Jesus is Coming – Advent I

George Fox then began, in the middle of the puritan revolution, to  preach that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” His conviction was a new immediacy of revelation. The Light, the Holy Spirit, would lead a person to an insight of power and clarity.  “The Light” is the power of God in one’s life. It is a power for good but before that it is a terror for one’s sinfulness.  Only as I  know myself to be alienated from God can I yield to forgiveness and restoration.  What God does in order to lead me  to convincement is to relentlessly shine into me the terrible light of God holiness, finally bringing me to yield to his healing purpose. The essence of pain was to know one’s sins and self-will, but the source of the pain was the Light itself. To  modern Friends it is startling to find the inward Light described in terms of such fierce judgment. The Light that ultimately gave joy, peace, and guidance gave at first only terror.  It was as if George Fox could say “If that is the way God conquered me, by shining through me the truth that first judged and then restored, then that same power of the truth is to be the way God will conquer ignorance and ill will in my fellow humans. No threat or coercion can convince, only truth, which takes its own time to penetrate.”

 

A note of explanation:  Quakers don’t do Advent well.  Our theology doesn’t really permit it. This was prepared to help us come with integrity to the Season of Advent.  What follows this note is the form this message was in before it was deliberately reduced in size and scope.  Due to other meaningful messages share in Meeting for Worship it was not. 

 

The reduced version pointed out that we can’t help reading this passage from Luke through the filter of dispensational-ism invented in 1827,  inerrancy born in the 1920s and the most problematic filter through which we read the Bible is that of our enlightened, scientific and what for us is the logical way in which we distort the Hebrew understanding of “the day of the Lord”.

 

 

Jesus Is Coming

             According to how we reckon time, two thousand years ago Jesus came in human form fulfilling, from our perspective, Israel’s anticipation of  the long expected Jewish Messiah.    And, if we take the passage of Luke which we will read in a couple of minutes in a literal way we could interpret it to mean that Jesus will come again on a cloud at some indeterminate and long anticipated future bringing the divine experiment of creation to a close. It’s actually hard for our ears to not read it that way, even when we are faced with the question, buried deep within the text that all this must have already happened if, like Jesus said, it all would occur before the generation within which he lived and spoke ended.  The contradiction is so great and so very confusing that we choose to ignore that little detail. Wouldn’t it be nice if, nice and clean, it fit into our understanding. 

The purpose of this season called Advent, a time when even non-liturgical churches adorn crosses with purple scarves, is about trying to make sense of salvation history and what we might need to speak of as salvation future.  Acknowledging an advent of the past, the re-telling the two thousand year old story Jesus led. John Ortberg’s question that drives his book Who Is This Man: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus is a case in point.  Of course books written extolling the impact of the life of Jesus on the world fill innumerable library bookshelves.  You could argue that Jesus didn’t say or do anything that wasn’t in the tradition into which he was born.  Amy-Jill Levine in her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus helps make that clear to us.  Writers like Luke Timothy Johnson in the very title of his book The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels militates against a couple of centuries of Biblical scholarship while Marcus J. Borg in writing his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & The Heart of Contemporary Faith embraces using all the tools of the academy to recover a sense of who Jesus really was.

Both Douglas Gwyn’s Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John which we used for a study group recently and Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message Of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything seek to make of the words and work of Jesus a contemporary spiritual challenge. This is all about instructing people how to live a nice orderly life based on notions of the life and work of Jesus. They are the result of the continuing implications of an Advent, a coming, anticipated for millennia by a faith tradition fulfilled in, as the scripture says, the ‘fullness of time’. 

The other side of Advent’s divided state of mind is replete with threats and warnings drawn from re-interpretations of carefully extracted Old Testament texts, out of context readings of selected Gospel passages and fascinating flights of fancy about the meanings of Daniel and the Book of Revelation all listed in a clear, clean and chrono-logical order.  These texts are the foundation upon which groups such as Waco’s Branch Davidians and the Peace Temple of Jim Jones infamy are based.  These texts provide the back drop for dispensaltionalist Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ best selling Left Behind phenomena.  It is not just that “God’s gonna’ get’cha if you don’t watch out” it is also about bringing order out of the chaos apparent to us in ancient Biblical texts. 

