The First Coming
THE FIRST COMING
December 4, 2011
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
In high school, I wanted a girlfriend. To make that happen, I pursued a young lady who eventually became my wife. It all began when I became a frequent visitor to her church. She was a Seventh Day Adventist. They met on Saturday. Besides watching her, I heard one story or theme dominating the subject matter in Sabbath school and church worship. With expectant hope, they talked incessantly about The Second Coming of Jesus Christ. “The trump shall sound and the Lord will descend. The dead in Christ shall arise. Then, we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up to meet Him in the air. And we’ll go home to live with God,” the elder might say based on 1 Thessalonians 4:16. Then, he warned the congregation, “Don’t let him catch you with your work undone. Get ready. For no man knoweth the day nor the hour when the Son of Man cometh.” That kind of warning would take my mind off Beverly. As a young Methodist, I didn’t want this Jesus to catch me with my work undone. For Seventh Day Adventists, the Second Coming is the culmination of the good news of Jesus Christ. Today, we’ll concentrate on the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ cited in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, namely The First Coming.
October 21, 2011 President Obama announced that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year. After a nine year quest, our soldiers would be home just after Christmas. That was good news in most quarters. We had lost our thousands; they had lost their ten thousands. Fresh opportunity to beat our swords into plowshares and study war no more is a good thing. When our men and women come home from Iraq, President Obama will have made good on his 2008 Campaign Promise.
Mark’s gospel uses the same methodology. He announces that God makes good on a biblical promise. Finally, John the Baptizer arrives on the scene. At the same time, Mark quotes the words of Isaiah. “Behold, I am sending a messenger ahead of you, whom will prepare the way.” (Isaiah 40:3) Quoting Isaiah draws attention to how long the world has waited for John. Eight hundred years is a long time to wait for the First Coming. One wonders if our eighth century contemporaries did not begin to doubt the word of God, if not that promise. For His promise comes without a date. Hence, year after year, decade after decade, century after century passes without the coming of the Messiah and one chosen to announce his appearance.
Picture reading or hearing about God’s promise in the book of Isaiah. Could you stand on the promises of God if they were not realized for eight hundred years? Would you give up concluding that God’s promise has the ring of a politician’s campaign promise? It raises our hopes only to dash them. Or, would you and the generations to follow hold on? God is not like some politicians. God is not running for election. On the other hand, the biblical promise may provide motivation to keep the faith regardless of how long it takes for God to deliver on His promise. God promises His people they will get to the Promised Land. They get there. But it takes a 40 year trek in the desert and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. God promises to preserve the life of Joseph. But Joseph becomes a slave, a convict, a viceroy of Pharoah before he realizes God has taken the bad things in his life and turned them into good. How does one hold to the promises of God, teach the next generation to hold on whether or not they are the direct recipients of God’s promises. We do it, by faith. Isaiah says it best in 40:31. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint.”
In the book, The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud argues that such wish fulfillments are neurotic. Treating something as if it is true without any objective data may not be the best way to approach reality. People of faith disagree. We believe there is life after death, heaven and hell, three persons in the Trinity, that living right is the thing to do. If necessary, our imaginations create persons and people to nudge and influence us on the journey. We construct songs of announcement around Christmas and Santa Claus. They draw us into the land of promise, announce certain realities, admonish and/or wish for the “not yet.” One set of lyrics of the “not yet” are as well know as “Jesus Loves Me.” “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know; where treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.” Have we not just heard in the words imagined tune a bit of melancholy-a bit of wish fulfillment? As some folk dream of a white Christmas, the people of God begin dreaming of the coming of a Messiah. That is not all.
Mark’s gospel and three other gospels confirmed that God finally delivered on His promise. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness and began preaching the baptism for the remission of sin. Yes, it took eight hundred years. But it happened. Then, Mark did what we do. On one hand, he rejoiced over the coming of John and the message he would bring. On the other hand, Mark wrote about his first impression of John. Nothing was said about a shave and a haircut. However, Mark commented on John’s attire and diet. As if to pose the question, would a servant preparing the way for the Messiah dress like that?
John possessed no purple clergy shirt or white clergy collar. He didn’t walk around eliciting the respect of the public wearing long fine robes decorated with the finest religious symbols. (Luke 20:46) John wasn’t a false prophet adorned in sheep’s clothing. He was God’s authentic servant. Still, the way John dressed and what he ate was atypical. According to Mark 1:6, “John was clothed with camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. And he ate locusts/ grasshoppers and wild honey.” Children might say “he looked weird.” Adults might counter saying, “Beware of prophets dressed in camel’s clothing.”
England’s best known preacher in the 19th Century commented on how the preacher is judged on appearance before he or she opens his mouth. Charles H. Spurgeon said “the preacher should endeavor…to dress…respectably and …neatly regardless of their means. Conversely, the preacher should not measure himself by his mirror…or owe his greatness to the tailor…neither God nor man will put up with him long…a minister should have more in his inner man than on his outer man.” Perhaps, Spurgeon is suggesting that while “Clothes make the man;” they do not always make the preacher.
