Category: Eschatology

Rest in Peace

Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Not my own, necessarily, although I do think about that more than I probably ought to. But just death as a phenomenon. Both of my grandmothers have died in the last six months. Several people in my orbit could well be approaching this threshold. I just returned from a pastors conference about death, funerals and the Christian hope. Death has been a hard thing to avoid lately.
For most of my life, I have stubbornly rehearsed the familiar Christian maxim that death is the final enemy to be defeated, the destroyer of human flourishing to be fought against with everything we have. Death is bad, full stop. I still feel like this most days. But of course death is also the most natural thing you could hope to find. Everyone dies. Everything dies. Christianity has always insisted upon the unnaturalness of death but we must acknowledge that this is, on the face of it, a thoroughly counterintuitive claim in light of observable reality. It’s not hard to imagine how some would write off post-mortem hope as so much wish projection and fear assuagement—”projecting our paltry selves ad infinitum,” as Christian Wiman puts it.
At the conference this week, a friend commented in one of the forums that they don’t spend much time thinking about the post-mortem component of the Christian hope anymore. Who can say what, if anything, lies beyond? Maybe what comes after death is something like a sabbath rest—the cessation of struggle and pain and conflicted pursuits. Maybe death is when we finally get a really long break from our tormented selves. We Christians tie ourselves in knots trying to do enough, believe enough, think clearly enough to prepare ourselves for eternity. What if it’s all a bunch of puritanical striving toward nothing. What if, in the end, we are destined to simply rest in peace?
A theology reading group that I’m a part of has been reading Dale Allison’s Night Comes over the past few months. It’s a book about death—about what might become of us, what we might hope for, and what death might mean. In keeping with the theme of the book (endings), I skipped to the end of the book even though our group is still in the middle. Allison’s last few paragraphs caught me off guard, initially. And then, after a few more readings, they began to resonate a bit more deeply.

Although some might find this a tad morbid, part of me, with a sort of reverent curiosity, now looks forward to [death]. Most of the time, to be sure, life is full, and I’m all for staying with the familiar as long as possible. On the usual morning I eagerly anticipate the coming day, and on the usual evening I return thanks for most of what’s happened.
On occasion, however, the adventure seems stale, and it’s not so easy to feel grateful. The world, which is ever full of wonder, isn’t the problem. It’s rather me. I repeatedly resolve to do better, and I fail. I set out to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, and my attention wanders. I aspire to love God with all my heart and soul and mind, and my neighbor as myself, but I get distracted.
My incessant failures are more than frustrating, and sometimes I grow weary of myself. My fatigue can be such that I long to quit this stage for some other stage, to wake up in a new and different world, to swap my current self for something better, to undergo whatever will turn Romans 7—“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”—into nothing but a bad memory. As it became evident long ago that this isn’t going to happen in this world, I don’t always mind the aches and pains and the memory glitches that attend aging. They remind me that night comes. My hope is that light shines in the darkness.

Maybe all of us, in our more honest moments, feel this way. Or, maybe not. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s only introspective melancholic types who think along these lines. I admire those whose whose conviction about what comes next seems unshakeable. I really do. I have never been able to manufacture such certainty about the topography of the afterlife and I’m not sure I ever will. I take comfort in the fact that Jesus said a mustard seed of faith was enough.
But I, too, hope that light shines in the darkness. Desperately so. I long for life where the reality of Romans 7 recedes into a shadowy and unremembered past. And I am still convinced that the bare existence of this hope is itself powerfully suggestive of what might lie on the other side of death’s door. The good, the true, the beautiful—these cannot just be pleasant and useful fictions to keep our overactive prefrontal cortexes occupied for a few decades on a chunk of rock hurtling through space. They somehow have to mean more than that.
They point, surely, to the God who has set eternity in the human heart and who finally offers rest, wholeness, consummation, forgiveness, peace and, yes, even life, unnaturally eternal and eternally unnatural.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Loading

