by Daniel Harrell
Violet and I spent last Sunday in Vero Beach, where the weather was a very un-Advent-like 79 degrees and sunny. It’s why people go to Florida. To escape winter. Advent, on the other hand, was designed to embrace winter’s gloom (in the Northern hemisphere at least), and less as a ramp up to Christmas than as a wake up call for Jesus’ Second Coming, a last day fraught not with holly and mistletoe but with famine and earthquakes and doom and darkness. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, the Second Coming has been a long time coming, so not even faithful Christians tend to think about it so much. Early church leadership grew worried about pervasive complacency due to Jesus’ delay, so they dusted off and assigned to Advent lectionary readings Scriptures labeled apocalyptic—passages from books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, Isaiah and even the gospels themselves.
In three of the four gospels, Jesus launches into a grim and violent discourse about wars and rumors of war, an “abomination of desolation” that endangers pregnant women, persecution and betrayal and worldwide tribulation, children rising against their parents, putting them to death and the sun burning out before finally a trumpet blares and the entire planet looks up to see not a bird or a plane, but the “Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory,” a depiction borrowed from the prophet Daniel. Jesus took apocalypse seriously.
Still, preaching apocalypse in a sermon can feel a bit embarrassing for enlightened preachers like me, which may be why I decided to preach fifty sermons, to get over the embarrassment. You’ll remember I covered the entire book of Revelation one year, and most of you hated it, but hey, somebody’s gotta do it. I recall one conversation with a visitor who sensed her faith resurfacing after many dormant years, but admitted that she still couldn’t get her brain around this second coming silliness. She asked me, “Am I really supposed to believe that there’s a Judgment Day coming when Jesus will return, flying down from the sky to the sound of blaring trumpets?” I replied how stranger things have been believed. “No they have not,” she said. “That’s as weird as it gets.”
Last Sunday being the first Sunday of Advent, I rolled out the weirdness for the Floridians and snowbirds in Vero Beach where I preached. They hated it too, though one parishioner did concede how sermons can’t be a chocolate sundaes every Sunday. I think that was a compliment.
Speaking of Judgment Day, we were flying home out of Orlando, on the same plane with some of you, and Violet and I were seated behind a classic Minnesota couple, he in his hunting camouflage and she in her fur lined parka. As we taxied out to the runway, the hunter’s phone went off, one of those garish Galaxy screens the whole plane could see. On it popped up an “I Love You” text, which the hunter should have ignored, but instead he hunter furtively tapped back “I love you too.” His fur-lined partner looked over and demanded to know who that text was to. The hunter, clearly caught in her crosshairs, stumbled and bumbled about it being his daughter, which all of us seated around him were like, dude, you’re so doomed. Infuriated, fur lady unleashed out a stream of unchurchy words and then started pummeling hunter man with her fists. The flight attendants swiftly intervened and served justice, determining these two must disembark immediately, meaning the massive Boeing 757 had to u-turn back to the gate. This took another twenty uncomfortable minutes to do, during which the flight attendants reassessed and offered hunter-boy a second chance opportunity to stay on the plane since he had been the victim and not the perpetrator of the assault. He thought that sounded good, and no wonder given the fur-lady’s fury. But no way was she leaving that plane without him. When we reached the gate, she made sure he walked off first, which he sheepishly did, wading ever deeper into hot water.
Speaking of deep water, this second Sunday of Advent is traditionally given over to John the Baptist, who also dressed in fur and dressed down all who came down by the riverside. For John, deep water was all about judgment. His first sermon was applicable to hunter-boy’s dilemma: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven in near.” You can’t have a chocolate sundae every Sunday.
Some of you may remember my very first sermon series at Colonial was on John the Baptist, the one whom Isaiah prophesied as the “voice calling out in the wilderness, make straight the way for the Lord,” who called his riverside congregation “a brood of vipers,” a label I said applied to us too. I can’t believe I lasted ten years.
John the Baptist didn’t even last one year, and Jesus only made it three. But they were braver preachers than me. Jesus’ first sermon was a xerox of John’s “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” By kingdom Jesus meant power and by near he meant right here, specifically right in front of you, Jesus himself was the king. But seriously, a Savior born via a virgin in a first century backwater village, who grows up to walk on water and stop storms, gets crucified, dead and buried, only to rise from the dead and promise to be back later flying on clouds? That’s as weird as it gets. Best to keep Advent focused on cute farm animals and cuddly babies. Leave the flying to Santa Claus.
But then again, here’s Isaiah 11, the lectionary text for this Sunday, filled with cuddly animals and kids. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze… and a little child shall lead them.” There’s peace on earth and goodwill among the animals at least, and children are in charge, as if that were something new. That Isaiah seems to speak of a specific child—namely the baby Jesus—is what makes Isaiah 11 so suitable to Christmas. Jesus did come as a little child to lead us, but he insisted we stoop down and become little children too if we’re ever going to follow him.
Isaiah foresees a shoot from Jesse’s stump, Jesse being the father of the iconic King David, the one in whose image Israel’s longed-for Messiah would come. That the stump is the stump of Jesse, however, suggests that the Messiah would not be a King David clone. Isaiah prophesies long after King David’s gone; Jesse’s family tree had been cut down to a stump. The new branch would be Jesus as king, rightly recognized by the meek and the poor as the “Son of David,” a branch who bore bountiful fruit of the Spirit: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and fear of the LORD.”
