We are at the start of the four weeks of Advent. Advent invites us to spend the next two weeks, looking forward to Christ’s coming, waiting, preparing and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. We remember Israel looked back to God’s past loving and merciful actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and it was on this basis, they called for God once again to act for them.
In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming with celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people. This means we are in ‘in between times’, waiting, preparing, hoping, celebrating and living into God’s peace.
In the reading today from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus 21:25-38 invites us into a season of hopefulness, shockingly offered in the nooks and crannies of the frantic and disturbing signs of the visible suffering of the earth and all its inhabitants and the unsettling, frightening, nonsensical events happening all around us. In spite of this, Jesus is inviting us to stand up in the middle of the chaos and see God’s offer of redemption, which is just as real as the signs of the times which we also see. It is an offer which beckons us, beyond the tumult, noise and demands of the busy, suffering world around us into God’s kingdom now so near to us.
I wondered in preparing this reflection, what might be the signs you are reading in the world?
Let me name just a few I’ve seen and heard: Covid-19 mandates, climate change and the loss of animals, plants and fish, drought and fire, floods and storms, terrorism, war and death with world powers locked into confrontation and intimidation, tyrannies and dictatorships emerging around the world with the poor once again on the move, families separated, employment broken and the world fracturing. This is now.
For the Jewish nation nearly 2,000 years ago, Luke was writing when Jerusalem’s fall and destruction was completed in 70 CE by Titus with the full might of the Roman army, and the horror of its sacking and brutal devastation was a strong, vivid memory for many early followers of Jesus. The trauma was profound. In the last days before he died, Jesus tried to give hope as he reflected on what was to come, he said:
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)
Luke’s Jesus is clear and concise with his words about what is happening and what will happen. This is not about a specific apocalyptic date and time, but absolutely, joyfully about the nearness of the kingdom to us now. So I’m asking you: what do you see and what do you hear? Or do you have eyes but do not see? Do you have ears but do not hear?
Jesus tells his followers they will know what to look for; it will be as plain as new leaves on a fig tree to those of you who are prepared, ready, aware and hope-filled about God’s kingdom and its immanence in our lives.
The core message of this reading from Luke 21:25-38 is redemption, not apocalyptic hellfire and brimstone. Death and destruction are the consequences of the choice we make to separate from God, what we call sin and spiritual blindness; but Jesus is calling and inviting us in our busy lives, to spend time in prayer, growing our faith and trusting in God who works in our time and place now, for peace.
The discussion of the end times is simply Jesus appealing to us to have faith in God, rather than in the apparent all-powerful nature of human progress which may or may not be happening.
One of the failures of our rational thinking over the last few hundred years is our belief human progress is automatic, linear and consequential, believing things will always get better for successive generations. Jesus reminds us this is not always the case. The point made to the first disciples was clear: Jesus predicted this, it did happen, and it could and likely will happen again. However, the purpose of Jesus’ teaching, is to call the believer back into relationship with God, and to evoke hope in the places and times of crises and despair.
This is about seeing beyond and through what is happening all around us and believing God is present with us now, steadfast, faithful, sure and loving.
The season of advent is a time for us, to behave like Jesus, to stand back from the busyness of the world around us and our lives, the demands of family and friends, work and leisure commitments. We are invited to copy Jesus, who, every evening after the demands of those final busy days:
He would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives (Luke 21:37)
Jesus spent time in prayer and being still in the presence of God, drawing strength and hope from God’s kingdom, now so near. Jesus tells us to do likewise:
Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:36)
Like Jesus, we are called to trust God is at work, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Jesus’ desire is to open up each of us to the truth and completeness of full faith and trust in God.
We seek to do this in these few Advent weeks by spending time reflecting on what it is we refuse to acknowledge in these days, what signs are we choosing not to see in our own lives, preventing us from being with God, while focussing only the signs in the world around us? Is it greed, consumption, privileged entitlement and wealth; is it devastating illness, or poverty, racism, unemployment, rejection and conflict? All of this asks us to think about what it is Jesus would say to us upon returning as Son of Man. And how will you and I answer, when he asks us if we would like to step into a new relationship with God?
God does not provide escape from massive suffering, nor does God cause it. Instead, God provides a vision for us to hold onto as believers, to train our eyes, our ears, our hearts on the suffering and grief before us, to give clear and open witness to it; and, to hope, to stand in solidarity with all God’s creation, while at the same time, to be focussed on the redemption still to come. One day, the redemption will be final, when the Son of Man comes at last, ‘with power and great glory’. (Luke 21:17)
The mysteries of signs and future events are ambiguous and elusive, but Jesus’ teachings of God’s ways of grace, love, forgiveness and reconciliation and peace are clear, life changing and critical. They are more than enough to occupy us, so when the Son of Man does return, he will find us busy about the work of the kingdom, a kingdom beyond all earthly kings, dictators and empires, their armies, their tyranny and demands. This is because there is no escaping the fact of the coming of the kingdom of God: the fact, it is already here. So, sisters and brothers:
When you see these things taking place, you will know the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:32)
The Lord be with you.
Editors: Cynthia A Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press. Kentucky USA.