Advent is a journey with two destinations. One is to the past, to the manger, Jesus’ first coming. We place ourselves imaginatively alongside the ancient people of Israel. With them, we cry out in elegaic songs for the Messiah—”the desire of all the nations”—to come and heal us and to bring justice everywhere. That the Messiah did come in the frail flesh of Jesus of Nazareth is the joy Christian faith celebrates on Christmas. The other destination of the Advent journey is the future, the second coming, when Christ will return in glory. History will end, and the new way of life Jesus called ‘the Kingdom,’ for whose coming we’ve prayed all our lives, will be ours in full at last.
The earliest Christians did not pay much attention to the first coming. They focused on the second, and they believed it was imminent. For them, who had so painfully broken with culture, custom and family to follow Jesus, nothing was more desirable than to be swept into the Kingdom by the glorious Lord of their hearts.
We, I think, are considerably less eager for it. We regard it with a certain bemused ambivalence; we say, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” Jokes about Judgment Day are legion. Our sense of justice demands that God finally take charge of this world in which, as Robin Myers writes, “good deeds and righteous living provide no exemption from mindless tragedy, and the meek inherit nothing but a crushing debt and a dead planet.”
But even as we long for God to fix this mess, we suspect the whole thing might be a fairy tale. Our reason detects the scent of magical thinking in talk of a glorious return, and backs away. The second coming, after all, has been awfully long in coming. After 2,000 years, waiting for Jesus to come in glory feels a little like waiting for Elvis to re-enter the building. It’s embarrassing.
And, of course, as much as we know that things are just not right elsewhere, many of us are more or less satisfied with our own lives. If we’re doing okay, we feel no urgency about some future consummation. Even if our circumstances are not so great, faced with the prospect of a permanent interruption of the status quo, most of us would still opt for the life we know, not the one we don’t.
And so we let ranting fundamentalists on late-night cable teach people who are afraid of the world to read the sign of the fig tree and hammer plowshares into swords so that their fire-breathing Jesus can wreak vengeance on the ungodly. Ironically, the ungodly they love to condemn are the same folks Jesus loved to save. Oh, well. Perhaps, as Fred Craddock suggests, they are obsessed with the second coming because, deep down, they are so disappointed in the first one.
Fundamentalist nonsense aside, when you read the New Testament attentively, it’s hard to avoid the second coming. It’s also hard to avoid the judgment that accompanies it. “We believe,” all the ancient creeds professed, that “he will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” And maybe this is the real reason we shy away from embracing this doctrine of the second coming. Fulfillment and wholeness, restoration and blessing, peace and justice at last—all these promises appeal to us mightily, but not the promise of judgment.
Judgment makes us nervous. In one of the exercises my congregation undertook in their visioning process many years ago, members were asked to rate a list of classical Christian beliefs from “dearly-held” to “not-so-dearly held.” When we shared the results, final judgment came in among the bottom-feeders.
And there are good reasons for our aversion. Too many of us grew up staggering under somebody’s judgment. God or a parent or some other authority was always lying in wait for us to fail. They saw everything. They forgave little. Measuring up was the name of the game, and we never did.
Faith in an incarnate God didn’t help much either. Some of us thought that the all-seeing God who became flesh and lived a perfect human life expected us to live perfect lives too, because in Jesus it was shown to be possible. As someone once noted, God could say to us, “Well, I had the same experiences you have, and they didn’t defeat me!” Who could bear to hear that on any day, let alone on the last day, when we’ve run out of chances? Let Jesus come and settle all the grand cosmic scores, but please leave our own souls and psyches out of it. We’ve had enough judgment for several lifetimes.
Or have we? Modern psychology has taught us that the worst sin we can commit is to be unsupportive and judgmental. So it’s going against a lot of grains to say that Christian tradition may be onto something important with its insistence on judgment. We may in fact need more of it, not less. More judgment, that is, of the right kind. Maybe a story can shed some light on what I mean.
A few years ago, a pastoral colleague of mine did something she regretted deeply. Feeling unsettled and guilty, she sought help from her longstanding ministry support group. She’d barely gotten through the story of what she’d done when they began telling her that it didn’t sound that bad, that she’d had good intentions, that she was way too hard on herself, and that God had already forgiven her.