Revealing Jesus (A Revelation During the 1st Century) | S2 E6

Subscribe via iTunes or Google Season 2 | Episode 6 In this final episode of season two, we look at how the last book of the Bible must be situated during the first century. This is the longest of the videos because it is crammed full of contextual information about the book of Revelation. These episodes are the first several videos in a course called: Revealing Jesus. They can be listened to without video (especially if you are driving!) or can be utilized for the visual content as well. The full version of Revealing Jesus is available for pre-order at: https://theologycurator.com/revelation.  Here’s a free resource: Revelation Cheat Sheet, pdf! GIVE THE SHOW SOME LOVE 1) If you would be so kind to hop on iTunes (or your feed of choice) and leave Rapture Drill a review there, that would be amazing. The more reviews we can get will lead to greater visibility in iTunes. And I (Kurt) LOVE reading your comments! 2) Also, please consider hitting up Rapture Drill on Patreon online tip-jar (think Kickstarter for ongoing content creators). For $5 per month, or more, you can make a direct impact on this show. Financial partners like you really do make this all possible! Through Patreon, you make a tangible difference in this show’s sustainability and quality! http://patreon.com/kurtwillems
Syndicated from Rapture Drill: Reframing Revelation, the End Times, and our Weird Obsession with the Apocalypse

2018 in Review

Another year has nearly come and gone and this liminal space between Christmas Day and the start of a new year seems inevitably to provide opportunity to reflect back on the year that was on this blog. Blogs are, I am told, becoming something of a relic. Not many people are writing on or reading blogs anymore. Not many people are reading period anymore if the stats are to be believed. Who has or wants to make the time? People’s clicking and sharing seems to have migrated over to less wordy platforms.
I’ve been writing here for nearly twelve years now. Sometimes I feel like that’s about enough. I think back to some of the blogs I was reading back when I began and very few are left anymore. Perhaps I’ve overstayed the internet’s welcome. Other times I feel like I’m simply running out of things to say. I’ll start writing a post and then halfway through discover that I’ve almost literally written something identical three years ago. But there are other times—fewer than in the past, I grant, but they still come around now and then—when the conversation around things I write here is stimulating, generative, corrective, even rewarding. Which is good.
At any rate, if I haven’t discouraged you from reading on by now, here are the five most viewed posts I wrote in 2018 along with a brief description of each.
For Those Who Want to Grieve in a Religious Way
I wrote this after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash back in April. Few things capture Canada’s collective attention like hockey, and the deaths of junior hockey players in their prime on the way to a game was national news for weeks. It was all anyone could seem to talk about across the Canadian prairies and beyond. This piece about the language and categories we use around collective grief in a post-Christian context seemed to resonate.
Why Appreciate a Pastor?
This was a bit of a personal reflection on the experience of being a pastor in a cultural context where the news for the church is more often discouraging than encouraging. In hindsight, it seems a bit more woe-is-me than it ought to be, but it does give a sense of what it sometimes feels like to inhabit this strange role during these strange times.
Believe in Something
Nike’s advertising campaign featuring outspoken former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick raised temperatures (and revenue for Nike) when it came out and it highlighted how deep our cultural divide is when it comes to issues of racial violence. This piece wasn’t really about race or identity politics—it was about the slogan itself (“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”), whether or not it was coherent, and what it says about our cultural moment—but it quite quickly and predictably became about these things in conversations online.
The Disconnect
Another post on the state of the church in the post-Christian west and the disconnect between a culture that claims to be almost literally dying for lack of community and meaning and a church that claims to be offering these very things.
Somewhere to Be
I broke a self-imposed blogging sabbatical in spring to reflect on ten days spent in Palestinian territory. This post was a juxtaposition of the experience of walking through an Israeli checkpoint with Palestinians and listening to a Zionist Christian tour guide sketch the geography and the theology of the end of all things.
——
So, there are the “top fives” from 2018. As I’ve said before, though, the main benefit of compiling these year-end posts is to provide an opportunity to thank you for actually reading what I write here. I am grateful for the engagement and connections that take place in this space. I wish you all the best in 2019.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Revealing Jesus (A Revelation against the Empire) | S2 E5

