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December 1, 2019
Rev. Brian Adkins
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
PEOPLE, LOOK EAST
We’ve chosen as our Advent theme, “On the Way.” This is a season of journeying. The Christmas story itself tells of visiting angels and holy searching; and recalls how the Holy Family sought safety in Egypt, the Christ child: a refugee. Part of the Good News of Advent is that, in this night season, we do not journey alone. We don’t wander aimlessly, but are guided toward that perfect light.
Following the stanzas of the familiar hymn, “People, Look East,” each week we’ll wonder about love’s ways of showing up in our lives.
This week, Love, appears as a guest.
CAN’T KEEP A GOOD MAN DOWN
Once I asked a friend who is a retired preaching professor about the worst sermon she ever heard. Hesitantly, she told me that the sermon was delivered by a student who didn’t seem to have the firmest grasp of the Bible. She said his text was, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” and his sermon was titled, “You can’t keep a good man down.”
Now, that may seem silly to us who know that the gospels are not successive chapters in a book, but stand-alone accounts of one story. But, in the scheme of things, we plan our church year around birth and death and resurrection and promised return of this Christ.
The lectionary texts leading up to Advent take a turn toward apocalypse. As if to remind us of why we needed a Savior in the first place. But as soon as a text like this, about the return of Christ, reinforces our linear thinking about time and God’s work of salvation in the world, our church year begins again with the birth of this Christ child.
We tend to arrive at the Advent season convinced that we know how the story ends, a baby in a manger, who is gonna grow up and raise hell and save us all. But scriptures like the one we’re looking at today remind us that none of us knows the full story. And we’re encouraged to keep watch during this long night of holy darkness.
It’s as if the apocalypse isn’t an end, but an edge that we just can’t quite see over. A cycle of beginnings and endings.
EXPECTING THE UNEXPECTED
Advent always begins with the end of something, and the apocalypse- the unveiling- of something else. But apocalypses happen around us all the time. Some bigger than others. Every change, every season, every loss- a mini apocalypse and the unveiling of a new thing.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus returns not as a guest, but as a thief in the night.
The fear of Christ’s return and the end-of-the-world have been popularized by televangelists and authors, perhaps most of all by the apocalypse book and film series, “Left Behind.” In this fiction series (12 books in all, with films and a children’s series, as well) author Tim LaHaye illustrates in great detail the fate of those un-saved in the end days. (I am personally horrified that there is a “children’s series.”)
There can be no doubt that the franchise is fear based: the fear is implied in the title, “Left Behind”. (If it was hope based it would be called, “Home with Jesus.”)
Tim LaHaye died in 2016, but to give you a sense of his worldview: in an 2004 interview with Terry Gross of NPR he talked about meeting the Dalai Lama - and trying to lead him to Christ. That is, to save him. Tim LaHaye tried to get the Dalai Lama saved. What hubris.
We’ve a story to tell the nations, but we need to be careful about whether we’re promoting the message of hope that comes from a gospel of Love; or the fear that comes from the threat of eternal damnation.
And as progressives, we need to be mindful of who gets “left behind” in our story.
NO ONE KNOWS
When I was in chaplaincy training, my first patient was an elderly man name Frank. Frank was dying, from what, I don’t remember; but I was his chaplain and it was my very first week on the job. And unlike my first year of seminary, when I knew every thing, I had just completed my second, and was pretty sure I didn’t know anything.
On about my third day of training I was called to visit Frank. I arrived to find that there were at least 8 family members crammed in that tiny room. And I squeezed in along the back wall and tried to announce my presence, but no one seemed to notice.
And then Frank kind of said in a raspy voice, to no one in particular, “I have dreams about God and I am scared. In my dreams I see God coming down from heaven and I am scared because I don’t know if I am one of his chosen.” And suddenly all those people who didn’t seem to know I was there were staring at me, pressed up along the back wall.
I was speechless for what felt like eternity and then just blurted out, “Well, seems to me that if God goes to the trouble of coming to you in your dreams, you must be chosen.” And Frank said, “I want to be alone with the chaplain.”
I pulled over a chair and sat next to him and we talked a while. I heard a little about his life, but always the conversation came back to his death. “What will it be like, when I die?” He asked me. I said, I’ve never died so I don’t know. What do you think it’ll be like? He said “I think I’ll just fall asleep and I’ll wake up on the other side. But I’m worried about how I’m gonna find my mom and my sisters.”
And I said, well, I don’t know, Frank, but you know how when you’ve got company coming you get excited and start getting the house ready and you making sure everything’s just so and you wait, expectantly? And when you see them coming, you jump up and run out to meet’em in the front yard? Well, I think that’s what’ll happen. Your mom and your sisters, they’re gonna find you.
Love, the Guest.
Frank’s apocalypse came two days later. Jesus came back- for Frank. And I believe that night he was the guest of honor at a welcome table.
What do self-proclaimed progressives do with apocalypse?
We do what good disciples do, go back to the text. I look to Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, chapter 4. Paul wrote to that community, reminding them that their dead were not lost; to know that death does not have the last word, is comforting. Perhaps that truth is eternal and relatable, even to the progressive. He says, “Don’t be uninformed and made hopeless.”
Theologian Jennifer McBride says, the text tells us that “God is a God who comes [to us.]” And as one of my favorite Methodist theologians (Catherine Keller) says, “apocalypse is not an end but an edge.”
This text reminds us that arrival of Christ in the world and in our lives is disruptive. Whether he comes as a baby in a barn, or triumphantly in the clouds, or when we’re at the end of our rope, or when the light bill is due, Christ disrupts. Beloved, don’t be uninformed and made hopeless.
Finally, Paul says, “Encourage one another.” Lift up, hearten, give courage to each other. Don’t let those around you be left hopeless. You have hope, now give it away. You have good news, share it. You are the product of unearned and unreasonable grace- be unreasonably gracious.
As our Communion liturgy proclaims, Christ will come again in final victory and we will feast at that heavenly banquet table; but meanwhile, Christ comes in far more mundane ways. He might perhaps first arrive in a Nissan or a Ford; Perhaps not final victory but just to offer a little hope, or just to bear witness; perhaps not a heavenly banquet, but a hot meal. Perhaps not in the form of the Savior of Humanity, but through you.
And maybe it is not for us to wish away the darkness this season but to allow our eyes to adjust to the dim light. Not to pray for rescue, but to live into the non-anxious urgency of the season. To courageously dare to hope in the new that that God is doing, and to anticipate its revelation. Love, the Guest, is on its way.
May it be so.