Thursday, November 29, 2012

Advent is here! Advent is here!

The world started celebrating Christmas on November 1st, but for we Christians, Advent is here!  Advent with its yearly battle to keep Christmas at bay until its appointed time draws near. Advent with its need for constant vigilance against the forces of materialism. Advent with its annual opportunities to practice enough risk-free token charity to salve our souls for the rest of the year. Advent, the only eschatological season.
Two weeks ago, when the gospel lesson came from Matthew’s apocalyptic section, I wrote about one of the reasons that I am so very, very annoyed by the American evangelicalism’s fascination with the end times: i.e. the hubris of people claiming certainty about matters which are inherently uncertain.  But that single issue does not exhaust my annoyance with the topic, which has often made Advent and it’s eschatological focus a bit of a challenge for me. Having grown up in a moderately conservative congregation during the 1970s, I had to hear about Hal Lindsay’s Left Behind more than once, and can, to this day, perform the supremely tacky “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” in its entirety.

American evangelical hysteria about the imminence of the apocalypse took a bit of a break during the 1980s, mainly due to two factors: 1) Americans decided to get hysterical about fictitious Satanists running day care centers instead, and 2)  America’s chief executive seemed prepared to blow us all to kingdom come without divine assistance. But then 1995 rolled around, and with it, the prose stylings of Jenkins and LaHaye in Left Behind. Those of us who were parish pastors during that era were obliged to spend 12 years debunking this dreck, which turned out to be good practice for 2003 when The Da Vinci Code came out.

Nowadays it is not American evangelical protestants who are going bug-nutty about the end of days, but instead the denizens of the more kooky corners of the Internet. A Google search for [“end of the world” + 2012] yields 133,000,000 hits today. <sigh> This seems an excessive amount of attention to give to the phenomenon of a calendar ending. Imagine, if you will, people far in the future, long after western civilization has died its well-deserved death, digging up a calendar (perhaps one featuring auto parts, Far Side cartoons, or perhaps hunky fire fighters) and noting, in horrified comprehension that it ends on December 31st.

Blessedly – Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary is the cure for all of this nonsense.

American evangelical protestantism’s fascination with the end times is based in fear: specifically fear that life is radically out of our control. This fear over our present lack of control is projected into the future in our imaginations and dealt with in ways that help us to ignore our present helplessness in the face of events. (Have I told you that I’m not a psychologist, but I play one on the internet?) The gospel lesson for this Sunday, however, calls us to a much different approach.

Rather than imagining the horrors of the apocalypse, Jesus tells his disciples in a refreshingly straightforward manner that they should rejoice at any signs of the end that they see, to stand up and raise their heads! The coming of Christ in glory is not a disaster to be feared, but the redemption of the world!  In 2009, G. Kevin Baker invited readers of Homily Service to take this approach in their preaching for the First Sunday of Advent.

Read the Gospel, not the signs. We may see similar signs, but when we do, we have no need to fear, no need to worry. Redemption, not destruction is drawing near. Redemption! Christ has died, Christ is risen, and you better believe it, church, Christ is coming again! Don’t hunker down as it approaches. Raise your heads!

Those who read the signs may find themselves weighed down with worry, but those who read the Gospel must lift up their eyes so that they may see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory! Sign readers may get caught unawares, fretting over what is coming. Gospel readers are alert at all times, preparing for who is coming… Sign readers build fallout shelters, while Gospel readers build healing and saving stations where ministry can grow in flourish. Sign readers close the windows and batten down the hatches; Gospel readers open their hearts, their minds and their doors to the poor, the lost, the last and the least. Sign readers prepare for the coming of the end of the world. Gospel readers prepare for coming of a new heaven and a new earth.
What do you “do” with the end times in your preaching?

G. Kevin Baker, Homily Service  43:1, 13.(2009)

G. Kevin Baker is the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Graham, North Carolina.

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