Subscribe via iTunes or Google Season 2 | Episode 5 The last book of the bible is against the empire, in its spiritual and physical manifestations. John's apocalyptic letter confronts the arrogance of Rome and summons Christ-followers into allegiance to the Lamb alone. These episodes are the first several videos in a course called: Revealing Jesus. They can be listened to without video (especially if you are driving!) or can be utilized for the visual content as well. The full version of Revealing Jesus is available for pre-order at: https://theologycurator.com/revelation.  Here’s a free resource: Revelation Cheat Sheet, pdf! GIVE THE SHOW SOME LOVE 1) If you would be so kind to hop on iTunes (or your feed of choice) and leave Rapture Drill a review there, that would be amazing. The more reviews we can get will lead to greater visibility in iTunes. And I (Kurt) LOVE reading your comments! 2) Also, please consider hitting up Rapture Drill on Patreon online tip-jar (think Kickstarter for ongoing content creators). For $5 per month, or more, you can make a direct impact on this show. Financial partners like you really do make this all possible! Through Patreon, you make a tangible difference in this show’s sustainability and quality! http://patreon.com/kurtwillems
Syndicated from Rapture Drill: Reframing Revelation, the End Times, and our Weird Obsession with the Apocalypse

The Conquest of Christmas

Each year around this time, I find myself remarking to my congregation that the songs of Advent and Christmas give us some of our best theology. I’m sure they’re getting weary of hearing it by now. In my meagre defense, after a while one runs out of new things to say. At any rate, it’s no less true for my repeating it endlessly. Aside from just being a delight to sing, these songs give us marvelous lines like:

Oh, love beyond all telling, that led thee to embrace, in love, all love excelling, our lost and troubled race.
Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today!
Hail the incarnate deity; pleased with us in flesh to dwell; Jesus, our Immanuel!
Son of God, Love’s pure light, radiant, beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.

I could go on, but I’ll refrain. I will note in passing, however, that even as I was digging up these lines from my hymnal, I was struck by how many exclamation marks dot the songs of this season. The incarnation is nothing if not hyperbolic.
One of my tasks over the last few days has been to put together a PowerPoint presentation for our upcoming Christmas Eve service. It will be a simple candle-light service of lessons and carols where the lights will be left low. This makes for a lovely aesthetic, of course, but it’s hard to read a hymnal in the dark. So, to the screen the songs must go. And to the digital archives I must go to find song slides from Christmas Eves past.
One of the songs we’ll be singing on Christmas Eve is, O Come, O Come Immanuel. I dutifully retrieved a past set of slides and inserted them into the presentation. But one thing I’ve learned from past Christmas Eves is to double check the slides with the hymnal. Sometimes they don’t match and, well, who wants to ruin Christmas Eve with words that aren’t what people expect?! I noticed something interesting as I compared our PowerPoint presentation version of this song and the version in our church’s hymnal. The song has six verses, but we only sing four. And, as I wrote about a few years ago, I find it endlessly fascinating to pay attention to the things that we leave out, whether it’s in our songs or the Scripture readings the lectionary serves up or in the life of faith more generally.
In this case, these were the two verses left out:

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

These are understandable omissions. First, there’s the pragmatic to consider. Six verses are a lot. Christmas Eve tends to be a night when many people have somewhere to be, and the service had better not be more than 45-60 minutes!  Second, what’s all this clunky language about rods and keys and Jesses and Davids? Yes, we can dig around in our bibles and figure out that these terms refer to Jesus’ genetic lineage and the scope of his authority. This is all fine and good, but we’d much rather sing about the desire of all the nations, about the Dayspring coming to cheer our spirits, about envy, strife and quarrels ceasing and the whole earth being filled with heaven’s peace.
I suspect that we have our theological reasons for avoiding these two verses as well. Satan’s tyranny, the depths of hell, the grave, and the path to misery aren’t exactly warm Christmas Eve-y images, even if these verses proclaim their defeat. We don’t like to think of ourselves being tyrannized by Satan or threatened by the depths of hell. At best, these can be reclaimed as metaphors for the brokenness of our systems and structures. At worst, they are embarrassingly anthropomorphic theological relics that we are well rid of. At any rate, we have eggnog and sugar cookies to get to! Who wants all those ugly words ringing in their ears as they set out into the season?
I do, actually. I look at a world plagued with violence, greed, and inhumanity, of an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor and I long for tyrannical shackles to be broken, for the paths to misery to be closed, once and for all. I long for Mary’s Magnificat to be more than a wistful Scripture reading on the Fourth Sunday of Advent but an accomplished reality. I long for the Rod of Jesse to save us from hell—whether the hells that we create for one another or the final judgment our deeds demand. I long for death’s icy grip to be loosened and heaven’s doors flung wide. I need Christmas to be more than warm pastoral images of a cherubic white baby Jesus with his placid parents pondering the wonder and holiness of it all. Christmas is wonderful and holy and I am grateful for all the warmth and hope that it delivers. But Christmas is also the conquest of sin, death, and the tyrannical enemy that frustrates the good, the true, and the beautiful at every turn. Thank God.
I don’t know if we’ll end up singing verses two and four of O Come, O Come Immanuel in four days. Rods and keys and Davids and Jesses really don’t roll off the tongue as easily as the more cherished Christmas strains. And six verses is rather a lot. But as the celebration of a baby in a manger steadily approaches, I find myself grateful for both conquest and the consolation of Christmas.
——
The image above was created by John August Swanson and is taken from the 2011-12 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is Christmas’s conqueror on his own early path of misery, fleeing the hell-on-earth of a murderous despot. 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Revealing Jesus (A Revelation for the Church) | S2 E4

