November 17, 2016

Apocalyptic Liturgy: Preaching Eschatology All Year Long (#UMC)

Advent is nearly upon us, which means the beginning of a new liturgical year. What's striking about the Church year is that it doesn't start with a celebration of the birth of Christ but with a period of time focused on the second coming of Christ. That's what "Advent" is all about. It comes from the Latin adventus, which is a noun that means "arrival" or "visit." It can even mean "invasion," which puts an interesting spin on things. The verbal form means "to come." The thing about Advent is that it isn't as much about the first coming of Christ as it is the second coming of Christ. It's less about the past and more about the future. To put it another way, liturgical purists would much rather sing "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending" during Advent than any of the traditional Christmas carols.

I've been reminded a few times of late that much preaching spends little time attending to what scripture says about the future, and a helpful online conversation with Taylor Burton-Edwards (@TWBE) earlier this week prompted me to spend some time thinking about how the Church year gives our worship an eschatological orientation. I want to suggest that our preaching about God's plans for God's world should not be limited to the four Sundays just before Christmas. The whole of the calendar invites us to think about the present in light of what God has in store for us and for the world. Let's think about it in terms of the two major cycles that structure our calendar: (1) Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and (2) Lent-Easter-Pentecost.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

That Christmas is preceded by four weeks of preparation focused on the second coming of Christ means we arrive at the nativity with our thinking thoroughly immersed in worship oriented toward the future. That is, Christmas takes its meaning in the context of a world looking forward to the Advent of Christ. We should not think of Christmas solely as an event that happened a couple thousand years ago. Rather, Christmas marks the beginning of an invasion by God into the world in which we dwell. That divine incursion inaugurates the overthrow of the powers that have gone to war against God's good creation and the creatures made in his image who live here. The days of sin and death are numbered, and when Christ returns, their number will be up. He is currently putting all of his enemies underfoot; death is the last enemy that will be defeated. That will happen when he comes again and raises the dead. It is especially clear when considered in relation to Advent that Christmas is nothing if not apocalyptic.

But what of Epiphany? How does our apocalyptic approach to the calendar illumine the visit of the Magi? Well, what if I told you it sheds light on the multi-ethnic nature of the Church and her global mission now in anticipation of Christ's return? In Matthew's gospel, the Magi come from beyond the borders of Judah. They are foreigners come to worship the one born King of the Jews. Why? Because his birth has inaugurated the new age in which the nations shall gather to worship God on his holy mountain. Epiphany finds its proper home in the eschatological Messianic age that has been inaugurated, though not yet consummated, by the Incarnation. In the overall structure of Matthew's gospel, the arrival of the Magi as representatives of the nations at the beginning anticipates the Great Commission to disciple all nations that comes at the end. Epiphany tells us that the new age has dawned and the time has come for the nations to be incorporated into the family of Abraham. On top of that, it means we must embody the passion of God for bringing the nations to adore the Christ.

One other point is worth making. I mentioned above that the Church year starts with Advent. That means that every subsequent season is observed in the context of a year that begins by looking to the future return of Christ. And each season in the year derives its meaning from its relationship to the first season of the year. The point is that the calendar doesn't simply tell the Christian story chronologically; it tells the story eschatologically. The first coming is celebrated after our hope for the second coming is declared. The story-as-a-whole is dramatized relative to the hope for Christ's Advent. The Church calendar is apocalyptic in its entirety because Advent comes first. 

Lent, Easter, and Pentecost

The eschatological orientation of the second major cycle comes clearly into focus with the climax of Lent on Good Friday which then finds its resolution in Easter Sunday. The cross and resurrection constitute the central apocalyptic event in which God overturns the power of death with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This marks the beginning of the new creation that is now advancing and will come to its fulfillment when Christ comes again. We need to be clear on this. Easter is fundamentally an eschatological event. The resurrection of Jesus is the first work of God's new creation, and it guarantees the resurrection of believers at Christ's second coming, which is instrumental to the consummation of the new creation. Given this framework, Lent should be understood as a period of waiting in which we actively anticipate the eschatological redemption begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This leaves us to talk about Pentecost, which is thoroughly and altogether eschatological in nature. Throughout scripture the last days are characterized by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We find this language explicit in the prophet Joel and in the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. This is why, by the way, when the suggestion is made that the "signs of the times" reveal we are "living in the last days," I am often inclined to point out that the Bible says we've been living in the last days for about 2,000 years now. You know, since Pentecost. Even more important, like Epiphany, the season of Pentecost informs the global scope of our shared mission. Pentecost marks the initial incorporation of the nations into the people of God. The Spirit empowers believers to cross ethnic barriers in order to build a diverse Church. Once again, the future-focus of the Church calendar informs the way we live and engage in mission in the present.

Preaching our Apocalyptic Calendar

I'll finish up by saying that the eschatological orientation of the Church calendar ought to find its way into every corner of our preaching. If observing and celebrating these days and seasons governs the annual shape of our worship, then we must allow them to point us forward to what God intends to do in the future. The Church calendar tells the story of God's invasion into this world to overthrow death and bring about a new creation in Christ and the Spirit. The calendar gives our preaching essential resources to tell that story, too. If we don't, then we probably haven't allowed the calendar to lend it's full weight to ordering our worship. We need to invite our people to consider what it means for God to be at work in history and how he intends to bring that work to its fulfillment. How do the many seasons of the year relate to the first season? How should we live if Easter marks the beginning of the new creation? What do we do given that Pentecost inaugurated the last days? These sorts of questions must be raised if we are to learn from the rhythms of worship that come in the Christian year. If the calendar is apocalyptic, then our preaching should be, too.

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