Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Beginning Is Coming! (12/8/13)

The Beginning Is Coming!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent

The disciples said to him,
“When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?”

He said to them,
“What you are looking forward to has come, but you don’t know it.”
Gospel of Thomas 51

We are now in the heart of the Christmas Season.   It is the second Sunday of Advent.    Advent means the arrival of something important, and long-awaited.   The “advent of the age of reason” for instance.   In the Christian context it refers to the advent of the birth of Jesus who according to the mythology is the incarnation of God in human form.     The season of Advent with a capital A is a season of preparation for the Baby Jesus.  

As I remember in theological school, Advent was more than preparing for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus.    It is really about his second coming or the coming yet to come.  

I would be happy if the church were content with honoring the birthday of a wise teacher and social revolutionary, Jesus of Nazareth.    The man did a lot and we should honor that.    But I don’t think I need him to come again. 

I don’t anticipate Martin Luther King’s birthday or Charles Darwin’s birthday with apocalyptic fervor.    We remember these important people by recalling their time period and acknowledging their contributions.  We even think about how to continue their work.    But we don’t await the Advent of King or Darwin coming again.    They did their work.  They lived and died.  Now it is up to us who are living to do our part until we die.   That is how the system works. 

So what is the deal with Jesus?  Why is he different?  Part of the reason is that Jesus was manufactured quite early into a god.   Gods hang around longer.   Gods are immortal.  The human being Jesus was quickly mythologized and the mythological figure, Jesus Christ or King Christ, took on all the mythological and theological baggage of cosmic ends and new beginnings.  

The expectations of a better world were put on him.    Those expectations from utopian visions of a world
in which everyone had enough to eat,
to the end of war,
to the defeat of enemies and evil,
to justice for everyone,

as well as cosmic visions such as held by the Apostle Paul of becoming new immortal spirit beings on a newly fashioned Earth…

all of these visions were put on to Jesus.    

The story was told that Jesus’ first arrival inaugurated this coming of a new world order, both utopian and cosmic, that would not be completed until his second coming.    Christians said you need to get on the Jesus team now so you will be on the right side when the final battle comes, detailed in gore in the book of Revelation.  

All this will happen soon.   You can read the signs.   Come, Lord Jesus.  End this thing.    

This vision, this view of the universe, of Earth, of the meaning of humanity has held sway for two millennia.   It is still immensely popular.  It is the default vision of Christianity.    

Yesterday, during the Auburn-Missouri game, every time the kicker attempted a field goal or extra point, you and every television viewer would read a hand-held sign, John 3:16.   What effort and passion for one’s belief to do that, right?   It is all about King Christ coming again and the need for you to get on the right team so you can have everlasting life and not perish with the losers. 

I defend to the death everyone to have the freedom to believe in superstition.   I also defend the freedom to criticize it.    I believe the overarching Christian myth is an unhelpful one.   I am not for banning it.  I am for examining it.   Make it stand up to the light of reason.  I advocate this year for a reasonable Christmas. 

I think it is problematic when mainline churches continue to talk about Advent and say, “Come, Lord Jesus” and not provide a disclaimer that this is mythology.   This is not real.   Jesus Christ is not really coming again.  Please, don’t try this at home. 

Christopher Columbus was an intellectual.   He was not a professional theologian but he was well-versed in Christian theology.   He was devout.  He represents the apex of medieval Christianity.    The famous date associated with him is, of course, 1492.    This is prior to Copernicus.     

Christianity motivated Columbus.    For Columbus, as for the Western mind, the Bible told the story of beginnings and endings and the meaning and goal of humankind.   Columbus, through the use of the Bible, did his own calculation of the date of creation.  He also through the use of the Bible, calculated the end, when Christ would return and establish his kingdom.   

According to his calculations, the end would come in about 150 years after his own time.    Time was ticking.  Columbus felt that he had a role to play in inaugurating this kingdom.  Was Columbus crazy?   From the superstition of his time, no.   He was a smart guy, motivated by what today we would call a myth that he thought was real. 

Columbus, as you know, wanted to get to China by crossing the Atlantic.   The Bible, particularly the Book of Esdras, convinced him that it would be a quick journey, because Earth according to his interpretation in this verse in Esdras was six parts land and one part water.   This is the verse from 2 Esdras 6:42:

 "Upon the third day Thou didst command that the waters should be gathered in the seventh part of the earth; six parts hast Thou dried up and kept them, with the intent that some of these, being planted by God and tilled, might serve Thee.

Columbus taking this verse from the word of God, thought that it meant that Earth was made of six parts land and one part water.  He knew how long it was to get to China by going overland.  It would be a short journey to find China going the other way over the water.  Of course, the existence of the Americas that he stumbled upon were not known to him. 

He was going to China for a reason.   He wanted to establish a trade route.  But what he really wanted was gold in order to finance a mission, a crusade.   The purpose of this crusade would be to take back Jerusalem from control of the Muslims.   When Jerusalem was under control of Christians, then Christ would come and establish his kingdom.    That is the Christian myth in action. 