Subscribe via iTunes or Google Season 2 | Episode 4 The last book of the Bible is a letter written to seven churches in the first century. These churches are not symbolic of the various scenarios and players in an end times drama, but were real communities facing real challenges in a real time and place. These episodes are the first several videos in a course called: Revealing Jesus. They can be listened to without video (especially if you are driving!) or can be utilized for the visual content as well. The full version of Revealing Jesus is available for pre-order at: https://theologycurator.com/revelation.  Here’s a free resource: Revelation Cheat Sheet, pdf! GIVE THE SHOW SOME LOVE 1) If you would be so kind to hop on iTunes (or your feed of choice) and leave Rapture Drill a review there, that would be amazing. The more reviews we can get will lead to greater visibility in iTunes. And I (Kurt) LOVE reading your comments! 2) Also, please consider hitting up Rapture Drill on Patreon online tip-jar (think Kickstarter for ongoing content creators). For $5 per month, or more, you can make a direct impact on this show. Financial partners like you really do make this all possible! Through Patreon, you make a tangible difference in this show’s sustainability and quality! http://patreon.com/kurtwillems
Syndicated from Rapture Drill: Reframing Revelation, the End Times, and our Weird Obsession with the Apocalypse

Revealing Jesus (A Revelation to John) | S2 E3

Subscribe via iTunes or Google Season 2 | Episode 3 Who was John? What world did he step into and why should that shape our understanding of Revelation? Many believe that he was John the disciple of Jesus. However, evidence seems to point in a different direction. What we do know, however, is that Jesus used him in a powerful way. The last book of the Bible is a revelation to John! These episodes are the first several videos in a course called: Revealing Jesus. They can be listened to without video (especially if you are driving!) or can be utilized for the visual content as well. The full version of Revealing Jesus is available for pre-order at: https://theologycurator.com/revelation.  Here’s a free resource: Revelation Cheat Sheet, pdf! GIVE THE SHOW SOME LOVE 1) If you would be so kind to hop on iTunes (or your feed of choice) and leave Rapture Drill a review there, that would be amazing. The more reviews we can get will lead to greater visibility in iTunes. And I (Kurt) LOVE reading your comments! 2) Also, please consider hitting up Rapture Drill on Patreon online tip-jar (think Kickstarter for ongoing content creators). For $5 per month, or more, you can make a direct impact on this show. Financial partners like you really do make this all possible! Through Patreon, you make a tangible difference in this show’s sustainability and quality! http://patreon.com/kurtwillems
Syndicated from Rapture Drill: Reframing Revelation, the End Times, and our Weird Obsession with the Apocalypse

Revealing Jesus (A Revelation of Jesus) | S2 E2

Subscribe via iTunes or Google Season 2 | Episode 2 How does Revelation "Reveal Jesus?" The opening line of the book makes a compelling claim: "A Revelation of Jesus Christ." This is the purpose of the last book of the Bible, but we often struggle to understand how the Jesus of the Gospels is anything like the image of him we see in Revelation. When we step into the ancient world, these struggles start to resolve. These episodes are the first several videos in a course called: Revealing Jesus. They can be listened to without video (especially if you are driving!) or can be utilized for the visual content as well. The full version of Revealing Jesus is available for pre-order at: https://theologycurator.com/revelation.  Here’s a free resource: Revelation Cheat Sheet, pdf! GIVE THE SHOW SOME LOVE 1) If you would be so kind to hop on iTunes (or your feed of choice) and leave Rapture Drill a review there, that would be amazing. The more reviews we can get will lead to greater visibility in iTunes. And I (Kurt) LOVE reading your comments! 2) Also, please consider hitting up Rapture Drill on Patreon online tip-jar (think Kickstarter for ongoing content creators). For $5 per month, or more, you can make a direct impact on this show. Financial partners like you really do make this all possible! Through Patreon, you make a tangible difference in this show’s sustainability and quality! http://patreon.com/kurtwillems
Syndicated from Rapture Drill: Reframing Revelation, the End Times, and our Weird Obsession with the Apocalypse

