When it comes to engaging scripture in meaningful ways, there’s no shortage of advisors ready to help. This can be both comforting and confounding. A fair number of voices suggest that, when reading a text, one might always look for promises. Others invite us to read the bible like a love letter. And more to the point today, there is the virtually inescapable chorus fairly demanding we relate the gospel passage we’ve just heard to Christmas – which is no mean feat.
Except, of course, that everything relates to the coming of the Christmas child, in essentially the same way that all of what we believe and practice flows from the resurrection of Jesus.
Our text today is, quite frankly, heavily loaded – apocalyptic – pointing to the end of time. It is anything but love-lettery. It’s fairly radical, though not entirely novel, and it’s almost fearsome in its strangeness. It grows, to great extent, out of the whole history of Israel’s expectations in that it speaks of the coming Messiah. But here the Messiah comes at the end of all time. Here we find Jesus’ reference to the final advent of God’s saving work – the final establishment of God’s total reign.
Whatever that may be.
There will be signs, we’re told. People will know fear. The earth and heavens will be traumatized and we will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. How will we see this? Will the incarnate Jesus appear – the vision of him affirming so many artistic renderings produced throughout history? Will we see him in ourselves? In others? How will this happen? And when? Clearly patience is required as we reflect.
A major challenge in our reflections, of course, is that there have been (and likely will be many more) times when there is distress among nations and as a result the heavens appear to be shaken. But how will we know what we’re looking at? Is there a time-certain when the activity of the moon and stars signifies that all things have taken place?
That’s a lot to try and understand. There’s no doubt that apocalyptic texts, like our gospel today, come across to most hearers as alien – even off-putting. Whatever worries we may occasionally face about nuclear holocaust, most of us express very little day to day concern about the end of the world – and even less about Jesus’ second coming.
Actually, preaching on the Second Coming has pretty much fallen into disrepute in many churches. And while this is true for many reasons – some of which are very good reasons I suspect – it’s also still true that it’s one of a number of frequently employed themes in Jesus’ teachings. There’s a whole category of “Son of Man” sayings that deals with the subject. Each of the synoptic gospels offers a parallel to Luke’s version. And it’s one of the few subjects of Jesus’ teachings that are explicitly referenced in Paul’s epistles as well as Peter’s. And it’s certainly all over Revelation!
And yet the subject doesn’t so much feature in our daily lives with any great significance – so, we may feel at great distance from Luke’s audience.
Nonetheless, we’re intimately acquainted, as they were, with the challenges presented by waiting for an event that seems late in coming. We may be waiting for an event on a national or global scale: an end to war, or some kind of international consensus on the environment and rising sea levels. We may be waiting for a universal de-escalation in the kinds of fears that promote racial injustice and income inequality. Or we even may even be waiting for our national political process, the media, and a perversely entertained populace to spontaneously eject the buffoonery and negativism that have sadly beguiled a nation.
Worse yet, we may be wringing our hands waiting for personal events to be safely resolved: biopsy results, contact from an estranged child, or the safe return of a loved one from a tour of military duty. Whatever the case, we know the challenges of waiting and how stressful it can be.
Confusion. Foreboding. And we’re to wait – and be alert about it!
Well, here’s some good news. Luke offers us a perspective that, while it will not remove our waiting, has the potential to change its character.
The First Advent gospel, though in the form of apocalyptic writing, is actually not a study in world-renouncing fatalism or despair. Neither is it meant to push us toward escapism or even withdrawal. In symbolic language, Luke relates the frightening future – in all its forms – more directly than the other evangelists. In part, this may be attributed to his great gift for use of richly emotional imagery and textual depth. In less than a dozen verses here, he moves from frightening forecast to thoughts of the redemption to follow, and finalizes with a word of encouragement and, yes, a promise. While heaven and earth will pass away in the final eschatological transformation, the Word of God stands firm. While judgment comes, it carries in its hand redemption.
Some of the earliest Christian theologians actually saw this as happening all together. And there’s a rationale, albeit a mysterious one, in that God’s purpose and nature exceed the bonds of linear time. Third-century theologian Tertullian weighed in on these apocalyptic passages in this way:
“The Kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand…with the passing away of the world, already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. What room is there for anxiety or solicitude?”