An excellent book about the historical Columbus is by Carol Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem:  How Religion Drove the Voyages that Led to America

This Christian mythology of end is based on belief in the authority of the Bible as the story of humankind’s origins and ends.  It is still influential 500 years after Columbus.    People with political power and influence, including presidents, supreme court justices, senators, and congress people, are immersed in this myth.  

  • Environmental concerns?  Not to worry.  Christ will come again.  Come, Lord Jesus.  
  • War in the Middle East?  It is predicted in the Bible.  Bring it on.    Come, King Christ.  Show who’s boss.
  • Population, energy, sustainability, resource depletion, species extinction, hunger and poverty for much of Earth’s people?   These are signs of the end times.  Thank God Jesus will return before it gets too bad.    Maranatha!  Come, Sweet Jesus. 
I spoke this week to an honor’s class at Tusculum College.   This college compared to the other Christian institutions around is a bit more liberal.  These were bright young men and women.  I presented on progressive Christianity, which none of them had been exposed.  None had heard of progressive Christianity.   

I told them my Columbus story as a way to illustrate the pre-modern conception of an Earth-centered universe that cradled the birth of Christianity.    I spoke about the revolutionary insights of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and modern science.    It generated a lively conversation.  One woman asked me in all honesty, how evolution makes sense from a Christian perspective.   What she meant by evolution was our grand cosmic 13.7 billion year old story of the universe.   She hadn’t heard a minister talk about it previously.    She had knowledge about modern cosmology and evolution.   She had to separate that from the Christian story that she knew.     

Of course, she is right to ask that.  The Christian myth is incompatible with our modern understanding of the universe and our current human quest for meaning.   It needs a complete overhaul.    God, Jesus, Bible, and specifically, the “myth of the end” need a total revision.

At the end of the class, I could see the wheels turning and a couple of the students voiced appreciation for presenting a progressive view of Christianity that they hadn’t known was possible.   

I have been thinking about these students.   I realized how we have failed them.   When I say “we” I mean the mainline churches that know better yet continue to spout Christian mythology without clarity.   

What I mean by clarity is at the minimum being clear about the difference between legend and history.    For example, being clear that the stories of Jesus’ birth are fictional recreations of other legends applied to Jesus.  This goes for the resurrection accounts and miracles and so forth.    But even more than that.   

The Christian mythical structure is based on a meaningful ending for the human species.    It is about some kind of immortality beyond Earth or a utopian existence as spirit beings on a new heaven and a new Earth.     It is a mythology that at its best provides warmth, hope, and belonging.     Even King reflected this mythology when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.   He said “moral universe’ not universe.    He was voicing the hope that human beings have the possibility for goodness.   

The universe we are discovering through the tools of reason is not one that is human-centered or God-centered.    There is no need to invoke divine supernaturalism to explain its existence or the existence of the human species.   The future on a deep time scale is one in which the human species inhabited but one second.    Even Earth itself will be swallowed by the sun in a few million years and that few million years will be a mere instant in cosmic time. 

The modern universe has given us an unfathomable cosmic loneliness.    Of course we will fill it with myths and a hodgepodge of speculative meaning to hide that loneliness, to cover it, to pretend that our lives are not temporary.    Reality hurts.

We could choose in the midst of the loneliness to create violent mythologies that end with an even quicker and more painful destruction.    We could spend our days and nights being anxious about our fate, both collectively and individually.    We could pray to our mythical creations who will never answer.  

Or we could face the void with courage, love and joy. 

Perhaps my favorite saying in the Gospel of Thomas is number 51 when Jesus replies to his disciples about these matters:

The disciples said to him,
“When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?”

 He said to them,
“What you are looking forward to has come, but you don’t know it.”

Your beginning, your end, your meaning, your peace, your life is right here now.   This is your telos, your purpose, your advent.    This day is your life’s day.    It is all right here.  There is no more.  There is no need to desire more.   This breath is yours.  Take it.  Notice it.   The smell of these Christmas wreaths are yours.  The pleasures and pains of your body are yours.  The endearments and the quibbles with your loved ones are yours.  Notice them.   What you are looking for is in you, among you, outside of you now.  Don’t miss it.  

There are mythologies within the Christian tradition and within other traditions that might be lures to draw us into living this existence with clarity and with depth and with joy.    At the end of the day, that is probably better than living with denial and fear.    

One of those myths is the birth of Christ.   This is why I still identify as a Christian because I value some of these myths as helpful myths.   The birth of God in human form is one of them.   It is the birth of the Sacred within.

Meister Eckhart the 13th century mystic put it this way:

We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity... But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.

Eckhart certainly was a product of a geocentric universe and all of its trappings.  God for him, likely was a being, and he likely believed in a cosmic end.   But he also knew that the power of the story was the transformation of the hearer.    The birth of God within the self is a beautiful expression of that mythical meaning.  

The Sacred is within you and around you.  Give birth to it.   Let its creative joy live within you as you live this unexpected, unrequested, gift of life.     Maybe even the wisdom of the precocious poet and revolutionary mystic, Jesus of Nazareth, could be born in us anew this Advent. 

In that sense, maybe I can still say, “Come Lord Jesus.”    


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