In this post-Christian age, at least in this part of the world, the season of Advent usually kicks off with a Santa parade and everlasting soporific Shopping mall music such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and Snoopy’s Christmas to encourage the Christmas shoppers at the town centre.
I suspect those assembling the lectionary had a rather different message in mind when they chose today’s reading from the gospel of Luke. Before he is ready with his version of Jesus’ delayed Advent message, it has taken Luke something like 20 chapters to lay out the whole of Jesus’ life with the coming of the Messiah, the birth story, his presentation at the Temple, the baptism and preparation for mission, the calling of the disciples, the acts of compassion and wise words, his challenge and confrontation with those who wished to kill him in Jerusalem….. then, and only then, does Luke find Jesus talking on an Advent theme that sounds more Revelation than manger scene.
I don’t know if you picked it, but it was not just the poetic description of ….what was it? “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.26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. … not to mention…. ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory…… but then comes the bit we are inclined to overlook. Listen carefully and while you are doing so just remember that Luke is writing for his generation, not necessarily our generation.
32Truly (Luke says were the words of Jesus) Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
Unless Jesus was mistaken, I guess what Jesus was reported as saying, or at least if if you think it were meant to be taken as literal and reliable, it implies that whatever was going to happen for the generation of Jesus’ listeners, has now already happened.
As far as the earlier verses 20 – 24 are concerned, Jesus may have been speaking figuratively but otherwise he was right on the button for his listeners. The failure to accept the sort of gospel Jesus was bringing about how to deal with neighbours, had totally disastrous results, particularly in terms of the Roman occupation – and if the powers of heaven were not literally shaken – at least as far as the occupants of Jerusalem were concerned the mayhem that befell them must certainly have seemed that way. Huge distress, divine anger: OK, picture language maybe, but as a relevant message for his time and place, very accurate indeed.
But it does leave us an interesting question. If the hungry sword is about indeed to lay waste – and if the survivors are to be imprisoned or scattered as refugees, in what sense will the Son of Man come for them? And now for us almost two thousand years later, in what sense will the Christ come for us? For that, after all, is the real question of Advent.
There is a sense in which Jesus prophecy is one that has been played out many times since the sacking of the Temple and destruction of Jerusalem.
The human tendency is for each nation to prefer to crush rather than forgive enemies. We might think for example of the Christians of the crusades laying siege to a Muslim Jerusalem, King Henry the VIII’s new found Anglican movement sacking the catholic monasteries, the Inquisition sorting the heretics, the Nazi’s final solution for the Jews, the firebombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In some ways it is a shame that there is so little genuine sense of history or there might be more humility among those who remember that the Jews of Israel, the Muslims and the Christians all share a wish to experience an Advent of the Messiah. The Muslims for example also teach Christ’s return and the Jews believe that the Messiah is still to show up. For some it may also be to our shame that we remember that the unkind treatment meted out by our so-called Christian forebears with their persecution of Jews and Muslims in the years gone by has a great deal to do with why the Islamic and Jewish people today find it hard to believe our current Church teaching that Jesus offers a universal answer to all people of the world.
For his listeners, Jesus makes no attempt to downplay the coming disasters in his prophecy. N.T.Wright in his thesis on the topic suggests that Jesus was focusing here not so much on the end of the world as on the chaos of the impending Roman assault on Jerusalem. Nevertheless the detail in his prophecy was lurid enough. I guess if you were living in Gaza or Syria right now, you would even say that the disasters are continuing to happen. And unfortunately there are few signs that the people of the world are capable of learning from past mistakes. The current confrontations occurring in the Middle East and in Africa in particular remind us that religion doesn’t always make people kinder and more forgiving.
Control of resources coupled with the ability to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others is hardly different from the forces holding sway in the days of the early Church. Nor do we always retain a sense of perspective. The attack on the Twin Towers killing 3000 is widely credited for the subsequent invasion of Iraq with the trillion dollar commitment of military resources, yet at the same time we can apparently give a mere token consideration to the plight of millions afflicted by AIDS on the African continent. We are apparently all for bombing ISIS in Syria and yet most in the West appear equally adamant that we shouldn’t accept the refugees which are the inevitable consequence. I am told today is World AIDS day observance Sunday yet today who really cares about AIDS. There are now also climate refugees, refugees created by power struggles, by famine and by unwise use of land. I ours the only nation that put strict limits on the number of refugees accepted.
Will Christ in the last day really come from heaven through the clouds to provide the final answer to these situations?
It is true that for Luke’s contemporary readers, the mounting despair would have been real enough, and others since have been certain that Jesus was talking of Armageddon, but end-times predictions may miss the point. While it is traditional Western thinking to talk in terms of a time line with a beginning, a middle and an end, the recurring themes of the Bible and the timeless nature of Biblical concepts like God suggests the encounters with the eternal are not dependent on points in time. After all if it is only to Luke’s generation that Jesus words have meaning, what possible relevance would they then have for us today?
The approaching trauma Jesus talks of may then arrive for different people at different times. Yet for each one it seems that in this setting of despair, whenever it may arrive, Jesus speaks, as he did for the early Church.
At the end of his parable about the fig tree he gives a clue when he actually says “heaven and Earth may disappear, but my words shall remain forever”. The Advent may then not so much be a personal meeting with the saviour as much as a personal revelation about the essence of what he represented.
Why then did the lectionary scholars choose this particular reading to introduce Advent? Although I cannot be sure, I can see how Jesus’ insistence that he will come in the midst of the swirling dark chaos may remind us also of the notion of a welcome if unexpected birth. Yet the birth, if it is to have meaning today, must be more than a story in a book.
The 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart conjured a striking image when he wrote: “What is the good if Mary gave birth to the Son of God all those years ago, if I do not give birth to God today? We are all Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
This suggests a different way of looking at Advent. What if the birth we expect needs to be embedded in our very essence before Jesus can be said to have come to make a difference?
It is not so much that we as members of the Church can claim to be unaware of the teaching of the Christ who was to come and who now has come, because for some of us we have heard the familiar stories from Childhood. Yet, until we take this teaching to be a part of our very being, Christ has not arrived for us. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his essay God Only Has Us (from his book God Has A Dream) puts it rather more directly.
“What is interesting is how many times the prophets say that if your religion does not affect the way you live your life, it is a religion that God rejects”.
Advent then certainly heralds the birth of Christ at Christmas. But if we are thoughtful it may do more than that for us. Jesus may have come as a child first, but he also came as a child who grew to become associated with a message. As he is recorded as saying, the words are those that “remain forever”. But words require a listener before they take shape in a life. Before our time he has come for other listeners. This Advent will we see him as coming to us?