The Three Advents of Jesus

We usually think of Advent as a time preparing us for the birth of Jesus—for that coming of Jesus as a newborn babe some 2000 years ago. But traditionally within the church Advent has had a deeper and broader meaning than just Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. In fact, we could see Advent as a time to prepare us for three comings of Jesus into our world.

First, there is that original coming some two millennia ago which started with the birth of a peasant baby and ended with the crucifixion and resurrection of a thirty something year old Jew named Jeshu. From the very beginning of the gospel accounts we see how different and revealing this Advent was in our kind of world. The nativity stories stress the humble nature of God’s greatest revelation in history.

  1. Jesus is born to a peasant couple whose father is a handyman.
  2. As a newborn, he is placed in a feed trough. When he is dedicated in the temple, his parents cannot afford to offer a lamb. Instead, they must take advantage of a provision in the law which allows the very poor to substitute a pair of turtledoves.
  3. Shepherds, considered by many to be a despised and unsavory lot, were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth.
  4. This poor family, like so many other unfortunate families in history, must flee to another country as refugees to escape the violence of a cruel and paranoid ruler. (How many of us will remember this Christmas that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were a refugee/immigrant family? “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, you have done it to me.”)

God’s surprising appearance in creation continues in the gospel stories about this babe all grown up.

  1. Jesus becomes a handyman, one step below a peasant who works the land in the Jewish society at that time. He grows up in an insignificant hamlet in the backwater of the Roman Empire. Such a humble abode caused Nathaniel to ask Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip answered, “Come and see.” How many of us really see/comprehend the scandal of the incarnation as the Creator of this massive universe inhabits an impoverished Jew in a land occupied by a foreign power? What are all the ethical and theological implications of such a divine incarnation? 
  2. All of Jesus’ parables reveal two aspects of what he called “the Kingdom of God”—surprise and reversal of personal, social, and religious expectations. His teachings continued the scandalizing nature of God’s presence to a world lost in greed, violence, and exclusion.
  3. He redefined greatness as self-giving service. He took a child and told adults that “Unless you become a little child, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.” He embraced lepers and prostitutes and taught that in loving our enemies, we were emulating God. 
  4. He was executed as a rebel against both the religion and politics of his day, and he was honest enough to say that his followers must “take up their cross daily” if they are to be his disciples. 
  5. With every breath, he revealed the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, nonviolent nature of the God he called “Abba.”

There is so much surprising, amazing, and transforming about Jesus’ first Advent that the church even after 2000 years has yet to plumb the depths of its richness.

But the New Testament teaches that through the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to come to us in thousands of different ways at any time and at any place. Paul believes Jesus comes to this world through the church. When we gather in his name and seek to follow him in this world we become the Body of Christ—we become the presence of Jesus to one another and to the world at large. Just think of how many times in countless congregations members have become Jesus to each other in times of loss, pain, illness, heartbreak, confusion, and disappointment? Alone we can be overcome by the burdens and challenges of life, but together we find a strength that is beyond our own capacity to muster. We become Jesus to one another in loving, honest, compassionate, and affirming ways. Jesus appears in our midst in the faces of our brothers and sisters as we seek to be the family of God.

Christ also comes to us through our worship. As we tell the story repeatedly through song, Scripture, proclamation, shared witness, hearts united in prayer, and common bread and wine, we remember Jesus in such a way that he becomes a presence in our midst as real as his presence was in Galilee and Judea 2000 years ago. We worship a Risen Christ who is in our midst as we come together to worship and follow him. He makes his home with the likes of us. That is a miracle as great as his birth in Bethlehem. 

But Jesus also comes to us in the needs of the world. The radical and unprecedented compassion Jesus demonstrated during his ministry here on earth was perhaps the most shocking aspect of his ministry (the poor, women, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, children, the demon possessed, the mentally and physically challenged) In Matthew 25 he reminds us that “When you do it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.” Who are the “least of these” today? Who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters in need in our time? Whom would Jesus reach out to in our world that most people, including those in the church, neglect? The poor, children, prisoners, the homeless, the mentally and physically challenged, immigrants) Where would Jesus go if he began his ministry afresh in our culture? The bars, the streets, the homeless shelters, the soup kitchens, skid row, places where there are battered women and children, death row, the county jail, the state penitentiary, etc. I wonder how much time he would spend in churches. And if he did spend time in churches, I wonder how he would enlighten us regarding our following him back into the world with a mission of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. Yes, Jesus comes to us repeatedly. His advent/his coming is a daily occurrence. This is the season to prepare for that coming just as much as we prepare ourselves to celebrate his coming 2000 years ago. In fact, if our worship is genuine, we can’t prepare for his first advent without equally preparing ourselves for his present coming in our midst through the needs of others.

