in the midst of this mini-apocalyptic vision that Jesus wonders aloud, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

The delayed parousia was a huge issue for the early church, one that we can’t really seem to understand 2,000 years of waiting down the road, but the fact of the matter is that Jesus’ disciples and the early Church that developed out of their witness, fully expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes.  There were those among them who were severely disappointed that the Son of Man hadn’t descended upon the clouds with victory and majesty.  There were real questions about the whole thing as the first generation of disciples died off.  As Luke put his gospel to parchment, there was a real concern as to whether when Jesus did finally return, would there be any faith left?

Like yesterday, these are difficult questions for the people of the late 1st century, but I’m still scratching my head about what it means for us today?  What causes our faith to waver, if not the fact that Jesus still hasn’t returned?  What is it that holds us back from living into the kingdom today?  When the Son of Man [finally] comes, will he find faith on the earth?