It is the end of the church year. Two Sunday’s hence, the start of Advent, is the church new year. And in the last two Sundays the texts turn to last things. In the year of Matthew you get the parables. In the year of Mark you get Jesus’ sermon itself from Mark 13. Which means it is the perfect time to preach the doctrine of the 2nd coming. There probably isn’t a more misunderstood doctrine with worse effects on Christian life than the 2nd coming. And the text itself isn’t easy to comprehend as there are at least 5 threads running through it, some of them very Jewish, others off in the future. What this sermon does is point out the two ditches that we often get stuck in when contemplating the 2nd Coming and why they are ditches. We shouldn’t necessarily feel back about these, because they are perennial. They are what the disciples wanted to turn towards. The second part of the sermon listens to Jesus’ answer to those disciples as they tried to steer him into the ditch. Jesus this week explains what it means for a Christian to watch or “be on your guard”. Once you are “on guard”, then next week he turns to some actual answers that we can hear about those last things.
But what Ross and Michael and Rod are really concerned about, it seems to me, is the general culture of growing intolerance of religious views on homosexuality, and the potential marginalization – even stigmatization – of traditional Christians.
I sure hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s not something a free society should try to control by law. There is a big difference between legal coercion and cultural isolation. The former should be anathema – whether that coercion is aimed at gays or at fundamentalist Christians. The latter? It’s the price of freedom. The way to counter it is not, in my view, complaints about being victims (this was my own advice to the gay rights movement a couple of decades ago, for what it’s worth). The way to counter it is to make a positive argument about the superior model of a monogamous, procreative, heterosexual marital bond. There is enormous beauty and depth to the Catholic argument for procreative matrimony – an account of sex and gender and human flourishing that contains real wisdom. I think that a church that was able to make that positive case – rather than what is too often a merely negative argument about keeping gays out, or the divorced in limbo – would and should feel liberated by its counter-cultural message.
He is absolutely right. I’ve often felt frustrated by the current conversation on these issues. First because I could feel myself just being negative and legalistic. Don’t get me wrong, the law of God is good and wise. We should follow it. But the law never wins any converts. Secondly because these conversations always brought up the doctrine of election and my personal verses of horror (Isaiah 6:8-13, Hebrews 6:4-8, Luke 19:26, Mark 4:9). Some things are quite clear to me: 1) marriage as a reflection of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32) is one of the concrete ways we experience being conformed to Christ. There are others, but no place in my experience rivals the crucible of learning to deny yourself and live for ones totally unlike you (yet like you) as marriage leading to children. The cross and the glory are more perfectly shown in that one flesh union than any other relationship. 2) the bible and Jesus are quite clear about the centrality of monogamy. Yes, Abraham was polygamous and Solomon had a harem, but the bible never approves of these things. They are simply noted. What is preached is Jesus pointing at Genesis with one man and one woman and God putting them together (Mark 10:1-12). The others are examples of the fallen world. They were allowed because of the hardness of our hearts, but God constantly paints himself as the bridegroom with steadfast love or covenant faithfulness. Go read the story of Hosea to understand just how deep that runs. 3) This ordering is both a participation in God and a following after God’s own heart. 4) Rejecting this is in some deep way a rejection of God. God is merciful. Maybe it does not go to outright rejection, but it is on that line. It brings one right up to the line of ‘even what you have will be taken away’. I get shrill at that line. Stop, you don’t know where you are going. 5) Tossing aside all theology, any society that does not take monogamous marriage aimed toward procreation as the held up ideal is in for a world of hurt. We can see this in our society. All the best social science says this. This isn’t even a practical question. What this is is an example of putting personal license and liberty for rich upper-crusty folks ahead of the good of society. Those things are clear to me, but a majority do not agree. It might even be a majority within the church, God be merciful.
But after reading Sullivan much of that goes away. Christians are no longer the bedrock of this society. We no longer must take responsibility for society as a whole. We do not live in Christendom and are not one revival away from reanimating it. It has rejected the Christian witness. The watchtowers have been torn down. Remaining at those posts calling out warnings not wanted nor heeded is not the call. The call is to offer the living water, to lead beside still waters to refresh the soul. You want the joy and fulfillment of a lifetime spent in the image of God? Come and see.
I’m taking a break from 1 Samuel because of the Gospel text of the day. This text to me has always been one of the scariest in all of scripture. To who is this warning given? Most commentators take it only as specifically to Jerusalem and warning once again of what will happen in AD 70. Very critical scholars will say it is made up after the fact. (The Jesus Seminar I’m sure put this quote in black letters indicating no chance the Jesus spoke it.) Only Luke records the presence of the women on the path and Jesus’ words to them – which fits with Luke’s overall attention to women and the high likelihood of Mary being one of his sources. The trouble with words like this is the scope. Do they apply only to that time, or does time telescope. Many of the OT prophecies about Jesus (like Isa 7:14) have a close fulfillment and then a greater fulfillment in Jesus. When Jesus speaks about AD 70 (Luke 21:5-24) does he also speak about a greater Day of the Lord?
Matt 24:22 gives our answer of hope – do not be afraid. Those days will be cut short for the sake of the elect. In more poetic language maybe you could speak of a tree planted over a stream (Ps 1:3). The church is a tree planted on the stream of life, Jesus. With such life giving water does the tree ever fully go dry? Our hope is not for this world, and we are already living in the next. That second death – the dry branches thrown in the flames – will not touch us.