The Advent of Hope

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 1
November 28, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Many self-proclaimed prophets have predicted the end of the world and the date of the Second Coming. But that's a fool's game. The job of Christians is to watch with Christ and respond to the wounds and needs of people, trusting that we can leave the ultimate fate of the world to our loving God.

We can say with certainty that the date-setters have always been wrong. Who are the date-setters? They're the people who predict that the world will end on a certain date. They're the ones who say they know the time of the second coming of Christ. They're the ones who announce all this to the world with false certitude. They're the ones who are never in doubt but always wrong.

The list of date-setters is long and embarrassing, but I'll mention just two of them as we think about the strange, somewhat disturbing passage we read today from Luke's gospel.

Based mostly on his interpretation of a single Bible verse, Daniel 8:14, in 1822, William Miller (1782-1849), a Baptist preacher, told followers that "the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within 21 years - on or before 1843."1

Later, he got more specific by declaring that Christ would return sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. His failure of math and analysis became known in theological circles as the "Great Disappointment."

In more recent times, some of you may remember Harold Camping, a radio preacher who died in 2013. He was a rather famous voice on Family Radio, a Christian network that, at its peak, was heard on about 150 stations.2

Camping made all kinds of world-ending predictions - each one, of course, wrong. First, he said Judgment Day would happen on September 6, 1994. Well, in one sense, the world did end for author and director James Clavell, who died that day at age 69,3 but as for the world ending for everyone else, Camping was wrong.

But Camping didn't retreat in shame. Rather, he revised the date, pushing it back to September 29 and then, when he was wrong again, to October 2. Another part of the world did end in 1994, but that was only because Major League baseball players went on strike on August 11 of that year, killing the rest of the season.

Later, and more famously, Camping predicted the second coming of Christ would happen on May 21, 2011, the date on which the "saved" would be "raptured" to heaven, with the final destruction of the world scheduled for October 21, 2011.

Well, here we still are, more than 10 years later. Camping might have done better if he had read Lutheran scholar Barbara Rossing's 2004 book, The Rapture Exposed , in which she argued that the kind of rapture theology that informed the "Left Behind" series of novels and Camping's predictions badly distorts the Bible.4

We're not making fun of Miller or Camping. We assume they were sincere in their belief they could date the Second Coming. But they were mistaken.

Was Jesus himself a date-setter?

So given all that, and given so many other misguided end-times predictions, what do we make of Jesus talking about this subject in the Luke passage?

Let's start our thinking with one certain thing we know about Jesus, which is that he was Jewish. And for centuries before the birth of Jesus, Judaism had concerned itself in various ways with several ideas that come into play in what Jesus said.

The first is called the "Day of the Lord," and you can find many references to it in the words of various Hebrew prophets, including Isaiah, Joel and Amos. There are even references to the Day of the Lord in such New Testament books as First Thessalonians and Second Peter.

None of these references makes it sound as if the Day of the Lord will be much fun. In fact, the idea was that it would cause major destruction as it made way for some kind of new golden age. But no one could know exactly when it would happen. Even Jesus said he didn't know when that would be. Mark reports Jesus saying, "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."5

Beyond all that, there had been prophecies throughout Jewish history about the potential fall of Jerusalem. Indeed, Jerusalem fell more than once, including when it was almost completely wiped off the map in the year 70, a few decades after Jesus's resurrection, as Rome crushed the rebellious city.

Just one verse before the passage we read today, we find Jesus saying, "Jerusalem will be plundered by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are concluded." So that's playing into what's happening here, too.

Another idea is also at work in our reading: the second coming of Christ. Verses 27 and 28 of the Luke passage refer to that directly. The scary imagery used to describe that sounds quite different from the sweet story of Jesus' first coming, his birth narrative that we find earlier in Luke.

So how should we react to what Jesus says in this passage? It's the right question for us as we enter this season of Advent.

First, let's give thanks that we have a savior who isn't afraid to speak hard truths to us. Jesus tells his followers then - and us now - that the world will be full of troubles. In a verse in this same section of Luke, in fact, he says this: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."6 To say that even heaven will pass away surely is hyperbole to make a point. But the point shouldn't be lost on us. It's that we can hardly imagine the troubles we may confront.

It's all fixed now, right?

For an example, think back one year to the start of Advent in 2020. We had lived through a brutal year. The Covid-19 virus by then had killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and well over 1.3 million around the globe. American streets were full of protesters crying out over policing and justice systems that repeatedly killed and incarcerated people of color at alarming rates. And we had come through a bitter presidential election that revealed, once again, a deeply divided nation that had forgotten how to speak civilly.

Since then, of course, things have been perfect, with no controversies and all our problems fixed. Right? Only in our dreams.

But Jesus tells us to be on guard so that our hearts aren't weighed down. Jesus prepares us for an uncertain future. We must not be shocked at a world full of trouble, full of wars and rumors of wars. Rather, we must minister to one another. We must remember our blessings, counting them one by one. And we mustn't borrow trouble from tomorrow, for as Jesus says, there's trouble enough for today.

So when will Jesus return to make everything better? No one has a reliable answer. So we'd do well to live according to a small prayer that's part of an evening service called Compline in the Anglican and Catholic traditions. It uses these words: "Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace."

What can it mean to "watch with Christ?" Among other things, it means we are to see the world through Christ's eyes, which means watching for people in need, watching for evils to counter, for injustices to fix, for hunger to alleviate. It means that what breaks God's heart should also break ours and move us to action.

"I have overcome the world"

But as we respond in that way, it's also vital to remember what Jesus told his disciples, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."7

So even if we don't know in any detail what troubles await us, we have Jesus' own word that troubles will find us. But that's not the end of the story. Instead, we live in hope because Jesus Christ, God incarnate, has overcome the world, has gone through the darkness of Calvary and defeated death.

In this Advent season, we engage in an active sort of waiting. We don't just sit in silence, though some silence and meditation on eternal matters could be good for all of us. But beyond silent waiting, we watch with Christ. We see what Christ sees, hear what he hears - and we respond as the body of Christ to the wounded world wherever and whenever we find those wounds.

Even as we wait for the joy of Christmas morning, we already know that the baby in the manger came bearing the gift of hope. In fact, it's when we travel through darkness in our lives that hope comes most to life. It's when we feel abandoned by God that we must seize hope and insist that God's promises are real and can be counted on. We can and must wrestle with God, as our Jewish brothers and sisters have taught us in the name Israel, which means to struggle with God.

So one reason the date-setters have always been wrong is that they've adopted a theology of evacuation, a theology of escape. By contrast, Christ offers us a theology of presence, of commitment, of action, of hope because Christ has overcome the world.


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