Dear Working Preacher,
Here we are again, looking at the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new church year, and…another apocalyptic text. Which means that we now have to deal with yet one more passage about Christ’s coming again, sometime in an unknown future, but definitely in judgment. The noble temptation with texts like these, of course, is to find some way to explain them, to make them more relevant, and perhaps in this way to soften them lest they seem so distant and foreboding as to be almost meaningless. But at what cost?
A colleague of mine recently bemoaned the domestication of God that happens when we succumb to this noble temptation. Jesus ends up being a nice guy, she said, but not necessarily much more. I think she’s right. As foreign, or even frightening, as the coming judgment of the Son of God might be seem, it is an inescapable element of the biblical witness. And for good reason. The flip side of judgment, you see, is justice. The dominant rationale for judgment in both Old and New Testaments is, in fact, how well we accord with God’s concern for how we treat one another and especially those who are most vulnerable. So give up any notion of God’s judgment and you’ve also abandoned any meaningful sense of God’s justice, of God’s determination to hold us accountable for how we treat each other and creation.
The trick, of course, is holding these two together. Conservatives tend to be strong on judgment, but often separate that from any significant concern for the social justice that dominates the pages of Scripture. In the very next chapter, for instance, after several more predictions and parables about the end, Jesus says that when he comes in glory he will judge the nations by one standard: how they have treated those in need (Mt. 25:31-46). This is not a call to private morality but to active and embodied concern for the sake of the neighbor.
Liberals, however, are little better, as they tend to want justice but shrink from talking about judgment, at least judgment of the apocalyptic type mentioned in this week’s gospel. Reconciling the God of love and mercy of the liberal imagination with the insinuation of violence implied in describing God as one who “comes like a thief” seems nearly impossible. Yet this passage and all of Scripture is clear: Christ will come again, as the old creed said, “to judge the quick and the dead.”
And so this passage bids us not just to wait, but to keep awake, and to watch, and to be prepared. However you may feel about its apocalyptic setting, I still think it’s awfully good advice at the outset of Advent. There is so much that can distract us from the life of faith, from service to neighbor, from recognizing God in our midst. If we’re honest, we might admit that the frenetic decorating and shopping and card-giving that consumes these next four weeks can easily become part of what sidetracks us. We end up preparing for Christmas rather than for Christ and thereby more easily miss the presence of our Lord in the face of those in need and more liable to the judgment he speaks in today’s passage.
Judgment and justice — they go together. God expects us to treat each other with the sacrificial love we see in Jesus. In this way is Jesus a double-example for us. First, he showed us in his life how to love each other; then, in his death he showed us how much God loves us. Both his life and his cross matter and we separate them at our peril.
Is this passage frightening? I am tempted to say that it should be only if we are unprepared. You know what I mean? For the one who is prepared, Christ comes again as King; for the one caught up in the daily activities of eating and drinking and the like, with no heed for the kingdom of God, he comes as thief. Yet while this is undoubtedly true, I suspect there is still something more. For whether prepared or unprepared, Christ always comes at unawares. Not even exempting himself, Jesus says, “No one knows the day or the hour.” And this is inescapably unsettling. God’s mercy may temper our fear, but it does not and should not remove it. For God’s love for the vulnerable is the fierce love of a mother, and God’s desire to protect all of God’s children is the determined love of a father.
There is a scene in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe where the children, learning that Aslan is not a man but a lion are not only startled but down right alarmed. “Is he — quite safe?” Susan asks. “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” replies Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” Lucy asks. To which Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Safe? The God of fierce love and determined mercy? The God of unlooked for judgment and unrelenting justice? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. And knowing that makes all the difference.
Thank you for proclaiming the wild grace of this frighteningly merciful God, Working Preacher. Because sometimes I need to be startled out of the comfortable daydream in which I have unintentionally trapped the biblical God. And through your preaching of the God who comes both as king and thief both my expectations and my hopes are simultaneously unsettled and enlarged. Which is, I suspect, just what I need at the beginning of a new year.
Yours in Christ,