The Kingdom of God is beginning to be at hand.
Similarly, Paul’s theology is widely characterized with the expression “already, not yet” as he declares the present era to be part of the “time between ages”. His audience and Luke’s lived in that time, and so do we. 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 with triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven.
So we’re in a kind of in-between time. We are. God is not. God’s nature and purpose are not bound by linear time. So we may best be served – and best serve – by removing the question of when. This leaves us with what and why. And, frankly, I’ve always felt that “why” is God’s province. Because the risks are entirely too great that humans will try to draw God into our limited understanding of why. So “what” remains.
So, what? What’s going on in this passage of rich emotional imagery and textual depth? Jesus is pointing to the end of times and to the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. We got that. But are we to perceive this as the Second Coming of Christ as it has historically been characterized? I’m not so sure.
Contemporary theologian N. T. Wright, despite his capacity for a certain narrowness in terms of some social justice issues, (he does not support marriage equality), but he raises a not so timid questioning hand regarding this passage. He sees these end of times references as crucial. And while he doesn’t explicitly refer to the absence of linear time as an interpreting factor, he paints Jesus as first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet, and questions his speech about the end of the world – not necessarily seeing it as an imminent second-coming. Rather he believes that Jesus, through Luke and using Luke’s own knowledge of his own times, correctly prophesies in this passage that continued reliance on military rebellion would result in the destruction of the temple, and the end of Jewish life as it was known.
Yes. The Rt. Rev. Dr. N. T. Wright carefully reads this passage against huge chunks of similar prophesies in Hebrew scripture, in order to show that this kind of prophetic language was about real-time events of earth-shattering implication. The “Son of Man” language from Daniel, for example, is commonly identified as “enthronement language” – it’s about being vindicated, not about a literalist interpretation of some cosmic event of an end time to come.
Wright is able to read these apocalyptic references in the synoptic gospels under the same theme of vindication: Jesus’ replacement of the Temple as the return of God’s presence to be among the people.
And there’s more. Eugene Petersen, widely renowned for his meditation on the bible entitled “The Message”, offers another helpful reference that brings us back to the season. Looking at what he calls the core of this passage, he interprets verse 34 as follows:
“Be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise…!”
It’s hard to think of a more apt characterization of how Advent is observed in our culture. Parties and shopping are examples of what is hailed as essential – and for some what is most essential. Jesus warns against such things that distract – that dull our anticipation – that get in between us and God’s in-breaking of a different way to be in this world.
A transformative chain of events was launched at the announcement of the coming of the infant Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – the strangeness and peculiarity of which might be proclaimed only with the help of some frightening, awe-inspiring, apocalyptic imagery. This works in Luke especially, perhaps, because once it’s heard in all its oddity, Luke’s listeners are readied to more fully appreciate the hope-filled message of his beautiful writing.
The Kingdom of Heaven among you – and the passing away of heaven and earth. Perhaps through God’s eyes all may be seen as “already-not-yet”. What, then, IS our waiting?
The reality is this: Anything can happen at any moment. And in some way everything is happening in every moment. There is no present moment that allows us to cling to it – and change is not limited by predictability or control. Here, in this passage, with its imagery and depth, lies an opportunity to gently challenge the kind of religion that would turn faith into a fee-for-service arrangement with the Divine.
Yet, even as we DO participate in our happiness, and even though there ARE indefinable connections between HOW we live and WHAT we live, these connections are never exact. There are other realities at work that sometimes overwhelm – realities of brokenness and fear, of serendipity and grace. And so the present moment is, itself, an event FOR us, worth loving and living because it is a gift containing potential. One can only accept this gift with thanksgiving, trusting in the promise that lies behind it, and praying for the strength to do what is necessary to fill it with faithfulness – with ceaseless, rhythmic search for God’s nature and purpose.
There’s no nostalgia here. No pie in the sky. No resignation to oppression or failure either – and no over-investment in power or even virtue. Real hope. Real knowledge. Real love in Jesus.
Faith is living in reality, by virtue of the promise.
And therein, my friends, lies a pastoral word.