The Coming of the Son of Man
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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man 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.”
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Exhortation to Watch
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Scholar Diana Butler Bass says it well when she reflects on the way we get right into it. “Advent 1 slaps us with the uncertainty and violence of human history.”
From the get go, we’re told that there will be natural signs of turmoil, political distress, and chaos will hover over the earth, seemingly inescapable. Fear and dread will lead people to faint and some will feel as though the very foundations of heaven have been shaken by these world events.
It strikes me that it doesn’t take world affairs to make us feel this way. In fact, facing significant hardship and loss, like a loved one’s death or a traumatic experience or violation, can make us feel like the world itself has fallen apart—even though it’s just our own little world that’s been shattered. In these times of acute anxiety and survival, nothing seems secure or safe and our trust in “things above” and all we lean on in our faith, feels shaken.
In these moments, we truly know that things are not the way they are supposed to be and we know the helplessness that comes with waiting for something—someone to not just say it will get better, but to prove it. But, according to our passage this week, Jesus doesn’t quite do that. As quickly as we are told that we will feel this helplessness, Jesus gives us directions, commands even. So, Jesus’ first step for when the chaos and gloom and doom feels thick all around us, we are to stand up for some “fresh air” and perspective; we raise our heads so that we can see his promise in motion.
Having raised our eyes up from the chaos, Jesus then tells us to look around and see what else is true and trustworthy. He uses the parable of the fig tree to describe how real these bad events will be in human history and in our lives: with each season, a different stage of existence and experience happens to the tree and these changes help us understand how time moves forward as well as cyclically, building on growth through the seasons and experiences.
And at every step of the way, we will be able to know that the kingdom is near. When we see the signs of things changing, Jesus says, we can take comfort in knowing that the Kingdom of God is near even if everything else we built our life upon—including our ideas about God—passes away. This move of placing chaos as part of a larger framework of understanding and knowledge is essential for hope—let alone survival!
Now, (verse 34) Jesus gives us even more specific instructions on how we can be in difficult, dangerous, and scary times. We are to guard our hearts against the traps and ruts we can easily get stuck in when we try to cope and survive on our own. We might have new perspective, but we’re still living in the chaotic situations, and there are other dangers around us as well as within us.
What Jesus offers us is a way of being that will protect us from ourselves.
- Most of us don’t start out drinking with the plan to become an alcoholic.
- Nor do we really enjoy the sleepless nights and stomach ulcers that constant worry turns into until medical intervention has to be used.
But if we are aware of what our tendencies are, what our sins and temptations are, we can cope in better ways. Added to this guarding, Jesus tells us to be alert, praying for the strength to withstand all of these challenges so that, in the end, we will escape them.
And all of a sudden, instead of looking for God coming near, we will realize that we are standing right there in front of our Saviour, the Son of Man. Is it too much to hope that Jesus doesn’t just mean when he comes again to usher in the new heaven and earth, but he also means now? In the midst of the chaos and danger?
The one who is, who was, and who is to come is our redemption drawing near, the kingdom of God that is near already, and the Son of Man whom we will stand before. We are not left to the chaos and our own devices. God already came, is coming again, and is here right now! There is nothing truer, more sure or real than that. Each set of commands is integrally tied to the promising description of a God on the move.
This is the Advent hope. This is the way of stewarding advent’s expectant waiting—a waiting that extends beyond these four weeks leading up to Christmas.
There is another way that we need to be aware of what Jesus is describing. Some people may dread Christ’s return because life is pretty great for them right now. Does it really get better than this? Woe to us if we are the ones who need our lives disrupted and turned into chaos. The sad truth is, our comforts may be coming at the cost of havoc and chaos for others. The Kingdom of God comes as a great reversal, and turns powers upside down. As we wait, we are meant to be part of this work.
Time is not always as straightforward as it seems. From the perspective of those living in the Western Hemisphere, for example, “today” is already “tomorrow” on the other side of the Earth. With anticipation of a joyful event, time might move quite slowly. On the other hand, a dreaded end can arrive far too quickly. There’s never enough time or always too much. Time might feel feather-light or brick-heavy, depending on whether it expands one’s dreams or diminishes one’s hopes. And who hasn’t experienced the shifting sense of time during the global pandemic?
Jesus in Luke 21 reminds his followers that God is not constrained by the chronos time represented by calendar and clock, the sort of time that keeps everything from happening at once. In God’s kairos time, past and future are woven together for the sake of today. God’s time is the now/not-yet that reshapes the world’s present expectations—and our own.
Shortly before his death, the once-and-always Savior—called “a sign” in his infancy—reveals how to know when the kingdom of God is near. Even during earth-rending moments, God is near.
- Despite the promise of spring, however, new buds do not always form. Sometimes they are killed by drought or swept away by the roaring waves of a hundred-year flood—for the third time in six years.
- Fires rage through forests and woods, darkening the sun and sending evidence of ash and smoke even thousands of miles away.
- Hillsides are cleared for the sake of a better view, corporations fell rainforests in order to improve their bottom line, and nations install border-walls that cut through orchards and separate trees from the people who attend to their care.
The devastation is enough to take one’s breath away—which is the meaning of the Greek word translated as “faint” in Luke 21:26.
Nonetheless, the apocalyptic vision shared by Jesus is assurance that even in the face of devastation—whether it is caused by nature’s fury or by human action—the reign of God will not be impeded. No matter how much it appears that the world is coming un-done, God’s way endures.
The long and short of it is this: Advent is here, so wait wait…but do tell. Tell the story. Offer the alternative in love. People need and want to hear it.