For people of recent generations, time is understood to be an infinitely long straight unbroken line on which we pin past and future events like yesterday’s laundry.  For us time has a midpoint – today. So from where we stand we can look back along the time line or look forward into the future. There is one thing of which we can be sure.  This concept of absolute time [with the blanks needing only to be filled in with when people were born and died, when hordes of uncivilized peoples became cultures, when, as we all know, the earth was created in 4004 BC, or that continual concern of Jesus’ return], this linear idea of history was unknown to the ancient Hebrews including the Jews of Jesus’ time.  Old Testament authors, the evangelists Mark, Luke and John, even the Apostle Paul wrote to an all Jewish audience from an Hebraic understanding of time.  When we read these texts through the lens of our scientific and enlightened understanding of time we fail to grasp what is being shared with us.  At some point in ecclesiastical history someone snatched away the Hebraic blueprint by which Jesus’ movement was being constructed and replaced it with a non-Hebraic one. As a result, some what the church has come to believe is downright contrary and antagonistic to the spirit and intent of the original believing community.  We can rightly accuse the ancient Hebrews of not being adequately scientific or enlightened about the world in which they lived but we can’t overlay our understanding of time on the stories they have to share, that is if we want to understand it.

Here is a truly difficult passages of scripture!  If it doesn’t leave you scratching your head that should be the first clue that you haven’t got a clue to what is going on.  The context is Jesus responding to a sincere question asked of him by those who just heard him prophecy the destruction of the Temple.  “When will it all come about?” they wanted to know. He warns them about being seduced by counterfeit leaders, taken in by wars and insurrections and tells them to not panic.  He warns them about persecution. He tells them that when Jerusalem is encircled by armies that they should flee or risk being carried off, again, into captivity or be trampled to death.  By the way the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans actually happened in 70 AD.  Jesus was not describing the notion of the Rapture, that was invented by John Darby in 1830.  But this is where Jesus begins to draw on celestial imagery befitting any apocalyptic message.

 

Luke 21:25-36

25There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and even the extra biblical early Christian document called Didache carry similar warning about the coming of the Day of the Lord.   .

William Barrett explains that one of the most fundamental differences between the Western or Greek thinking mind and the Hebrew mind arises from the difference between doing and knowing. The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Western Christians are inclined to subject each other to litmus tests of orthodoxy, while Jews are concerned mainly with behavior.  In Evangelical Christian circles, it is often more important to believe “the right thing,” than to live the right way– that is, how you treat your neighbor.   While the Hebrew perspective is to extol the moral virtues as the substance and meaning of life; the Greek subordinates them to the intellectual virtues…the contrast is between practice and theory, ortho-praxy vs orthodoxy, between the moral man and the theoretical or intellectual man. This helps explain why so many Christian groups get drawn into issues of doctrinal orthodoxy — often at the expense of godly living.

 

Gentile Christians, seduced by Greek philosophy, intellectualized, systematized and revised Christian beliefs to conform to a world view alien to its origins. This is how we become so obsessed with creeds, doctrinal statements, Systematic Theologies and creating “Evangelical”, “Sabbatarian” or “Trinitarian” theologies. This way of thinking is thoroughly Western, utterly Greek.  When studying the scripture many of us Westerners find the Hebrew mindset is so strange, so foreign, so impossible to fathom, that we quickly revert to the comfort zone of the Hellenistic mold. We end up imposing this distorting grid over the Hebrew text – including the Greek text of the New Testament.

The Hebrew mind thinks of “the day of the Lord” as the day or time when the Lord acts. A sequential order in which God will do things is of no concern to the Hebrew – only that God will act. Contrarily, the Western mind wants to have a “prophetic timetable” neatly arranged in time and space. We want to check off events as they occur according to our pre-ordained schedule. Such a mentality is foreign to the Hebrew mind.

Remember, while the whole Bible was written in a pre-scientific age it is nigh-on impossible for us to not have Aristotle and Socrates whispering in our ear in every discussion we have. We insist on rendering everything into logically consistent patterns, on systematizing it, on organizing it into tight, carefully reasoned theologies. We cannot live with inconsistency or contradiction. The Godhead must be tightly defined and structured. We cannot live with the Hebrew idea that God is simply ineffable, and that the book of God’s acts doesn’t lend itself to systematization. Abraham Heschel wrote, “To try to distill the Bible, which is bursting with life, drama, and tension, to a series of principles would be like trying to reduce a living person to a diagram” 

.           Ours is a relentless attempt to force everything into manageable intellectual blocks and structures. We want all questions answered, all problems solved, and all contradictions resolved. We turn Scripture into a systematized textbook of theological answers and end up distorting its meaning. We attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible God in concrete yet abstract terms. But, again, to quote Heschel: “To the Jewish mind, the understanding of God is not achieved by referring to a Greek way to timeless qualities of Supreme Being, to ideas of goodness and perfection, but rather by sensing the living acts of His concern, to His dynamic attentiveness to man. We speak not of His goodness in general but of His compassion for the individual man in a particular situation” . God is known, not in the abstract, but in the specific situations into which God asserts God’s self. God is what God has revealed God’s self to be, not what we have theorized God to be. To understand the Bible, and what it means to be a follower of  Jesus will require a philosophical and intellectual paradigm shift on our part. It will mean coming at Scripture from an entirely different angle. It will mean learning to think like a Jew.

