People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord
Curtis Mayfield wrote these words the year after the 1963 civil rights march on Washington DC. In a 1993 interview, Mayfield said that the song was a product of “the preachings of my grandmothers and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible.” As often happens, something distilled from the scriptures can serve as a means for us to reflect back on their meaning. They can serve as a lens. The most significant examples of this, of course, are the Creeds themselves; distilled from scripture, they serve as a lens through which we read and interpret scripture. But similar things occur in popular culture, as the work of those shaped by the faith reflects its impact. In the case of Mayfield, these lyrics reflect an uplifting hopefulness, but this is not always the case.
Biblical prophecy can be a confusing and complex subject that attracts a lot of well-meaning but misguided interpretation. Jesus recognized this when (as we talked about a few weeks ago) he warned his disciples not to trust those who would gain a following for themselves by spreading a message that capitalizes on anxiety and fear–to not trust those who say “I am he” and claim that the end is at hand.
In the section of Matthew’s Gospel that we consider today (Matthew 24:36-44), Jesus puts further emphasis on the futility of attempting to calculate when the end will come, saying “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). And yet, despite such warnings within scripture itself, there have always been those who attempt to peg the day and the hour. One of the more colorful examples of this phenomena comes from the book O Lost by Thomas Wolfe (the “original” restored version of Look Homeward, Angel). At this point in the book, the main character and his brother are outside their home in Pensylvania when a column of Confederate troops come marching past, some of whom ask for water. As they march by, the boys hear someone calling out:
“Hit’s a-comin’! As sure as you’re livin’, hit’s a-comin,” he shouted cheerfully. And, seeing the two boys, he shouted his strange message happily to them, smiling kindly with pleased idiocy. “Hit’s a-comin’, boys. Tell yore folks. Armageddon’s here.”
“You don’t need to tell ‘em Stinkin’ Jesus is here,” a mountaineer shouted. “They can smell him already.”
Bacchus Pentland answered their roar of laughter with a good-humored smile. Then, when he could be heard again he said: “Hit’s a-comin’! The kingdom of Christ upon the earth approacheth. He’ll be here a-judgin’ an’ dividin’ by eight o’clock to-morrow moring. I’ve got it all figured out accordin’ to ‘Zekiel.” (O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, p. 11 )
The irony of the story is that Bacchus Pentland and the other Confederate soldiers with whom he is marching are headed toward what will be the end for many of them, as they move toward the killing field of Gettysburg. The novel is also illustrative in that the main character runs into Bacchus later on in the story, only to find that he’s calculated yet another date for the end. Those who try to calculate the end find themselves making multiple attempts when it doesn’t occur. In fact, several denominations have their origins in the failed speculations of their founders. But while the attempts of Bacchus Pentland are comical and sad, there are others who inspire fear by playing upon anxiety.
As one commentator has written, when the disciples ask when the end will come:
Jesus does not answer [their] question of when the Temple will be destroyed, nor has he given them an answer to their question concerning the sign that will signal Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. Rather, Jesus tells them how they must learn to wait in this time between the times. Christians have been unable to heed Jesus’ warning not to try to calculate the day and the hour he will return. Jesus plainly tells us that only the Father has such knowledge, but the temptation to be God, particularly by those who count themselves Christian, is hard to resist. Desperate to have a handle on history, Christians have used the very apocalyptic imagery that Jesus deploys to prevent attempts to determine the end of the age to do exactly what Jesus says cannot and should not be done, that is, to try and know what only the Father knows (Matt. 24:36). (Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 203-204)
On the other end of the extreme are those Christians who would look down upon such attempts to calculate the end, but who nonetheless believe that Christians can somehow shape the direction of history. While we should never deny the call we have to support progress and to aid others, we must never confuse our own efforts with the salvation of God.
As Stanley Hauerwas writes “Those who attempt to read the ‘signs of the times’ in these two quite different ways have little use for one another, but ironically they share in common the belief that Jesus has answered the disciples’ questions. […] Both temptations–to employ Jesus’s apocalyptic imagery to predict the end time or to discern the movement of history–betray the character of Jesus’s training of his disciples. He is trying to teach them how they must live in the light of his coming” (Hauerwas, 204-205).
Learning how to live in the light of Jesus’ coming is precisely what the season of Advent, which begins this morning, is all about. In the context of preparing to celebrate the incarnation of God in human flesh–the coming of the almighty in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we also remind ourselves to be prepared for Jesus’ return. It is during this season where we recognize and remember that we live in a tremendous tension as Christians, a tension perfectly distilled and reflected back at us by various messages of Advent and Christmas, both sacred and secular.
We live with the tension of proclaiming the Kingdom of God as something that is already present–and what better way to proclaim that, than to remember God became flesh and dwelt among us–while at the same time, we recognize that we are still awaiting its consummation and perfection. One might say we live in the midst of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 2:1-5).
Through the spreading of the Gospel, people who would never have heard of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have been brought to faith. Entire cultures have been formed and fashioned and nations have sought knowledge of God.
As we consider the rest of Isaiah’s proclamation, we can, I believe, see the places where the already fulfilled runs right up against the not yet. In so many ways, whether through the recognition of human rights, the formation of forums for international dialogue and negotiation, humanitarian efforts–we can see that many areas where war was once the only option have now been dealt with in other ways. Yet at the same time, we still live in a time when people have not, in fact, beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Likewise, people have been fed and clothed, and many have access to medical care who have never had it before. But still thousands starve, or die of disease. We live in the time between. We can celebrate the accomplishments that have been made, we can put the practices of the Kingdom into action in our own lives, but we must always keep the teachings of Jesus before us.
We are called both to be patient and to anticipate, to be about the work of the Kingdom here and now, and to yearn for the day when it will be fully revealed. We are called to work within the household of God with the knowledge that the Lord himself could return at any moment, all the while being prepared to wait. We are called to reflect on the state of our souls, to celebrate the birth of a child who is God, and to anticipate his coming again. Most of all, we are called to live in hope as we await the full establishment of God’s Kingdom… we’re called to endure the world as it is, hoping, knowing that it will not always be so.
In the end, I think Mayfield’s lyrics ring especially true for this season of Advent and what we are to be about: “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’ you don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.” Amen.