The Hope of Advent

It has been common over the years, during Advent, to speak of three “comings” of Christ for which we are to prepare during the season — the first in a Bethlehem stable, the second into our hearts each day if we would but invite him, and the third on the last great Day when he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I must confess that, as priest and bishop, I spent much more homiletical time addressing the first two than I ever did the third.

But I have in recent years been reading a good bit of N. T. Wright, one time Bishop of Durham and currently research fellow at Wycliff Hall, Oxford. He is a well-respected and extremely popular New Testament scholar and incredibly prolific author. His early work was in the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus’ and his more recent in the writings and theology of St. Paul.

I am not as conservative a New Testament exegete as is Professor Wright. I fall somewhere in between him and Marcus Borg (which admittedly leaves a lot of territory!) in my approach to interpreting Scripture and the theology which flows from such interpretation.

But I have been very grateful to Wright for challenging us all to question the “modern” Christian notion that the purpose of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was for us to believe in those events so that, when we die, we can go to heaven. In fact, we can be forgiven for such a wrong-headed notion since so many of the prayers and hymns of our liturgy and worship seem to teach just that.

Yet, as Tom Wright reminds us, the resurrection of the dead as described in the New Testament is not about “life after death.” It is about “life after life after death.” And the kingdom of God, as understood by Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers, is not finally about us dying and going to heaven. It is about that last Day when God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven and things will be set right again once and for all. Justice will be done and, as Mary once sang, God will “scatter the proud in their conceit…cast down the mighty from their thrones…and lift up the lowly.”

In fact, there will be no final end of the world, but its renewal as the mystic St. John the Divine makes clear in that last, great book of the Christian Bible: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.'” (Revelation 21:1-4)

In fact, as I look back on it, this was exactly what I was taught in seminary all those years ago: that, when we die, we enter an “intermediate state” of some kind. Some believe this is something like a deep sleep (rest in peace?) from which we shall awake on the last great Day. Throughout our history most Christians have seemed to believe that this is a more conscious state, called by Roman Catholics “Purgatory” (in recent years, much redefined), by Anglicans “Paradise” (as in Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross “Today will be with me in paradise”), and by most Protestants as simply “Heaven.”

However, and this is the crucial point, this state is understood to be an “intermediate” one! Like those souls in the Sheol of the Hebrew Bible or those to whom Jesus is said to have descended into “hell” to rescue (I Peter 3:19), this is a place of waiting until Christ will come again and the dead will be raised to life again and given “resurrection bodies” (I Corinthians 15:35-57) fit for the new heaven and new earth over which God will preside forever.

Does this seem strange or impossible to believe? What then do we mean every Sunday as we conclude the Nicene Creed by saying, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” What does the section on The Christian Hope in “An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism” (Book of Common Prayer, pages 861-862) mean when it speaks of the coming of Christ in glory, the last judgment, the resurrection of the body, and everlasting life? Most importantly, what did Jesus, Paul, and the writers of the New Testament mean when they taught us to look for the day when God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven?

I offer this exciting, and thoroughly orthodox, vision of that third “coming of Christ” for your meditation during these four weeks of Advent. Prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ at Christmas. Prepare to celebrate him coming into your life today through word and prayer and sacrament. But do not forget to prepare for him to come in glory to judge the living and the dead and establish the kingdom that will have no end!

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