Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent: It's Making Me wait

The Heinz family – that singular conglomera-
tion of aristocratic noblesse oblige that gave us H.J. Heinz, Senator John Heinz, Teresa Heinz Kerry and 57 combinations of condiments – didn’t get rich by underestimating the American people.

When they made their luxuriously thick ketchup, they realized they had a potential problem. The ketchup was so dense you could hold the bottle upside down for what seemed like hours before the first drop would dribble on to your cheeseburger. Almost no one in the United States has that kind of patience and the Heinz people feared millions would desert their delicious condiment in favor of Brand B, some thin, runny, but instantly available tomato liquid. Brand B offered lower satisfaction, perhaps, but instant gratification.

In 1979, with the aim of stemming the migration away from their viscous product, the Heinz people implemented a TV ad you may remember well. Two boys are shown patiently holding a Heinz ketchup bottle over their hamburgers as the first drops of red goo begin to form at the bottle’s mouth. In the background, Carly Simon sings: “Anticipation. Anticipation. It’s making me wait.” In the 32-second commercial, the boys have plenty of time to decide postponed gratification is good. As the scene closes, the words appear on the screen: “Heinz Ketchup. The taste that’s worth the wait.”

There you go. An Advent sermon in a single sentence. The taste that’s worth the wait.

This singular phrase, historic in the ad business, is a helpful clue as we parse the unexpected passage placed before us by the Revised Common Lectionary. This is not only the first Sunday in Advent, but the first Sunday of Year C, the year of Luke.
Luke 21:25-36 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Then he told them a parable: Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
The passage, sometimes called “The Little Apocalypse” because it quotes the adult Jesus’ prediction of the end times, is not very Christmassy. There is no babe in the manger poetry, no paeans to the Christ child, no glory to God in the highest, no peace on earth. Instead, we are warned that stars will be falling from heaven and we are advised to keep awake.

That’s not Silent Night. That’s the Ride of the Valkyries. Who knew we would begin this joyous season with dark warnings of the collapse of all we know? Where are the tidings of great joy?

Karoline Lewis, assistant professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, thinks the rhetorical bombshell might be good for us. “There is a certain realness in this Gospel text to begin the Advent season,” she writes. “It cuts through any sentimentality and romanticism about Christmas and reminds us that incarnation is risky business.”

The passage in Mark, like its counterparts in Luke and Revelation, is the basis for the expectation of the rapture, that at the end of time Jesus will appear in the clouds and send out his angels to collect his elect from the four winds.

Rapture theology can be distracting and even dangerous, as you may recall if you were watching for the end of the world on May 21, 2011 when a misguided evangelist named Harold Camping said it would happen. Camping and his followers spent fortunes on bill boards and T shirts to alert people to the end of time, financed in part by many who sold everything they had to pay for the ad campaign.

Most Christian scholars said then that Mr. Camping, who died in 2013, was clinically nuts. Even Al Mohler, the conservative president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – whose statements about the National Council of Churches and its member communions were unabashedly obtuse – spoke with wisdom on the Camping issue.

“Given the public controversy, many people are wondering how Christians should think about his claims,” Mohler wrote. “The Bible does not contain hidden codes that we are to find and decipher. While Christians are indeed to be looking for Christ to return and seeking to be found faithful when Christ comes, we are not to draw a line in history and set a date.”

In the first centuries after Jesus’ resurrection, persecuted Christians yearned for the return of Jesus and prayed daily for him to keep his promise.  The Apostle Paul didn’t predict the date of Jesus’ return, but he thought it was imminent: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (I Corinthians 15: 51-52). A couple millennia later we are still waiting, and many Christians have lowered their expectations.

I was in a workshop with Robert Schuller in January 1981 when he bet the millennialist Hal Lindsey a million dollars that Jesus would not return before the year 2000. Clearly Schuller’s ideas about the Second Coming of Jesus drifted leftward, but I was more impressed by the fact that he was a man who knew a sure-fire bet. Lindsey, incidentally, declined. And it's 2015 already and Lindsey is still waiting for the rapture while soliciting contributions and selling merchandise as if he thinks the world will last forever.

It used to be that evangelicals tended to avoid actions against climate change on the grounds that eco-justice didn’t really matter because Jesus would return before the polar icecaps had fully melted. More recently, conservative theologians like Richard Cizik, formerly a leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, jumped into the eco-justice movement with both feet. As thousands of evangelicals followed in his wake, it was clear that most acknowledged the near unanimous verdict of scientists that global warming is caused by human abuse of the environment. It was also an indication that many evangelicals no longer plan their lives around the notion that Jesus will return before their mortgages are paid off.

The Second Coming of Jesus is a basic tenet of faith, appearing in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. It’s something we should be eagerly anticipating. But our reaction to the “The Little Apocalypse” set aside for our first week of Advent suggests we find the idea a little scary. It’s no coincidence that most of the end-of-world movies are classified as horror, and even films with a rapture theme portray a vengeful Jesus in pursuit of terrified sinners.

That probably says more about us than it says about the films. Most of us live lives of reasonable contentment and we would prefer to indulge the non-threatening Yuletide trappings of tinsel and wassail than contemplate the stars falling from the sky.

The future, for many of us, is a very scary place because so little is known about it. No matter how hard we try to live virtuous lives, all of us have fallen far short of perfection – and the future, we fear, is where all our chickens come home to roost.

This month when we watch the inevitable rebroadcasts of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (if you only have time for one, I recommend the 1992 Muppets version), the ghost of Christmas yet to come is the creepiest character of all – not because of his menacing cowl and skeletal fingers, but because he shows Scrooge his own just desserts, the righteous judgment on the grasping, self-obsessed life he has led. It is Scrooge, not the ghost, who is the chilling character in these scenes. Ebenezer’s life of depraved indifference to the poor leaves him no chance of heavenly reward, and he knows it. He fears the ghost of Christmas future most of all. He has no hope of relief, no promise of the joys of postponed gratification, so his anticipation of the ghost’s awful truth is agony for him.

“Anticipation. Anticipation. It’s making me wait.” And the anticipation is hell.

Most of us, perhaps, have less to worry about than Ebenezer Scrooge, but at Christmas time we’d still rather trill with Silver Bells than pulsate with apocalyptic cannonade.

Given all this, it will take a little discipline to remind ourselves: when we anticipate the coming of Jesus, there is no difference between welcoming him as an innocent child or as a rescuing savior.

Karoline Lewis offers reassuring words: “The darkening of the sun, the dimming of the moon's light, and the stars falling from heaven means the end of the world as we have known it. That death will be no more because God will die is something to anticipate during Advent. This is not to be a downer just when Bing really kicks into high gear with White Christmas. It’s to speak the truth, about ourselves and our unrealistic expectations; about God and how God exceeds them.”

Advent begins, and there will be many joys to share in the coming weeks: the Advent wreaths, the manger tableaus, the pageants, the lights, the presents, the family gatherings, and the familiar carols.

The Advent message, as always, is that the Creator of the Universe has taken on human flesh, coming to us in the form of a powerless, innocent infant.

And the message is also that God, through this child, has come to die on a cross, conquer death, and ultimately to return to gather those who have been redeemed in loving arms.

What does it matter if the stars fall from the sky if death has been defeated and a new, more perfect life begins?

The bottom line on the first Sunday in Advent is this: the coming of Jesus is good news.

And our Advent prayer is to savor the anticipation of the miracles yet to come.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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