Vertigo is defined as “a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height.” It’s an experience in which the floor beneath one’s feet seems to abruptly disappear. I have never personally experienced vertigo, though I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s a frightening experience. It typically results in the person hitting the floor desperately searching for something that feels like a foundation. This is a natural response given the nature of vertigo. It is a disorientation that is so intense that one is left grasping for anything that provides a solid base. This grasping is ultimately an attempt to reorient the space the person is in.
I once had a professor in seminary that suggested the Evangelical church was having a vertigo-like experience as we launched into the 21st century. It’s not a physical vertigo, however, that the church was experiencing but what he termed a “cultural vertigo.” His suggestion was that the American church was learning to cope with the dizzying rate at which our culture was shifting. He offered that one of the main contributors to this vertigo was the secularization of American culture that resulted in quickly shifting values and mores. This, he posited, was leading to an acute sense of whirling and loss of balance. The church has in some measure become disoriented.
Just as a physical vertigo leads one to grasp for anything that feels like a solid foundation, this cultural vertigo has left the church doing the same. As students we were challenged to think through the different foundations onto which people were grasping in an attempt to reorient their space. Several suggestions were offered but there emerged a consensus that fundamentalism in general, and what many have called “escapist eschatology” in particular, were providing a firm foundation for many. One aspect of escapist eschatology is the inclination to want to escape the present situation. The hope is not that God can or will redeem the present but that God will rapture his church to a better place where it no longer has to deal with the troubles of the day. It is most aptly characterized in the Left Behind series that flourished in popularity at the turn of the century. Our professor’s contention was that the shifts in American culture provided the fertile soil in which Left Behind could take root.
One of the fun challenges to preaching the lectionary is the process of discerning the answer to the question, “Why this text in this season?” This is an especially appropriate question given this week’s Gospel text for the first week of Advent. Why would we read a passage about Jesus’ second coming to prepare us for a celebration of the incarnation? Perhaps for some preachers, depending on his or her context, the season in which this text comes is a saving grace. Because this passage from Matthew has oft been one employed to support escapist eschatology one might feel pressure to engage the topic. But the preacher can breathe a sigh of relief for Advent is not the season to engage in debates about Left Behind eschatology. That said, it’s worth noting the way the text is often used. When the text is misappropriated there is potential for assuming an arrogant posture in the present while promulgating a fear of the future. This is when escapist eschatology is at its worst. But this is quite antithetical to the season of Advent. Advent is the season to assume a humble posture in the present while holding out hope for the future.
To be sure, the text should ultimately lead to the church becoming expectant. Jesus admonishes his followers to “keep watch” and to “be ready.” The gospel text is coupled nicely with the reading from Romans in which Paul says to the church, “…understand the present time…” and “…wake from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed…” Unlike the slumberous in the days of Noah who went about life as normal, God’s people are to be vigilant and expectant. But it’s essential that our preaching of the text leads to expectation of the right things. Our expectations must be informed by our knowledge of an ever-initiating God who persistently moves in our direction. In other words, Advent is not the season to long for salvation that extracts us to another time or place, but to be prepared for salvation that comes to us. We do not walk in the present anesthetized to life’s realities. Advent, to the contrary, is a time to be in tune with the desperation of the present and to long for the God who hears our prayers and always makes a way.
Culturally speaking, this text comes to us at an interesting time. While it may not have resulted in what we would term “vertigo,” the tumultuous election season certainly had dizzying effects. (And who of us at some point didn’t want to be extracted to another place and time!) But we can preach again with boldness that God is our foundation. He is aware of us and He is for us. And true to his character, He moves our way to bring Heaven to earth. May we have watchful eyes to see and expectant ears to hear for salvation is near!