One of the great cinematic cliches that helps define the movie genre “western” is the arrival of the cavalry. The wagon train has formed into a circle as a defensive measure. But the Indians outnumber the settlers and are attacking relentlessly, wave after wave. The settlers are fighting bravely, but they’re getting tired and several of them are wounded. They’re running out of ammunition, and don’t know how long they can hold out. Then, from a distance, a trumpet sounds. An American flag appears from over the rise, and the mounted soldiers in blue uniforms swoop down to chase the Indians away and rescue the beleaguered pilgrims. That bugle call and that flag and those blue uniforms are signs: signs of hope, signs of imminent deliverance, signs of salvation close at hand.
At least, that’s the way the story goes if you’re one of the settlers. But what if you’re an Indian? That very same bugle call, and that very same flag, and those very same blue uniforms are signs of something else: signs of frustration, signs of well-laid plans gone awry, signs of imminent danger, signs of humiliation, defeat, and disaster.
During the week leading up to his crucifixion, as recorded for us in St Luke’s gospel, Jesus spoke to his disciples about the importance of reading the signs of the times.
…there will be signs…in sun and moon and stars … when you see these things begin to take place, look up … look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves, and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
People in our time and place like to read signs of the times. Books that attempt to explain and interpret what’s going on become best-sellers. Films about someone’s notion of the end of the world do very well at the box office. But if you read these books or watch these films or just listen to people talk, there’s an awful lot of anxiety about the whole subject. One of the most insightful “signs of the times” is a literal one—a bumper sticker I saw some years ago: “Jesus is coming soon, and is he ever…[angry].” The image of Jesus returning physically to earth on a cloud, in power and great glory, is a sign of death, disaster, shame, and defeat for a great many, if not most, people who call it to mind. It is a source of considerable anxiety and fear for many—even many church-going Christians—and the more they think about it the more anxiety and fear they have.
Many years ago, when my family and I were living in a rental house in California, we got a phone call from our rental agent to tell us that the owner of the house, who was living in Virginia at the time, wanted to visit and inspect his property. With sufficient notice, it was his legal right to do so. This was not a welcome sign! It was a source of great fear and anxiety for us. It’s not that we weren’t taking decent care of the place, but you never know what people expect to see. We cracked the whip on ourselves for several days and got the place looking about as good as it could look. We were expecting a serious and business-like visit, at best, if not a downright gloomy and stressful experience. The signs of Mr Jensen’s coming were greeted by us with apprehension and worry. But we didn’t know Mr Jensen. He turned out to be smiling and friendly, and he had no complaints at all about the way we were taking care of his house. Our fear of his visit was misplaced, because it was rooted in ignorance. (Now, to be honest, we did get kicked out a couple of months later, but not because of anything he saw on the visit; he wanted to rent the place to a member of his family.)
There’s a parallel here. Those who are fearful and apprehensive when they contemplate the second coming of Christ are operating in ignorance of what God has revealed about himself, about his basic nature, about the meaning and purpose of human life, and about his plans for creation. It is rooted, curiously, in a self-image as an Indian, not a settler. In the western cinematic analogy, the cavalry is Jesus, the Indians are the world, and the settlers are the church, those who have put their faith in Christ and been baptized into his dying and rising. That us, folks! From our perspective, the second coming of Christ is like the cavalry appearing over the hill.
The signs of his coming—the bugle call, the flag, the blue uniforms—are signs of deliverance and restoration, signs of comfort and hope. Jesus said, “…when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Life lived under the lordship of Jesus Christ is marked by hopeful expectancy of what God is doing. For the faithful Christian, Jesus’ return cannot happen soon enough. Our constant prayer is “maranatha—come, Lord Jesus.” Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation. Actually, it is Advent, rather than the long “green” season after Pentecost, that we should call “ordinary time,” because Advent is the most like real life—hopeful, expectant waiting for the coming of Christ. It is a time of hope and expectation because we are grounded in a secure knowledge of God’s revelation of himself.
I recall a cartoon. A man wearing a crown is saying, “Earth, this is God. I’ve decided to rent to other tenants. You’ve got thirty days to clear out.” That cartoon makes an interesting point, but it’s nothing God has ever actually said. Quite the opposite is the case. To put it simply: the landlord is in love with the tenants! Unlike Mr Jensen, he won’t even kick us out to rent the place to his son, because his son already died to secure our right to remain on the property!
What great news this is! It stirs in us a desire to please him all the more, to take even better care of the assets—our bodies, our relationships, our time, talent, and treasure—all the assets that have been entrusted to us. St Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, expresses this desire as a petition to God that “…he may establish [our] hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.”
This is in contrast to the way of the world, in which fear of the Lord’s return leads to a futile search for ultimate meaning and transcendent significance in all the wrong places. Lives are dissipated in addiction and obsession. Within western culture, our core spiritual tradition is abandoned as insuficciently exotic, and more and more of our neighbors proclaim themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Or, more innocently, so it would seem, but, I believe, more dangerously, we cling to some of the peripheral trappings, the plastic shrinkwrap, of Christianity, and bypass the thing itself. The commercialization and secularization of Christmas into “the holidays” is a flagrant case in point. We have sentimentalized and trivialized the bracing scandal of the incarnation, the wake-up call of God taking human flesh.
Today, at the beginning the Advent season, is a good time to renounce such a paltry surrogate for the Church’s real celebration of Christmas. Resolve to be a settler, not an Indian. Resolve to be among those who lift their heads and take heart when the cavalry’s trumpet sounds. Resolve to keep a good Advent. Make time to keep quiet. Make time to ponder the mystery of the coming of Christ in your heart. Don’t just pull out all the stops into an all-out celebration of Christmas long before it arrives. Let the anticipation build gradually until it bursts forth in holy joy on Christmas Eve. This way, when the last trumpet sounds, you can hold your head high, and greet the appearing of your Savior without shame or fear.
Come, Lord Jesus.