About the time Thomas Edison perfected the electric light bulb, and I start my first divinity school classes (that’s funny – so laugh), the hot religious topic was Jesus’ second coming. Some people were all worked up. Terms like apocalypse, the end of time, the parousia and the rapture get folks scared. The return of Jesus will come suddenly. While people are marrying, partying, doing normal things, they get swept away in floods, totally caught off guard. People are at work — one randomly disappears, the other is left behind. That’s the rapture. Some think that means the good people get air-lifted out of here; the bad stay and are doomed. That’s not what Jesus is saying here. But it sells books, with ominous titles like “The Late Great Planet Earth.” I remember bumper stickers: “In case of rapture, the driver of this car will disappear” — which I thought was pretty arrogant and self-righteous. I guess the rest of us can just go to h…?
It’s not just books. Movie makers find quite a market in this rapture stuff. I’m sure people who follow this are sincere – and misguided. Their cheesy movies confirm skeptics’ belief that Christians are a few cards short of a full deck. In these movies, people pushing lawn mowers vanish, and the runaway power mowers plow through the neighbor’s flowers. Cars crash into light poles because the driver has disappeared. And in case we miss the point, the movie throws up on the screen: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected time.” When asked about all this foolishness, my seminary ethics professor said: “If Jesus comes back, I’ll be for him.” Now that I can affirm.
We proclaim a second coming in our liturgy: “According to your command, O Father, we remember his death; we proclaim his resurrection; we await his coming in glory,” and in the Creeds: “He will come again in glory.” What does it mean? We’re not sure. We have waited nearly two thousand years. Even good Christians like us grow skeptical or agnostic. All Jesus says is that he’ll come suddenly, when least expected – and that’s it. Our job is to stay awake, be ready. His is to show up. For rapture folks, that means “Get saved while there’s still time, or go you know where.” I am all for being saved. I just believe their tactics don’t correspond well to God’s ideas about loving and saving us all.
Should we be frightened? After our youth had seen the movie Left Behind, we talked. Some were scared, bothered. “So what scares you?” I asked. “I don’t know if Jesus would take me or leave me.” “That’s a good question. What are you doing that makes you fear you’d get left?” And I thought – boy, have we failed these kids. We haven’t helped them learn that God’s already taken care of our fears and our lives by sending Jesus, the cross and an empty tomb – signs that no one is left out of God’s love. So live joyfully, love God and others, and when life turns hard, find the spiritual stamina to endure with faith and hope. God has it all under control. Faith is not an escape from life or world, but a divine energy which stabilizes us in times of confusion and suffering.
Undue fear and worry about the future take us away from all God is doing in the present. It’s useless anyway. Stay alert. Live faithfully. He comes like a thief in the night, never announcing he’s here. He slips in on you, not into our houses, but into our hearts. He may startle us.
I was visiting with a person whose physical difficulties kept him from attending worship. In absence and missing worship he realized he was repeating prayers and worship words mindlessly. He rarely absorbed what he was saying. Wow, was I busted. I had been feeling pretty good about myself to that point – visiting, bringing communion, ready to dazzle with my pastoral wisdom. I left the house thinking, “He’s not alone. That’s me, too.” It’s like Paul says: “It is now the moment to wake from your sleep.” I thought: “Jesus has come again, surprisingly, nudging me out of a sleep I can easily walk through, too.” That gives me hope. Jesus insists on coming to us, to awaken us to what we miss when we are so otherwise distracted.
One evening last week the phone rings. A guy has flowers to deliver. He wants to check his information: Rev. and Mrs. Teague, address. Soon he arrives with a gorgeous Thanksgiving arrangement from a dear friend. He asks what church I pastor. Turns out, he graduated from St. Francis Seminary in our neighborhood. I ask him where he is a pastor. He isn’t anymore. A stroke left him unable to continue his vocation. He delivers flowers now. In him, Jesus came nudging me again – someone whose life and dreams had unraveled, who had every reason to be angry and quit. Yet he has a spirit and energy of love, gratitude and genuine joy. And I hear Jesus’ words: “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
The Greek word for second coming is parousia. Contrary to what some say, it means more than the end, the final coming, the consummation of the world. It also means “coming alongside.” That can mean Easter, Pentecost, Advent and every day – Jesus comes alongside us. Think of all the ways Jesus comes alongside again and again – just as he says he will. He comes when two or three gather in his name, when we come to his meal for bread and wine, when we feel most discouraged and alone, at the most unlikely times and in the most unlikely people. Just as he says: “Surprise!” Live so close to God you can’t help but stay awake. It’s good news. Jesus keeps coming for us. Stay awake! Happy Advent. And by the way, stay awake!