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Advent Preaching: Burden and Hope (Rom. 8:24-25)

by Robert H. Herhold

Robert M. Herhold is pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Fremont, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century  December 19-26, 1984, p. 1207. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


I write this in my parked car at Half Moon Bay, 30 miles south of San Francisco. It is a warm and beautiful late-fall day, with sunbathers getting their last tan of the season. Russian nuclear submarines are sitting somewhere out there beyond the horizon. If Californians are lucky, the submarines are just outside the 100-mile limit. That way the missiles could not come down soon enough after launching to hit Fremont. Their first possible target would be Salt Lake City; however, there is slight satisfaction in knowing that the Mormons would get wiped out before the rest of us. The Russians are more likely to be a few hundred miles off the coast, which should allow us about five minutes to leave our change of address at the Post Office and join the gridlock on Interstate 680.

The Soviets have recently put more nuclear submarines on our doorstep in response to our installing the Pershing II in Western Europe. The cruise missile, which is also being installed in Europe, is considered by the Russians to be a first-strike weapon, so they will send still more submarines to our doorstep.

Russian subs have been out there for years, but I have never thought much about them -- even though one of our members at First Lutheran in Palo Alto used to fly antisubmarine patrols from nearby Moffett Field. It is impossible to think about the unthinkable with any degree of regularity.

William Ury of Harvard notes that the world has 50,000 nuclear weapons, and that it would take only a fraction of these to destroy the world. A freeze or even a 50 per cent reduction seems meaningless. But instead of accepting even a symbolic freeze, we and the Russians continue to increase our stockpiles, thereby multiplying the chances of an accident. George F. Kennan maintains that we are doing this stockpiling “helplessly, almost involuntarily . . . like people in a dream, like lemmings heading for the sea.”

It is difficult to draw any conclusion other than that nuclear war, either by accident or because of uncontrollable escalation, is not likely to be prevented. Jimmy the Greek gave two-to-one odds that some power would use nuclear weapons within the next ten years. That was two years ago.

We have always seen life as a linear journey from birth to the grave in 70-plus years. Those of us who served in the armed forces in World War II did so with the kind of optimism reflected in the refrain, “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, ‘til I come marching home.” We knew that some unlucky ones would not make it, but we thought that we would not be in that number. We could return home to sit under the apple tree, marry, go to school on the GI bill and raise a family. We gave little thought to the fact that our sons might have to fight another war. Korea and Vietnam were just dots on the map. Besides, we believed that the United Nations, enlightened self-interest and our elected leaders would somehow get us through. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki frightened us, but we considered them necessary casualties in ending the war.

In the past 40 years destructive power and the chances of a nuclear accident or of uncontrolled escalation have increased immeasurably. Since all civilization and all creatures are sitting on nuclear death row, we must find new ways to think about the future. So far the executioner’s noose has failed to focus our minds, except for those of the pre- and postmillennialists. Nor has the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has moved the hands of its doomsday clock to five minutes before midnight. Are we simply to run out the clock?

Prophets are in short supply today. The few who speak out are ignored, or people do not know what to do with the words they hear. Nothing seems to be able to rouse a nation whose leader has “healed the wound of my people lightly” and cries, “Peace, peace, where there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). Any Jeremiah who seeks to warn us is dismissed as a pessimist at best or as a dangerous radical at worst. Paul Tillich, in The Shaking of the Foundations (Scribner’s, 1948), describes the terrible anxiety in a prophet’s soul:

 [Prophets] have an invisible and almost infallible urge to pronounce what they have registered, perhaps against their own wills. For no true prophet has ever prophesied voluntarily. It has been forced upon him by a Divine Voice to which he has not been able to close his ears. No man with a prophetic spirit likes to foresee and foresay the doom of his own period. It exposes him to a terrible anxiety within himself, to severe and often deadly attacks from others, and to the charge of pessimism and defeatism on the part of the majority of the people. People desire to hear good tidings; and the masses listen to those who bring them [p. 8].

