Year after year I ponder how “Remembrance Day” carries with it so much staying power — especially for older generations of people. While on the surface our observances acknowledge the sacrifice made by many young service men and women in the wars of the last century, a deeper vein is struck.
It is important ‘to remember’, because so many lives were lost in war. Death separates loved ones. Death means, for many, that relationships are severed and hopes are dashed. Similar to attending funerals of loved ones, Remembrance Day observances expose one of our deepest, human fears — being abandoned by our loved ones. Being abandoned by our loved ones is a horror too deep to even want to go there.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church, he addressed a pastoral need. The early Christians living in those immediate decades after Jesus ascended to heaven believed that Christ was coming back in their lifetime. They believed his second coming was immanent. They looked forward to it.
The problem was, when their friends and family members began to die, they wondered if their loved ones would share in the glory of the resurrected Jesus at his second coming. Paul assures the church that not only are the dead included in resurrection at the end time, but that they will be “first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) to join Christ at his return.
This passage forms a reading for one of the last Sundays before Advent. The season of Advent is about the ‘coming of Jesus’. We normally attribute this season to anticipating the coming of baby Jesus to Bethlehem — the incarnation of God — and we recall this history with much joyous tradition and emphasis.
But the ‘coming of Jesus’ theme is more than just the Christmas story. The Advent of Christ is attributed as well to the “Second Coming” when Jesus will come in at the ‘eschaton’ — the end time. We read in the Nicene Creed: “And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Finally, the ‘coming of Jesus’ is meant to pique our attention to the ways in which the Holy Spirit comes to us daily, in the ordinary people and happenings of life, as well as in Word and Sacrament; in other words, the coming of Jesus is not only an event of history nor of future expectation, but something that happens now — all the time, in every moment. Especially at times of grief and loss when we fear abandonment, the assurance of a coming divine presence — or anyone’s presence for that matter — can bring comfort and hope into the moment.
How, then, do we experience a re-connection with those we love, especially because for whatever reason, we have been divided from them? There are many reasons why loved ones may be separated from each other, besides death: the friction of personality, vast geographical distance, emotional wounds, hurtful memories of a ‘water-under-the-bridge’ variety. Many reasons exist for why that division remains. And even though we may desire a better relationship with a loved one, we time and time again come up against those blocks. So, how do we even begin to make things better — amidst the grief, when facing hard times, when you can really use a friend to lean on?
An answer from the tradition of our Christian faith is, I’m afraid, not an easy one. First, in the words of Jesus from the Gospel for today: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13), there is this element of not being in total control of the outcome. And this is disruptive, especially for those of us who feel they need to be in some semblance of control over not only our relationships, but our lives in general. We can try. But the trying ought not be motivated by the result we envision.
Moreover, there are these dramatic and vivid images in Paul’s description of Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17) that are, frankly, unbelievable and unrealistic: being drawn into the sky, trumpets sounding, the archangel calling, clouds whipping across the panorama — seems more like some filmmaker’s fantasy than anything that is real. The coming of Jesus into our lives is thus underscored with disruption, incredibleness and an unravelling of what we believe is possible.
Then again, this is a prevalent theme in the Scriptures. Two things: First, in our hope to re-establish relationships marred by whatever divides those relationships, can we be open to going to where it feels uncomfortable, unravelling of us, vulnerable — and being lovingly honest about it? If Jesus will bring his healing power to the relationship, the “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2-3) will sting and singe, momentarily. The new thing that Jesus comes to establish in your life, in our lives, does bring judgement of sorts to what has been. We really cannot move forward unless we can lovingly and honourably discharge the past, and confess our own failing.
And it’s not just about healing the other’s issues — like pointing the finger at what you perceive to be ‘their’ problem. More importantly it is addressing your own issues that have contributed to the problem. And this is never easy. To even bother going there. Some would say impossible: to go inside yourself and let go of past hurts, to forgive others, to live in grace not anger and resentment. Impossible, you say?
But, and this is the second point from the testimony of scripture: God does come to make a way where there didn’t seem to be a way through: After all, God turns a rock into a pool of water (Psalm 114:8) and makes a path through the wilderness where none exists (Isaiah 43:19). Christ comes to disrupt the current, messy, state of affairs, yes.
But, to work a total transformation of our lives for the better. This turbulent coming creates a way to reconciliation, resurrection, a new life. As one theologian wrote: The kingdom of God “breaks into, disturbs, disorders, and troubles the waters of our fallen reality” (Jennifer McBride, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p.282).
God comes, in Christ, to make a way where there is no way. In the fallen reality of death, abandonment, and separation — God comes to reunite and reconcile in acts of forgiveness, generosity and mercy.
In the fallen reality of dying church institutions and perceived dwindling of resources — God comes, in Christ to stir things up and create new ways of being the church in today’s world.
In the fallen reality of clashing religions and cultures where extremism threatens to escalate violent acts — God comes, in Christ to disarm and disable ideologies of hatred and make swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).
And so we can have hope in the new thing that God promises. This hope is not in what is possible, but precisely in what seems impossible to us. What we can never on our own merit or strength, God will. Get ready! God is on the move!