Saturday, November 08, 2008

Pentecost 26A

I wonder if you’ve ever seen one of those T-shirts that’s got a message on the front: ‘Jesus is Coming!’, and then when the wearer of the T-shirt walks past and you can’t resist peeking at the other side, it says: ‘Look Busy!’.  Or else it says, on the back, ‘And Boy, is He Mad!’

Yes, folks, today is the day for squirming in your seats.  Today both of our readings from the New Testament warn us to get ready to meet Jesus in person.

A few years ago the ‘Left Behind’ series of thrillers by Tim La Hayes made a huge impact in some Christian churches.  There even seemed to be some confusion as to whether these books were truly fictional, as the writer claimed, or maybe some sort of prophesy of the much-fantasised End Times.  Believers worked themselves into a perfect lather of excitement about the Second Coming, mixed up with a not-so-healthy dose of fear.  Will I be amongst the chosen few?  And for those of us who fail to make the grade, for those of us who don’t get whisked away in the Rapture, leaving our cars driverless on the freeway, the Second Coming of Jesus looked like very scary stuff indeed.

But as you’ve probably already worked out, I don’t take that sort of speculation too seriously.  I’m not impressed by the sort of supposedly Christian writing that tries to alarm people into believing as a sort of insurance policy.  I definitely agree with the idea that we need to be ready to encounter Jesus in the here and now – I think we need a bit more of that sense of urgency, in fact – but books like the Left Behind series have got a whole lot more to do with Hollywood than with the Bible, in my opinion.

One problem with this sort of speculation is that it is self-centred.  Like the pre-Copernican belief that the sun revolved around the earth, this sort of speculation depends on reading obscure passages in the Bible as being prophesies about us and our own time, 21st century time, rather than cryptic political comment or interpretation of current events happening in the here and now for the writer’s own community.  And when we do that, when we read the Bible as though it were a sort of riddle to be solved, we forget Jesus’ own warning: "No one knows the day or the hour -- not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, but only the Father." [1] And the second reason – an even more serious reason – not to pay too much attention to this sort of speculation, is that it seems to forget who exactly it is that we are expecting to encounter.

It’s hard to read the gospels, I think, without drawing the conclusion that, all things considered, Jesus was a bit of a disappointment to friends and enemies alike.  By that stage there’d been hundreds of years of speculation that when the Messiah does appear, he’s not going to take any nonsense.  Watch out if you happen to be one of the long list of foreign nations who took turns invading and occupying Judea – you’re going to be sent off with a flea in your ear for a start.  Watch out, too, if you happen to be a bit lax with your religious observances, the Messiah isn’t going to stand for any of your laziness or hypocrisy.  And time and again, it seems, Jesus disappoints his disciples who have come to believe that he really is the one sent by God, but who can’t get their heads around the fact that Jesus’ agenda isn’t the one they expected. 

Because the sort of Messiah they were expecting wasn’t Jesus, but someone a bit more like Arne Schwarzenegger in ‘The Terminator’.  Or a military hero like Alexander the Great.  Unfortunately, Jesus has got other ideas.  Jesus’ idea of showing us what God’s reign is about is to tell stories, to touch and to heal, and to share food with people, especially the poor and the sick and ne’er-do-wells who decent folk avoided.  So far from chasing the Romans out of town, Jesus instead lets himself get chased out of town and onto a Roman cross.

And that’s the biggest problem with these seriously scary versions of the Second Coming, like ‘Left Behind’.  Because, what sort of Jesus are we really going to encounter at the Second Coming?  Actually, that’s not such a hard question to answer because Jesus already did appear in the middle of his uncomprehending disciples for a second time, and that’s the event we call Easter.  And when he did come back for the second time, what was he like?  What did he do?  He walked with them, he listened to their disappointments and their fears, he opened the scriptures to them, he forgave them and encouraged them and he cooked them breakfast.  Still refusing to behave like a proper, Arne Schwarzenegger, kind of Messiah.  Still seems to think his job is to make broken people whole.

And anyway it seems to me we’re not even waiting here for the Third Coming, because that’s already happened too, and the Fourth and the Fifth, and about the Trillionth.  Because if we’re going to take Jesus seriously when he talks about coming among us again, we also need to believe him when he says to us, “whenever there are two or three of you gathered together in my name, that’s where I am, right among you.  The bread that you break and share, the wine that you pour out and drink, that’s my life poured out for you, over and over again, so that as you fill yourselves with my brokenness you will be made whole”.  How many times have we stood here and assured one another, ‘we are the body of Christ?’  What do we mean by that??

I think the Greek word the New Testament writers use to talk about the reality of Jesus among us, is a real clue.  Because St Paul, presumably looking around for a word that’s adequate to express the reality of the risen Christ’s presence, borrows a word that belongs to the political jargon of the day.  Parousia.  And in that jargon, parousia meant the arrival in your city of the imperial presence, a visitation by the Emperor of Rome himself, who would first ride past the city’s dead citizens – past the mausoleums and graves on the way in to town – and then the procession would be welcomed by the living, all the pomp and pageantry would happen way out on the road, or as St Paul puts it because the king he’s talking about is coming from the direction of heaven, up in the sky – but here’s the point – the Emperor’s procession doesn’t stay on the outskirts of the town – or up in the sky - because the people meet the procession and bring it into the city.  It’s a symbolic way of saying, we acknowledge the reign and the authority of the Emperor in our city.  So the parousia isn’t about us joining Jesus up in the sky – not about the dead but about the living - not about heaven but about establishing the reign of God on earth.  And then when Matthew comes to use the same word, parousia, a few decades later, he uses it in ways that suggest the Risen Christ is already present in his Church, arriving not like an Emperor but secretly, sneaking in like a thief in the night and staying hidden among us and within us until God’s purposes for the world are established. [2]

So it’s not really a question of when Jesus comes back, is it?  It’s more a question of when we’re going to start noticing him when he does.  And every time we do encounter the Risen Christ- every single time Christ returns - it’s not the end of the world, it’s another opportunity to act on what we pray for every time we say the Lord ’s Prayer - the realisation of God’s purposes among us.

You know, I don’t think it’s coincidental that in this story we read from the Gospel today, that what the girls with the lamps are waiting for in the middle of the night is a party.  These girls, like the Cyndi Lauper song tells us, just wanna have fun!  A wedding feast – in first century Palestine that would have meant food and drink and dancing and an earthy celebration of life and sensuality.  And that makes sense, because every single time Jesus comes among us, that’s an opportunity to open our lives – open our minds and our hearts and our senses – to the goodness of creation and the love that is meant to flow in us and through us.  Every single time Jesus comes among us, that’s for one purpose only – to connect us with what gives us life, and to open our lives to God and to one another

We certainly do need to get ready, or like the sleepy girls we’ll be in danger of missing the party.  So, how do we do that?  Primarily, I think, by loving what Jesus loved, and by doing what Jesus did  We prepare for God’s kingdom by living in a way that puts people first, by loving justice, by practising compassion and generosity, by gaining strength from the practice of prayer to enter into the rhythm and the beauty of creation and to expect the fulfilment of God’s purposes in the world around us

Jesus is coming!  Look busy!


[1] Mtt24.36

[2] Mtt 24.27, 37, 39.