Lessons for Advent look both back and ahead. They look back, with thankful wonder, at the prophecies and signs that preceded Jesus' birth. They look ahead, with anxious hope, to the promise that "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."
The readings for Advent I (this Sunday, November 29), especially the Gospel, are of the "look ahead" kind. "There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves."
More often than I can remember at any other time in my twenty-plus years of ordained ministry, people are asking "Do you think we are in the last days?" Unexpected people are asking this - people I would characterize as thoughtful and even-tempered are asking them just as much as people who seem more subjective and emotive.
It is not surprising, on the one hand, to hear such questions in a time of social instability and global, real-time connection. Our lack of social certainties certainly baits the hook for "end of the world" movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
In all honesty, I am not the best resource on Biblical apocalyptic scenarios. My position tends to be, "Sure, some day somebody is going to say 'It's the end!' and be right - but look at all the discredit and ridicule brought upon our faith by past claims to know Christ's exact schedule." In South Dakota, it was just such a scenario, blending Christian apocalyptic preaching with Lakota traditions, that established the Ghost Dance and precipitated the Wounded Knee Massacre.
So I am not at all well versed in the various "end times models." I learn their dense vocabulary now and then in order to teach a class, but promptly forget most of it after the class ends.
For a Christian, the key to readiness for the Day of the Lord is day to day discipleship, endeavoring to serve Christ in every moment while praying "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Back to this Sunday's Gospel: "Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." The three judgement day" parables of Matthew 25 are about spiritual preparation, brave use of God-given gifts, and compassionate service toward others - in other words, a lifestyle alert to Christ at all times - well before he comes to judge. If you are "seeing the signs" and only then recognizing Christ, it's probably too late.
This Sunday's New Testament Letter also encourages sincere discipleship now as the way to security "then." Paul describes people receptive to God and invested in one another: "And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."
Gregory the Great, who launched missionary efforts that were formative of Anglican Christianity, talked about the limits of supernatural signs in a sermon on Mark 16:17-18:
These are the signs that will follow those who are to believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up snakes, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not harm them; they will lay their hands on the sick who will recover.
My friends, since you do not perform these signs, does it mean that you do not believe? These signs were necessary at the church's beginning. For the faith of believers to grow it had to be nourished with miracles. When we plant trees, we water them until we see they have taken root in the ground; once established we stop the watering. This is why Paul said that signs are for unbelievers, not believers.
Let us take a closer look at these signs and wonders. Every day the church works in the spirit what the apostles once did in the flesh. When its priests lay their hands on believers through the gift of exorcism, forbidding evil spirits to dwell in their hearts, what else are they doing but casting out demons? And what else are we doing when we leave behind the language of the world for the words of the sacred mysteries, when we express as best we can the praise and power of our Creator, if not speaking in new tongues? When we remove malice from another's heart by our good word are we not, so to speak, picking up serpents? And when we hear the wisdom of the world, but choose not to act on it, surely we have drunk poison and survived. As often as we catch sight of our brother or sister stumbling on life's path, and we gather round them with all our strength, and support them by our presence, what are we doing buy laying our hands upon the sick to heal them? Surely these miracles are all the greater because they are spiritual; they are all the more significant since it is the heart and not the body which is being restored.
My friends, by God's power you can perform these same signs, if you choose to. Such outward signs cannot bring forth life, but life can come from those who do them. Physical miracles sometimes demonstrate holiness but they can never create it, whereas the healing of the soul bestows life even if it is not evident to the senses. While even the wicked can do the former, none but the good can perform the latter. Hence Truth said that many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out demons in your name, do many mighty deeds in your name? Then I will say to them, I do not know you; depart from me you workers of iniquity.
My friends, do not love signs which even the wicked are capable of performing. Instead, love the miracles of love and devotion that I have just described. The more hidden they are, the safer they are; the less glory that comes our way from others because of them, the greater our recompense in the presence of God.
And that idea of recompense - reward - can heal us of the special effects havoc of 2012 or the blood 'n' guts emphasis of some "end times" preaching. Christ's return is good news. "Apocalypse" means uncovering - the good, the true and the beautiful will be revealed and established forever. As the Lord will tell us again this Sunday (assuming he hasn't returned by then), "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."