Sunday, January 3, 2010

Coming Soon

You must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Luke 12.40)
A Touchy Subject with Urgency
The Second Coming is a touchy subject, a doctrine strongly influenced by personal factors like upbringing, life philosophy, and chosen faith community. That Jesus may come any moment is extremely vivid for many. They live in a state of heightened alert constantly reinforced by churches they attend, books they read, music they listen to, and believers they fellowship with. Others view the Second Coming as a prophetic eventuality unlikely to occur before they die, a common view in their circles. And some regard it as a quasi-metaphor—less an actuality than a message to inspire vigilance. If you’re among Christians holding widely divergent opinions about this, take note. Simply broaching the topic may topple the apple cart quicker than you imagine, as the Second Coming gets wound up in profoundly individual implications. For instance, are we following Jesus out of expedience—what’s happening—or expectancy—what may happen? Does belief in a literal rapture versus a looser interpretation reveal respective weaknesses in either? And on it goes.

For unity’s sake, let’s agree to disagree about the whens and hows in hopes of reaching consensus about the Second Coming’s whys. Jesus obviously has major reasons for promising to return, and the Apostles’ insistence He will figures prominently in Early Church culture. Since the doctrine threads through the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation, we can’t minimize it as we do specific religious, social, and sexual mores mentioned here and there. Faith in Christ’s return is a universal mandate. However we choose to interpret its mechanics, we must infuse its essence with urgency. The Second Coming matters. A lot.

Keep Busy

Varying views on the subject don’t really affect our grasp of why it matters and why it’s urgent. While introducing the concept with three parables in Luke 12, Jesus clearly addresses our fondness of haphazard procrastination and frivolous pleasure. In a sense, the sophomoric “Jesus is coming—look busy” almost gets it right. The real message isn’t look busy, though; it’s keep busy. Relaxed attitudes, reckless behavior, and delays in rectifying them will not stand. Jesus’s stories convey the urgency of doing our best with an ominous moral: taking it easy inevitably leads to being taken by surprise.

In the first parable, the master of a house goes to a party and stays out later than usual. Jesus says he will reward servants who stay awake and occupied until he returns—“even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night” (roughly from 10 PM to dawn; v38)—by serving them. The second story concerns a homeowner who’s unaware a thief is casing his house, leaves it unlocked, and comes back to find it ransacked. “Had he known when the thief would strike,” Jesus says, “he’d have taken proper precautions.” (v39) In the third story, a master leaves one servant to manage the others in his absence. If he takes the job seriously, Jesus says the master will make him manager when he returns. But if suspicions his master is delayed cause him to abuse his authority and indulge in excessive pleasure, the master will catch him off-guard and destroy him. (v46) Jesus applies these tales to His Second Coming in verse 40: “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

No Time Left to Lose

Our conflicts about the Second Coming arise from a common—and convenient—misreading of its purpose. We presume it’s meant to ensure we behave without supervision. If we respond to this kind of discipline, we avidly embrace the Second Coming’s “Gotcha!” aspect. It works exactly as we think it should by using fear and uncertainty to create faith and hope. But if we resist (or resent) negative intimidation to achieve positive ends, we find it out of character with everything we know and love about Christ. So the same faulty understanding ends up justifying everyone’s perceptions, which makes all of us right and none of us wrong—or, more accurately, none of us right and all of us wrong.

The reason why Christ will return, as well as why it’s urgent to believe He will, becomes apparent in how it alters our sense of time. When Jesus establishes this doctrine, He effectively cancels tomorrow. We no longer can excuse what we do and need to do now on the premise we can compensate for it later. When we glance at a clock or calendar, all we see are the present hour and date. There’s no time left to lose. Because our Master hasn’t returned, we keep busy and stay awake. Because we don’t know when He’ll walk through the door, we take care that everything we’ve been given remains protected. Because we suspect His coming is delayed, we maximize the added time to nurture those around us and clean up our act. Jesus doesn’t say, “Get ready.” He says, “Be ready.” The Second Coming was never intended to focus our attention on an undefined future moment. It’s about remaining steadfast and responsible in the very real and present now. Jesus is coming soon—maybe not as soon as some think. But when He does, whether it’s today or a million years from now, no doubt it will be sooner than expected. Be ready.

