Sin, death, apocalypse and other Advent thoughts

During the early weeks of Advent the lectionary encourages those who use it to think and to preach on themes related to the “second coming”, the promised day of Christ’s return in which final judgement is enacted and the Kingdom of Heaven fully realised. At the Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College (SURCC) Advent service last Thursday (1/12) I offered this reflection on the passage the lectionary gave me in that spirit.

This has felt fitting this week, since the great thing about the apocalyptic or eschatological aspect of Christianity, for me, is that it can both throw into sharp relief the dreadful aspects of the world we inhabit and make experiencing and acknowledging them more bearable.

I have this week received the news of the death, at his own hand, of one of my oldest friends. I knew he was contemplating this action but had hoped he would find a way through the dreadful problems with which, through absolutely no fault of his own or, really, of anyone else’s, he had been burdened.

I have also spent my first session at the Grassmarket Community Project (GCP) which is associated with Greyfriars Tolbooth and Highland Kirk where I will be Assistant Minister for the next 6 months. It is intended by the SURCC that I will spend a significant amount of my time at Greyfriars working with GCP because it is (rightly) felt that I lack experience of this kind of “missional outreach” or service. I found this experience sobering and arresting. The users of the services of the Project are drawn from the ranks of those who have been rejected and excluded by society (or who have rejected and excluded themselves from it for whatever reason)

They are people whose lives are difficult and whose strength has been severely tested. They come to the Project looking for the things it offers, sanctuary, support and skills. Those who seek these things there are those who cannot find them elsewhere and so they are people in very great need.

It can be easy for those of us who have sanctuary and support in our homes,  relationships, work and networks to forget how vulnerable we really are, how easily all that we value can be taken from us. The long period of peace and prosperity this country has enjoyed has encouraged us to forget that human life and human happiness are fragile and easily destroyed and that this can happen to the best and most deserving of people.

The book of the Bible that has most impacted me, I think, in my 20 or so years of striving to understand what it means to be called to faith is the Book of Job. This endlessly puzzling and disturbing story of a good man persecuted by God is true to my experience of the encounter with the God of Israel made flesh in Jesus and present in the Spirit. Bad things really do happen to good people and sometimes its hard to see who, other than God, can be seen as responsible. Of course one could ascribe these things to the chance workings of an indifferent universe. Faith, it has seemed to me, has as one of its implications that this will not do. The Book of Job fearlessly and unflinchingly looks at the meaning of a God-governed cosmos in which injustice is clearly all too real.

This recognition that unmerited suffering is both real and ever-threatening and impossible to detach completely from any idea of a God who actually governs the world we inhabit is in constant tension in my idea of faith with the idea that Christianity points to a God who sits comfortably within a moral framework we can understand, teach, and strive to conform to. The God who can do what the Biblical God did to Job, or for that matter can command the genocidal conquest of Canaan by Israel, or for that matter order or condone the crucifiction of Jesus, is not one who looks much like the friendly and hospitable God of Love described by a lot of contemporary Christian teaching.

Yet this seems to be the God revealed both by the Biblical witness and by our everyday experience of death, famine, disease, earthquake and war.

This painful conflict between the (equally real) teaching and experience of God’s love for us and promise to us of a realm of peace and fulfillment and the reality of misery and despair that we can only ignore through a wilfull (and sinful) turning away from those in need can be held hopefully together with the attempt to live towards reconciliation with God. Here is where I need the eschatological dimension of salvation history.

The great story of creation, fall, redemption and promised restitution provides a framework that means that the wasteland of the present can be seen in light of the coming glory of the Kingdom. Just how bad things are can be honestly owned and experienced because the now is redeemed in the promised then. What’s more the nature of the promise, that it is God’s work, not ours, that will put things right, means inadequacy of what we can do need not make us despair.

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