In the 2006, the Council of Bishops met in Mozambique. There, we conducted our business, attended worship, interacted with the people and met the President of the country. He looked like a President. He walked like a President. Aides and secret service watched every step as they watched us. Our colleague Bishop Machado embodied the close relations between church and state in Mozambique. Access to the President by Bishop Machado seemed barrier free and mutually productive. After some time, the President left us accompanied by his entourage. Nearly a week later, we heard some exciting news. Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and his wife Gracia Machel former First lady of Mozambique would pay us a surprise visit.
When the international leader and his wife visited the Council of Bishops in Maputo, no secret service or other aides accompanied them. He was about ninety years old. No sharp suit, shirt and tie adorned his frame. Instead, Mr. Mandela wore a dashiki, plain black slacks, walked unsteadily with a cane and held on to his wife for extra support. His appearance seemed anti-thetical to the courageous roles and stances he had for his people and all the dispossessed around the world. Mandela didn’t look or walk-like the powerful figure we had heard about for years. Had we based our willingness to hear Mandela on his appearance, we might not have heard him. But when Nelson Mandela greeted us and shared excerpts of his journey, all were convinced again that we were in the presence of greatness - a giant of a man, dedicated to serving others. A victim of hatred and ill will for decades showed us nothing but compassion, kindness and love. His very presence inspired many of us to go and do likewise. Mr. Mandela’s appearance demonstrated once again, “you can’t tell the book by the cover.” Ditto for the long awaited appearance of John the Baptist, “dressed in camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist, [snacking] on locusts/grasshoppers and honey.”
When John opened his mouth and began to speak to the folks in Judea, what he wore was soon forgotten. His word slipped past their defenses. It convicted their hearts souls, minds and spirits. Not many persons in his audience dug in their heels. John’s word convinced them to change what they already knew needed changing. Mark’s gospel said it this way, “people from the whole Judean countryside all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in river Jordan confessing their sin.” What sin, you might say? Mark’s gospel didn’t say. Luke spelled it out in 3:7, 10-14. At the Jordan, people confessed to not caring about the hungry, the homeless, those with no coats, victims of tax abuse, false accusation and extortion. Some of the religious leaders needed to clean up their lives. John the baptizer called some of them “a brood of vipers.”
If John spoke to us, we’d be running down to the Jordan with everybody else. For example, if we are short tempered, rude, ungrateful, callous, xenophobic, ethnocentric to the nth degree, violent, abusive, arrogant, we know that we need to change. Television programs like Jerry Springer, Nancy Grace, America’s Most Wanted and American Greed show us a society in need of transformation. Colleges in the news like Penn State and Syracuse University have publicly confessed their need to change. They have vowed to lead a new life and participate in the transformation of young men and women who have been hurt.
Those of us who have been in the church for eons know the same truth. Who of us hath not spoken some version of Paul’s classic statement in Romans 3: 23? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” If we really believe that we have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” privately and publicly, we ought to be fully engaged in the activity inspired by our brother John the Baptizer. We must prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. More importantly, we need to prepare because the One who is coming requires it and is going to make judgments about us based on how we are living. In some ways, our sins of omission and commission cause problems. Oft times, our sins of omission may cause as many problems as our sins of commission. That may the case in what follows.
In the past few weeks, many of us watched the allegations leveled against Joe Paterno on ESPN. We prayed for the victims and their families. We prayed for the people who have to determine what is true and not true. And we’ve prayed for 84 year Joe Paterno and his family. Just before he retired with a distinguished career, he was fired, retained a lawyer, began treatments for lung cancer and began dealing with withdrawal pains from a 46 year coaching position at Penn State. Finally, Paterno was left wondering how the sportswriters will treat his legacy. Whatever all parties have said to the Son of God in the midst of these crises, personal and public, God can reconcile all these things via his amazing grace. A popular Christmas song captures this sentiment. Both children and adults are expected to repent and prepare for somebody’s coming. If not, there are consequences. Hear these words. ”You better watch out. Better not cry. Better not pout I’m telling you why; Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list. And checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty and nice, Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake. O! You better watch out! Better not cry. Better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.”
The songwriter imagines powers for Santa Claus our Lord already possesses. First, Santa Claus is omnipotent - all powerful. He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. That’s power. Second, Santa Claus is omniscient - all knowing. He knows when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good. Third, Santa Claus is omnipresent - in less than 24 hours, Santa Claus passes out presents around the world. Then the songwriter gets religious, maybe even Christocentric. Our children are not asked to be good for Santa’s sake. Rather, they are asked to be “good for goodness sake” per the spirit of John the Baptist seeking repentance, and so are we. “You better watch out. Better not cry. Better not pout; I’m telling you why.” Jesus Christ is coming to town. “Let every heart, prepare Him room.” Amen.