21:26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
21:27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.
21:28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
21:29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;
21:30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
21:31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
21:32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
21:33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
21:34 “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,
21:35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
21:36 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.”I’ve talked before about growing up in the South, and having friends who went to very fundamentalist churches. My friends often went to churches that preached that we were in the “end of days” and that the time was coming when the world would face an apocalypse and violent end times. And sometimes on the side of the road there were signs that said things like “repent, the kingdom of God is coming” or “Jesus will return soon to judge us all.” All around us was the idea that something really bad was about to happen, and Jesus was the reason.
So, as a child I always found that Christianity to be a little scary. It’s those childhood fears that get stirred up when I read passages like the one we have today. It’s never comfortable to read about destruction, and this passage is no exception. Here we have Jesus foreshadowing for his followers the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and, even more disturbingly, the end of the world.
This happens every year. Every first Sunday in Advent those of us who are in churches that subscribe to the lectionary, the calendar of Scripture passages that is used by Roman Catholics and most Protestants, are assigned a passage from one of the Gospels which features Jesus describing the end of days.
Now, that’s a lot different from what we’re getting elsewhere in the world, isn’t it? Here we are, a little over a week after Thanksgiving, and already in December, and for many of us the preparations for Christmas are well underway. Maybe we already have our tree, or are well into our Christmas shopping. Maybe we’ve put up lights or gone to Christmas concerts. In short, maybe we’ve spent this Advent doing all the things that make the Christmas season so different from the rest of the year.
I’m not a Grinch. This season is actually my favorite time of year. But I am aware that Advent didn’t always used to be an elaborate run-up to the day itself. Advent used to be second only to Lent as a time of preparation and prayer in the church. Traditionally churches didn’t celebrate weddings during Advent or have any other major celebrations. Advent was about preparing for the celebration that was to come. And, more importantly, Advent was about learning how to wait, and how to watch.
It’s been said that Advent is really about two different Advents. We are waiting and watching for two different comings. The first is the one that happened over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It’s the story of the birth of Christ in a humble manger. It’s the Son of God come in the most unexpected way to perform the most extraordinary of missions. It’s a story that in and of itself is worth commemorating year after year.
But there is a second coming that we’re waiting for too. And that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus is talking about the time when he will come, not for the first time, but for the final time. And he is talking about how everything is going to change. Hear the words of Christ again:
“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
We will know, says Jesus. There will be signs. They will be all around us. And when we see them we will know that Christ has come again. Jesus goes on: “stand up, raise your heads” for when you do you will see what is taking place. Jesus says that the signs we see will be slight at first. They will be like the new leaves on a fig tree that foreshadow the coming of summer. They will be subtle, but they will be there.
So what are the signs around you? And what are they pointing towards?
Some see what is happening around us as a sign. War, hunger, financial disaster, and all the rest. There are some churches that are using what is happening in the world as a way to pray upon the fears and anxieties of those who are at a loss as far as what to do next. They say that we are in the last days, and that the violence and conflict and crises in the world are all the indications that we need. But put your faith in Christ, as they understand him, and on the last day, in the final judgment, you will be saved.
It’s very much like the message I heard down south growing up. The world is going to hell, and the best you can hope to do is save yourself. So believe as we believe, and you will be saved.
I don’t think that this is what Jesus meant, exactly. Now, make no mistake, Jesus is talking about things changing completely. Jesus says directly that “heaven and earth will pass away.” But, despite the anxiety that comes from this text, this is not a text that is finally about destruction. There is something here that is much deeper than that.
Here we start the church year in darkness. Here we start the watch in gloom. Here we begin our preparations for a joyous season in a time of anticipation and worry. But we don’t remain there. And we don’t remain alone.
This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. This first Sunday in Advent, like each of the other Sundays in Advent, is given a larger theme. Next week, the second week, is all about peace. The third week is about joy. And the final Sunday before Christmas, fittingly, is about love.
But today, this first Sunday, the traditional theme is hope.
It’s an odd theme for a Sunday that focuses on these texts about the end of the world, isn’t it? We’re told to be on watch at all times for signs that Jesus is coming for the last time, and that when it comes we will faint and shake. Hope? It sounds more like terror.
But maybe it doesn’t have to.
Unlike all those churches that preached about the scariness of the end of days when I was growing up, the ones who tried to scare you into faith, Jesus does something different here. And he’s not talking about those “Left Behind” books or “end of days”. Yes, he says, things will change. And, yes, it will be different and it will shake us up. But, ultimately, this isn’t a text about judgment and destruction.
Listen to how Jesus tells us to look for the signs of his second coming. He doesn’t tell us to look for destruction and violence. He doesn’t tell us to look for pain and death. He tells us to look for signs of life. He tells us to look for the budding of fig trees. He tells us to look for the churning of the oceans. He tells us to look for him and his kingdom.
The reality, and this is a reality that I believe is born out by the story of the Resurrection, is that it is our darkest times that come right before the brightest days. I hear stories in my work a lot. Stories of people who have hit an absolute bottom in their lives. Maybe it was that they finally hit their bottoms with drugs or alcohol. Maybe they realized once and for all that they were in an abusive relationship. Maybe they found out that they had a medical diagnosis that they never expected. Their world had never seemed darker. It was the end of the world for them, or so they thought.
But then, something happened. They got sober. They walked away from the person who was hurting them. They found out they could not only live with their illness, but they could thrive with it. And, in much the same way, that’s how Jesus’ vision of his second coming is different too. We hear about the second coming of Jesus, and we might think of those fundamentalist churches that say it’s the end of the world. But maybe it’s not just the end of the world, but just the end of the world as we know it.
I thought about that yesterday at Liz’s memorial service here. None of us knows exactly what happens when we die. We know that the world as we know it ends, but we don’t know what happens next. And Liz was no exception. And yet, even in her final days, Liz did have hope. She didn’t know what came next, but she knew that she would be in God’s care, and she trusted in God’s love. At the end, that hope gave her peace.
And that’s the great promise of the Gospel, and the great promise of Advent. Everything is going to change. Even life itself. But the wars, the pain, the death, the suffering…they are not signs of the reign of Christ. They are signs that the reign of Christ is yet to come.
The real signs are all around us. Some are as subtle as a new leaf on a fig tree. Others are as unexpected as a baby being born in a lowly manger. Or a person we love who feels peace in her final days. They are there, but they are not obvious unless we stop and we look. And that is what Advent is all about.
“Be alert at all times” Jesus tells us. Be alert for the end of the world as you know it, because you’ve never seen anything like what is to come. Be alert in all the glow of lights and the sound of carols for what they represent. Be alert for hope, and in hope. And when you are, and when those small signs are seen, that’s when you know that Christ is about to change the world. May God bless us in this Advent as we look with hope for Christ’s arrival. Amen.