“There will be signs in the sun, moon , and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves…people fainting from fear…look at the fig tree…heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away….Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21: 25-36
It’s the First Sunday of Advent. We tend to misconstrue what the season is about, and we also misconstrue what passages like this one from Luke mean to convey. We need a key – or in this case keys –to unlock the purposely hidden contours and meanings of such images that confront us this week.
First, as to Advent: it is not primarily about preparing for Christmas or the birth of Jesus. Shocking, to be sure, but from its inception it is meant to prepare us for that longed-for day when Jesus, as he promises, will return to judge the living and the dead. Adventus Rex literally translates as the Coming of the King. What is often called, and is referenced in the Nicene Creed, The Second Coming. Charles Dickens and the advent of Department Stores are responsible for the commercial economic engine Advent has become.
When confronted with this kind of scripture I recall what my first mentor and teacher Dr. John Gettier taught us: The Bible is at once history, literature and theology. Every passage needs to be assessed from each of these three perspectives. This has served me well!
First and foremost the literary dimensions of these kinds of sayings in the Bible. It helps to know two words: eschatology and apocalyptic. Eschatology, according to Brendan Byrne(The Hospitality of God- A Reading of Luke’s Gospel), eschatology is teaching or speculation about the future, and specifically a final “end of days” when the entire universe will be transformed by the hands of God. Apocalyptic literally means “revelation” meaning its content is revealed by an angel or a vision. Apocalyptic is typified by vivid imagery depicting cosmic upheavals and often a battle between good and evil. In all cases apocalyptic means to encourage a sense of hope and faithfulness among God’s people that the current difficult and dangerous times will ultimately be overthrown with the triumph of God. Meantime, we are to keep the faith, or, in the words of the transcendent Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I Ching, the message of eschatological apocalyptic might be summed up in two words: Perseverance furthers!
The historical context of this passage in Luke is hinted at way back in chapter 17: writing somewhere in the decade of 80-90ce, Jerusalem and The Temple lie in ruins having been burnt to the ground by the Roman Empire in the year 70. Although the gospel places this discourse before the time of Jesus’ death, Luke means for his listeners to hear it in the time of the Church which extends to our present day. It is a kind of double message: 1) Yes, Jesus is coming –adventus- soon, but 2) do not be alarmed that it is not just yet, more calamities and sufferings must take place before the ultimate end. This “Yes, but not just yet” space is where we currently find ourselves. These views are not conflicting but complementary.
The theological construction of Luke moves from Temple to Jerusalem to the Coming of the Son of Man: baby Jesus is taken to the Temple to offer the appointed sacrifices, Jesus returns as an adult to Jerusalem to confront the principalities and powers, and the time of the Church anticipates his return to gather all things together into the reign of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is “not of this world.”
In the meantime what are we to do? We are to “Be on Guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” That is, in this “Yes, but not just yet” time believers are to continue our mission to others to the ends of the earth, which will mean enduring the hostilities and sufferings of the present time.
That this “generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” the word “generation” can mean the twenty or thirty so years of a human generation, but it can also describe an entire era marked by a certain quality which could encompass all of human history. (Luke by Sharon H. Ringe) We can never know just which Luke meant to convey, but the overall historical and literary context suggests that we put an end to such speculation as to the “when” and focus instead on our appointed mission and the assurance by our Lord and Savior himself that we can remain confident in God’s faithfulness to all generations, “according to the promises he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:55)
For us there is the macro context of what is happening in the world about us: wars, indiscriminate terrorism, climate change with its attendant intensifying of earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes and the like, not to mention age-old problems of hunger, poverty and the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
On the micro level, here at Christ church we have undergone calamities of bursting pipes, a departing beloved rector, priest and friend in Jesus, difficulties understanding the machinations of the church and diocese, and the always occurring loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, and overall seeming loss of control over our personal affairs and lives. To this Luke preaches a gospel of encouragement in the midst of what seems like hopeless chaos.
The uniqueness of the Christian story is that at its center is a God who chooses to be with us in the midst of all that life throws at us, and an invitation to be a community of love and hospitality amongst ourselves and at the same time intentionally shared with others – all others, with the emphasis on all.
The very last words of the Bible, at the very end of the very eschatological and apocalyptic Revelation to Saint John the Divine, are, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” This is our Advent – not that of the marketplace, but that of confidence and assurance that our God is with us and will one day, we know not when, transform all of us and the entire universe of creation anew. Remember, perseverance furthers! Until that day we are to be faithful and alert during these “Yes, but not just yet” times we live in. We are those people who know he is here, even now, in our prayers, in our communion, in our hearing the Good News and in our singing.
See the Son Rising, See the Son Rising, See the Son Rising
He is here
He is here in the city, he is here in the streets
He is here in our singing, he is here in the people that we meet
Alleluia he is here