A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 21:25-36 for Advent Sunday
“It’s the signs of the times!”
I have heard this phrase, usually with a quick reference to the Advent Sunday Gospel passage from Luke (or one of its parallels), as an automatic response to news reports of anything from war and violent protest, to the economic crisis, to natural disasters like hurricane Sandy. It’s hard to refute these claims that the end is in sight and that Jesus is now definitely, unquestionably, returning in our lifetimes. Nations are in turmoil. Seas are roaring and tides are strange. Natural disasters are happening and nations are rising up against other nations. So, why am I so unconvinced by the end-time prophets of our age?
Well, to begin with, Christians have been expecting the “Second Coming” of Jesus for two millennia. Then, of course, there is the problem with the term “The Second Coming” – it never appears in the Bible. Yes, the Bible speaks about Jesus’ return, but the language that it uses is never literal. It employs the language of the “apocalyptic” prophets of the Old Testament – especially Daniel and Ezekiel. In fact, even Jesus’ statement that everyone would see the “Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory” is a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, in which this “one like a son of man” enters the presence of the Ancient One and is given authority and an eternal dynasty, in the midst of raging and conflicting earthly powers. The point that both Daniel and Jesus are making is not primarily about a return of Jesus to earth in power and glory, but about the Reign of God that moves through the events of this world in spite of the raging of human power systems. The “return” of Jesus is less about a Second Coming to earth than about a return of Jesus to his Father’s throne room to claim the authority which has been given to him because of his sacrificial death and resurrection. There is nothing in any of these “end time” passages that should be read into the news stories of our day – at least not in an attempt to predict the Second Coming.
The other major problem with the language of the Second Coming is that it is simply too limited. The thinking behind this language is that Jesus came once, at Bethlehem as a baby, and then will return at some unknown future time in glory to bring all things to a conclusion. But, Jesus explicitly promised his disciples that he would be with them always (Matthew 28:20). In an important sense, there is no second coming because Jesus didn’t leave. In the presence of God’s Spirit, in the Scriptures, and in our lives which are devoted to his ways, Jesus remains with us always.
But, to take this a little further, the Scriptures point to a Christ who is always appearing, always coming, to God’s people. If there was a “second coming” it was a long time ago. By now we must be into the thousands, if not the thousands of billions, of comings of Christ into the world and into human lives. Perhaps this is not as dramatic as the end-time prophets would have us believe, but if we strip away the apocalyptic language from the Gospel, we are left with a clear call to stay alert to the Kingdom of God that comes to every generation. Jesus’ generation saw all of those traumatic events happen when Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed. The generations following saw similar events in Christian persecutions and wars within the Roman Empire. Our generation has seen those events happening in the Asian Tsunami, Katrina, Sandy, the Arab Spring, the economic crisis, the war on terror and numerous other traumatic events that have rocked our world.
And in every generation it is tempting to allow the trauma of human suffering to undermine our faith. But, that’s why we need to protect our hearts, and stay true to the values and principles of God’s Reign. That’s why we need to be careful to avoid the behaviours that lead to mindlessness and carelessness. That’s why we need to stay alert. Because no matter what we may experience, God’s Reign is near. It is within us and among us. It is advancing in the lives of those who reject wealth and power and status for their own sakes, and who give themselves sacrificially to serve others and heal the world. If we are to read Jesus’ prophecies into our news papers it is only to look for and find the evidence of God’s Reign at work in seemingly hopeless situations.
Who knows when the day will come upon you or me when we will face our own mortality, or when we will be called to witness to the breaking in of God’s Reign. It will come upon us all, and it will be surprising when it does. But, if we can remain true to our faith, if we can stay strong in the life of God in Christ, we will stand before Christ, and all of those in whom the image of Christ dwells, and we will testify that Jesus is indeed coming to us now, as Jesus has to every generation. It is the work of Advent to ensure that we are always ready to witness to the coming of Christ.
You may be thinking that I have abandoned any belief in the other meaning of the “Second Coming”. I have not. I remain convinced that the time will come when God’s Reign is manifested fully in the universe. I remain hopeful that God’s plan of salvation is working out in the world, and that ultimately all things will be made whole and one in Christ, which is the goal of God’s salvation according to Ephesians 1:10. But, that timetable is God’s problem not mine. It is not up to me to work out when this will happen, or how. I believe that my task – and yours – is to hold this hope in our hearts, and give our lives to helping the world move closer to that reality by living with awareness of, and commitment to the values of, God’s ever-coming Reign. If Advent does its work in our hearts, Christ won’t just come twice, but innumerable times – in our lives and, through us, in the lives of those around us.