Ready or Not, Here He Comes!

I hate that one of my pastors had shoulder surgery but that gives me an opportunity to preach this coming Sunday – the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new Christian year! Advent season is one of my favorites, but not because of Christmas. The season is actually less about Jesus’ first coming as it is a preparation for His second advent. Sure, it can be adapted to prepare us for the holidays and the stress of having everything purchased and prepared, but Advent season is really about Judgment Day, not Christmas Day.

I’m a big fan of The Chronicles of Narnia movies, and my favorite is the first one, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The books by C.S. Lewis were formative in my faith and especially my understanding of God’s nature. Aslan is one, if not the main character in the series. It doesn’t take much imagination to view this lion as Jesus, the Lion of Judah. He is at once ferocious and frightening, but also one who in great strength lays down his very life. Aslan is no ordinary pussycat. Aslan is to be worshipped and feared. Aslan is loyal, kind, and caring. The word that keeps coming to mind is “strength.” He exudes strength.

I like singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but it’s also good to know that Jesus-Meek-And-Mild is Jesus-the-Christ. He’s more like William Wallace in Braveheart than Fred Rogers in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I take great comfort in Jesus who pardons and is lenient, but I also serve a Risen Lord whose strength is a bewildering mixture of humility and power.

I literally don’t want to throw the Baby (Christ Child) out with the bath water, but it’s Advent season that corrects the soft-serve Jesus that captures the rest of the Christian year’s attention. Jesus-the-Judge is a Lord who inspires me to service, not out of fear, but out of a desire to pay homage to the One who is worthy.

Advent makes me think about the end of life and its measure. In The Imitation of Christ,St. Thomas á Kempis wrote: “When we stand before the Judge Eternal, he will not ask what we said but what we did.” Advent-living forces me to think about the eternal consequences of my actions. Christmas-living lets me live in a fantasy world until January when the credit card bills come due.

The ultimate Advent message is to get ready for Judgment Day. Watch your actions, cram for your finals, love God and neighbor, serve the poor, give away earthly treasures to gain heavenly ones, be good stewards of planet earth, and love, love, love! There’s more, of course, but that’s enough for today and tomorrow ad infinitum.

Someone summed it up well when they asked these questions: “When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told you believed too much or you believed too little? When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told you cared too much or you cared too little? When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told you tried too hard or you didn’t try hard enough? When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told you were too forgiving or you were too judgmental? When you stand at the Pearly Gates, would you rather be told, “Well done, thou hyper-hopeful and risk-taking servant,” or “Well done, thou sober and play-it-safe servant”?

Judgment Day is coming. Ready?

Easter Freedom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been one of my heroes in the faith for years. His book Life Together was one of the most formative spiritual sources in my early Christian life. In it he describes Christian community with unbridled passion. He knew first-hand the value of support and fellowship. He was a member of the underground “Confessing” church in Germany during Hitler’s tyranny. He taught in an illegal seminary training pastors to withstand the onslaught of fascism. Sixty-four years ago this month on April 9, 1945 he was led away by Gestapo guards to be hung. His last words to a fellow prisoner were, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” What an Easter message. Bonhoeffer was only 39 years old when he was executed.

Pope John Paul II barely escaped a similar fate when he was a seminarian in Poland. The Nazis did finally arrest the future Pope and he endured a labor camp until he was liberated. Liberation theology espouses a Christus Victor image of Christ’s atonement and resurrection. This image calls us to see Jesus as Liberator, victorious over sin and death. Christians have embraced the notion of Christ as Victor throughout the centuries, especially those who have been oppressed.

No offense, that means all of us. Certainly there are millions of Christians who have had and are enduring struggles the likes of which are beyond my comprehension, but the truth that we all know is that all of us are in a great battle between the forces of good and evil. We may not bear on our bodies the marks and scars of persecution, but we all have concerns over which we need Jesus to triumph.

It would do us well to remember Bonhoeffer and John Paul II as people who threw off the yoke of oppression and died well and entered the freedom of heaven. Bonhoeffer said it for the Pope and for us when we face death’s barrage, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” Christ as Victor reminds me of the end of the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart. William Wallace, the Scotsman liberator who finally yields his life as a martyr to English oppression, cries out, “FREEDOM!”

However, just as much as I look forward to a heavenly victory, I am reminded, even scolded, by God that God wants liberation to occur in the here and now as much as in the hereafter. The sweet-by-and-by sounds great but if we don’t do something about humanity’s problems that are staring us in the face then we mock the Lord and His prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Bonhoeffer was jailed by the Nazis because he took liberation theology seriously enough to take part in the July 20, 1944 Abwehr plot against Hitler. The one question that informed Bonhoeffer’s ethics was, “Who is Jesus Christ?” How one answers that question was decisive for Bonhoeffer and so it should be for us. When we face the world’s ills and injustices, we have to make a stand in the power of Christ.

We are the hands and feet of Jesus, the mouthpieces and the ears. When Bonhoeffer was addressing the question of Christ’s identity the church in Germany was confronted with Nazism’s deliberate systematic annihilation of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally disabled people and nearly everyone else who didn’t fit into Aryan culture. Most Christians in Germany went along with Hitler’s policies because they didn’t ask Bonhoeffer’s question. How can we answer freedom’s call today? Answer the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” and we will live Easter Freedom.