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Sunday: In Between

Today’s Reading: Revelation 1:4–9; 19:11–16; 21:1–5, 22–27; 22:1–5

Almost immediately, the opening chapter of Revelation lifts our eyes up to gaze at a glory that utterly transcends our earthly circumstances. “I am the Alpha and the Omega ... who is, and who was, and who is to come’” (1:8). Our Savior “who loves us and has freed us from our sins” will return; “‘Look, he is coming with the clouds’ and ‘every eye will see him’” (1:5, 7–8). John goes on to describe a wondrous vision of Christ himself—an encounter so awesome that John “fell at his feet as though dead” (v. 17).

But right in the middle of these two glorious passages is a line we might easily miss: John’s brief description of his life and the lives of his letter’s recipients. John writes that he’s a “companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (v. 9). John wrote Revelation while in exile; it was circulated among a suffering church facing pressure and persecution that would only worsen in the coming decades. Revelation’s initial recipients were living in two overlapping realities: their assurance in the sovereign reign and glorious return of Christ; and their earthly, everyday experience of waiting and suffering.

Some two thousand years later, we still live amid these overlapping realities. Here, between Christ’s first coming and his glorious return, our lives may also feel like a mix of kingdom and confidence alongside waiting and suffering.

It’s no wonder that John’s honest words about suffering and the need for patient endurance are woven in and among his visions of glory, for it is this vision of what is to come that enables and emboldens such endurance. Consider the realities portrayed in Revelation’s grand finale: Christ victorious, riding on a white horse and defeating evil; “a new heaven and a new earth” without sorrow or death, where “God’s dwelling place is now among the people” (21:1, 3); and a Holy City where people from all nations are gathered in the light of God’s glory. With this ultimate, eternal reality in view, any temporal circumstance—no matter how dire—fades in importance.

The idea of patient endurance is repeated several times in Revelation 1–3, often paired with language of overcoming and conquering. Endurance isn’t merely patient but is also tenacious, courageous, strong. And this is what God gives us as we live in the in between. In Christ, as the classic hymn puts it, we find “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

—Kelli B. Trujillo

Monday: Prophesy Hope

Today’s Reading: Zechariah 9:9–17; Romans 5:3–5; 8:18–30

“Hope begins in the dark ...” I could never quite shake these words from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This language of hope has recently become a theme in my life—not in the abstract sense, but as a living activity, a struggle, a commitment, a discipline.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann rooted the language of hope in the resurrection of Jesus and the praxis of protest. Sometimes hope seems to be the only language powerful enough to counter despair. Or maybe it’s, in Lamott’s words, a sort of “revolutionary patience.”

Whatever hope is, there is something deep within each of us that cries out in expectation. Sometimes it sounds like a whisper, but it is there. Yet, while hope springs from the depths of the soul, it often comes out of the shadows. Hope begins in chaos.

Some days it feels like we have never escaped from under that cloud that covered the face of the earth during the crucifixion of Jesus. The brokenness and weight of our world feels so much like darkness that Elie Wiesel, retelling of the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, could only call it Night. We have to tell the truth of pain and even the pain of hope.

I sat down with my grandmother some time ago and asked her to tell me about her life. At first she didn’t want to. One can only imagine what deep scars her soul has borne over 80 years. Her stories were hard. It’s difficult to describe what it meant for her to live in the South as a black woman. One word seemed to capture the audacity of survival in the midst of a cruel world: love. “The Lord hasn’t failed me yet,” she said.

Radical, life-changing, community-changing, world-changing love is, after all, the way of Jesus. He came preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing all manner of sickness and affliction. To prophesy hope is a dangerous love.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” This is what it means to stand in the world as prophets of love, power, and justice or, to use the biblical language of Zechariah, to be “prisoners of hope” (9:12). Like someone once said, “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow.” While tomorrow is on the way, I’m going to prophesy hope today.

—Danté Stewart

This is adapted from a longer article titled “Why We Still Prophesy Hope,” published on October 21, 2019, on ChristianityToday.com.

Tuesday: Come, Lord Jesus

Today’s Reading: John 1:1–5, 14; Revelation 22:12–13, 20

In his gospel, John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:1, 14). We have a God who came. He came to make the intangible touchable and the invisible visible. He came to make himself knowable. But our hope is not just that he came; it is also that he is coming.

He’s on his way back. This promise is what can make sense of the pain and frustration we experience on planet earth today. When he comes back, the righteous will be vindicated. When he comes back, he will bring with him your vindication for the ridicule you faced for believing in a God you could not see. When he comes back, all the human beings who tried to make themselves potentates and rulers will be put to the floor, and we will see that there has always only been one ruler of rulers and one King of Kings. All of a sudden, our faith will become sight. The one we’ve talked to and about, we will see .

