The season of Advent is upon us, cutting the path toward our celebrations of the great Christmas feast. Yet as we’re reminded every year, we begin the season by cutting that path with a jagged edge; with words from the Gospel that can seem jarring and difficult, particularly when read against the backdrop of the Santa Claus parade, canned Christmas music, and the daily offerings of TV Christmas specials. Did you know that the CBC TV Holiday Program Schedule actually launches tonight, with the airing of both Toy Story 2 and Scrooged?
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“And Jesus said to them, ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” As N.T. Wright comments, “Welcome to Advent: a rich mix of politics, prophecy, prayer and perseverance.” Yes… politics. From this first Sunday of Advent right through to the fourth—on which we consider not only the story of the Annunciation, but also those words from Mary’s song, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”—you can’t bracket off politics. The idea that religion and politics must be kept separate is a very modern notion; one that would have stunned these biblical writers. Like us, they lived in a world that is political, and therefore faith must be lived, proclaimed, and practiced in the midst of some very political realities.
What is Jesus talking about with these words about “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” “the powers of the heavens [being] shaken,” the need to “be alert”? And what was it about these words that were so striking that they were remembered, retold, passed down, and finally recorded in written form by writers like Luke?
It was just two weeks ago that we had a very similar text from the Gospel according to Mark, and I made the observation that a big part of what was in view was an impending political and military crisis in Jerusalem. Had we started tonight’s reading just a few verses earlier, you’d have seen that something of the same is at work for Luke. “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” The difference between Mark and Luke is that while Mark was anticipating that crisis, Luke knows that it has come to be. Luke’s Gospel is written after the destruction of Jerusalem and its great temple, so that when Luke relays Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place,” he knows this to be true.
And yet. For all of the earth-shaking events—that’s picture language, not entirely unlike the apocalyptic picture language of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars”—for all of the earth-shaking events that they’d experienced in their world, it is not as if Luke imagines that it is all an easy ride from there. After the Emperor Nero committed suicide in the year 68, four emperors followed in quick succession. As N.T. Wright says, “The much-vaunted ‘Roman peace’ that Augustus and his successors claimed to have brought to the world was shattered from the inside. A convulsive shudder went through the whole known world. That fits [these]verses [about the signs, the confusion, the fear] exactly.”
This is not the only time in history that “convulsive shudders” have gone through the known world. Not that I’m going all apocalyptic on you here—at least not in any stereotypical way—but these past weeks and months have found many in our world shuddering. Were you in Paris or Belgium this past week or two; were you in Syria over the past four years, or Iraq or Afghanistan over the past decade or two, your world would be shuddering in convulsion. Even at our relatively comfortable arms’ length from all of these things, I know that many of us too have felt at least some of that.
Then trace things back, and imagine the convulsive shudders experienced as the Roman Empire itself collapsed in the late 400s; or as the plague—the Black Death— ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s; or as the Reign of Terror gripped France after the onset of the French Revolution; or when the Allied nations were at risk—very real risk—of defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany; or when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now imagine how Christians in each of those circumstances would have heard these words from the Gospel according to Luke: on the earth distress among nations.
Still, as Luke recalls the words of Jesus, he sees things stretching beyond that specific political crisis—beyond any one political or military crisis—to something that lies on a more ultimate horizon: the coming of the Son of Man. The language associated with that coming are also strong: to be on guard, be alert, pray for strength. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray every Sunday, and Luke might advise us that maybe sometimes those words roll off our tongues too lightly. Perhaps “Thy kingdom come” is a prayer that really cries out for vigilance, readiness, alertness, watchfulness.
And hope. And trust. Those, too, are Advent words and Advent postures, because Luke also offers these bold words from Jesus: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And alongside of the gospel text, we read this from Jeremiah:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Jeremiah is nobody’s fool. He, too, was writing in a time of earth-shaking, convulsive shudders, telling a displaced, battered and broken people that there was yet for them a future; that out of the root of the Jesse tree God would indeed set this people free. It was near impossible to believe, given all that they had endured under the Babylonian empire. And I suppose there are days when it is near impossible for us to believe that our own battered world has much of a future.
Yes as the biblical scholar David Lose reminds us, “We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh and his triumph over death, and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven.” “Though fraught with tension,” Lose continues, “this ‘in-between time’ … is nevertheless also characterized by hope.” “We are therefore free to struggle, to wait, to work, to witness—indeed to live and die—with hope, because we know the end of the story.”
We know the end of the story; or least we have heard the promise that God is not yet finished with our world; God has not thrown in the towel on us and our world, but is rather drawing us to a promised future that we can just barely begin to imagine. But imagine it we must, on our feet, with heads raised, because our redemption is drawing near. Yet and again and always, it is drawing near.
“Welcome to Advent”, N.T. Wright commented; “a rich mix of politics, prophecy, prayer and perseverance.” To which I might add the words hope, trust, and imagination. Our jagged edged path to Christmas has begun.