There’s a problem with sequels: they’re not the same as the original. If something succeeds, the first thing that comes to a lot of people’s minds is: do it again! Hollywood in particular beats this to death. I really liked the original Matrix movie: it had an interesting and challenging take on what reality really is and what lies underneath what we know. We have a choice to take the blue pill and live the illusion or take the red pill and see what’s real. But the second and third movies took everything over the top: I bought the second movie and passed on the third. And let’s not even talk about the second Star Wars trilogy! Yet on occasion a sequel accomplishes as much if not more than an original: there have only been 2 sequels to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and one Chapter 3, Return of the King.
In the time of John the Baptist, there was such as thing as purification by water. It’s still part of Jewish practice, the Mikvah, where one descends into a pool of collected rain water to cleanse oneself from ritual impurity. Although many things we consider sinful made someone ritually impure, there were also things like contact with blood, with corpses and contact with foreigners, non-Jews, that could make someone ritually impure. The Mikvah was also used to prepare priests for service in the Temple, and is used today in conversions to Judaism. John offered a different kind of cleansing at the banks of the River Jordan: his immersion was turning away from sin, from moral failure, and preparation for the coming Kingdom, the arrival of the Messiah.
Restoration of Kingdom of Israel was the dream of all who lived in Jesus’ time. It wasn’t a distant hope: Judea had its own king in Jesus’ childhood, and was wholly independent until around 60 years before Christ’s birth. Many people thought the Messiah would mean a restoration of Israel under a Davidic king that would last forever. But the coming of the Messiah was more than the hopes articulated in Isaiah. John the Baptist proclaimed a new creation from the banks of the Jordan, something more than what was expected. Jesus’ coming wasn’t about the restoration of a country’s independence, it was about the redemption of the entire world. It wasn’t about the final defeat of enemies, it was about converting enemies into friends.
We live in great country in a wonderful world. Sure, things aren’t perfect and we have legitimate things to worry about, but we have it good. It can be tough to imagine a better world, a world without many of the woes we live with every day. But that’s what Christ’s return promises us: a sequel that’s better than the original. It’s not something we should fear, a global catastrophe that will tear everything apart and kick butt that desperately needs to be kicked. Christ promises us the restoration of Eden, of paradise. The promise He gives us is better than we can imagine, will be the best day the world has ever known. We should look forward to Christ’s return eagerly, hopefully.
The heart of this promise is the first coming of Christ. Because Christ’s First Coming was better than expected, better than hoped for, it’s reasonable that His Second Coming will be better than hoped for as well. It’s a return that’s already taking place, a return that is already breaking out among us. Christ is present here and now, active in the world today, already at work to restore creation. This part of what we see in the Eucharist: Christ returned in our midst. The fulfillment of hope is already taking place. Our challenge is to see the hope that is here and now, and look forward to when it comes in its fullness.