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Saturday, 26 November 2011

Second Coming? Yeah Right!



Isaiah 64.1-9 
Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1.1-9
Mark 13.24-37  

There are times in the journey of scriptural interpretation when we have to set aside the rational, logical brain – to the extent that we have one! – and allow ourselves to be, as two Isaiahs and a Jeremiah saw so clearly, clay in the hands of the potter. It isn’t altogether easy, though as I have often said in previous faith communities, it is easier for someone like myself, who had apparently slipped away to the toilet when scientific brains were handed out, than it is for those who have a scientific mind. Nevertheless, there are respected and highly intelligent scientists and philosophers who are able to ensure that they know the limitations of human enquiry, know that there is a moment in which we can surrender to the ‘too big’ and ‘beyond our ken’ vastness of God and acknowledge that ‘that than which no greater can be conceived’ (to borrow Anselm’s phrase) is greater than the human mind. This, incidentally, is not to lapse into fundamentalism, a surprisingly modern, more or less late nineteenth century form of biblical interpretation that imposes a literalist interpretation on the text – the Hebrew and early Christian minds were always far larger than that.

Nevertheless, in the 21st century it is hard not to be slightly swayed by the reasonable scientific suggestion that, given the current evidence, the Christian doctrine of a second coming of Christ is somewhat spurious. Some scholars argue that even as early as the time in which Paul writing his letters, the decade from the late 50s to early 60s of the first century, the Christian community was altering its expectation of the imminent return of the Messiah. Certainly in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians all systems appear to be go: describing the role of the faith community Paul reminds them ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1. 9b-10a), and when Paul prays for his Thessalonian audience, ‘may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’ (1 Thess. 3.13), he does so believing that this coming is imminent: ‘the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever’(1 Thess. 4.16b-17). Do we have to say of Paul that he would have received a nasty shock some years later when he was executed by the Romans, his Lord still seemingly absent, in visual terms?

Perhaps, but I am not convinced. The Book of Revelation, a little later than Paul, hangs tenaciously to the expectation of the Second Coming or Parousia. The gospel records and Acts do likewise. Like many doctrines of New Testament theology it would have been far easier to jettison this belief in order to sidestep the mocking antagonism of the critics and enemies of Christianity. Yet those early Christians were prepared to hold to it, even as, one by one, the eye witnesses of Jesus died out, and the first generations of Christians followed them. Certainly, later, as Christianity became a significant and later still the dominant paradigm in society, interest in the Second Coming dwindled. But, from time to time, as Christianity stagnated, the expectation was reawakened (not always to the good!), and, in each era, it has been as hard to believe and as risible as it is in our own. Do we dare to jettison this belief in our century?

In geological terms we know now we live on an ancient planet, circling a sun that will one day grow old and die. It may be that this is all that is meant when we speak of the second coming – that, long after our species has surrendered to its own exploitation of the planet, and long after new cycles of warming and cooling have restructured this blue globe, after new tectonic shifts have rearranged our continents far beyond our present imaginings, then life will simply peter away, and the final surviving species will dissipate into nothingness.

Maybe – and the doctrine of the Second Coming says that is okay too. For it says, primarily (as we remember in the rites of Easter), that the Alpha is the Omega: that the author of creation’s beginning will be the author of its endings. But the Doctrine of the Second Coming says more than merely that, for it says that not only the life of the universe, cosmological history, but the life of the sparrow and the life of you and the life of me is held in the tender, redeeming, hope-bringing hands of God. It is for that reason that Paul could write so confidently ‘may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’. The details of what John of the Apocalypse calls ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ are in the hands of God – but that is the point: they are in the hands of God. They are in the hands of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. And in the hands of God: judge.

Much contemporary theology – and even more contemporary a-theology – is keen to do away with the doctrine of judgement. We do so at great peril. Not that I want people to listen to hell fire and damnation sermons or want to attempt to frighten people into the clutches of faith. Apart from anything else, it is clear that those so-called evangelistic techniques are counter-productive in our current, nonchalant world. Judgement? Who cares?

For us the answer must be:‘we do’. There is an onus on us to live as a people under judgement. The tragic trail of sexual abuse in the church – though no worse than in some other institutions – is a sign of amnesia in some individuals as they forgot the doctrine of judgement, and predatory and exploitative sexual gratification became a greater creed. I suspect a Jesus saying about millstones, necks and oceans has much to say about the perpetrators of such evil. But for those of us who are not perpetrating such evil there is still always the need for long, hard self-scrutiny. Advent – and later, Lent – provide opportunity for just that. I do not understand the mechanics of the end of time, nor the mechanics of the Second Coming. But I try to remind myself that I stand in the shadow of that event, and try with the help of God to live a life at the closure of which I may be gently led into the unfathomable mysteries of God’s for-ever.

For that reason, more than 25 centuries after he wrote the words, I can add my amen to Isaiah’s plaintive prayer:  

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider: we are all your people.  

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