That year, it was the turn of one of the churches with a more conservative-evangelical theological outlook to provide someone to preach the sermon. For some reason, this fellow chose not to speak about Easter, but about the Second Coming. Growing up as a Methodist, this was something I’d never heard about in our church.
As I remember, the visiting preacher exhibited what seemed to be great glee about the torments that awaited those whom he didn’t deem worthy of God’s presence. He really seemed to be enjoying himself.
The one thing I remember most vividly, though, about the sermon was the series of nightmares I had for a week or two afterwards. (The nightmares only stopped after I overheard my minister joking about the fire-and-brimstone sermon at youth group, which gave me the opportunity to ask him about what he thought. And I learned that he profoundly disagreed with the guest speaker.)
Because I was so traumatised by this experience, I have always, in my ministry, tended to be very wary of passages such as today’s gospel lesson. I know, from experience that such passages need to be handled with care. Jesus’ message of hope can easily be distorted into a message of fear.
· This can happen innocently, as a result of a lack of sensitivity on the part of the person preaching or teaching.
· At other times, this can also happen with no innocence at all, but rather with the unscrupulous deliberately seeking to use fear to manipulate the insecure or the immature (including twelve or thirteen year-old kids attending their first Easter sunrise service).
The final triumph of Christ at the climax of human history is a theme that we find in the lessons both for the beginning and the ending of the Christian Year. We find this as a theme for the first Sunday of Advent, as well as for some of the Sundays in the previous weeks. There are a few reasons why passages such as our gospel reading today are treated as importantly as they are. I’ll suggest two.
1. Firstly, the three-year lectionary we now use was first developed during the 1970s. This was during the period of the Cold War, a time when the world lived under the shadow of nuclear warfare. As happened at many other periods of history, the growing insecurity experienced by many people led to a growing sense that human history was coming to its end. Because this theme was becoming so important to some of the movements on Christianity’s fundamentalist fringe, the compilers of the lectionary felt it was important for the more sane sort of mainstream Christian churches to address this as well.
2. Secondly, this theme seemed to be very important in the mind of Jesus and of the first generations of Christians. All of this first generation of Christians seemed to believe that they were living during history’s endgame.
In any event, Christians have argued over the Second Coming for two thousand years. I believe Christians will continue to argue over the Second Coming for the next two thousand years, if not for longer.
But one thing that we hear very clearly in what Jesus said in our lesson is not to be overcome with fear, but to live with courage.
Jesus spoke of those who “will faint from fear and foreboding” in response to events taking place in the world around them, both in the world of nature and in the world of human affairs. The context here is that this response, to “faint from fear and foreboding”, is not a very useful one.
Instead, Jesus advised his disciples (and us) to “stand up and raise your heads” in response to traumatic events both in the world of nature and in the world of human movers and shakers. Live with courage. “Stand up and raise your heads.”
· Live with courage in a world of environmental degradation.
· Live with courage in a world of climate change.
· Live with courage in a world of proliferating armaments.
· Live with courage in a world of growing inequality.
· Live with courage in a world of frightening religious fundamentalism, smoldering cultural resentments, and the terrorism caused by both.
“Stand up and raise your heads.”
Ultimately, this message of God’s final triumph at the climax of human history is not really there for the benefit of:
· a religious huckster trying to scare some thirteen-year-old kid in an church or a hall somewhere into walking down the aisle to make a commitment, or
· another religious huckster trying to scare a lonely person on the other side of a TV screen into writing a big, fat cheque.
That sort of con artist will always be there.
But, ultimately, the Advent message of God’s final triumph is that God can give us the courage to live in the face of all the threats that life can throw at us, whether the threats are of human origin or not. We have the choice to live with courage. “Stand up and raise your heads.”