A Sure and Certain Promise

not alone (Creative Commons image by Art Crimes on Flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

As I opened WorkingPreacher.org this week to review the readings and commentary for this coming Sunday, two things struck me. The beautiful blue of the Advent season was the first. I’ve been looking forward to Advent since we completed the redesign and was struck by the freshness of the color and how it is used to such good effect in the new site. Second, I realized that we now have three commentaries for each of the major readings (and typically two Dear Working Preacher articles on the gospel) each week, as we are now entering into our seventh year and third lectionary cycle. Given that we just completed our annual fall fund appeal, these two elements give me occasion to express my great gratitude to and for you, not only for your faithful preaching, but also for your generous support and regular use of this site. Truth be told, WorkingPreacher.org would only be an interesting idea if it weren’t for the generosity and consistent use of its readers. Thank you.

Now, as for this difficult Advent 1 text on the second, rather than first, coming of Jesus….

Here’s what strikes me. I’m tired – actually bone-weary tired – of apocalyptic texts. There is typically so much to explain – why they are a part of the gospel traditions, what occasioned them, their relationship to a delayed parousia, etc. – that they soon seem nearly irrelevant to Christians living two thousand years later.

Given that, however, two elements that together constitute the dominant dynamic of this passage stood out. The first is that, whatever else is going on, the central thrust the passage is promise. That’s easy to miss, given the somewhat dire warnings about the future coming of the Son. Yet Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and at the heart of this brief apocalyptic section is his promise that when he comes he “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (24:31). Everything else that is said must be heard in light of this promise.

The second issue at hand is the sheer unexpectedness of the events Jesus talks about. No one knows, he says in today’s passage – neither angels nor even he himself – no one knows when this will take place except the Father. And it’s this element of the uncertainty, even unpredictable element of life that offers a point of entry, I think, into this otherwise odd passage.

Because here’s the thing: it’s not just the consummation of time and history that is unexpected. Much of life is like that. We are regularly caught off guard – sometimes joyfully, but often not. The devastation in the Philippines and other natural disasters represent the precarious and unpredictable nature of our life in this world on a grand scale. But a miscarriage, lost job, heart attack, death of a loved one, or so many other personal, poignant, and unanticipated set backs can all take us aback and threaten any semblance of order we’d imaged we’d created for ourselves.

And we know this. In fact, we regularly try to protect ourselves against such personal disasters. Not only via the salutary instruments of life and medical insurance, but also by a host of other ways: perhaps by not taking a risk on a dream for fear of failure, or by shielding ourselves from possible disappointments in life or relationships, or by numbing ourselves to the pain of others lest it haunt us with the possibility of our own loss. We know life is precarious, unpredictable, and for these reasons also precious, but we often deny or are afraid to speak of that fact.

So what if this week, Working Preacher, we invited people to take stock of their lives, asking what it is that they most fear about an uncertain future, and then reminding them of the promise that whether or not their immediate fears are realized, we were created for more than fear because Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God whose coming birth we anticipate, has promised to come always to be both with us and for us.

This promise does not insulate us from an uncertain future, but it does promise that we will not face that future alone. Come hell or high water – and this seems as appropriate a phrase as any to capture much of this chapter – Jesus will be at our side, granting us courage in the face of life’s adversities and remaining with us even through death, drawing us into new life.

If we believe this is true, Working Preacher, than what might we dare? What might we venture or risk, knowing that all loss and disappointment, as difficult as they may be, are also occasions to experience more deeply the healing presence of the one who came, comes, and will come again, always for us and all the world?

As the days grow shorter and the darkness grows, we light Advent candles each week to remind us that we do not face the darkness alone but that, indeed, the light of the world has come, shining on in the darkness to illumine our lives and lead us forth not in fear but courage … and even joy. The passage appointed for this first Sunday in Advent is surely a challenging one, Working Preacher, but perhaps it provides an opportunity to name some of the anxiety of this challenging life and, in light of Jesus’ promise, to leave that anxiety behind.

In light of this promise, perhaps one of my favorite prayers might help close a sermon or service that anchors us in Jesus’ promise of presence and blessing, the one thing that is sure and certain amid all the uncertainties of this life: Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

My thanks again for your tireless words of hope, courage, and grace, Working Preacher. This is a time of the year where your sermons mean more than ever.

Yours in Christ,