Monday, March 28, 2016

An empty 'maranatha'

It's Sunday evening. My family is gathered around the dinner table as we have every Easter for the past fourteen years. There, in the center of the table, a wine glass stands on a saucer next to a bottle of wine.

“How much joy have we had this year?” I ask, and fill the wine a quarter of the way. “This much?”

My girls know the drill. “More than that!” they answer, and I fill it halfway to the top. “This much?” I ask.

“More than that!” I pour again. Three-quarters. “This much?”

“More than that!” Wine flows, and a moment later wine fills the cup past the rim and splashes joyously to the saucer below. We have friends. We have a home. We have one another. Middle Daughter has found a passion for the stage that will carry her well into adulthood. Oldest Daughter is in the home stretch of her junior year and thinking about college. For Youngest Daughter, every day is a new adventure, every moment a treasure to unpack. Life overflows with joy, and with love.

After we have measured our joy but before we eat the meal, comes what I am finding is the hardest part of Easter. My own wine glass in hand, I turn to Youngest.

“Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told us he would return one day,” I tell her. “Open the door and invite him in.” I quickly add: “Don't let the dog out.”

Youngest knows the routine by now. She opens the kitchen door and peers out into the back yard. “Maranatha,” she calls. “Come, Lord Jesus.”

There is a pause. Jesus doesn't come. “Maybe next year,” I say. Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening, but surely tomorrow. 

It's been about two thousand years. How long are these Last Days supposed to last, anyway?

I had my religious awakening in 1988, about six weeks after high school graduation. While I was away at college I soon found myself drawn to an Assemblies of God church off campus. Services there were lively and boisterous, a marked departure from the staid Presbyterianism I had grown up in. There was an immediacy about worship there that I had never felt before, a sense that we were in the very presence of God and not just admiring him from a distance.

With that immediacy also came an urgency. Christ could return any day. The modern nation of Israel had formed in 1948, an event that to many evangelicals fulfilled key biblical prophecy in heralding the Second Coming. Adding to that urgency were the dramatic shifts in the popular zeitgeist and in geopolitical power over the course of that one decade.

For much of the 1980s the entire nation had lived under the cloud of nuclear war. Made-for-TV movies like “The Day After” in 1983 and “Countdown to Looking Glass” in 1984 carried the fear right into our living rooms. Conflicts like the military downing of a Korean Air Lines flight in September 1983 set the nation's teeth on edge. Even the pop culture reflected this fear, with songs like "99 Red Balloons" and "It's a Mistake" imagining nuclear war breaking out over a simple misunderstanding. (As it nearly did.)

Then in the late 1980s, reforms like glasnost and perestroika led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. One by one the Baltic republics declared their independence and established democratic governments. The Berlin wall came down, and suddenly there were talks of reunifying the two Germanys for the first time since World War II.

With that much change afoot, it couldn't help but feel that Judgment Day was coming. And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, armchair interest in biblical prophecy shot up in a way it hadn't since Hal Lindsey had published “The Late Great Planet Earth” in 1970 and Christian moviemakers started producing B-movies like “A Thief in the Night.” Jesus was coming! No one knows the day or the hour, but still it had to be soon. It had to be.

Except Jesus didn't return. In fact it's been 68 years since the founding of Israel, an event so significant that Edgar Whisenant once wrote a popular book, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988,” prompted by that event. (Spoiler: It didn't happen.) Whisenant later predicted the return of Christ in 1989, 1993 and 1994 as well. Jesus didn't return then either.

'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.'

— Matthew 24:14

This has been going on for a while. The church fathers were so convinced that the Parousia was coming within their lifetimes that the Bible contains apostolic letters reassuring people not to panic that they were dying of old age before Christ's return. He's coming, Peter says. Just be patient. It's been about 1,980 years. How patient do we have to be?

I don't have a good answer for that. I'd love it if I could find a neat and tidy conclusion that makes the interminable wait seem worthwhile. The gospels tell us that Jesus is going to return, and it's in the creeds that we recite; but year after year keeps going by. We keep waiting, and he keeps not returning.

Why do we do this? Is it because the Second Coming is supposed to be such a major event? At the Parousia, that wondrous appearing of Jesus, we're told that all will be made right. Fish once more will team in rivers and streams whose waters will be restored, and herds of buffalo will stampede across the plains again. The wicked will no longer feed off the anger in the land and turn us against one another, and the arrogant will no longer walk in the halls of power.

When Christ comes, we'll recognize the dignity of one another without pause or exception. We'll recognize the wrongs we've done one another over the centuries, and we'll ask forgiveness for not setting it right sooner. We'll apologize for separate drinking fountains and for glass ceilings, for stolen land and for stolen labor. We'll dismantle empire and repair the damage it has caused, and as we get to know our neighbors, we'll wonder why we ever avoided them before.

Is that why we wait, to remind ourselves what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like? Do we have the promise of a Second Coming so that we can take seriously what he said the first time he came, and start working on that in the meantime?

Maranatha,” my daughter dutifully says. There is a pause. Jesus doesn't appear, just like he didn't appear last year, or the year before that.

“Maybe next year,” I say, and I think: “I doubt it.”

That doubt is all I have, Lord. I give it to you, and pray that it's enough.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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