November 27, 2022

“The Return”    November 27, 2022     Isaiah 2:1-5    Matthew 24:36-44

It is quite clear the early church expected Jesus to return. Initially, at least, it seems they expected it to be in the first century. The delay caused both anxiety and longing, as well as a need to readdress the issue in their theology. -Luke’s story of the early church in Acts tells of the disciples asking Jesus just before his ascension, “Are you going to restore the Kingdom of Israel now?”  To which Jesus replies very bluntly, “It’s not for you to know God’s plans or seasons.”  And here in our Matthew passage this morning, Jesus says, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,[a] but only the Father.”

The gospel writers, who were themselves having to re-think their expectations about Christ’s return, were making clear that Jesus rejected any actual dating of a time God might intervene in history in some new and dramatic way.

What Jesus said in the gospels of course, has never kept people from assuming they have unlocked the mystery of all this symbolic talk in the bible.  It’s no secret there have been lots of folks who have predicted the end of the world since the first century.  There was, Montanus, who predicted it in the second century, and people like Johnnes Stoeffler and Michael Stifel who predicted it for the 1500’s. There was even a pope, Innocent III, who set the date of 1284 for Christ’s return. Many more down through history to folks like TV evangelist Pat Robertson who said in 1980, “I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be judgement on the world.”    And Harold Camping, one of the most recent who set the date for 2011 for Christ’s triumphant return.

One of the most prominent and influential predictors was from New England. William Miller was born just down the road a bit in Pittsfield in 1782.  He was one of 16 children. His father fought in the revolutionary war and afterwards bought some farmland just across the state line in NY. His father was a pretty stern and hardworking, practical man who focused on duty and honor.  His mother was the daughter of a Baptist minister and leaned towards religion.  William had an energetic mind but there was little time for schooling. It is said that there were only three books in the Miller house, a bible, a prayer book, and a song book.

After his own service in the war of 1812 where he survived a battle when several around him were killed by an incoming shell he began studying the bible on his own. He was particularly fascinated with the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation. Like most people in the mid 1800’s he took the bible as a divinely written book to be taken at face value in a literal historical and scientific way. He poured over it, cross referencing every word.

In 1832 he began to preach after several years of self-study, saying that he had unlocked the biblical prophecies in Daniel & Revelation and was certain he had found God’s timetable for the end of the world. He was sure it would be sometime between March 1843 -44.

He was a strong speaker and over the next dozen years he attracted a sizeable following who called themselves “Millerites” including a prominent Baptist minister in Boston.  They produced a bundle of pamphlets and booklets outlining his arguments.  Some of his followers pushed for a more definite date; finally he set the date for March of 1844. Excitement grew and Miller gave as many as 300 lectures in the six months leading up to March 1844. It was a kind of Trumpian crusade with an exclusively religious theme, or more like a Billy Graham crusade, if you remember him. There were around 50,000 who joined his movement and many more who followed less ardently.

At the appointed day in 1844 he gathered with a large group of his followers, many of whom had sold their homes and farms in anticipation of the end of history. They were waiting for something Miller called the “Rapture.”

They waited most of the day and into the night.  When it didn’t happen, Miller went back to his books and recalculated the date and came up with Sept. 1844.  Again, a group waited with him. When it didn’t happen again his followers splintered into factions, the largest group eventually became the 7th Day Adventist movement. Miller himself died 5 years later in 1849, a discredited and somewhat broken man at age 67.

The Adventist movement gained new momentum when WWI broke out and Charles Russell, another, more or less self-taught, bible student became convinced he had figured things out. He began to preach that Christ had in fact returned to earth in 1874 in invisible form and a new age had already begun and God had rejected all churches of the day as corrupt. Russell proclaimed that a small group of right believers would be the true church soon to reign with Christ. –They became known as Jehovah’s Witnesses –after their insistence on the use of the term Jehovah for God.

Both of these men and many others like them tried to reduce the great poetic images of the bible into concrete formula.  It has been true right on down to more recent years when we have seen movements like the Branch Davidians –who were off-shoots of the 7 Day Adventists. You may remember them from the news in the Clinton administration.

Of course there are many others on the conservative side of Christianity who are eagerly are awaiting literal “Return of Christ” in the sky sometime soon, and have  made popular books  like “Left Behind” series and  “The Late Great Planet Earth”  which, have made millions for their authors, but are discredited by main line scholars.           I remember clearly hearing my grandfather’s minister say he didn’t expect to die back in the mid 50’s. -He was around 60 years old then. I’m sure he is long since dead.

As NT Greek scholar Mark Davis notes in one of his blogs on this Matthew text, even the Greek is little ambiguous here about exactly what these sayings in Matthew indicate. It’s not clear, for instance, in the Greek, if being the one left behind is to be avoided or preferred! – as in, you may have been “taken” or “swept away” by Noah’s flood in the story, and “left behind” in Noah’s boat to  start civilization over again.  Likewise if Jesus comes as a “thief in the night” maybe that means he comes unrecognized or even undetected.  Davis titles his blog, “Left Behind and Loving It,” which gives a little indication of how he’s thinking.

The Question for us these 20 centuries after Jesus is not when, or if, Jesus will come back, but how we can live towards the radical understanding of God’s love for all humanity that Jesus exemplified and proclaimed.

The writers of books like Revelation and Daniel and even Isaiah today were caught up in the suffering of the faithful and the injustice in the world during their time and wrote out of a longing for God’s redemption and an ecstatic affirmation of God’s saving grace. It was a type of imagery intended to give hope and courage to the beleaguered faithful, not to be taken as a road map of how God was about to act but a great affirmation of God’s love and involvement with the world!

Advent is an anticipation, a longing, where hope is in the air and one’s heart lingers on the possibility of what the world might be, if humanity really tuned in to God and let the songs of angels fill our hearts.  Advent is to give us a reminder that the Jesus of the cradle and the Jesus of the cross are both gifts of God’s hope for us.

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