Revealing Jesus in Revelation (Introduction) | S2 E1

Subscribe via iTunes or Google Season 2 | Episode 1 In this first episode of season two, Kurt Willems frames the unique video formatting of the next several episodes. These episodes are the first several videos in a course he created, called Revealing Jesus. They can be listened to without video (especially if you are driving!) or can be utilized for the visual content as well. The full version of Revealing Jesus is available for pre-order at: https://theologycurator.com/revelation.  Here’s a free resource: Revelation Cheat Sheet, pdf! GIVE THE SHOW SOME LOVE 1) If you would be so kind to hop on iTunes (or your feed of choice) and leave Rapture Drill a review there, that would be amazing. The more reviews we can get will lead to greater visibility in iTunes. And I (Kurt) LOVE reading your comments! 2) Also, please consider hitting up Rapture Drill on Patreon online tip-jar (think Kickstarter for ongoing content creators). For $5 per month, or more, you can make a direct impact on this show. Financial partners like you really do make this all possible! Through Patreon, you make a tangible difference in this show’s sustainability and quality! http://patreon.com/kurtwillems
Syndicated from Rapture Drill: Reframing Revelation, the End Times, and our Weird Obsession with the Apocalypse

I Don’t Want to Be My Own God

Most Christians I know have a complicated relationship with the doctrine of hell. Many have grown up with a caricature, with gruesome images of an eternal fiery torture chamber with a horns-and-pitchfork devil presiding over the conflagration. This is deemed intolerable by most. Indeed, I am highly suspicious of those who retain this view. They often seem a bit too eager, not to mention selective, in their appreciation of God’s judgment. The rest of us struggle with hell in various ways. Those who accept the possibility of hell wonder how a merciful God can allow it. Those who reject hell outright often still implicitly long for, even demand, some kind of a final justice for those who have done great evil. We hate the idea of hell but we can’t quite let it go. It’s complicated.
My own views of hell have certainly changed over time. I grew up imbibing a pretty severe view of hell—not as terrifying as the caricature described above, perhaps, but still enough to send a shiver down my youthful spine. The older I got, the more I found this view intolerable. I meandered through various approaches to hell before settling, as many do, upon a view most famously articulated by C.S. Lewis in his allegory, The Great Divorce. In it, Lewis portrays hell not as a medieval torture chamber but a grey town where people slowly, but surely are extinguished by losing interest in heaven and isolating themselves from each other and God through their own choices.
Hell, for Lewis, was God’s final ratification of human freedom. I liked this view very much. It made sense of much of the biblical narrative which places great emphasis upon human choice. More importantly, it distanced God from the torture chamber. I had always struggled enormously with how a good God could allow something like hell, whatever it looked like, to exist. How could any eternal punishment be morally commensurate with a finite amount of sin? There’s only so much mischief one can get up to in a handful of decades, right? And how could anyone enjoy the delights of heaven knowing there was a place like hell around to foul up eternity? Conceiving of hell as God’s grudging acquiescence to human obstinance and faithlessness seemed, if not ideal, then certainly a better option than Dante’s Inferno.
But is it really? I’ve been reading Dale Allison’s fine book Night Comes over the past few weeks. In a chapter called “Hell and Sympathy” he’s been poking a few holes in what he calls “the modern view of hell” popularized by Lewis and embraced by so many. Perhaps surprisingly, Allison doesn’t think nearly as highly of human freedom as I have for most of my life:

Yet when human freedom is front and center, God moves to the wings. In the modern myth, our names are on the marquee, and our destiny is up to us. What we make of ourselves here determines what we are to become there.
Should we, however, desire starring roles and such Pelagian freedom? Although not an old-fashioned Calvinist, I think it’s obvious that all of us are broken creatures, that we are selfish and self-deluded, and that we constantly abuse our freedom, which is so often illusory. Because of this, I find little use for a deity who lets me decide my fate. I don’t want to be my own God. Nor do I want the Supreme Being to respect my alleged autonomy no matter what, just as I don’t want the police to respect the autonomy of the despondent guy threatening to jump off the top of the high-rise. I rather desire, for myself and for everyone else, rescue. Our decisions need to be undone, not confirmed. We need to be saved despite ourselves. Even if we’re allowed, in our freedom, to kindle the fires of hell and to forge its chains, isn’t it God’s part to break our chains and put out the fire?

