I grew up in the era of Left Behind books, a peculiar moment in evangelical Christianity where everyone seemed particularly infatuated with the end times. As a middle schooler, it felt like those books were everywhere: the junior novelization was displayed prominently at my school library, and all of my friend's parents were reading the series with an eye to the newspaper looking for signs of the end of the age. Growing up centuries ago, without cable, and before Netflix or Hulu, there were only 3 channels at my house, one of which was the Christian television network. Even there it seemed that every time I found myself watching it I was confronted with a fiery preacher warning of the imminent rapture, the coming tribulation, and the rise of the antichrist. Back then, the second coming of Jesus was a source of unspeakable anxiety and fear for me, not consolation or hope. It terrified me. I couldn’t understand why everyone was so excited about an event that seemed so frightening. On numerous occasions, I cried myself to sleep at night begging Jesus NOT come back, and not to leave me behind to do battle with the Antichrist and the powers of hell. I was only in middle school after all, and I’d seen enough of the Kirk Cameron movies to know that I was woefully ill-equipped for the wrath to come.
When it comes to the return of Christ, there are a variety of responses from Christians. Fear, as was evidenced in my early years, is certainly one of them. Others have sold everything they had and waited on the hills. Some comb the newspaper looking for signs that the end is near. Despite the obvious over-reactions inherit in each of these postures, all of these approaches are getting at something good: be that fear of the Lord, patient expectation, or remaining watchful for the coming king. At the same time, they all miss something foundational. The overarching sentiment that the return of Christ stirred in early Christians was not fear, or obsessive speculation. Paul tells Titus that the return of Christ in Glory is the, “blessed hope” which believers wait for as they turn from sin and pursue righteousness. Hope is what best describes Israel’s posture as they awaited the first advent of Jesus, and it is hope which should mark us as God’s people awaiting the second coming of Christ.
This week in Advent we turn our attention away from the past and toward the future, toward that blessed hope, the return of The Lord. The goal is not to get entangled in a debate about the timing of the rapture, or the length of the millennium, or the identity of the antichrist. Rather, we are setting our hearts of a simple truth that all Christians of all traditions embrace: Jesus is coming back again to make all things new. That is a moment that may inspire a little bit of fear, and a measure of hand wringing, but above all of this it should be a profound source of comfort. On that day, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” When Christ appears, “Everything that is sad will become untrue.” Knowing that this is the end towards which the world is heading should cause us to be a people who live in hopeful longing for the day of the Lord. Advent is not just a time to remember the birth of Christ, it is also a time in which we allow the end to come into focus so that it can inform the way we live in the present. That’s what the Swiss theologian Karl Barth had in mind when he rhetorically asked, “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?” Though this time only lasts for 4 weeks, there is a real sense in which all Christians this side of the ascension of Jesus are living with both fulfillment and longing: somehow, we are always in Advent. Perhaps this is why Paul chooses to use a deliberately ambiguous Aramaic phrase in chapter 16 of his first letter to the Corinthians: “Maranatha.” Depending on where you break the letters in this word, the meaning shifts.
If the word is rendered, “Maran-Atha” it is a declaration, “Our Lord has come.”
If, however, you translate it, “Marana-Tha” it becomes a plea, “Come, O Lord!”
The truth is that in Advent we find ourselves saying both of these things. As our eyes gaze back to the manger in Bethlehem we rejoice, “Our Lord has come!” But as we look towards the return of Jesus, we cry out, “Come, O Lord!”
Fulfillment and longing, already and not yet, this is the tension we live in as we stand beyond the empty tomb but before the final judgement. It is an uncomfortable place to be, because it is not meant to be permanent. As surely as Christ has come, he will come again. And on that day, he will once and for all destroy the power of death, and wipe every tear from our eye. I didn’t yet grasp how good that news was in middle school, as I laid awake at night terrified of the rapture. But a few decades later, I think I’m beginning to understand, and in this season I’ve found myself echoing the words of John: Amen, even so, come, Lord Jesus.