Just coming off of Thanksgiving and now at the start of Advent and the Christian new year, I find our gospel text for today a bit unsightly. With the season of Advent, there is much excitement brewing. Christmas lights and Christmas trees are starting to show up, family events are being planed and plane tickets purchased. Church groups are preparing for their events, while choirs and Sunday schools are gearing up for Advent concerts and pageants. Advent is a time that often brings great joy and anticipation. And, yet, the way we kick it all off, to inaugurate the coming 5 weeks is with a text about the end of the world? A text that often brings with it much fear and panic? If not that, then surely a text that rings a bit hollow, because I imagine for many of us, we have little to no connection to a text about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.
Sure we’ve seen the anxiety and anticipation that came with the coming of the year 2000 and the Y2K fiasco. And now, we have the upcoming movie 2012, that is creating buzz and fear around the Mayan prediction that the world will come to end on December 21, 2012 from an astronomical anomaly.
Even so, I hardly ever find myself worrying about God destroying this world and saving only the righteous. And in fact, when it comes right down to it, such texts rarely speak to me, and I suspect it might be the same for some of you. But whether this text speaks to us or not, I wonder what such a text might have said to its original hearers, those earlier Christians for whom this gospel was written.
When the gospel of Luke was written, Israelites had recently been at war with the Roman Empire and the temple in Jerusalem had already been torn down. Meaning that the people of Israel had lost their sanctuary, their priests, and their homeland; meaning that the people of Israel likely began to doubt God’s loyalty to them. These early Christians were no strangers to fear and panic, suffering and persecution. So for them to hear this text about nation rising against nation and people fainting from fear is already a part of their present reality. But for them to hear that it is the kingdom of God, this is surely good news. You see, this community would recognize these words of Jesus. Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars was not something new to their ears, in fact it is fulfillment of prophecy from the Hebrew scriptures that God will bring about justice to the earth. Such imagery from Jesus’ words points back to the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel. The phrase ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ points back to the book of Daniel. Even hearing a parable about the fig tree would recall the Hebrew scriptures that use fig trees as a sign of peace and prosperity. Scripture is being fulfilled; prophecies are coming true. This is certainly good news because this means that God’s promises might also be true. There will be an end to the persecutions and terror that these people have endured for centuries; God will remember them and be loyal to them. As the text says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” That is how faithful God will be. When everything else has passed away, God’s promises will not pass away.
While the end of the world and the second coming of Christ was a very real expectation for this community, what is underneath this text and their expectation, is really a desire and yearning for a future that is without conflict and suffering, a future filled with peace and the fullness of life, a future with God.
A desire and yearning for a future that is without conflict and suffering, a future filled with peace and fullness of life, a future with God. Perhaps this is our door into the text today. Because isn’t this something to which we can connect, a deep need for all to be well in the world? Particularly around this holiday season? All too often times of such celebration can also be the most marginalizing times. I think of a woman who told me last week that it is the holiday season that most reminds her of her isolation and disconnection from a conflict-ridden family. Or a neighbor who struggles with the holidays because of family and friends who have died around this time of year. Or all military families separated from their loved ones and fearfully praying for their safety. We, too, are no strangers to such waiting and pleading for a time that isn’t so dark, and perhaps the good news for us is the same: that in the face of such things, God will remember us and be loyal to us.
But this isn’t all the text has to say to us or those early Christians. What is ultimately crucial about this text is that not only does it name the hope that these early Christians cling to, but it gives them a word of direction and command as well. Jesus says to his disciples, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly like a trap….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.” Stand up, raise your heads, be on guard, be alert, stand. In the midst of such waiting, Jesus calls his disciples into action. To continue their path of discipleship, wherever it may lead them.
Like the Jews and early Christians, we are a waiting people. Today, waiting for all that the Advent and holiday season has to bring, but also waiting for a very real encounter with God. Waiting for God to bring peace and justice to this world that God loves so much. But it is our path of discipleship that calls us to be active waiters. To not be weighed down with scattered minds and numb hearts, because the world just might swallow us up. But rather to be one who stands up, raises their head, and embodies God’s love for this world. Such action shines light into darkness. Just how in Genesis God calls light into being in the midst of darkness and chaos, Jesus is calling us into being in the midst of darkness and chaos.
And if we stand up and embody God’s love for this world – if we keep feeding the hungry, though we can’t feed them all; if we keep comforting the grieving, though we can’t comfort them all, and if we keep loving our enemies, though we can’t love them all, we just might find that Jesus shows up sooner than we expected. In fact that day after day, Jesus keeps showing up in the midst of our relationships and in our work towards the peace and equality that God is bringing about in this world. This is our light of hope. Again and again, God will be faithful to us, coming to us in the midst of chaos and darkness. For it is as the psalmist says in Psalm 27 that we heard earlier, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” AMEN.