Almost right. Instead of looking busy, though, Jesus teaches us to keep busy. Instead of getting ready, He tells us to be ready. The Second Coming is about the very real and present now.

(Next: Stick with Your Competencies)


Fran said...

Oh my long absences from these beautiful pages are reminders that being "too busy" has its hazards!

Thank you for this thoughtful treatment of a tough subject. As a Roman Catholic, our eschatology is viewed through an entirely different lens. For a long time, I was (regrettably) disdainful of any discussion of it.

However, there are many ways to seek wisdom and to integrate it into our hearts and lives... and your post does just that and on a day when I needed the encouragement.

Much love to you my brother. I will be in the car for a long time today, maybe we can talk? I miss you!!

Tim said...

Fran, we're all plagued with the busies and missing out on so much light and joy. But as a huge part of what's got us so busy is God's work...

The compulsion to delve into this topic proved stronger than my desire to avoid it. It's just so emotionally charged--and has been so promiscuously abused--that I couldn't help but hesitate. Yet, you're so right. There's a lot of wisdom and pragmatism to be gained by silencing the racket in our heads and listening to what Jesus actually says.

I'd be tickled pink to talk later today. Give me a call on the land line once we've had a chance to grab a bite and run a couple errands after service (3-4 CST).

Much love to you, too!

genevieve said...

This post coincides with what I need to do. I need to do the things that need to be done. I need to give my best for Him.

I need to make goals AND complete them.

Edgington said...

Love the picture Tim! Won't it be wonderful when people live their lives to exemplify Christ's kindness, love and understanding?
Best to you in 2010,

Tim said...

Genevieve, you speak for us all--and in a profoundly honest way that moves me greatly. As I've been reading through the Gospels lately, I can't help noticing that Jesus knows what He needs to do and just gets it done. We don't hear Him tell the disciples, "Later this week we're going to..." Or, "Tomorrow, we need to do this." In this regard, John 9.4 sounds very close to a credo: "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work." The promise of the Second Coming is an urgent reminder we live day by day, and need to make the most of every one. Thanks as always for your honesty and insight. Your comments never fail to brighten these pages and illuminate the posts.

Mariah/Byron, there are a couple priceless ironies in that picture. For starters, I found it on an atheist blog, which only proves how misplaced emphasis on Christ's coming as a fear mechanism backfires. Thinking we can scare people to life is pointless and trying to do so ends up shaming us and the One we serve. Then, I love the poster's immediate proximity to a Dos Equis bottle; it just screams, "Look busy? Yeah, like that's gonna happen." Which validates your point: living like Christ, not for Him, is what we must do. He doesn't need our support. The world needs His example.

Blessings and prayers for full, productive, powerful, and hopeful days to all of you,

Anonymous said...

Well said, Tim. And once again so relevant. This month with my adult class I am talking about parables and miracles of Jesus and what a great little tie in with the close of this season. Advent and Christmas are, after all, about being ready for Christ's second coming. So often we conveniently put the emphasis on celebrating the past instead of living in the now and believing in the future.
I was just telling a friend of mine that I must get out and READ more. I get my best ideas from other people. <3
God Bless you!

Tim said...

Missy, I share your frustrations about not getting out more--I've been feeling like I'm in a bell jar. Will there be WiFi in heaven? Because I could use a good millennium or two just gorging myself on all the marvelous insights and provocative ideas I missed out on here.

"Advent and Christmas are, after all, about being ready for Christ's second coming"--splendidly put. If we learned to use the past as a filter for what we see now and believe about the future (to your point), not only our eschatology would be richer--our grasp of what the past and present mean would be stronger, too.

Happy New Year, dear, dear sister! It's forever a joy to see and hear from you!

Blessings always,

claire bangasser said...

I have a problem with the Second Coming, Tim. To me Jesus is already here. He has never left really. Doesn't he say, I am with you always...

So yes, Christians have been waiting for him to come back. The first Christians had someone waiting outside, expecting to see him walking back on clouds.

But weren't they, in a way, a bit like the two disciples walking to Emmaus -- with him?, and they did not see him?

So really, isn't he already here?
What is there to do differently?
How would we all act if we were told Christ is here? Just look.

Tim said...

Claire, you exemplify the very issue that troubles me and led to the post. We're troubled to reconcile the daily realities of Christian experience with the forecasts of a return appearance--and its suggestion that Christ is currently absent, which we know is not true.