When Tillich wrote these words in the late 1940s he could not have imagined the extent to which the false prophets and television would join together. By equating religious beliefs with political platforms, Jerry Falwell and others have moved from apocalypticism to politics. They are reserving box seats for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, while the honored guest tests the microphone by announcing that the bombing of Russia begins in five minutes. Has Falwell become the politician and Reagan the eschatologist? Challengers of these religious patriots are called defeatists and enemies of the country. The new wave of patriotism has little sympathy for wimps like Jeremiah.

What should a modern Jeremiah do who finds himself or herself with a message “forced upon him by a Divine Voice to which he has not been able to close his ears”? How does he or she speak this message to a world where people are, as in the days of Noah, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage . . . until the flood came and swept them all away”? People did not even want to hear Walter Mondale’s talk about raising taxes, to say nothing of his warnings about the arms race. How do pastors preach to congregations whose members voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan and the status quo? How do professors address the current generation of students whose overriding concerns seem to be their careers and financial success? (One bumper sticker reads, “The Nuclear Holocaust: Damn, there goes my career!”)

In the midst of a rapidly diminishing market for prophets, these thoughts are offered:

1. Eschatology and/or the Second Advent deals not only with last things, but with ultimate things. God’s plan for the world is a present, not simply a future, reality. Jesus announced God’s ultimate plan: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent” (John 17:3). Since eternal life is a relationship to the only true God through the Son, this moment can be the eschatological moment. One cannot know the day or the hour, because the moment takes place whenever God chooses to break into our lives. “Therefore you must also be ready, because the Son of man is coming [present tense] at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44).

Einstein’s theory of relativity holds, in part, that absolute time cannot be measured and must therefore be excluded from physical reasoning. Centuries earlier the psalmist and later the writer of II Peter wrote, “Do not be ignorant of this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as one day” (3:8). In the same way, Jesus’ coming is both today and in a thousand years.

2. “This present darkness” is too powerful for any human solution, yet God works through the human. Our answer and hope come from beyond the humanly possible, yet they come in human form. “Nothing can save us that is possible” (W. H. Auden). Christmas is God’s impossible possibility for us all, disguised as a helpless infant.

3. The birth of every child -- but primarily the birth of God’s Son -- is a sign that God has not given up on his world. And because he has not given up, we find the strength not to give up either. No matter how elections go or how difficult the struggle for peace and justice, we are called only to be faithful. Because of the incarnation, we can be incarnate in the struggle for peace and justice in Central America and elsewhere. We do so knowing that no political act can save us; at best they can only point to what can save us.

4. We work as though this city is the only city there is, yet God gives us his city in his time and in his fashion. We cannot hurry him, even with our bombs. “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10).

5. The city or Kingdom of God is also immediate. It is “in, with and under” the city of people. Reinhold Niebuhr best sums up this paradox:

Jesus answered Pilate: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” The only kingdom which can defy and conquer the world is one which is not of this world. The conquest is not only an ultimate possibility but a constant and immediate one. . . . The kingdom which is not of this world is a more dangerous peril to the kingdoms of the world than any competing worldly kingdom [Beyond Tragedy, Scribner’s, 1937, pp. 284-5].

6. The most radical peace and justice people are not those who have moved the most toward the left, but those who have moved closest to the eschatological moment. It is from this ultimate moment that lasting change and hope can come.

The tension between our moment and the eschatological moment must be retained. For instance, when speaking eschatologically about the nuclear arms race, a preacher would refer to such things as the blasphemy of destroying God’s handiwork and the idolatry of the bomb, not simply to a nuclear freeze. And those eschatological statements are, in fact, more realistic about the nature of the present darkness than is any political solution.

“Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The ancient Advent cry offers the only hope for us. Because Emmanuel’s coming is not “possible,” only it can save us.

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience [Rom. 8:24-25].


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