In the Name...
There are times when truth is stranger than fiction. I was recently reading about some Federal policies from the 1950’s in the event of nuclear war. Apparently, immediately after an attack, the Post Office had a plan to distribute Emergency Change of Address Cards. Neither snow nor rain nor fallout, I guess.
There is a well-known stereotype of the ragged, bearded character pacing the streets with a sign which reads, "The End is Nigh" or something to that effect. Jokes, puns, and cartoons have all been inspired by this comical figure - comical because he is incongruous with his surroundings. If there is anything which should be obvious it is that the world as we know it has been around for a very long time and looks like it's going to be around for a long time to come. And yet. And yet, for two thousand years the Christian Church has been preaching, as a central part of its message, that "The End is Nigh."
Every year, in the season of Advent, clergy struggle to prepare sermons. We struggle because when you've been advertising something for two thousand years the sense of urgency tends to wear off. And this is not a new problem. The disciples all thought the Second Coming was a couple of years away, at most. Small wonder, then, that thirty years after the Ascension, St. Peter was feeling some heat over this teaching.
In his Second Letter he felt compelled to write, "Scoffers will come ...saying; Where is this 'coming' he promised? Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." To this, Peter replies, "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness", "...with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day." Therefore, "in accordance with this promise, we wait."
One reason, I suppose, we feel anxious about waiting is that we're not in control of the situation. We're at the mercy of others. Of course, waiting can be exciting when we're waiting for something good - like a new baby in the family or a tax refund. And, far from a waste of time, waiting can be a pause that refreshes – a time in which we can grow and prepare for whatever's coming next. But, living in the waiting time between one phase of our lives and the next can be difficult for us. It can even be exhausting.
Many of us know of the Russian psychologist Pavlov, whose experiments with dogs revealed techniques of mental conditioning and reflex. In one of his famous experiments, he rang a bell and then gave the dogs some food. Eventually, each time the bell rang, the dogs stopped whatever they were doing and lined up to be fed. But, Pavlov noticed that if too much time elapsed between the ringing and the feeding, the dogs fell asleep, exhausted, because their whole attention was so firmly fixed on waiting to be fed, that they wore themselves out. Doing nothing wore them out.
On the other hand, even though we Christians have been waiting, we have not been idle. Jesus commanded his disciples, "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons, preach the kingdom" and we have been doing just that for two thousand years in preparation for, not an End, per se, not a cataclysmic destruction of everything God made, but, a completion of the process of renewal which he began when he was here and charged us to continue.
If you go channel-surfing, you'll find at least one televangelist who will cheerfully tell you that the world is going to end in a giant explosion any day now. But, what's usually missing from these pronouncements of doom or glory is the message that we're not just supposed to sit back. Jesus doesn’t say "wait and do nothing". On the contrary, he says that we need to be very busy and the best thing we can do in preparation for His return is make the world a better place.
A story is told about St. Francis of Assisi. Someone once asked him, "What would you do if you heard that Jesus was returning tomorrow?" Francis replied that he would plant a tree. Because, he said, the prediction would probably be wrong, since Jesus said that nobody one knows when he's coming back. But, if it was true and he did, at least he would find Francis loving and taking care of creation.
Indeed, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we might call the Christian version of the End, the end of the beginning. The end of the beginning. Because that's really the kind of end we're talking about. You see, we're not Hindus or Buddhists awaiting an eternity of non-being on some astral plane. We're human beings made in the image of God and looking forward to seeing both a new heaven and a new earth. That means something physical, something real. Otherwise, what was the point of Christmas? God became flesh because he loves the world and he wants us to love it, and the people on it, as well.
"Jesus is coming" as an event is not the whole message of Advent. It's also a summons to work. Consider this as an Advent meditation. How will the world be a better place these next four weeks, because of me? What will we do to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks to fulfil Isaiah's vision of a world renewed?
Or will we find that we're too busy? How many times have we heard, or even said, things like, "It can’t be Christmas already – I haven’t bought my cards!" I haven’t picked out a tree!" Don't get me wrong here. I think it’s wonderful that we have our holiday traditions. But, the message of Advent is not "Be fancy." It's, "Be ready."
Ironic, isn't it? On the one hand, Advent invites us to look to the future, but, its most demanding challenge and most exciting promise comes in its reminder that the work of God happens in the present and that work is ours to do.
At this time of year, I always enjoy seeing the Salvation Army kettles outside the stores and I've seen parents come up with their children and hand them the money to put in the kettle. I find that very hopeful because it means that, in the midst of all the commercial stuff going on around us, people are thinking, “How can I make the world better?”
So, how can we prepare for the coming of the Lord? As St. Peter said, by leading lives of holiness and godliness, and by doing the works of God.
In the Name...