First Sunday of Advent
Texts: Luke 21:25-36;
Jer 33:14-16; 1 Thess 3:9-13
FROM ‘END OF THE WORLD’ TO A MESSAGE OF HOPE
[Jesus said,] “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.
Sounds like the proverbial ‘end of the world,’ doesn’t it? With five sons myself who are age 35 and under, I wonder what they see when they look around at the state of the world. I know that they see it as royally messed up — though they’d probably use grittier language. Here’s the thing: When our children and grandchildren look around at the serious, multiple crises facing us, do they worry about the so-called ‘end of the world’?
Surprisingly, this passage is a hopeful passage. It is realistic about the seriousness of human violence, but it is hopeful about the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus, to launch a project of human transformation from violence to nonviolence. This is what we’ve been talking about in my first month with you: nothing less than a new creation of being human, a new generation of humanity. Generation in both senses of the word. Jesus begins a new generation of what it means to be human. That’s what “Son of Man” means. This new generation is based on loving service rather than the violent power to dominate. As such, Jesus is generating a new generation of humankind. Can our youngest generations find hope in that? Even if we do face a violent and broken world? Where might we find hope? How do we read the signs of the times for hope?
The first thing to do in answering this question is to address the so-called ‘end of the world’ thinking, which has at times infected recent versions of Christianity. There have been best-selling Christian books — like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series — but these have been hopeful in exactly the wrong way, as we’ve been talking about the past three weeks. They paint a picture of God the creator giving up on creation and focusing on whisking away a few human souls to heaven (the “rapture”), rather than on God’s heavenly intentions coming to earth and renewing the creation. And especially the Tim LaHaye books paint the picture of a God who uses ultimate violence to bring the desired end.
To paint the right picture is to read the Scripture according to what we see in Jesus, the Son of Man who comes to give us a portrait of what it truly means to be human by also showing us who God truly is. God is not the one who tries to solve our problem of violence with more violence. We are. God is the one who loves the world so much that God sends the Son to suffer and absorb our violence so that we might begin to paint a new picture.
So why does today’s passage sound like the ‘end of the world’? Because it is realistic about how long it takes God to get through to us. (We talked about that last week: that with our anthropology, our evolution with gods who command violence in order to contain violence, it’s taking the true God of Jesus a long time to get through to us. And God knows that.) It’s realistic about how many times God will try to show us a new way and we will continue to fail. So it is realistic about the many rounds of failing. Remember the passage we quoted from Isaiah last week? Seven hundred years before Jesus Isaiah was sent to proclaim a ‘peaceable kingdom,’ where even a lion lays down with a lamb (Isaiah 11:1-11) — passages, too, about beating swords into plowshares (Isa 2:4), and on Christmas the promise of a new child “named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6). But in the call to Isaiah’s ministry, God tells Isaiah he will be preaching to folks with ears unhearing and eyes unseeing, so that their cities will lie waste yet again. The so-called ‘end of the world’ language begins with prophets like Isaiah, not to prophesy a literal end of creation — which would mean the unthinkable to a good Jewish person, namely, that God had abandoned God’s good creation. No, the so-called ‘end of the world’ language signals realism about the seemingly endless traumas brought about by human violence. It is language of what we might call ‘earth-shattering’ events — events so devastating that it feels like the world has ended. We sometimes know this feeling in our personal lives. If a parent tragically loses a child, or a spouse suffers the loss of a long-time marriage, it feels like the sun will never shine again, even on a bright sunny day. It feels like your world has ended. This is the kind of experience that whole nations may experience together when going through a traumatic loss together, brought about by one of our many attempts to contain violence with more violence.
When today’s Gospel Reading was written 35 or so years after Easter, the Jewish people had just gone through one of these earth-shattering events. Luke 21 is Luke’s version of Mark 13, which we read two weeks ago. Do you remember how the chapter begins? Jesus prophesies that if his Jewish brothers and sisters insist on continuing down the path of violence to contain violence, the great Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. Jesus was crucified and was raised in about the year 30. In the year 66, the Jewish people began an armed rebellion for independence from the Romans. The Romans had another rebellion, led by the slave Spartacus (remember the 1960 movie Spartacus with Kirk Douglas?), to put down closer to home, so they couldn’t marshal full resources against the Jews. But when they could four years later, they laid waste to Jerusalem and utterly destroyed the Temple. Isaiah’s prophecy of cities laid waste had once again come true. To this day, the Temple in Jerusalem has never been rebuilt. The entire world of being Jewish at that time had been destroyed — an earth-shattering event.