In Christ, Isaiah envisions justice for the meek and the poor, and peace permeating all creation. Swords get beaten into plowshares and lions become vegetarians. Reconciled are predator and prey, infants and adders, Jews and Gentiles, black and white, urban dwellers and farmers, conservatives and progressives. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah’s peaceable dream is so beautiful because it remains so out of line with our experience, yet so fully in line with what we want the world to be.
At the same time, in true apocalyptic fashion, the branch comes down on the wicked who deservedly get their comeuppance. The Son of David “shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall smite the wicked.” Your favorite book of Revelation, echoing Isaiah, features a fiery Jesus thundering in on a stormy white stallion, making war on evil with a broadsword protruding out of his mouth, his last word the final judgment.
Many object to such language as too offensive for a religion devoted to a baby born in a manger. But a God who never does justice for fear of offending must sooner or later be construed as the God who never shows fury toward the offender no matter how vile their offense: a Santa Claus god so benign as to be indifferent, so slow to anger that he is too late to save, a Jesus who suffered the little children to come unto him but not the Christ who warned their abusers would be better off drowned with a millstone tied to their necks. As for Jesus who judges, Isaiah foretells, “He will not judge by mere appearances, or make decisions on the basis of hearsay. He will treat the poor fairly and make right decisions for the downtrodden of the earth. He will strike the earth with the scepter of his mouth; with the mere breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near,” Jesus said, including the people who get to fly home on the plane. Christ’s call is for our lives to be righteous, our love abundant, our priorities straight, our seatbelts of faith securely fastened, our focus on what matters most. “Keep awake,” Jesus warned, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… You must be ready, for the Son of Man comes at an unexpected hour, like a thief in the night.”
The last time we visited Vero Beach was last January, when Dawn’s cancer symptoms showed up like a thief in the night. This past July, Christianity Today writer Rob Moll, the 41-year-old author, ironically, of The Art of Dying: Living Fully Into the Life To Come, slipped and fell off Mount Rainer while hiking. His widow, Clarissa, now an only parent of four, commiserated with me. I wrote to her, “I’ve found all the clichés have come true: do today, life goes forward, love deeply, give thanks, hope for all our faith promises, accept that to love and adore means to grieve and mine the depths of emotion and somehow meet Jesus there. Be patient and trust. Let grief do what it must.”
Clarissa replied, “I know the conventional wisdom is not to make any big decisions for the first year, but I am chafing against that at this point. We’ve been back six weeks since Rob’s services and burial in Seattle, and I don’t want to disrupt the important grieving and healing that I see my children doing here. But the emotional support I have here is very thin, and I can’t imagine that being helpful for a much longer span. As a woman, I am seen by family as very vulnerable, and I receive lots of advice on what I should do (mainly: stay put, don’t rock the boat any further, play it safe). However, I have never felt more carpe diem than I do at this moment. In the face of death, my entire perspective has changed. Life is short. Take risks. Go exploring. Expand your vision for what God might have for you. I have had to trust Him these last three months in ways I never could have imagined, and risk looks somewhat different to me now. I tell those dear to me that I refuse to let this break me. I will not die but live and declare the works of the Lord. Some days, I claim that truth through exhausted tears. Some days, with gritted teeth. Some days, in defiant hopefulness. You are right, life goes forward. I want to make sure I go forward with it.”
Advent insists the church remember the future, that Christ will come to judge the quick and the dead and thereby reconcile all things to God for the sake of new creation. We experience sorrow and loss and brokenness and death in this world because this life is not it. We follow Christ in the way of the cross and do mean to rise. So sure is our resurrection hope, we can live as if it’s already happened—confidently, purposefully, powerfully, gorgeously and insistently—our eyes and ears attuned to the coming kingdom. We embody eternity in every move of true love and generosity toward others, in every moment of contentment and joy we wish would go on forever.
As new creations already, the last day is every day. Our hope is in a God for whom the future has happened, our experience has only yet to catch up to reality. On that last day, “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” Isaiah makes clear that Jesus the branch not only bears the fruit of the Spirit, but as root, Jesus is the Spirit too. “I am the root and the branch of David,” Christ proclaims in Revelation, “the bright morning star” who shines “as a signal to the peoples. The nations will rally and their resting place will be glorious.”
Isaiah’s peaceable dream is so beautiful because it remains so out of line with our experience, yet so fully in line with what we want the world to be.
On one of our last good days together in March, Dawn and I stood with some of you in Israel atop Mount Megiddo, that place Revelation names Armageddon, the mythical battleground for the epic last clash between evil and good, where love wins and our hunger and thirst for righteousness gets sated. As we stood atop Megiddo in the warm, brilliant, Florida-like sunshine, my hand in hers, we gazed out over a vast and verdant plain and breathed in deeply the air, surrounded by a community who would love us to death, the kingdom of heaven so near, so close we could touch it. It happens, Jesus promised, “at an unexpected hour;” unexpected because no one ever expects dreams to come true. Therefore we must be ready. One way or another, the Son of Man comes.