Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Second Coming of Christ

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
RCL, Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Few terms conjure up more misunderstanding or more fear than “The Second Coming.” And unfortunately, we Christians don’t always help matters.

Some Christians say that the Second Coming is not a real return of Jesus. Rather, it's a spiritual return, and that happens all the time.

One of the greatest religious thinkers of the 20th Century – the influential liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich – devotes less than two pages of a three-volume Systematic Theology to what he calls “the symbol” of the Second Coming. It’s just not all that important.

By contrast, I’ve read that the the New Testament refers to the Second Coming 318 times. That comes out to 1 reference for every 25 verses. And 23 of the New Testament’s 27 books mention the Second Coming of Christ. [1] Clearly, the Second Coming is of central importance to the faith of the New Testament writers.

If some Christians sideline the Second Coming such that it ultimately becomes a matter of indifference, others highlight its importance at the price of perverting its meaning. In some recent popular literature, for example, Christ is no longer the Prince of Peace but a Dealer of Destruction. This literature depicts Christ returning to earth to unleash an orgy of violence. Leading a crusade against his enemies, Christ wades knee-deep through blood as corpses are heaped high, the unsaved are cast into the fires of hell, and the saved gleefully watch as the damned suffer eternal torture.

This theology of the end times suggests a kind of bi-polar Jesus. In the first advent, Jesus comes in love as a cuddly, cute little baby. But in the second advent, Jesus comes in bloodthirsty wrath and vengeance.

It reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw which read: “Good News! Jesus is coming soon. And boy is he ticked off!”

This take on the Second Coming encourages Christians to rejoice in all of the terrible things happening in our world as proof that Jesus’ return is at hand. So we have rising crime rates, natural disasters, war, and terrorism? Great! That just means Jesus will be here soon, right? And to expedite his return, we should all pitch in and do our part to support the instigation of even more violence and bloodshed, especially in the Middle East.

This is a crazy theology. It envisions God as a cosmic sadist, a divine dictator, and an omnipotent terrorist.

My friends, that is not the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

When it comes to the Second Coming, we have a God of ultimate indifference on the one hand versus a God of gleeful vengeance on the other. Something just isn’t right with this picture! For neither of these perspectives articulates what the Nicene Creed means when it says that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end” (BCP, p. 359).

Viewed through the lens of the faith of the Church, the Second Coming does, indeed, refer to an actual future event. God will decisively intervene in the madness and mayhem of human history. But just as Jesus warns his disciples that “about that day or hour no one knows” (Mt. 24:36), no one knows exactly what the end will look like.

In contrast to date-setting, fear-mongering theologies of the End Times, the Church’s faith regarding the Second Coming is not about fear. It’s about hope. It’s something to look forward to, something to yearn for, and something to be prepared for.

That’s why the Catechism in our Prayer Book refers to this business of “The End” and the Second Coming as “The Christian Hope.” Here’s what it says: “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world” (BCP, p. 861).

This tells us several important things about how the Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ makes a difference for how to live our lives. First of all, it underscores that living between the first and the second comings of Christ and not knowing for sure when the end will come is not a cause for fear. On the contrary, it’s a reason for living “with confidence in newness and fullness of life.” We Christians are like someone who reads the ending of a novel before she finishes the book. We know what the outcome will be. We know that the world’s oftentimes tragic story, and the outcome of our own lives and those of our loved ones, does not end in death or injustice. On the contrary, the end is about “the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” And God’s purpose is life, health, peace, and justice.

That’s really what the biblical concept of the final judgment of Christ is all about. Christ comes to judge, not to deal out death and destruction, but to restore order where there is chaos; to do justice where there is injustice; to overcome evil with good; to illumine darkness with light; and to bring new life out of death.

We see a vivid illustration of God’s judgment in the resurrection of Jesus. For in the resurrection of Jesus, God reveals His ultimate will to forever vanquish disorder, sin, evil, and death. And so Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of what we expect to happen for the whole world when Christ comes again in glory.

One theologian puts it like this: “Christ’s return is really the arrival of all things at their final destination in Christ. It is the definitive revelation of God’s all-embracing love for the world.”[2]

Jesus’ return is not a coming against the world. It’s a coming for the world. It’s a coming to complete God’s purpose for the world. Christ’s return and final judgment is for the sake of healing the nations and making all things new.

So if we really believe what we say together in the Nicene Creed, and if we allow the Church’s understanding of the Second Coming of Christ to put down roots in our hearts and minds, it can change our lives. For if Christ is the final end of the world … If the One who loves us enough to die for us, and the One who defeats sin, evil, and death – if He is the One waiting for us when the end comes … Then we who are marked in baptism as Christ’s own forever are truly free.

We are free from fear of what may or may not happen in the future so that we can stay centered in the present. We are free from a fear of dying that keeps us from really living. We are free from fears of eternal punishment that keep us from really loving. We are free to see beyond the changes and chances of this life to the joys of eternal life. And we are therefore free to put all of our energy and focus into our true purpose – to be bearers of God’s coming kingdom, heralds who sound the Good News that this world’s troubles are not the whole story. There’s a conclusion that the rest of the world doesn’t know about. Because, by God’s grace, we Christians have been given a peek at the final chapter. And it’s an awesome ending.

[1] See http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/s/second_coming.htm, accessed on November 27, 2007, and http://www.deafmissions.com/tally/bkchptrvrs.html, accessed on November 30, 2007.

[2] Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism New Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 1124. Emphasis in text.

2 comments:

Fr. Reich said...

Liked it...

Chris+ said...

The completion of God's purpose..sounds just like what we need.

Good stuff.
Chris+