Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent v. Left Behind Theology

Over the last four weeks, congregations that worship in the historical tradition of the church have been observing the "Season of Advent." The word "advent" means "coming," as many persons know for different reasons. Left Behind Theology - as one group named "Seventh Day Adventist" attests- know this word because of the centrality of the "second coming" or "second advent" of Jesus that is so important in its theology. One Facebook friend of mine (from within one of the Left Behind Theology traditions) posted an update, right after Harold Camping's ill-fated foolishness, saying that he still believed that the coming of Christ is imminent, probably even in 2011! A friend of his chimed in, "Yes Pastor, I can hear His feet shuffling on the door mat." That's precisely the kind of pietistic passive-aggressiveness that I've grown to despise over the years. Of course, 2011 will end without the feet leaving the door mat, yet the prognostications will go on unabated.

Is there no end to this kind of pseudo-prophetic waste of time and energy?

Some folks, of course, surmise that the only alternative is to ignore the "second coming" and the language about it in the Scriptures altogether. To do that, however, affects the way that we encounter the Season of Advent, by making it rather one-dimensional. The "Season of Advent" ends up referring to the time that we prepare ourselves to welcome the FIRST coming of Christ, the first Advent. So, we listen to the prophets - Isaiah, mostly - and sit with them in the darkness awaiting the revelation of the true light, who comes into the world. And, on Christmas, we welcome that true light as we read from Luke the birth narrative of Jesus. The problem is that we clearly remember doing the same last year and - if this is the only meaning of Advent - we're really kind of pretending the whole thing because we've known all along that this baby would be born, would suffer and die, be resurrected, etc.

As I say, I think focusing only on the First Advent during this season is too one-dimensional. The richness of the Season of Advent comes when we see the phrase "the Coming of Christ" as a multivalent phrase, filled with many dimensions of meaning. It does indeed refer to birth of Jesus, as it is anticipated in the prophets of old and remembered in Luke or Matthew or even in John's felicitous phrase, "the Word became flesh." It also does indeed refer to the "second coming of Christ" - but, not in a way that is narrowly constricted as Left Behind Theology usually depicts it. And - here is a key - it also refers to what I would call "the ever-coming of Christ." What I mean by that is that is - as William Stacy Johnson points out - the incarnation was not a 33 year blip in the screen. It points us to God's way of being. God's way of being God is made known to us most explicitly in the Christ - being in our midst, participating in our reality, God-incarnate - that's God's primary way of being God.

The calendared season of Advent is nothing magical. It is a human construct, set in time that is more influenced by pagan traditions (which have their own kind of wisdom) than the biblical witness itself. But, that is not to say that the meaning of the Season of Advent is unbiblical or simply a human construct. What this season offers us is a way of holding all three of these ways of thinking 'incarnation' together - the birth of Jesus, the consummation of God's purpose in creation, and the ongoing participation of God in human reality. The richness of each of these ways of thinking about "God with us" is when we keep them together in dynamic unity.

To that end, may your Advent season (what's left of it, anyway) be filled with joyfully standing with those who once experienced the hopes and fears of all their years being met in the Christ child; May your life find its direction by living toward the full realization of God's purpose for humanity, even in the throes of history; And may you experience God's ever-present companionship, made known in the smallest acts of human kindness and justice.

Happy Advent!

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