I’m still not quite sure what to make of this, to be honest. I still think that human freedom is a massive part of the biblical narrative. I still think that the things that we choose to do and believe matter immensely. I can’t make sense out of so much of Scripture without a framework in place that asserts a deeply meaningful human freedom. And yet, I find Allison’s reflections here compelling. I don’t want my name on the marquee. I often think that freedom is too great a burden to entrust to creatures as fragile and stupid as us. We abuse and misuse it so terribly. We are, as Allison says, all over the place:

Human beings aren’t unidirectional vectors but bundles of contradictions. Saints are sinners; sinners are saints. Everyone is Jekyll; everyone is Hyde. And everyone is in between. We advance toward God one moment and sound retreat the next, and most of the time we’re stuck in the middle…
The modern hell, however, posits that in the world to come, we keep moving in the direction we’re already headed. Our momentum, so to speak, carries us up to heaven or down to hell. Yet what if, like me, you keep moving in circles?

What if, indeed?
At the end of it all, my misgivings here may simply reflect a pretty typical biographical trajectory. Freedom was attractive to me when I was younger because, well, young people think a great deal of freedom. The world stood before me, a blank slate, ready to be imprinted with all of my blessed uniqueness and autonomy. But then I lived a few years. And I recognized how prone I am to wander, to misuse the freedom I so treasured in my youth. Now I’m not quite so eager for my choices to be ratified by God for all eternity. I need some undoing, some rescue, someone to refuse to respect my miserable autonomy. Someone for whom mercy triumphs over judgement. Someone who said, with his dying breath, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Someone whose momentum overrides and overrules my own.

Syndicated from Rumblings

It’s All Your Fault!

