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What are the moments in your life that you will never forget?
I think most of us remember our lives in moments: those critical turning points that change the meaning of the whole story. Whether for good, for bad, or something in between, these are the moments that change the way we interpret everything else before and after.
I was seventeen years old when my dad told me that he and my mother were getting a divorce. I remember that conversation like a scene out of a movie. In that moment, the way I understood my identity as a member of my family changed forever. The people I loved would continue to be there—my mom, my dad, my sister and brother—but our corporate story as the Shaver family would never be the same. And even the parts of that story that had already been written took on a new meaning. Family traditions, inside jokes, the pet names my parents had called each other: all those little elements of our common life that we had taken for granted as markers of our identity were transformed in a moment into bittersweet and poignant symbols of a love, a marriage, and a family life that were not destined to survive.
I was twenty-four years old when I knelt down, full of anxiety, in a courtyard in Dallas to ask Julia to marry me. I remember that conversation like a scene out of a movie. And again, in a single moment, the story of my life changed forever and the meaning of our entire relationship before and after was transformed. Our early meetings, first dates, arguments and reconciliations, inside jokes and favorite restaurants, became not the story of just another college relationship but the nucleus of our new identity together, and the path of my life to come was forever changed.
There are other moments I could tell about, and I’m sure you could too. It’s not that the whole event takes place in one moment: the moment itself is the culmination of a long process. But in a real sense the moment sums up and symbolizes the whole process in one instant. So when we tell the stories of who we are and what our journeys have been, these are the moments we tell.
The story of the good news of Jesus has these moments. Think of the crucifixion. What can it have been like for Jesus’ followers to see the one they believed was the Messiah, arrested and summarily executed? Not only were they stunned and terrified, but they had to re-evaluate their early encounters with Jesus, their faith in a loving God, their hope for the future as everything they had believed in suddenly fell to pieces.
Three days later came another moment that changed everything again. Surely nothing the disciples had ever experienced could ever have prepared them to predict the resurrection of Jesus. And yet when it happened, it became clear to them in hindsight how every past moment had fit into this story. Not only their own lives but even the entire story of God’s relationship with Israel throughout history was suddenly swept up into the new story of what God was doing to renew heaven and earth in Jesus Christ.
These two moments are obviously central to our faith. We remember them every week in the eucharist. But there’s a third moment that’s just as crucial—so much that we proclaim it with the others, every single week, in every eucharistic prayer. In the words of Eucharistic Prayer B, for example—and maybe you’d like to say it with me!—We remember his death; we proclaim his resurrection; we await his coming in glory.
How strange it is that each week we proclaim our belief in something that hasn’t even happened yet. Yet our conviction is that this third “moment” is just as much a part of the story as those historical events that took place 2000 years ago. Just as Jesus was born among us, proclaimed the reign of God in his ministry, died on the cross, and was raised from the dead, we proclaim that he will be revealed again as Lord of all things at the culmination of history. The Greek name for this ultimate “moment” is eschaton, the word for “the last thing” or “the end.” And it’s the eschaton that we hear about each year on this first Sunday of Advent as we begin these four weeks of preparing not only for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, which we celebrate again reliably every year, but even more for the unfathomable fulfillment of all things through that same Jesus Christ.
We surely can’t describe the specifics of the eschaton—any more than the disciples could have described the resurrection before it happened. And that’s all right. Because the point of what Jesus says about the end is not to gratify our need for details about the future. It’s to change the way we live our lives here and now.
We glimpse it as a sort of multifaceted icon—a set of images from various places throughout scripture. Sometimes it’s expressed as the coming of the kingdom of God, or the arrival of the Son of Man in glory, the way it is in Jesus’ words today from Luke’s gospel. Sometimes it’s called the heavenly banquet, as in some of Jesus’ parables, or a new heaven and a new earth, as in Revelation. Paul talks about the resurrection of the saints, and John writes about eternal life. Often poetic language about the eschaton is accompanied by images of suffering and disaster—and those images dominate what popular culture thinks about the eschaton to the point where it’s easy to imagine that the Christian view of last things is not good news but very, very bad news.
But the point of the Christian images of the end is not that God is going to inflict all kinds of violence and pain on any humans unlucky enough to be around when the timer on the universe goes off. It’s that after all the violence and pain that we humans both suffer from and inflict on another in this beautiful but fallen world—the wars, the poverty, the diseases and natural disasters—it is the God we have seen revealed in Jesus who will have the last word.
The early Christians of Luke’s time had lived through the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army. For them, it was the end of the world as they knew it. And for us too, there are times when the world comes to an end around us. Last month I spent an agonizing night with the family of Robert in the emergency room where I serve as chaplain. Robert was fourteen and had tried to commit suicide. For hours we waited, watched, and prayed as he drifted between life and death. In the end he was transported to another hospital, and I never learned what had happened. I like to hope he healed and returned to the arms of those who loved him. But I know there is a strong likelihood his brain was too damaged to recover.
You and I and Robert’s family live in a hurting world where we lose the ones we love to illness, accident, and suicide. We suffer from addictions and broken relationships. Our world reels from war and terror, unemployment, poverty, inequality, and environmental crisis. You and I may not experience the physical end of the universe in our lifetimes, but individually and collectively the words of Jesus are true for each of us: this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.
And so what’s crucial about the eschaton isn’t predicting the so-called “end times,” times of danger and sorrow before the end. These are the kind of times we live in today, just as every generation has since Jesus. What’s crucial about the eschaton is the new beginning that comes after the end. In today’s gospel Jesus compares it to the leaves beginning to sprout on a fig tree that had looked dead after the winter. In the book of Revelation, John describes it this way: “God will wipe every tear from the eyes of mortals. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” The good news of the eschaton is that the same God who loves us and redeems us is the Lord of history. The sin, evil, and death that threaten to destroy the children of God will be defeated. And in the victorious reign of the resurrected Jesus, no one and nothing that is beloved of God will be lost.
But if the eschaton offers us hope, it also faces us with a challenge. Because we have to ask ourselves: how well do the lives we live now track with this picture of the goal of history? Are the lives we are living now preparing us for the last day? “Be on guard,” says Jesus. If consumerism and individualism are teaching me to ignore my poor sisters and brothers around the world, how will I face the Son of Man when he calls me to sit down with them at the heavenly banquet? If I haven’t practiced forgiving and reconciling with my enemies now, what will I do when they are the ones I have to live next to in the new Jerusalem? Are we ready?
It is Advent. We’ve been given these four weeks to prepare ourselves to welcome the incarnate Jesus coming at the manger—and the triumphant Jesus coming in glory. As we gather this day, we proclaim our story: We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory. We have been given a glimpse of the final moment of the story. It’s our privilege to help God write the chapters in between.