We will have to forego our goal of the codification of a utilitarian faith complete with techniques that are situationally applicable. We want to domestic God, to know what is going to happen next so we can know when to stock the pantry with food or flee to the mountains. We want Christian techniques for healing, exorcism, prosperity and power.

One writer reminded us that we make everything into a commodity. No longer do we preach the Gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons and make disciples – we market tapes, booklets and trinkets. We make music, not to worship God, but to sell CDs. Evangelists are selected because they “know how to get the dollars in the door” or “attract the crowds” or “get the numbers up.” Christian publishing houses publish celebrity Christian books – not because they are well written, or because they say something important – but because they will sell and make money.

In the days when Jesus’ Kingdom movement was known as the “Sect of the Nazarenes” being a “Christian” was about relationship with God and with others. In the centuries since, we have de-emphasized relationship, and at the same time have intellectualized, politicized and commercialized the “faith once for all delivered.”

 

As Luke gives us the last address of Jesus’ public ministry Jesus is clearly fretful about the future and he paints a bleak picture of the what the future holds. There is talk of nations in fear and of people dying in agony. Yet Jesus’ advice is “Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen.” The good news is that final liberation and resurrection comes out of the chaos. His intention wasn’t to paralyze them with fear but to energize them into action. Be awake.  Look reality in the eye. Then act accordingly.

It’s a challenge, but for a moment try to break out of your addiction to our enlightened understanding of time. Give yourself freedom to experience chaos, pain and salvation all bundled together in a great act of God.  Early Friends spoke of the Terror and Power of the Light. Quakerism originated within a wider puritan context. Presbyterianism rose out of hierarchal Anglicanism with the notion of the gathered community led by elders being the basis for church life.  Congregationalism came next claiming that proper church order was local with the diversity of views grounded in scripture. Independent-ism followed arguing that locally constituted free congregations could be started by anyone with enough like minded individuals as a local church with out the control or support of the state.  Then the Baptists came along objecting to infant baptism and supporting the belief that participation in the church was not authentic without a person having an inward spiritual experience and of being baptized as an adult. By the early 1600’s the entire spectrum described above was present. For the next half-century the left edge of the spectrum remained open, with the rise of Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, and finally comes the Quakers, representing as all the others differing ways for the purgative intent of puritanism to become still more radical. John Howard Yoder wrote: “The Puritan is a literate Christian reading the Bible and a lot of other spiritual literature, with a desire for ever more faithful personal conformity to the Will of God, as that holy Will stands in judgment on the inadequacies of ordinary Christianity.” The spiritual struggle with sin and pride to come to this place could take years. This was the path followed by George Fox until his own message was formed. 

George Fox then began, in the middle of the puritan revolution, to  preach that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” His conviction was a new immediacy of revelation. The Light, the Holy Spirit, would lead a person to an insight of power and clarity.  “The Light” is the power of God in one’s life. It is a power for good but before that it is a terror for one’s sinfulness.  Only as I  know myself to be alienated from God can I yield to forgiveness and restoration.  What God does in order to lead me  to convincement is to relentlessly shine into me the terrible light of God holiness, finally bringing me to yield to his healing purpose. The essence of pain was to know one’s sins and self-will, but the source of the pain was the Light itself. To  modern Friends it is startling to find the inward Light described in terms of such fierce judgment. The Light that ultimately gave joy, peace, and guidance gave at first only terror.  It was as if George Fox could say “If that is the way God conquered me, by shining through me the truth that first judged and then restored, then that same power of the truth is to be the way God will conquer ignorance and ill will in my fellow humans. No threat or coercion can convince, only truth, which takes its own time to penetrate.”

Early Friends approached the expectation of the coming of the Day of the Lord in this very personal way.  This passage from Luke can be taken as Jesus’ pronouncement about what to expect in our lives when he says that within the terror that swirls about us in our world and within us as the Holy Spirit moves to show us our sinfulness and our brokenness our redemption is drawing near.  

Today’s gospel story calls on us to do two things that can be very hard to hold together: to be realistic about how the world is going and at the same time not to lose hope in the future. Today we begin to retell the story of a God who so loved the world that he sent his only Son to be human just like us. This son did not have an easy time. No indeed! But he worked through suffering and disappointment, passion and death, to resurrection and a new fullness of life. He left us the message that if we live in relationship to him we need not panic despite what the world throws our way. Many people view religion and communion with God as ways of escaping from reality and suffering. Prayer is rather a way of sitting still with reality, knowing that there is another side to suffering, and gaining the courage from this to continue on the journey with Christ.

 

 

 

    

 

 

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