In Revelation 22, Jesus says, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (vv. 12–13).” John records, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon’” (v. 20). And it’s as if John has nothing else to say before he closes his letter but this: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (v. 20).

When we look to the future, things may not go the way we want them to go in our nation. The economy may not shape up the way we think it should. More children may be hurt by guns on the street, by sex trafficking, or by drugs. Marriages may struggle, we may face sickness, we may worry about our grandchildren. In all of this, there’s this hope: Even so,come, Lord Jesus.

Whatever we face, we know he’s coming back. One of these days, the sky is going to crack, the angel is going to blow his horn, and all the world will see it together. All of creation will respond as our Lord steps down from the balcony of heaven to say, Now is the time I’ve come to redeem my church. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

—Charlie Dates

This article is adapted from a sermon Charlie Dates preached on December 22, 2019. Used by permission.

Wednesday: Advent and Apocalypse

Today’s Reading: Mark 13:24–37; Luke 21:25–28

During Advent, we hear passages of Scripture that are infused with the language of darkness, tribulation, and apocalypse. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have one fully apocalyptic chapter. In Mark 13, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (v. 8, RSV throughout). The passage only gets darker as it goes. “In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (vv. 24–25).

Why is Jesus talking like this about death and destruction instead of talking about sheep, shepherds, and heavenly hosts?

In Scripture, apocalyptic writing comes out of catastrophe. The Israelites were a favored people; God had promised them a future of safety and prosperity. But then they were conquered and forced into exile in the Babylonian empire. Humanly speaking, there was no hope for them. When the Israelites found themselves in crisis, it was “a theological emergency.” It was out of this emergency that a new apocalyptic way of thinking took shape. It started with the second half of Isaiah (chapters 40–55)—written during the Babylonian captivity, when everything seemed so hopeless—and it blossomed from there. By the time of Jesus, apocalyptic language was everywhere.

Apocalyptic theology is, above all, the theology of hope—and hope is the polar opposite of optimism. Optimism fails when it is swallowed up in darkness. By contrast, hope is found in something beyond human history. It is found in an incarnate God.

In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus speaks apocalyptically of “signs in the sun and moon and stars” and the “distress of nations,” he ends by saying that humanity “will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (21:25–27). He is speaking of his second coming. He’s telling us that our great hope comes not through any human development but through himself. He possesses sovereign power that is independent of human history. In spite of the apparent darkness, God in Christ is shaping our history in accordance with his divine purposes.

Advent tells us to look directly into the darkness and name it for what it is. But this is not the end of the story. Jesus said, “Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

—Fleming Rutledge

This is adapted from a longer article titled “Why Apocalypse Is Essential to Advent,” published December 18, 2018, on ChristianityToday.com.

Thursday: A More Important Question

Today’s Reading: 2 Peter 3:8–15

What is taking so long? Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet like he promised? The recipients of Peter’s second letter may have been asking questions like these—questions that continue to echo in our time. Peter addressed them with a strange assurance: first, that God’s timing reflects his patience and saving love (3:8–9) and, second, that the day of the Lord will be fearsome and will involve destruction by fire.

Apocalyptic language like Peter’s (similar to Jesus’ in Mark 13 and Luke 21) certainly gives us pause. What is meant by “destroyed by fire” and “destruction of the heavens by fire”? Is this something we ought to fear?

Earlier verses in 2 Peter provide some perspective for understanding the language of destruction used in chapter 3. In 2:5, we are given a parallel with the time of Noah, where God destroyed the earth by water. That past judgment did not mean God utterly washed away all of creation; similarly, the final judgment by fire likely does not mean God will incinerate the earth to make way for the arrival of the new heavens and earth. As Peter described it in Acts, Christ is in heaven “until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets” (3:21). The new world will come through God’s great restoration and redesign of the world we have now.

Woven within this discussion, Peter poses an important question that deserves even greater focus than our wonderings about God’s timing or what Christ’s return will be like. In light of the coming day of the Lord, Peter asks, “What kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Pet. 3:11) Peter urges a response of holy living and a hopeful anticipation, “looking forward” to the new heaven and new earth (vv. 11–14). We see these themes emphasized in Peter’s first epistle, as he urges believers to live with a joyful confidence and alert, hopeful focus on Christ’s coming (1 Pet. 1:3–5, 13).