Indeed, the last words of Christ recorded in Matthew are "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (28.20) And the Hebrews writer reinforces this by quoting Deuteronomy 31.6: "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."

So we must ask ourselves if He never intended to leave--and never did--why would He promise to return? And I think the answer comes in using the Second Coming to do exactly as you say, to act as we would if He were bodily here. (Because He is here.) In this regard, "Second Coming" is a total misnomer and that's why going about our Christian responsibilities simply to ensure we'll be doing what we'd be doing if He walked among us misses the point.

I personally believe in a Second Coming because Jesus and the Apostles taught it in a dual context--both as a driver of urgency and the prophetic centerpiece of the final end of evil and death. Yet focusing on its eschatological import at the expense of its immediate relevance carries a great price--which, I think, is what causes you bristle at the concept. "Being ready" is above all else about "being." Since no one knows (Jesus even says He doesn't) when He will reappear, building our faith and shaping our behavior on that eventuality seems most imprudent. Instead, we should focus on the fact that He never really left, but lives in us now. And we should act like it!

Too many of us are on the Emmaus road by choice, when we should be consciously walking with Christ, seeing Him presently beside us, and following His path.

I hope this adds some clarity to the post and reassure you that in principle you and I (and the others who've commented) are similarly minded.

Blessings always,

Anonymous said...

That's an excellent point Claire. But I think when we talk about the parousia, the end time, we are talking about that eschatological moment when all are raised in glory--and we're sure not there yet.

It seems (to me) the disciples saw Jesus at Pentacost they were not seeing him in the now, but at the end--they saw the future--that mind bending collapse of time when past, present, and future all collide in one moment.

It is like what we believe about the Eucharist at Mass. The priest says "this is my body" not "that was my body." It is present tense always. Past, present and future all exist in the now.

Which makes my head hurt. This is when I throw up my hands and say "it's a mystery."

Anonymous said...

BTW, sorry for the comments hi-jacking. Tim, your response is excellent I just wanted to throw in my two cents again.

I should admit that as an intellectual hard case I struggle with many of the precepts of my faith including this. Early Christians in many ways behaved like doomsday cults of today.

At Pentecost they were sure of the imminence of Christ's return--so sure that the message changed from what Jesus preached to who Jesus was. At the close of the first century when Jesus failed to appear as everyone thought he would the message in went back to what Jesus actually taught. Which is a good thing.

claire bangasser said...

:-)))) xoxoxo

Tim said...

Oh Claire and Missy, what joy and wealth you bring this conversation. (Missy, hi-jack the comments any time!)

On both levels, as pragmatic teaching and prophecy, the Second Coming does boil down to time, doesn't it--linear in terms of its urgency and non-linear in terms of its eventuality. The first is clear, the second a mystery. In regards to the latter, the comparison to the Eucharist could not be more apt. (I never considered the "time collapse" aspect of the ritual before now. Thanks to this, I'll never forget it!)

Paul actually makes this connection in 1 Corinthians 11.26: "For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." And what's not mentioned here actually becomes the pivotal event: the resurrection. Without death, linear time no longer exists. Therefore, the Eucharist becomes a memorial of Christ's sacrifice, a celebration of life, and a confession of faith in the complete restoration of a perfect world. Christ's presence in the elements becomes a tangible reminder He was, is, and is to come.

Of course, getting the natural, time-bound mind to bend and stretch around this takes some doing. In many ways it's as abstract and imponderable as Einstein's theory (which I've often thought is nothing more than an a mathematical formula for eternal faith.)

This is one of very few times I wish I'd saved the original draft of the post, so I could share it with you. It was a mess of tangents that clumsily tried to touch on many of the points that have surfaced here.

The longest of them dealt with the post-Pentecost dilemma you mention, Missy. The three-day absence in the tomb, 40-day span between Easter and the Ascension, and relatively quick arrival of the Holy Spirit led the Apostles to presume the Second Coming was a given in their lifetimes. Knowing who Jesus was so they could recognize Him when He returned was imperative. Once they understood they were dealing with dispensations rather than a short-term "leave of absence," they had to realign their teaching with Christ's principle--a good thing indeed.

I say this often, but I don't think it's ever been more pertinent than with this post: how blessed we are to learn from one another and benefit from such an extraordinary blend of viewpoints. God is so good to us!

Blessings and much love,