Thanks to this week’s guest writer! Andrew Taylor-Troutman is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
In the movie “Talladega Nights,” actor Will Ferrell plays a NASCAR driver named Ricky Bobby. Before sharing a meal with family and friends, he clasps his hands, bows his head, and begins his prayer, “Dear 8-pound, 6-ounce newborn infant Jesus.”
When his wife questions his prayer, Ricky Bobby replies, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best.”
The prayer is meant to be funny, with over-the-top descriptions like “tiny Jesus in your golden fleece diapers,” but I think there’s a note of truth in it, too. Many worshippers do come to church on the First Sunday in Advent liking the Christmas Jesus best. It’s not simply that our culture shifted into Christmas frenzy weeks ago. People are looking for hope after yet another long year of the pandemic. So many are tired, and they’re tired of being tired.
Of course, the liturgical calendar will eventually arrive in Bethlehem for that o holy night. But before we meet the baby Jesus, we hear the adult prophet preach. Modern preachers should recognize that our Scripture lesson might cause anxiety among today’s listeners instead of comfort and joy.
It is likely that talk of “the end times” has percolated into the awareness of many members in most churches, whether they have read the “Left Behind” series or not. In our reading, the ominous sign of “distress among the nations” points back to earlier verses when Jesus names the reality of wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues (Luke 21:11). Modern audiences are likely to hear such warnings with the coronavirus pandemic and political tensions in mind. Many will wonder, is Jesus coming back soon?
The question about the return of Jesus prompted this Sunday’s Scripture lesson. Filled with their own fear and hope, the disciples asked, “Teacher, … when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place (Luke 21:7)?”
When a parishioner has put this question to me, I have often responded with the Jesus’s own words that no one knows the day or the hour of the Son of Man’s return (Matthew 24:36). I wish to avoid speculative eisegesis or “reading into” the biblical text the specific events occurring in the world, for I have seen how such interpretations cause even more anxiety.
But maybe I have not addressed eschatological questions directly enough. Maybe I, too, like the Christmas baby Jesus best and have neglected to speak to the source of this anxiety.
Rather than a specific time, Jesus gives his disciples another kind of answer — to look to him: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). In the words of the PC(USA)’s Confession of 1967, “All who put their trust in Christ face divine judgment without fear, for the judge is their redeemer.”
This Advent, I am rereading the “Chronicles of Narnia” “again for the first time” (to borrow Marcus Borg’s phrase). I loved these books as a tween for the worlds that C.S. Lewis created, especially the talking animals. As an adult, I’m finding rich resources for theological reflection. Instead of a baby wearing golden fleece diapers, the image of the Son of Man in this Sunday’s reading is more like the lion of Narnia.
In “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a child is talking with a beaver about Aslan’s imminent return.
“Is he quite safe?” The child asks. “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords, not just a cute little baby, I might add.
Another place where this Scripture calls for interpretation is its caution against works-based righteousness. Jesus commands us to “be on guard at all times” and pray for strength to endure (Luke 21:36). While this text offers a demanding ethic for believers, what about grace?
The sixth book of Lewis’s series, “The Silver Chair,” begins with a heartbreaking scene of two children being bullied by school classmates. They have heard rumors of a mighty lion named Aslan and decide to seek his help. One child suggests they should draw mysterious figures in the ground and chant magic spells. Is there something special that they have to do? Some secret that they have to earn?
One of the children concludes, “But really, we can only ask Aslan.”
When the other child eventually comes face to face with the great lion, Aslan clarifies, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.”
God calls. Grace first. This is Advent hope. Though there are calamities in our nation and our individual lives, we put our trust in the great power beyond this world who is at the same time ever so close — God with us.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.