And then there is his third Advent—that final coming/appearing promised by the New Testament. Lectionary texts during the Advent season always include passages looking to Jesus’ final coming. So how might our consideration of that Advent impact this Christmas season? Or perhaps a better, more fruitful question would be how our understanding of Jesus’ advent 2000 years ago and his advent in our present time might impact our understanding of his final appearing.

I want us to approach these questions with an amusing observation. There is a song that is familiar to all of us. It is a secular song. It doesn’t talk about God, or the coming of Jesus, or about Christian hope, but it does express in a secular manner the way many Christians think about Jesus’ final coming. It’s a song loved by millions of children. It’s about the coming of a very important person who knows all about us. He’s good, loving, and generous, and children can’t wait until his advent. The song is “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

You better watch out
You better not cry 
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake 
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness’ sake!

Oh! You better watch out!
You better not cry 
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town

Now substitute God or Jesus for Santa Claus in this song and you have the way many see the final Advent of Jesus. But there is a big difference. If you’ve been naughty, what might you find in your stocking on Christmas morning according to tradition? Coal or switches. Now has anyone ever known a child— even a horrible, naughty, rotten to the core kid –get lumps of coal and switches for Christmas? Even the rotten children get something good at Christmas (provided their parents have the means to buy something and enough love to make the season special). I remember one of the boys in my neighborhood saying when I was a preschooler, “It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad. You’ll get something good from Santa Claus.” And he was one of the rottenest kids that ever drew a breath! And every Christmas he got more than anyone else.

But that’s not the way most people think of Jesus’ final Advent. Too many see that event as fraught with danger and suspense. I remember some of the sermons I heard on the Second Coming. Preachers made it sound like one of the most terrifying events imaginable. They focused on the negative and missed the positive in all their ranting and raving. They didn’t tell us about the peace, joy, hope, and love that Christians should have as they prepare for that Coming. Instead, they tried to frighten their congregations by asking questions like, ‘Where will you be when Jesus comes back? Will you miss seeing him because you are in a tavern? In a theatre watching dirty movies? In bed with someone other than your spouse? Will you be found in sin?” Nowhere in these sermons was there a hint of blessing unless we met the assumed requirements for salvation assumed by the preacher. And even then, we had to be sure—absolutely sure – we were included among the elect. 

The Parousia (the Greek word in the New Testament for this hope which means “presence” or “appearance”) marks that time when God sets things right with our world. It is the beginning of the new creation which is the present heaven and earth healed, transformed, and glorified. It is that point when joy, peace, justice, love, mercy, compassion, and truth triumph over all forms of evil, transience, and death. Yes, there will be judgment, but if Jesus is the judge and if Jesus reveals to us the true nature of God, then his judgment will be for the purpose of setting things right, delivering those who are oppressed, healing divisions, bringing about personal and cosmic reconciliation, and rehabilitating all of us into full children of God. 

The Jesus we meet at the Parousia is the same Jesus we celebrate at Christmas, the same Jesus we find in the Gospels, and the same Jesus we find in each other in so many loving and caring ways. The God Jesus reveals loves us more than the most loving mother and is more caring than the most caring father. Jesus’ final Advent is also good news for all of creation. It’s about the beautiful, incredible, unimaginable gifts God has in store for our world in the next dimension—gifts we can already partially experience, celebrate and share in this life. This third Advent is something to look forward to and not to fear.

The best way to prepare for all three Advents is not obsessing over whether you’ve been “naughty or nice.” The best way to observe any Advent is to develop ways of sharing hope, peace, joy, and love with those around you and throughout this world God so deeply loves and to which She is eternally committed. Through such sharing you become God’s joy to the world!

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