Luke 21:25-27 (NRSV):
“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 [Humanity] coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…”
Advent begins today with what could be a rather ominous gospel reading (see the full text here: Luke 21:25-36).
We hear Jesus talking about the apocalyptic coming of the Son of Humanity—his own glorified return at the end of this age.
The End is always tinged in mysterious light; it has been a source of anxiety for Christians since the beginning. “When will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” (Luke 21:7). We worry about burning skies and brimstone, persecutions and purgatory—pretty much everything that is not found in this text.
In fact, the Teacher answers the anxiety of his disciples not with a series of warning signals, but a serious invitation to anticipation. Jesus does not trivialize the disciples’ fears. He does not shame them for being confused or afraid. Indeed, the End could be scary for those not expecting it to come.
But that is just it: Jesus gives us a heads up and a hand up—an invitation to anticipation.
Far from the foolishness of Left Behind, Jesus paints a picture of the End that is something worthy of our hope.
Look to the trees, he said, there will be signs (Luke 21: 25 and 29).
Jesus imagines a time when the earth gives voice to its very underpinnings; sun, moon, and stars cannot help but point to what is really Real. Jesus imagines the seas tossing their heads, like animals pawing at the gate. The whole cosmos leans forward. Excitement is visceral.
I cannot help but hear Mary’s words coming in here, ringing out in praise:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
The End that Jesus imagines is the fruition of his mother’s words. All is made right and well. Humanity’s disparities are leveled out. Violence is stilled and reversed.
The End, as Jesus imagines it, is good, you see.
The End is not a time when God throws off her steadfast love. It is not a time when all we have ever known about the faithful divine nature is left in the dust. No. According to Jesus, the End is when we get to experience God’s fierce love and justice in its fullness.
No holds barred.
Nothing held back.
The End is when the order of Love itself is uncovered and set free.
Advent heralds this End, the wonderful aim and object of our excited waiting and watching. As we remember the incarnate babe in the manger, we remember that Christ’s next coming, too, will be one of flesh and blood, dust and breath. He will not come destroying the beloved plane to which he made himself belong, but rather to unveil and unleash its truest being from the trembling grasp of sin and death.
Some folks are left trembling and shaking their heads (Luke 21:26), and not in excitement, but in dismay. They sense the undercurrent, the divine’s holy energy on the move, but they do not understand or welcome its Origin.
At the signs, these powers are shaken and confused to the core because Jesus does not make sense to them.
Unlike Jesus, these powers and the people they have seduced (or coerced) do not play for the well-being of the whole world; they play to get their own—for profit, control, and domination. Labor will be tumultuous for them in the End for they will have much to unlearn and give up. Their ways do not fit with the really Real.
Jesus’ disciples, however, are already on the Way. We are unlearning the systems and structures of this world and are taking up the rooted and embodied rhythms of God’s love. This is our calling and the work of Advent. It is how we join creation’s chorus, how signs of Christ’s coming start shining through us.
Instead of shaking our heads, Jesus’ disciples can raise them high, knowing gladly that our “redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
There is much reason to anticipate this redemption—this release and revealing.
As I look about the news and encounter the pain humanity inflicts upon itself and the rest of creation, I ache. I ache and I scream and I, sometimes, go numb. We have much to undo, much to heal, and much to make right—starting at the very center of each and every one of us.
Faced with even these realities, and the End, Jesus offers us his invitation to anticipation.
Watch for me. Look to the trees, the moon and stars. See the signs. Sense the Truth.
Advent is this: Connecting with creation’s excitement, catching the pulse of God’s gracious rhythm, and craning our necks to get a better look.
Jesus is coming. Excited?
Excite in us stirrings of your coming, O Brother. Attune our bodies, minds, and spirits to the really Real so that we may join the waves in their dancing, the stars in their shining, and the moon as she whispers your praise. May we see the signs. May your Kingdom come. Move in us, we pray. Amen.