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The Return of the King (Very Long Wait)

November 22, 2010

“The Return of the King (Very Long Wait)” Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11; Matthew 24:1-44 © 11/21/10 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Susan and I love Netflix. The convenience. The selection. The reasonable price. No going to a video store the way we used to and having to watch the movie quickly to get it back by the due date. Now we can view a film as many times as we want, when we want, and when we mail it back, another will be in our box in a couple of days.

But for a certain movie we want to see, I guess I’m going to have to go to Blockbuster, the only surviving video store in Starkville. For weeks now, Netflix has told us that Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition) will only be ours after a “very long wait.” And it’s not available for instant viewing yet, either.

Our situation in the Church on this Christ the King Sunday is similar. We, too, are expecting the return of the King. But the wait just keeps getting longer. Unfortunately, our only alternative seems to be to give up hope. And how can anyone live without hope?

The earliest Christians shared our hope in Christ’s return, but with one significant difference. They fully expected he would come back in their lifetimes, while I suspect most of us would be rather surprised if that should happen. We continue to confess that our Lord will “come again to judge the living and the dead,” but we haven’t exactly saved the date on our calendars. And his imminent coming doesn’t occupy our every waking thought and determine our actions.

The believers in Thessalonica were puzzled and troubled, then, when some of them had already died, and Jesus had not come back. What happened to their friends and loved ones? What about everyone who still lived? Was their hope wrong? Did they need to modify their expectations?

Paul answers their questions pastorally in this earliest of his letters. And for him, a pastoral response is a theological response. Their hope is based in what God has done and will do in Jesus. Our Lord’s resurrection was the beginning of a new age where pain and death and suffering will be no more. His coming, his parousia, will be the consummation of the new creation, when everything promised will be fulfilled. And even now, in the midst of sorrow and puzzlement, Christ is with them. So, even though they grieve, they may live in hope.

That would have been a novel idea for the Gentiles who made up the Thessalonian church. The philosophers of the day advised dignity and restraint in the face of grief. When someone died, loved ones were supposed to “buck up” or “man up,” to put it in our colloquial terms. But the Thessalonians did not need to pretend they didn’t hurt. Christians do indeed grieve loss. But grief for us is not despair. It’s difficult and hurtful in the short term, but nothing will ultimately defeat us. That’s because our hope is in one who was raised from the dead and will return to meet and comfort his own.

The way Paul talks about the return of our Lord can be puzzling, frightening, confusing or all of the above. And, of course, this is the text that has given rise to the common fundamentalist notion of the Rapture, especially when combined with some material from Matthew 24, which talks about one being taken, the other left. The word come from the Latin “raptura,” which translates the Greek word in the text meaning “caught up” or “snatched.” Obviously, “the Rapture” sounds better than “the Snatching” or some such. In case you don’t know, this scenario pictures believers as being taken out of the world either before or after a so-called “Great Tribulation.” Hence the old bumper sticker “In case of Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned.” So on this view our Lord’s return will prompt massive traffic jams and pile-ups. In addition, you’ve got planes falling from the sky because the pilots are taken out of the cockpit as Jesus descends or families losing a father or a daughter, for example, while the unbelieving members look on in horror.

In a view popular in fundamentalist circles, the Rapture sets up chaos, looting, stress, and all sorts of bad things for those “left behind.” It ushers in a seven-year period of suffering. People in their need turn to a charismatic, attractive politician and military leader who turns out to be a monster. He’s the Beast or the Antichrist. His policies lead to Armageddon, the final battle between Christ and Satan.

A group of people called “Christian Zionists” particularly think that the re-emergence of the state of Israel in 1948 signaled the beginning of the end. So they want to help hasten the return of Christ and the Rapture by promoting the interests of Israel. They focus on events in the Middle East and advocate and lobby for policies, even war, in the US government that favor Israel over against the Palestinians or anybody else.

Those who buy this whole scenario see current events like wars, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and unrest human and natural as signs of the end times. They tell us that the end will come soon, and the followers of Christ will be snatched away suddenly, accompanied by the resurrected dead.

(Apparently, Presbyterians don’t have to worry. After all, didn’t Paul say the dead in Christ will rise first? I know, an old and tired joke. But I couldn’t resist.)