Yet into that terrible loss and grief Jesus’s prophecy also speaks the hope of the coming of the Son of Man, a new generation of being human. Think for a moment about a terrible moment of loss you may have suffered. What finally spoke hope into that feeling of losing your world? Was it a word of love? [Pause] At moments of national loss, it is often is love, too. Think of the first few days after 9-11 — how the American people came together and helped one another. We just observed the twentieth anniversary of that tragedy and spent some time recalling those days of national love and mutual assistance.
Unfortunately, following these times of national earth-shattering events, after the time of lovingly attending to one another, there often also springs up a message of revenge, or “justice.” “We’re going to get the monsters who did this to us!” Which, or course, happened within days of 9-11, too. But that’s not the kind of word of hope represented here in Luke 21. It is a word of deeper faith in love, never a word of vengeance.
The lectionary may be slightly off a beat here, because today’s Gospel actually quotes last week’s First Reading from Daniel 7. As often happens we read snippets out of context. We read only a few verses from Daniel 7. The chapter in its entirety begins with a vision of all the violently oppressive empires which the Jewish people had suffered under for centuries — depicting these empires as monstrous beasts, like a ferocious lion with eagle’s wings and talons. Into that scene, we read about (quote), “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” That unarmed human being is contrasted with the violent imperial beasts, and God gives dominion and power to the one like a human being coming on the clouds of heaven.
In today’s Gospel, we read, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” The words “one like a human being” — in the Aramaic or Hebrew that Jesus would have spoken — can more literally be rendered as “Son of Man.” “Son of Man” is what we see Jesus calling himself throughout the Gospels — many, many, many times. You won’t see Jesus calling himself the Messiah, or Son of God. He leaves it to others to call him that. No, he calls himself “Son of Man.” This is most dramatically true at the crucial moment when Jesus is on trial before the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin. They ask Jesus if he is the Son of God. He deflects their question and answers once again by basically quoting this verse from Daniel 7 once again — this time, with the implication that it is about to happen right at that moment: “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64; parallels in Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:69). As he was about to be executed, he saw that what he was about to do in suffering the violence of empire as the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of a new Way to be human.
So let’s end today by taking a few moments to read the signs of the times at our place in human history. We know the more distant history that all the early Christians followed in this Way of nonviolence. We know that all the apostles ended up martyred by the Roman Empire in ways similar to Jesus. And for many, many more early followers of Jesus, it was never responding to any of the murders of friends with a word of vengeance, but always with a word of forgiveness and love. Until centuries passed, and we Christians began to believe once again more in violence to contain violence.
So where can we read the signs of the times to see the Way of the coming of the Son of Man into our more recent history? To end with one core example for me: at the time last century when we were tearing ourselves apart once again through two World Wars, which have now given way to a war on terror, God once again acted with irony. The first time around it was a peasant from the backwater region of Galilee, facing down the Roman Empire. This time around it was a small Hindu man facing down the British Empire. I’m not equating Mahatma Gandhi with Jesus, but lifting up how dramatically he took the way of nonviolence from Jesus and turned it into a mass movement. Gandhi gave us a way to ‘fight’ a war against an empire, and he won.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the hoped-for end has finally arrived. It doesn’t mean that we human beings are ready to give up all our armies or defund our police. But it means we can read the signs of our times and finding ways to move in that direction of nonviolence. Martin Luther King, Jr. actually went to India in the early 1950’s to learn from Gandhi’s disciples. He brought that Way back to this country for the Civil Rights Movement, and I think he said it most simply of all: “You can’t drive away darkness with darkness, only with light. You can’t drive out hate and violence with more hate and violence, but only with love.”
How can we read the signs of the time for a message of hope as we prepare for the coming of our Lord at Christmas? And can that message be one that welcomes back all of God’s children to our celebration? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 28, 2021