The second coming of Jesus was a significant focus in the church of my youth.
No one, at least as far as I remember, was of the “I know the exact date it will occur so until then don’t count on me for anything” school of thought.
Even so, much attention was paid to world events, especially the establishment of the Nation of Israel in 1948, as clear signs that Jesus would soon physically return.
Of course, we were not the first, or the last, to live with the expectation that the second coming was near at hand. Many, if not most, of the first followers of Jesus, expected that Jesus would return while they were still alive.
This belief made them courageous, but it also meant that their ethics could be greatly influenced by an “it doesn’t matter because we are not long for this world” outlook.
Throughout the centuries, the belief that Jesus would soon return has waxed and waned. There were times when it was fervently anticipated and times when the general outlook was “maybe we should reconsider what we mean by the second coming of Jesus.”
While the writer of the second letter of Peter (likely the last of the books of the New Testament to be written) is intent on upholding the belief that Jesus would soon physically return, even he recognized that Jesus’ return could also be a spiritual promise, a matter of the heart.
Verse 19 of his letter’s first chapter reads: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
The writer portrays the second coming in spiritual terms – as a dawning, as a star rising in our hearts.
This imagery calls to mind the ministry of pastor and martyr Alfred Delp, a heroic German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned in Berlin and martyred by the Nazis in 1945.
Father Delp’s sermons and prison writings from 1941-1945 are collected in a book titled, Advent of the Heart.
As he came to understand that there would be no physical rescue for him from the Nazis he wrote, “If in the midst of this frightfulness we can learn to pray, then this hell will bring forth a new human being and a blessed hour will strike for the troubled earth in the middle of the night – as it has so often before.”
Far be it from me to profess full understanding of the doctrine of the second coming of Jesus. However, I am cautious about any guarantee of a physical return of the Christ.
Of a spiritual advent, like the one Father Delp envisions, I am more certain. History is replete with many such examples.
If we look around, we are likely to see an “advent of the heart” taking place in the lives of people and communities we know and love. Perhaps, we can even find our own way to participate in such an advent.
Senior pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989, and a board member of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).