We are people of hope, like those already told the ending of a novel full of twists, turns, and unexpected events. We know the end of the story; our knowledge of the amazing ending waiting for us can impact how we approach the present. We may not understand when or how it will happen, but we can trust that the end includes both judgment and vindication for God’s people. How is the news of final judgment a reason for encouragement rather than fear? God is going to make even the best parts of this world better than we can imagine. Judgment, vindication, and transformation are coming. The true Promised Land awaits.

—Vincent Bacote

Friday: Waiting for the Party to Begin

Today’s Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11

One of my favorite things to do as a professor is to show movies we might label as “eschatological cinema.” Many of these films focus on the Rapture, an interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where “caught up” is understood to refer to an invisible return of Christ when he comes to take his church with him to heaven before the Tribulation begins. The aim of these films is to create awareness that Jesus may return at any moment.

The range of opinions regarding the Rapture and other end times issues is wide, and when we come to 1 Thessalonians 4–5, we could easily find ourselves focusing only on that part of the passage. But there are many other important points about Christ’s return here that also deserve our attention, including what seems to be Paul’s greater emphasis: how to encourage Christians who are alive now regarding the status of believers who have already died. Will they be “left behind” and miss out when Jesus returns?

Paul encourages the Thessalonians (and us) that we do not need to worry about God forgetting those who have died. Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee that death is no barrier to participation in the new world that arrives with Christ’s second coming. Whether we are alive or dead, our relationship with Christ is all that is necessary to be on the guest list when the Day of the Lord comes.

When Christ arrives, it will be a grand entrance, complete with fanfare. It will include “the trumpet call of God” (4:16)—language the Thessalonians would have understood to mean the return of the most victorious leader of all. Unlike any other call of the trumpet, this one raises the dead in Christ, who will join the living to welcome Christ.

We see similar themes in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he also addresses concerns about death, “the last enemy” that Christ will destroy (15:26). Paul assures the Corinthians that “the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (15:52). Death’s “sting” will be rendered powerless through the ultimate victory of Christ.

As we wait for the Day, we are called to make ourselves ready, “putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thess. 5:8). This “thief in the night” arrival will come as a surprise because no one but God knows when this will happen—but it will be the greatest surprise party ever for we who eagerly anticipate his coming.

—Vincent Bacote

Saturday: Hope for the Dysfunctional

Today’s Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1–9

When we read about Christ’s return in 1 Corinthians, it’s important to remember the context of Paul’s letter. The church in Corinth was a deeply dysfunctional community. In Paul’s epistle, we learn of factions in the church who were committed to different leaders, scandalous sexual practices, controversies about meat sacrificed to idols, and much more. Though this Christian community was full of dysfunction, in 1 Corinthians 1:1–9, Paul identifies them as sanctified people (“saints” in King James Version language). He goes on to remind them that God has been generous to them in providing spiritual gifts and describes them as people who “eagerly wait” for Christ’s return. Paul emphasizes God’s grace (v. 4) and commitment to them: “He will . . . keep you firm to the end” (v. 8) In spite of the ways their weak faith manifests in sinful behaviors and attitudes, God’s faithfulness to them (and us) includes God’s commitment to help his people grow and transform into Christlikeness.

While chapter 1 emphasizes that God, through his grace, will keep the Corinthian Christians “firm to the end,” in the same letter, Paul describes Christ’s return and urges the Corinthians, “My dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you” (15:58, emphasis added). He calls them to a resoluteness that’s inextricably part of waiting for Christ’s return. Despite their faults and failures, Paul calls them to both transformation and determination.

We see a similar picture of resoluteness in another of Paul’s letters: “While we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” God’s grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11–14).

We cannot read 1 Corinthians or Paul’s other letters without noticing how strongly Paul calls out sin and dysfunction, but as 1 Corinthians 1:8–9 reveals, Paul is addressing these great concerns with a backdrop of great hope. We are called to do our part while God, in his grace, does his work in our lives.

This is an example and an encouragement for us. Chances are, most of us have had our own moments of spiritual dysfunction, but our failures ought not be our main focus. Instead, we look to Jesus, who not only has made reconciliation with God possible but who also is committed to us so that we will be presented to God as blameless when his kingdom arrives. Thank God, his faithfulness is greater than our dysfunction.

—Vincent Bacote

Contributors:

Image: Photos courtesy of contributors; Fleming Rutledge photo by Gregory Schreck.

Vincent Bacote is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. He is author of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life.

Charlie Dates is senior pastor at Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church. He holds a PhD in historical theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest, spent 21 years in parish ministry before becoming a writer and teacher of preachers. Her books include The Crucifixion.

Danté Stewart is a writer and preacher studying at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

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