1 Thes 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36
It’s Advent! For Christians, it’s a season of reflective preparation; it’s a time of anticipation - what we might call ‘expectant waiting’. The question is, what are we waiting for? Some are waiting for a Christmas party invitation. Some wait ever-so-patiently each day to open the next window of the advent calendar to eat another tiny morsel of chocolate. Some are going to wait till the very last moment to buy Christmas gifts for family and friends. What are you waiting for?
Last year there was an ad campaign launched by the Christian Advertising Network that included a nativity scene posted on bus shelter walls all over the country. And I thought, ‘What an appropriate setting for the birth of the Messiah!’ A bus shelter: a place where people wait – people who are making a journey. And as God’s people, we are on a journey. In the Christian calendar, Advent is the season for revisiting how that journey began, and where it will end. Advent reminds us of the waiting, the yearning for something to happen; for something new to change the way things are.
Advent is a double reminder: first, of the yearning that Israel had gone through waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, prophesied clearly in the Old Testament by Isaiah, in chapter 24, and by Daniel, chapter 7; and secondly, Advent is a reminder that we are waiting for the second coming of Christ as judge and King.
In our gospel reading from Luke chapter 21, Jesus is responding to questions asked of him earlier in the chapter after he made the startling declaration that the Temple would be destroyed, in verse 6. He said, ‘…the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ - ‘When will these things happen?’ they asked Jesus – ‘and what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’
The answer Jesus gives in verses 10 to 24 includes wars, natural disasters, persecution and distress. And in the verses from today’s reading we hear: ‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ Sounds like the end of the world, as we know it.
Yesterday my family and I went to see the film 2012 at the cinema. For those who haven’t heard of the significance of the year 2012 (and I hadn’t until this film came out), 2012 is the year predicted by the calendar of the ancient Mayan civilisation to be the ‘end of the world’. The film depicts widespread earthquakes, volcanoes erupting and tsunamis - Hollywood knows that people get a thrill imagining that they could be one of the few who survive such a cataclysmic event! The trailer for the film poses this question: ‘How would the governments of our planet prepare 6 billion people for the end of the world?’ The answer given is… ‘They wouldn’t’.
But should we prepare for the ‘end of the world’? Many modern Christians see Luke 21 as revealing signs to look out for today, signs which will signal an imminent destructive end to the world, as they wait for the Son of Man to come ‘in a cloud with power and great glory’, to collect them up into the air and whisk them away from this wicked world.
But deeper study of what the bible says as a whole, and what the early Christians believed, reveals that Jesus is not speaking of the signs of his second coming in these passages from Luke. He is speaking of the total seismic and cosmic significance of it all: his birth, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and the time of his judgment. So where does that leave us in terms of the ‘second coming’ of Jesus? We know that most of those events have already happened. Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ has ascended into heaven. There is one event yet to happen for everything to be complete: as we say in the Creed, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’
This is the expectation that we Christians live with now. The New Testament declares that we are in ‘the last days’ already - that is, the time between Christ’s first and second comings. In Mark’s gospel, chapter 13, verse 32, Jesus teaches that no one knows the hour or the day when he will come again. We shouldn’t get particularly concerned about the year 2012 because we don’t put out trust in the Mayan calendar over and above the bible. Only God knows the date – but Jesus tells us to keep watch. This is why the season of Advent is helpful – it reminds us to be prepared: to keep watch, to keep waiting and keep expecting.
This is a time to reflect on what we should be doing while we wait. One thing we are commanded to do as followers of Christ is to build for His kingdom. Advent reminds us there is a purpose to it all, and there is a destination. And we need to be patient. In his second letter, the apostle Peter says in chapter 3, verses 8 & 9, ‘do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’
When Christ comes again, he won’t take us all back to heaven, because heaven isn’t our ultimate home. Heaven is a ‘waiting room’, a glorious shelter; more restful, joyful and refreshing than any bus shelter, of course, but it isn’t our ultimate destination. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’ - the trailer for the film 2012 states, ‘The end is just the beginning’, and there’s some truth in that. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’ – they will be replaced with the ‘new creation’. Heaven and earth will no longer be separate places. 1 Corinthians 7:31 tells us ‘this world in its present form is passing away.’ Heaven and earth will come together, completely integrated. As Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham, says, ‘the final redemption will be that moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy.’
Until that time, we wait. The Church is the shelter we wait in (and I’m not talking about the building). As the Church we are fed and refreshed by word and sacrament and prayer and fellowship, by the Spirit. As the Church, the absent Jesus is present among us, and he is present to us in those whom we are called to serve for his sake. But one day he will be present with us, face to face.
Jesus will come again, and he will bring with him the saints that are in heaven, and those believers who are still on earth at that time will rise to welcome him – this is what is meant by meeting him ‘in the clouds’ – they will give him a royal escort into his completed kingdom – a fully redeemed and transformed world – God’s new world of justice, wholeness, and peace. So we wait, and we work: and nothing that is transformed for good in this present age will be wasted. Martin Luther once said that if he knew the Lord was returning tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today. The work done in the Lord’s name is not done in vain. Love never dies. But there will be a dramatic, earth-shaking change from this world of suffering and struggle to one where everything has been put right, including us. This is the Christian worldview – this is our story, with its beginning, middle and end.
Many of us love Advent because we are longing for Christ to return. But if you watch the television or look at your junk mail at this time of year, you might be fooled into thinking that unless the run-up to Christmas is full of parties and drinking and shopping, you’ll be missing out! There is a lot of pressure for us to conform to the secular way of celebrating Christmas.
But listen again to verse 34 of our gospel reading, ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.’ I had to look up in the dictionary what the word ‘dissipation’ meant – it means ‘wasteful expenditure’ or ‘self-indulgence’. That’s what December seems to be full of for many of us these days (me included, if I’m honest).
I like Eugene Peterson’s take on that same bible verse, in The Message translation: ‘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, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.’
As Christians, we are called to be different. In Advent, let’s endeavour to go against the popular grain. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the Christmas season. After all, we have the best reason for celebrating the birth of Christ. But let’s take the time of Advent to think about, and to pray about, what it is we are waiting for: the whole of creation reconciled to God.