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Signs and Portents
Every Advent we are caught in a dilemma. All around us people are gearing up for Christmas. Decorations are going up and lights are coming on and this year people are working hard to get us to buy gifts and have been since before Hallowe’en.
But the readings assigned to Advent, this time of preparation, have nothing to do with babies in stables, sheep and angels, or magi. We are given readings that are filled with signs and portents.
This is because the lectionary was created without any concern for our modern sensibilities: it had the intention to encourage people to think about what Advent means as an idea.
An advent is an arrival: an entrance into the world. In the Christian tradition we celebrate the Advent of Christ.
From a traditional perspective, this challenges us because Jesus was born 2000 years ago but his work of transforming the world is not finished. And Jesus himself talked about the arrival of the Son of Man which we have called the Second Coming or possibly a Second Advent.
That kind of talk makes a lot of folks squirmy these days. It smacks of fundamentalism, of people standing on street corners shouting: “Repent! The end is near!” and we don’t want to be associated with that. It seems credulous and unsophisticated and we’d rather ignore it all.
We can’t, really: these scriptures are still in the Bible and we have to have a way to think about them and right now, with a pandemic, and Global warming with all of the extreme weather events going on, it feels like we are seeing those signs and portents mentioned in our Luke lesson. It’s no wonder people are getting excited!
It is helpful to understand that the Bible does not try to give us one consistent picture of the End of the World. The passages that get used to draw conclusions come from different visions with different perspectives.
For example, our Jeremiah passage is a hopeful one; it talks about a king arising to bring justice to Israel and peace to Jerusalem; a descendent of David, who was a man after God’s own heart.
The early Christians interpreted Jesus to be this righteous branch. That’s why there are genealogies in Matthew and Luke tracing Jesus’ descent from King David to demonstrate his genetic claim to this image, despite the fact that he wasn’t on the throne of Israel, and to further legitimize his vision of righteousness and authority that didn’t follow the usual patterns of royal oppression and force of arms.
In contrast, we find that portion of Luke talking about the Son of Man, a powerful image from the book of Daniel, in which a human is sent from Heaven to rescue Israel and rule in justice and peace after overcoming the forces of injustice and oppression. It’s a more forceful image than we usually ascribe to Jesus but you could imagine it as a super-powered version of Jeremiah’s promise. Jeremiah himself wouldn’t recognize it at all.
There are other concerning elements to our Luke reading. For example: the promise that “this generation shall not pass away until all these things have happened”.
That has led to all kinds of complicated interpretations to explain how Jesus meant something beyond the obvious. For example: “this generation” isn’t the one he was talking to, but the one that would see the Son of Man appear in the clouds.
Modern scholarship suggests that Jesus did expect some kind of divine intervention to happen and he really did anticipate that his own generation would witness God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace
and the arrival of the Son of Man.
So what happened? Is this an example of a failed prophesy by Jesus?
Many modern scholars would say yes, and that is part of its value: something that gives us insight into the shape of Jesus’ original ministry. But the Church kept this passage in place seeing within it a deeper meaning beyond the surface; and that’s worth exploring.
Consider: the thrust of Jesus’ ministry and teachings were designed to overturn expectations, to put the weak above the strong, the first to become last and the last to become first, while the meek inherit the earth.
Doesn’t this image of the Son of Man coming in clouds and glory, this quote from Daniel undermine all that? Does it not set up the expectation that all this wonderful vision of a righteous realm of God’s justice will still require a battering ram to achieve it; the rather cynical notion that it will take overwhelming force to dislodge the forceful people who hang on to power?
How do we square that with the image of someone who would go to the cross, to a death that emphasized his powerlessness, as a way to challenge the power of the mighty Roman Empire?
One way is to understand that there will be no physical second coming. That the “Son of Man” (whom we Christians identify with Jesus, although it was never a name he claimed for himself) has already arrived in the person of Jesus and that God’s realm of justice and peace began back in that first generation, in Jesus’ own time.
That would mean that to bring it completely into being, we have to finish the work. Not with force, or expecting a divine intervention but with patience and determination, working to change hearts every day,
continuing the work of Jesus using the same tools he used: a powerful vision and ordinary people committed to a transformed world.
The advice about watching for signs is still good but it’s general enough that it could apply to any age or time. There’s always something portentous going on somewhere, but it does speak to an attitude of alertness, a recognition that opportunities can exist all the time and that we don’t benefit anyone if we get so tied up in the daily troubles and pleasures of life that we forget our over-arching purpose:
to change the world;
to make this a better place;
to bring hope to people who are powerless; and
to bring the kind of change that will transform the injustices built into our systems into ways to help everyone
We should not take these prophetic passages and turn them into a vision of the end of the world where God violently deals with the situations we haven’t addressed.
Instead, we should take them as a reminder of what the Advent of Jesus really means to us: the start of a transformed world and the beginning of a ministry to change hearts; a ministry that Jesus has entrusted to us.
Our Advent hope is not in some apocalyptic disaster. Our hope is in what Jesus brought into the world 2000 years ago: a vision powerful enough to change people, to call them to embrace this vision of justice and peace, not because they are forced to but because they have been moved to see how much better the world could be.