Happy New Year!
The world is going to end!
Today, this first Sunday in Advent, we celebrate the beginning of the new church year. Advent is the season of repentance as we prepare to welcome Christ into the world. However, Advent is also the time in the church year during which we remind ourselves that Christ will come back again. This creates a little cognitive dissonance within us. After all, Christ coming into the world the first time is really exciting and, even . . .cute! Jesus started as a little baby. Babies are adorable. What is less adorable are the scary and mysterious apocalyptic images we read during our Advent lessons about the second coming of Christ.
Today’s lessons reminded me of one of the darker moments of my seminary experience.
In order to be ordained an Episcopal Priest, you must take an exam called the General Ordination Exam. This exam is taken over a four-day period, early in January, after Christmas break. If we failed the exam, our ordination could be postponed, so we were appropriately terrified.
Most of the questions on our exam were manageable, but then Tuesday January 4th, 2005 at 1:30 PM, we opened our Church History question. Now, to take the exam, we would go to the library, pick up the question in a sealed envelope, and then go to our dorm rooms to answer the question on our computers. At 1:30 PM on that fateful Tuesday, I opened the question and suddenly heard a scream from across the hall, and then some cursing from upstairs. When I read the question, I understood why.
I won’t read the whole question, but the first part of the question was this:
During the second quarter of the 19th century, a modern form of apocalypticism known as Dispensational Premillennialism (or Premillennial Dispensationalism) arose in Britain, crossed the Atlantic to the United States, and subsequently played an important role in the development of Protestantism in this country.
Briefly identify the origins and major features of this type of apocalyptic thought. Trace its history in the United States from the later 19th century to the present, noting major developments and situating them in the context of their times.
The reason my neighbors screamed and cursed, was that none of us had ever heard of Premillennial Dispensationalism. We had no idea what the subject of the question meant. We were toast. Thankfully, the question was open book, so we were able to fudge some answers, even though the term was not even covered in our Oxford Dictionary of Theological terms. It turns out the people who did best on the test were those who were raised in fundamentalist households. Premillennial dispensationalism, as it turns out, is the theology that undergirds books like the Left Behind series, and many fundamentalist churches.
And, I still don’t fully understand premillenial dispensationalism, even though dispensationalism does rate its own Wikipedia entry now. Basically, premillenial dispensationalism is a theology begun in the late 1800s in England, which eventually ended up on our shores. This theology has a very complicated understanding of end times that takes the Bible literally and takes clues from the Bible’s apocalyptic passages to divide time into thousand year blocks that outline when Jesus will come again. This theology involves tribulation, the anti-christ, and the State of Israel and much, much more. Those who believe in this theology are very certain about what the end times will be like.
We, as Episcopalians, however–in typical fashion–are less sure.
We talked about the idea of the end of time in Seminary. I remember lots of graphs about the word parousia, which is the word the Bible uses to describe Jesus’ coming again. But the graphs never told us anything about what the parousia would be like.
And this is where I think our passage today is helpful.
No, not the spooky part about the sun being darkened. Not even the elusive part about the green leaves of the fig tree. No, I mean this part:
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
This part of the passage reminds us that no one really knows when Christ will return. No one really knows what life for people on earth will be like when Christ returns. We can make guesses, based on texts and what we know about Jesus already, but in the end, even the most certain person will be surprised by Christ’s re-entry into the world.
What God calls us to do is to remain in the present.
We cannot control the end of time by worrying about it, or hoping for it, or trying to predict it. All we can do is be responsible for our own hearts, minds and actions.
We prepare for Christ’s coming by leading the life the un-mysterious parts of Scripture call us to lead. We are called to follow Jesus, to pray, to read Scripture, to love our neighbor, to take care of those in need.
What we want to do as we go through life is to pay attention. Jesus calls us in this passage from the Gospel of Mark to “keep awake”. When life is stressful, or even boring, it is easy to disconnect and stop paying attention to the world around us. Sometimes escape-physical, mental and emotional-can be really tempting.
But when we keep alert, when we pay attention to the world around us, we give ourselves the opportunity to really live. When we stay awake, we are also awake to the opportunities that God gives us every day. We are awake to opportunities to love and serve. We are awake to opportunities to grow and learn. We are awake to opportunities to give thanks.
God does not always speak to us in a booming voice. Opportunities do not always jump up and wave their hands and shout, “Hey! You over there! God wants you to pay attention to me!” To fully serve God, and prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming again we must be fully aware of our present and open to the experiences it brings us.
In the end, we do not need to know the exact details of what Christ’s second coming will look like in order to be prepared to receive him. We just need to open ourselves to what Christ is doing here and now in the world around us. If we participate in what Christ is doing now, we’ll be able joyfully meet him later.
This Advent, as we prepare to receive Christ into this world, we are invited to brush aside the distractions and stresses of the holiday season and to really focus on staying alert to the work God is doing in us and around us.