Peter Rollins tells a parable in his book The Orthodox Heretic. In this story Jesus finally makes his second coming. When he does he goes largely unnoticed. Finally he decides to approach a group of faithful people who have still followed his teachings. He goes into a small church where a group of people are weeping over the suffering in the world and working day and night to bring aid and an end to this suffering.
When Jesus goes in to this church and reveals himself to them the people there greet him warmly. There is much excitement at his return, but the people are left with one nagging question. They approach Jesus and say, “Lord, we have but one question left to ask of you.” Jesus, knowing already what their question is, allows them to ask. They say, “Lord, we have been waiting and watching for your return for many many years. We have this one last question for you. When will you arrive?”
Upon hearing this question Jesus simply smiles, and then settles in to working with the people in this church on their efforts and tears to rid the world of suffering.
There is a very real sense in which we must face the teachings of this parable. We have to understand that there is a sense in which everyone who is right here with us is, in some profound way, still yet to come. In some way we have to recognize the danger we have in assuming that we fully grasp anyone. This is especially dangerous when we think we fully grasp Jesus.
In many Christian traditions we speak of salvation and the Kingdom as the “already…but not yet.” This is a beautiful tension to live in. But often this same way of thinking does not carry over into our understanding of Jesus. It does not carry over into our understanding of God. We begin to think of them as a series of propositions that we can affirm or deny, and if we can just do that with just the right phraseology then we will somehow grasp God in a more perfect way. So often we replace moral legalism with a legalism of right belief. It is this sort of legalism that Rollins so eloquently counters with this parable.
But there is an opposite danger. When there is a tension to be lived in, then we can easily come down on either side, throw stones at those opposite us, and pretend to ourselves that our static position is somehow the tension where the Truth lies. In other words, if I come down on the side of the “not yet” then I miss the truth of the “already” and vice versa.
In The Stages of Life Carl Jung says it this way,
“Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and regresses to the past falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past. The only difference is that the one has estranged himself from the past and the other from the future. In principle both are doing the same thing: they are reinforcing their narrow range of consciousness instead of shattering it in the tension of opposites and building up a state of wider and higher consciousness.”
I say all of that in order to say this…
My family has just begun exploring the liturgy of advent. For those who, like me, didn’t grow up knowing too much about advent, it is basically a way of experiencing the waiting for Christ to come. It is the source of all those beautiful minor key Christmas songs like “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” It speaks of the pangs of longing for a Savior who will come and set things right.
But then comes Christmas. And it is in Christmas that we celebrate the coming of that Savior. In advent we allow ourselves to experience the “not yet” but in Christmas we celebrate the “already.” It’s so easy to lose that in all of the things that Christmas has become. But leaving aside for now the critique of modern consumerism as it relates to Christmas, I think this is a far more insidious danger that lurks beneath the surface of our holiday celebrations. We take this one day, and even if we do it right – even if we truly celebrate the joyful news that in Jesus, God became one of us – we somehow lose it by a day or two later.
We go right back to waiting.
I do not ever want to be guilty of saying we shouldn’t think of God as “yet to come.” Even the Bible teaches that “no one has ever seen God.” It is an integral part of the Christian faith to acknowledge the fact that we long for the full realization of God’s presence. There is only the thinnest whisper of a veil between us and God, but that whisper is at the exact same time an iron curtain that is light-years thick. I do not wish to downplay that. The health-wealth-prosperity “preachers” will tell you till they are blue in the face that God is so present among us that it must be your fault if you aren’t driving a BMW right now. That teaching is a lie.
But let’s not be so cynical that we throw away the truth that makes that lie seem real.
Because we can very easily go the other way. We can spend a day celebrating the arrival of Jesus. But then we have placed it in a place in our minds where it is so far removed from our lives that it sits right there on the shelf beside of Santa Claus. It’s a nice story we tell once a year. There are some shepherds, and there is a baby in a feed-box. There’s a pregnant lady with a blue thing on her head sitting on a donkey with a very confused carpenter leading her to Bethlehem.
It’s a cute story, but if it’s just something that happened a few thousand years ago in the middle east then I’d rather watch “A Christmas Story.”
It is only in so far as we don’t really believe it that we treat it as a history lesson. Of course there is a place for understanding that there was a historical person named Jesus. He was born in a barn in Bethlehem to a teenage girl named Mary and her very confused but supportive teenage husband Joseph.
But we make a fatal leap.
We jump straight from that history into the waiting for the second coming. And in doing so we treat this entire life as a giant waiting room. There’s boring muzac on the speakers. There’s some dull and lifeless conversation between some people who aren’t too introverted to avoid eye contact with strangers. But the whole point is the waiting for something better (or possibly worse) than what we’re in right now.
So, the point of all of this is to ask you, and me, and everyone else to please, don’t lose track of the point of the story. It is important to see that this thing happened historically sometime two thousand years ago. But the point is not the story. The point is that the baby who was born in that feed-box grew up and said, “I have come to preach the good news to the poor…” That baby was God come to set things right. That baby grew into a man who taught us to love each other, and who said that the Kingdom is already here!
If that doesn’t make you want to grab the person next to you by the collar and scream, “Hey! Have you heard this?!?!” Then maybe the problem is that we keep moving from waiting to waiting, and skipping out on the point of the waiting. Christmas is about New Year’s! It is about the coming of the one who starts things over fresh! We don’t have to wait till next year to start living like the Kingdom is here. The Kingdom is here! God is with us. Love wins. Death loses.
Now, if you want a New Year’s resolution, let it be this: Live the rest of your life as if you believe this is true. And when you see suffering and pain and disease and sadness; expose those liars for what they are! Work and weep and sweat and pray. This is your sermon when you go out and preach the good news to the poor. The Savior has come, and is here. That pain is real, but when it tells you it will always be, it is a liar.
Love is the Word.