Back to being serious, there are all kinds of problems with the end times scenario that is so popular with millions. First of all, we can’t trust any scenario that cuts and pastes passages and ideas from here and there in the Bible, takes literally highly metaphorical language and images from dreams, and applies texts from 2000 years ago and more directly to the modern day. It’s incredibly arrogant to believe that writers from ancient days specifically had us in mind. So when they spoke of scorpions, they actually meant heavily armed helicopters. Or when they talked about the Antichrist, they didn’t mean the Roman emperor Domitian, but some yet to be born malevolent leader in the 21st century.

Second, certain statements by Paul and Jesus and John of Revelation all assume and belong to a thought world we call “apocalyptic.” The word means “unveiling” and comes from the ancient custom of a bride being veiled, then having the veil lifted at the end of the ceremony. It came to mean “revelation” and was specifically associated with end-time scenarios. Such writing was common in the late first century BC and first century AD. There are certain images and motifs used by all this material. Among them are dreams, visions, angels, trumpets, clouds, disasters, scenes of judgment, and promises of deliverance. Apocalyptic books all share a certain viewpoint, but the writers have different audiences, contexts, concerns. We can’t just take a piece from Matthew and something else from Paul and this over here from Revelation and a line from Daniel and maybe an idea from Ezekiel and sew them all together in a patchwork quilt called “the End Times.” Instead, what will happen at the end of days and when is a mystery. There is no timetable. Jesus himself said he didn’t know, and rejected such a thing.

Finally, those who use 1 Thessalonians or Matthew or Revelation or Daniel to promote fear or their own political agendas are distorting the text for unworthy and unfaithful ends. The point of this material is to provide encouragement. “Therefore,” says Paul, “encourage one another with these words.” Jesus in Revelation says “Do not be afraid.” Be very suspicious of—and don’t listen to—anyone in any church who uses the Bible to bring fear. Be wary of those who get conversions by instilling the dread of being “left behind” and suffering the loss of your believing loved ones and co-workers while you are exposed to danger in the chaos of the end of days.

So obviously I reject the scenario I once believed in my youth. What do I believe now?

For one thing, Jesus’ return is indeed political, but not in the way the Christian Zionists promote and envision. In the Roman world, when a king returned from battle or was visiting a city, a delegation of citizens would go out to meet him. His arrival was heralded by a trumpet.

Our Lord is a King returning in glory to his subjects. He is met in the air because he is a cosmic king, ruling over all. The Roman and any other rulers could only lay claim to certain territory. Jesus as king claims everything and everyone. We should notice, too, that the Roman slogan was “peace and security,” and they had brought that in some measure through the Pax Romana. Also, Thessalonica had benefitted from Roman rule. It had brought infrastructure such as the trade route running through the city, independent government, and patronage by the wealthy for the arts and other worthy causes.

But Paul insists that there can be no ultimate security brought by human institutions. The Lord will come like a thief in the night, and no amount of military might or preparation will keep him from appearing. Christ is sovereign over every nation, corporation, church, and family. And every human institution, as well as every individual, will be held accountable by and to him.

Do we fear that day? No. Again, the message of the gospel from Christmas to final consummation is “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid of death. Do not be afraid of news of wars and rumors of wars. Do not be afraid of opposition to the gospel. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable and care for each other.

The Sovereign will come at a time of his own choosing. In the meantime, we wait. But our waiting is not passive. We serve, we love, we are alert for the signs of God’s good purposes in the world, we hope actively. We do something now.

Rob Bell, the famous pastor of Mars Hill Church in Michigan, complains: “This Christian radio preacher…was saying that Jesus is going to come back and…is going to fix this place and that some great things are going to happen some day…Are we just hanging around until some future date? I need a God who’s now, who teaches me how to live now. I need a faith that’s about today” (Debra Bendis, “Bell’s Appeal,” The Christian Century, March 24, 2009: 22).

Indeed we all need a faith that’s about today. We can’t get caught up in speculation and worry about what may or may not happen and when. We live our lives as disciples of Jesus, as “children of the day” who shed the light of Christ on all around.

Years ago at a retreat, I heard an Episcopal priest dismiss the Second Coming by saying with a laugh: “The Second Coming? I haven’t figured out the first!” We cannot share his disdain; we may not ignore the Second Coming. But neither do act like the Christian Zionists and fundamentalists, turning it into the guiding force of our political and religious agenda. Instead, it becomes the motivation to live a life of alertness, awareness, and confidence. We look forward to that time when indeed we can sing: “Joy to the world; the Lord is come!”

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