There’s a book I read a number of years ago that I occasionally return to for reflection. The Gospel of Inclusion was written by the former Pentecostal mega-church pastor, Carlton Pearson. In this book, Pearson, who now preaches a Gospel of universal salvation, spends a great deal of time looking at the concept of “the end times.”
The end times is the theological belief in the 2nd coming of Christ as a day of judgment when Jesus will return and gather up the faithful to be taken into heaven while the rest of humanity will be doomed to an everlasting hell. This theological concept has been woven into Christian thinking since about the mid-17th century. And with this belief has come burning questions like When will it happen? Who will be taken up and who will be left behind? And how will this occur?
Well, our readings for the First Sunday of Advent present these same themes, but with a lot less focus on the event and a lot more focus on challenges to the faithful about how we should live.
First, from the prophet Isaiah, we read about a political cataclysm in the 8th Century before the Common Era (that is, before the birth of Christ). Prior to this event, the kings of Israel had been offering to pay tribute for protection from invaders. But to this situation, Isaiah proclaims a vision of a new Israel when tributes will no longer be needed because all kingdoms will come to the mountain of God’s dwelling. The reading concludes with a vision of universal peace where Isaiah says “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Anyone reading a newspaper these days would agree we are far from that reality today. But for centuries, this vision has given hope to people who fear the end of the world.
In order of time, the next passage written was the Gospel passage from Matthew. This section of the Gospel is part of the apocalyptic writings from Matthew where Jesus addresses people’s concerns about the end of time. He does this from the Mount of Olives which, it’s important to note, is where he is about to face the end of his own life. So, when Jesus was preaching about an end time, he was undoubtedly very much aware of what might happen to him as he spoke and what the next few days might hold in store for him.
What’s important about what Jesus says is it gives us an idea of just how universal the end will be. It’s not just a group of people or a city or even several kingdoms that will be effected. He says it will be for everyone, believer and non-believer alike.
Of course, people were just as curious then as they are now, so this naturally led to questions. They wanted to know when, to whom, and how it was going to happen and, more importantly, they wanted to know what they had to do to be saved from it. Interestingly, and I think most significantly, Jesus doesn’t answer these questions. What he says instead is that he wants people to live in a different way. He wants people to not be afraid of living all together and facing their trials together.
Then finally we come to the latest passage written—the one that was today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In this passage, Paul, who seemed to have a sense of the immediacy of Jesus’ return, focuses not on when it will be or what it will be like, but rather on how we should live as expectant people. Paul tells us to be awake, to lay aside works of darkness, to put on the armor of light, and live honorably.
Paul is not really interested in doomsayers or seers predicting destruction. What Paul wants is what Jesus wanted—for people to behave like disciples. He wants us to live like followers of Jesus. But what does that mean?
Well, first and foremost, living as a disciple means living a life that is always full of tension—because you’re always balancing the demands of this world with the goals, aspirations, hopes, and dreams of God’s world.
Earlier in his letter, Paul taught that we are responsible for a new humanity, a new moral order. Because when it comes to worries about the end of times, Paul says that our concern is not to be about when, whom, and how. Our concern is to be about us, about our sisters and brothers in the human family, and about the here and now. And importantly, what Paul calls us to is more than just a morality of being pure in our own behavior. Instead, Paul calls us to live into a morality that finds its reason for being not in our own self-preservation (in other words, worrying about how we can escape judgment), but rather, in its stand against things that effect other people in their understanding of themselves and ultimately in their relationship with God. Things like oppression and injustice.
You see, Paul’s morality is a morality that has as its focus our relationship with other people and God’s call to us to treat others with respect and dignity.
So, where does this leave us?
Well, I think it begs the question . . . when everyone around us is wringing their hands worrying about the end of the world, how can we, as responsible disciples, reflect a different approach. How can we, as disciples of Jesus help to bring in the Kingdom of God in the here and now? Can we make the vision of Isaiah come true? Certainly not if we think we’re the only people who can do it. That, I believe, is the fatal flaw of most extremist theologies. They completely discount the work of God in other people.
But I do believe, as Paul proposes, that we are called to something different.
Our job this Advent season is to break down barriers that separate us from other people, to find in others, including those not of our faith, the potential for a new humanity. For some, Advent is a time of quiet waiting. But Advent can also be a time of active searching! Searching for the spark of Jesus in others. Repairing and polishing our own armor of light so that it can shine in the world through us. And especially, in looking for hope when people say there isn’t any.
Looked at from this perspective, Advent isn’t really even about getting ready for Christmas, either. I mean, sure it is . . . but it’s also about so much more. It’s a separate, intense season of looking for, and listening for the hope planted by God within every human heart. It’s a time of shutting out darkness, refusing to accept it as part of life. Even though it’s the darkest part of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is a time to light the lamps and scatter the darkness, not to brood over it.
There are a number of references in the Scriptures today to “the day.” But rather than the day of judgment that the members of Carlton Pearson’s former denomination speak of, I think that “day” should be thought of as floods of light banishing the lies we tell ourselves that keep us from the truth. It should be thought of as the day when light scatters the darkness from before our eyes. It should be thought of as energy, morality, and joy. That “day” should be lived as new behavior that changes the way people choose to behave. It should mean letting the light shine into our souls to reveal the things we’ve been hiding, the things we know displease God and that keep us from living as people of the light.
The thought of that “day” of Christ’s second coming can be cleansing and revealing rather than terrifying and foreboding. Because the light from Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection surrounds us all and it surrounds us all the time. This year for Advent, let’s walk in that light Christ, live with the light of Christ and behave in response to the light of Christ. And may our Advent this year be a season to remember because of it. Amen.