There are at least two reasons to like the Nashville Predators hockey team. First, the yellow uniforms. Obviously. You have to admire a team that cares so little about the intimidation factor that they’re willing to skate out in mustard yellow. Second, the Preds fans have (had?) this delightful tradition that follows each of the home team’s goals. They begin by serenading the opponent’s goaltender, chanting his last name in a kind of whiny, mocking voice, and punctuating the ridicule by screaming, “It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault!!” It’s great fun—at least if you’re on the right end of the score. I watched a bit of a Predators game last night before heading out to my own beer league hockey game where, as it happens, half of the goals our team gave up were, well, all my fault. Luckily there aren’t many fans at beer league hockey games and the few who do show up can’t be bothered to summon the requisite energy for mockery.
The season of Advent offers up an annual set of stark contradictions, at least in the West, and at least for those who go to church. On the one hand, we are surrounded by all kinds of Christmas-y kitsch and market-driven feel-good-ishness. There are lights and shopping and specialty coffees and all manner of other things designed to get us into the spirit of the season (and to loosen our grips on our wallets). On the other hand, for those who darken the door of a church during the first few Sundays of Advent, there are scripture readings that bring us face to face with wild prophets and ominous scenes of judgment and woe. There is talk of refining fires and an axe ready to fell an unfruitful tree and people shaking with foreboding for what will come on the earth when Son of Man comes in glory. There are also messages of comfort and hope, to be sure. But the season Advent thrusts us headlong into a narrative of judgment which isn’t always pleasant and certainly isn’t marketable.
The prophets are kind of a frustrating bunch. On the one hand, they offer some of Scripture’s most beautiful words of hope. They speak of the Righteous Branch who will usher in justice and righteousness. They promise a restoration of fortunes and point to the One who will gather up his people and rejoice over them with gladness. The herald a coming day when human beings will draw water from the wells of salvation with joy. They proclaim the Advent of the Prince of Peace who comes to meet the hopes and fears of all the years. They very often speak these words to people who are suffering in exile, far from home, seemingly abandoned by God, and without hope. And yet on the other hand, the prophets speak harsh language of condemnation and blame. They rant and they rave, wild-eyed, to anyone who will listen, screaming, in a sense, It’s all your fault! Your sins have caused or will cause your suffering. God is punishing you! You should know better! It’s all your fault!
There could scarcely be a less welcome message in our cultural context. This is surely victim-blaming of the very highest and most reprehensible order. This is kicking people while they are down. This is piling guilt and shame upon suffering. This is crushing the vulnerable and the weak with the intolerable burden of divine punishment as the “explanation” for their plight.  Who can tolerate such a message? Can you imagine the psychological and sociological damage that such a narrative would inflict upon a people? This is surely nothing less than unnecessarily traumatizing an already traumatized community.
It wasn’t an appealing approach for its first hearers either. The prophets were not a particularly esteemed lot. They were ridiculed and ignored, at best. At worst, they were nailed to a cross. Nobody much likes being told that it’s all their fault and we will go to great lengths to silence voices that tell us it is. And yet, the people of Israel (and, later, the church) have insisted upon preserving these words in their Scriptures. They have, retroactively at the very least, insisted upon interpreting their suffering theologically. There are socio-political explanations for why people find themselves in exile (literal or metaphorical), of course. The people of Israel knew this and we know it, too. It’s far easier to explain the Assyrians and Babylonians as the temporary fillers of a political power vacuum than as God’s chosen instrument of moral reproach for his people. But Israel and the church have scandalously insisted upon the latter approach. The judgment of God has been deemed preferable to the absence of God. It’s all your fault! has been deemed preferable to There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this.
As it happens, I’m not particularly into blaming and shaming as a pedagogical strategy.  I don’t like the image of God it implies. The prophets make me uncomfortable with all of their annoying bleating about sin and judgment and injustice and idolatry and God knows what else. I much prefer their words of hope and consolation to the rest of it. The prophets offend me, at times. And this is probably as it should be. I need the prophets. We all do, whether we realize it or not. We, who will blame almost anyone but ourselves for our trials need to be forced to entertain the possibility that some things might actually be our fault. We for whom judgment is deemed offensive—perhaps the last remaining sin—need to hear voices of a coming reckoning and refining.
The prophets hold before us a God and a coming that isn’t what we would prefer but is absolutely what we need. A God of mind- and faith-stretching paradoxes. A God who speaks both judgment and hope. A God who inflicts both a wound and a healing. A God who binds in order to set free. A God who says, “Who will comfort you at the wrath and rebuke of your God?” and “See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering.” A God who both lays the blame and takes the blame.
——
The image above was created by Patrick Foster and taken from this year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It is a wild-eyed prophet named John the Baptist who saw something beautiful and ominious coming and offended plenty of people in preparing the way. 

 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Look Up

The season of Advent approaches and with it the ever-present temptation to dwell in the saccharine, the safe, the sanitized—harmless images of God’s coming that trouble us far less than they ought to. I feel this temptation every year. It’s easy to prepare for the coming of a harmless child that is with us but demands little of us. It was and is all too easy for earth receive her king poorly.
To guard against these temptations, I conscript Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be my Advent companion each year. His little book of Advent devotionals called God is in the Manger is a welcome antidote to all of the ways that I might reduce Advent to less than it ought to be. This reflection is called, “Look Up, Your Redemption is Drawing Near”:

Let’s not deceive ourselves. “Your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28), whether we know it or not, and the only question is: Are we going to let it come to us too, or are we going to resist it? Are we going to join this movement that comes down from heaven to earth, or are we going to close ourselves off? Christmas is coming—whether it is with us or without us depends on each and every one of us.
Such a true Advent happening now creates something different from the anxious, petty, depressed, feeble Christian spirit that we see again and again, and that again and again wants to make Christianity contemptible. This becomes clear from the two powerful commands that introduce our text: “Look up and raise your heads” (Luke 21:28). Advent creates people, new people. We too are supposed to become new people in Advent. Look up, you whose gaze is fixed on this earth, who are spellbound by the little events and changes on the face of the earth. Look up to these words, you who have turned away from heaven disappointed. Look up, you whose eyes are heavy with tears and… who are crying over the fact that the earth has gracelessly torn us away. Look up, you who are burdened with guilt, cannot lift your eyes. Look up, your redemption is drawing near. Something different from what you see daily will happen. Just be aware, be watchful, wait just another short moment. Wait and something quite new will break over you: God will come.