They were immensely supportive, but their support made her feel worse. It seemed as if they believed she was incapable of doing anything wrong. They talked as if she were not capable of discerning a serious matter from an insignificant one. They didn’t take her seriously. All they had to offer were glib affirmations that she was really a good person.
After being left in pain by her friends, she decided she wanted to go to confession, but she wasn’t Catholic. Someone suggested she call me. I reminded her that I wasn’t Catholic either, at least not any more. But I offered to help anyway. I grabbed a UCC Book of Worship and asked her to meet me at her church. We sat down in the chancel, opened the book to the “Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent,” and began.
First we read a prayer of confidence in God. Then I invited her to confess what she had done, and in God’s presence and mine she confessed. I affirmed her confession and asked her if she was sorry. Yes, she truly was. I inquired whether she’d formed a plan to make amends. She had, and she was resolved to do so. We prayed together for mercy and healing. Then we stood up, and I declared her sins pardoned in the name of Jesus Christ. We said a final prayer recalling the joy there is in heaven when one who was lost is found, and we exchanged a sign of peace. Then she went home, and so did I.
Now, if you knew the bad thing she did, you’d probably agree with her friends that it wasn’t that bad, that she had had very good intentions and that she was being way too hard on herself. You might even think that going through an entire reconciliation ritual for that was serious spiritual overkill. But you’d be wrong on both counts.
It is a very big deal whenever someone breaks through a sense of false innocence, faces a frailty that caused damage even without intending it, and discovers a greater authenticity of life even in a relatively small moral matter. By being judged and found wanting, she received a gift most of us crave—the certainty that God (and a representative of the church) did not love her any less even knowing what God knows about her; the joy that God (and the church) took her conscience and her sense of need seriously and believed that she was worth being judged, worth being forgiven and restored.
Often what threatens us is not judgment itself, but the experience of knowing something about ourselves, or of having someone else know it, and fearing that we will not be able to love ourselves or live with what we know, nor will they. Most of us actually want judgment, because most of us finally want to face and embrace our truth. But it is also the case that most of us cannot bear to embrace the truth about our lives without the warmth and light of love. We know from bitter experience that truth and judgment without love will crush us.
And here is where we return to Advent and its double destination. Advent asks us to believe the God enfleshed in the manger is same God who will judge us on the last day. But this is not an all-seeing Perfectionist, not a God who sees us from afar, knows what we have done, and is disappointed. This is God-with-us and God-for-us—the one of whom John’s Gospel says this most amazing thing: “He knew what was in us.” He will judge us with a judgment of kinship, the judgment of One who has been inside us, inside our human motivations, understanding us on our terms. The Jesus who will be our judge on the last day is the same one who said, paradoxically, “I judge no one.”
The more you read the gospels, the more you see that Jesus’ habitual response to sinners is full of what Rowan Williams called “sheer visceral pity.” Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I. Jesus’ own terrible temptations and struggles “seem to have produced in him a sense of the precariousness of goodness so strong that no failure or error could provoke his condemnation.” The only people Jesus ever condemns are people who can’t allow for this precariousness, who refuse to see that the sinner is often a victim more than a criminal, and who imagine we are freer to choose and sin than we really are. Jesus knows the real measure of our responsibility. He knows it better than we know it ourselves.
This divine sense of the precariousness of goodness is our hope on judgment day, and on any day when we face ourselves squarely in God’s presence. It can save us not only from some imagined divine condemnation, but also and especially from a very real and debilitating self-condemnation. He knows what is in us.
In the cross that deals him his death, Jesus showed us the very depths of our destructive refusal of health and life, our violence and fear. And through all this he still accepts and loves us. “When we are vulnerable and fragile,” Williams concludes, “it is he who is wounded and broken, carrying all our hurt in himself. So we may take to him our whole selves in the sure trust that nothing will be thrown back at us to wound or destroy. This is the gospel whose ministers we are.”
Yes, this is the gospel whose ministers we are. We have good news to tell of a judgment that is love and a Messiah whose only fierceness is a mercy that lays us bare for healing. May we embrace this gospel in trust and share the truth that frees. And may we use Christ’s judgment of kinship and no other with ourselves, with each other, and the world.