As part of my brief experiment with being a pastor, I once attended something we Methodists call "License to Preach School," and as you might guess by its title, part of what we learned there was guidance for preaching sermons. Each participant was required to write a sermon during the days of the course and then preach it to a small group of peers for feedback.
I was excited about my opportunity. I worked on a sermon, and I thought that it was pretty good. In my mind, I was imagining the kind of congratulatory feedback that my classmates and supervisors were going to give me. My turn came, I preached my sermon, and I felt like things were going well. When the time for feedback came, people were a little hesitant. (I thought, "Well, of course. I've just given them a lot to think about. It's probably a challenge for them to express in words how much my sermon has impacted them." Remember––this was License to Preach School, not a License of Humility.) Then, finally, someone spoke up and just as I expected––they started to talk about how much they enjoyed my sermon and what they got out of it. Two or three others followed suit, saying that those same parts of the sermon were helpful as well.
There were two problems that quickly caught my attention about their comments: first, the parts of the sermon they described as helpful weren't in any way intended to be part of my point. Second, though I imagined myself to have driven my main point home with great effectiveness, no one ever mentioned anything close to what I wanted to communicate. The thing I intended to emphasize was apparently completely missed, while they picked up on other things that I hadn't even really wanted to say.
Something of the same dynamic happens in many of our discussions about Jesus' return, but for a different reason. In the case of my preaching, my classmates' feedback was evidence that I had not been as effective of a communicator as I had fancied myself to be, and therefore my point was missed. The same thing happens with the Bible, though in the case of the scriptures, the fault isn't on the communicators' side, but on ours as the audience. We often read and see the things that we want to see in the Bible regardless of what is actually there, plus many inherent factors come into play in trying to correctly interpret a complex ancient document from a culture very different from our own. Yet the result is still the same: we miss the main points. In the case of what the Bible says about our future and the things that will happen when Jesus returns, our normal conversations tend to focus on all kinds of side-issues, while leaving out the scripture's main emphasis when it speaks of the age to come: resurrection.
When Christ returns––on that day when all of these centuries of longing and waiting for him finally end, when this yearning ache we have for him to appear is finally satisfied and there is no more need for this painful yet hopeful waiting of Advent––the two great destroyers of his people will be utterly and definitively dealt with: sin and death. Sin's defeat was achieved in Jesus' death on the cross, and––as we discussed yesterday––its downfall will be full and final when Jesus returns for judgment. Death's defeat was achieved in Jesus' resurrection on Easter Sunday, and its vanquishment will come when what happened to Jesus happens to all of us, and we are raised to indestructible life in new, death-defeating bodies like that of our Lord.
When the scriptures say that death has lost its sting and been swallowed up in victory, it isn't just spouting optimistic nonsense. Because of Jesus––the one who could defeat death, because he was the one who could defeat sin, because of the eternal kind of life that was in him through his knowledge of his loving Father––life will have the last word from that day on. Suffering will cease and be redeemed. Those whom we have loved and lost will be seen again. Everyone who has laid down their life for his sake will rise and find it.
If in our lives as followers of Jesus, the only time that we think about and talk of resurrection is on Easter Sunday, we have missed the point. Exceedingly. On the other hand, if we live in hopeful waiting expectation of the day when our King returns, sets everything right, and we will all be made alive in him forever, then Advent will have taken its intended effect upon us.
Then, one day, he will come, and we will be ready.
A Prayer for the Day:
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through 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.