Syndicated from Rumblings

All Peoples Will Mourn Because of Him

For churches whose preaching is lectionary based, one of the texts for this Sunday is Revelation 1:4-8. It’s a marvelous passage that describes Jesus in some of the most exalted language in all of the New Testament. The “faithful witness,” the “the firstborn of the dead,” the ruler of the kings of the earth,” the one who is and who was and who is to come,” the “Alpha and the Omega.” It’s breathtaking stuff. The risen Christ is described as the source and goal of all creation.
There’s another section of this passage that we are perhaps not so readily drawn to:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
    and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
    and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.

We squirm a bit at the “coming with the clouds” language. Maybe it conjures up some of the awful eschatologies we’ve spent years dislodging from our theological framework, with images Jesus as a conquering hero rampaging down from a celestial throne to settle the score. Perhaps we cringe at this image of vast swaths of humanity weeping and wailing because they didn’t recognize their king at the time of his first coming and now there will be hell to pay. There’s certainly plenty of language in Revelation, at least on a surface reading, to justify these sorts of misgivings.
But what if the mourning proceeds from a different source? What if the tears are not those of terror but of a kind of desolate relief? What if the weeping is the result of finally seeing who the ruler of the kings of the earth truly is and how he will judge? What if the wailing is due not to the dread of punishment from a king who is no different than the tired procession of power-hungry and violent kings who preceded him, but because the sad truth will come crashing down upon us: we are the ones who pierced the source of our healing and salvation; we are the ones who turned our backs on the very one who offered (and offers still) forgiveness and wholeness.
And what if—impossibly—these are also tears of trembling joy? It’s not the most obvious interpretation, I grant, but whatever else might be said about it, it is anchored squarely and solely in the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
There’s a great passage in Dale C. Allison Jr.’s Night Comes that asks us to consider the final judgment at Christ’s second coming alongside the climactic scenes of his first:

[Although] the fact is often missed, in order to [forgive Peter], he has to negate his own somber warning: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mat. 10:33). Peter denies Jesus. Jesus doesn’t deny Peter. He rather says to him and his miserable fellows, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). In the resurrection appearances, the unqualified admonition about denial is set aside, and mercy triumphs over judgment…
What follows? If the Gospels identify Jesus with the judge of the last day, and if they construe his passion and resurrection as a mini-apocalypse, then Christian readers might well ask, Haven’t we seen how the judge once acted when the end came, and why shouldn’t we expect more of the same in the future? If Jesus has rehearsed the end, don’t his followers have some idea of what’s coming? Will the one who repudiated violence and vengeance think better of it down the road and adopt a different policy? Will the one who forgave his enemies once refuse to do so again? Will he finally call a halt to forgiving seventy times seven?
Large parts of the Christian tradition, including a few paragraphs in the New Testament, have imagined that things will indeed be different next time. When the judge appears, forgiving enemies will belong to the past. He will have had enough of the Sermon on the Mount and of turning the other cheek. It’ll be time to revert to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The sun will no longer shine on the just and unjust, but only on the just. Evil will be requited with evil.
All this, however, requires that Jesus’ behavior in the passion narrative is a temporary strategy as opposed to a demonstration of God’s deepest character. On this view, how Jesus behaved on one occasion says little or nothing about how he will behave on another, or is even altogether misleading. Yet how then will a Christian plausibly insist that the cross discloses the divine identity, or that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever? Is it credible that the figure in the passion narratives is a passing anomaly, that Jesus acted the part of a lamb led to slaughter only as some sort of provisional strategy which will, in the end, be abandoned for some radically different tactic? Does the risen Christ bear his scars as justification for revenge or as a sign of his everlasting character?

I don’t spend a great deal of time agonizing over the logistics of the final judgement, truth be told. I am content to interpret Revelation not as an eschatological blueprint but as a powerful set of symbols that are, at best, approximations of what we can only ever understand in part. I can imagine weeping at the sight of the judge’s coming, but only because the judge and Jesus are one and the same. Tears for the recognition that all of my petty, retributive, scorekeeping views of what God is like have been miserably inadequate. Tears for the way that I have reproduced these views in my own life. And tears for the beauty of hearing—against all odds!—words like, “Peace be with you.”
So it is to be. Amen.
——
The image above is taken from next year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It’s by Tim Steward and is called “Enveloped in Gold.” 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Loading

Email Subscribe

Subscribe for blog posts sent to your email

Post Categories

MennoNerds on YouTube