If possibly the popular understanding of the end times that we discussed yesterday is indeed not what we're waiting for, and that there are other legitimate interpretations of the relevant passages of scripture, then what are they? What is it that we're waiting for throughout Advent each year–and throughout our entire lives as followers of Jesus? At this point in the Advent series, I'm now realizing that I have a serious challenge on my hands (a little late to be realizing this). The fact that there are such widely varying interpretations of these passages of scripture should let us know that the writers of the Bible were trying to communicate things that were difficult for them to express. They were extremely competent writers, who took part in writing the best-selling and most influential book in world history. Apparently when I was planning this series, I had the faulty thought that I might be able to clarify in a few days' devotions what it was difficult for them to find the language to say. I think taking up this challenge is worth a shot, though, because it will be extremely difficult for any of us to practice Advent's waiting unless we have a better idea of what it is that we're waiting for. Therefore, I'll attempt to be both brief and say quite a bit to summarize this today, and then we'll spend the next three days unpacking it.
One of my favorite hymns is "This is My Father's World," and it has a couple of lines that grip me every time we sing them:
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done: Jesus Who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heav'n be one.
The idea of earth and heaven being united, with the vindicated, crucified and risen Jesus in the center as King, is surprisingly foreign to the way that I had previously thought about Jesus' return, yet I have become convinced that it is indicated as God's original intent and mission throughout history from the beginning of the Bible until its dramatic "Come, Lord Jesus!" conclusion at the end of Revelation.(1)
While I previously thought we were looking toward a dreadful end of the world, the Bible speaks instead of "the end of the age" and "the age to come." Instead of thinking that the world will be destroyed as we escape it, the scriptural hope is that the world will be made new.
I previously mentioned how helpful N.T. Wright's For Everyone commentaries on the New Testament have been to me, and one of the things about them that either points to how incredibly beneficial they are, or to just how nerdy I am, is that they're the first books in which I've ever paid close attention not just to the text itself, but also to the glossary. Any of us could increase our level of biblical literacy dramatically just by studying his glossary, because Wright clears up the meanings of so many biblical terms which usually only carry vague meanings at best in our minds, even though we hear and use them often.
The glossary's paragraph on "second coming" is worth a long quotation here, and it gives us a framework for the rest of this week's explorations. There's plenty packed into these words to chew on for a while, so you may want to read it more than once:
When God renews the whole creation, as he has promised, bringing together heaven and earth, Jesus himself will be at the centre of it all, personally present to and with his people and ruling his world fully and finally at last. The Christian hope picks up, and gives more explicit focus to, the ancient Jewish hope that [Yahweh] would in the end return to his people to judge and to save. Since the ascension is often thought of in terms of Jesus' 'going away', this final moment is often thought of in terms of his 'coming back again', hence the shorthand 'second coming'. However, since the ascension in fact means that Jesus, though now invisible, is not far away but rather closely present with us, it isn't surprising that some of the key New Testament passages speak not of his 'return' as though from a great distance, but of his 'appearing' (e.g. Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). The early Christians expected this 'appearing' to take place not necessarily within a generation as is often thought (because of a misreading of Mark 13 and similar passages), but at any time – which could be immediate or delayed. This caused a problem for some early Christians (2 Peter 3:3-10), but not for many. For the early Christians, the really important event – the resurrection of Jesus – had already taken place, and his final 'appearing' would simply complete what had then been decisively begun.(2)
In contrast to the Great Tribulation/Rapture/Antichrist view of the end of the world we described yesterday, I want to wait for Jesus to come again, finally and fully reigning as King, setting everything right and making everything new as Wright describes above. That kind of hope stirs my longing to see it come to pass rather than my desire to be part of history that won't have to witness it.
Most importantly for our discussions here, I can order my Advent–and indeed, my life–around waiting for the day when we will see Jesus as I seek to live always ready for it, constantly preparing my soul and the area of the world over which I have any say to be ready and able to welcome Jesus as King.
Over the next three days, we'll look more closely at three aspects of Jesus' return, and how they shape our Advent hope: judgment (and why it's a good thing), resurrection, and new creation. Then, we'll finish the week by considering how we can live now in light of what's to come.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) For more, see N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (2) N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 224-225.