Sunday the new year officially begins for the Western Church — it is the first Sunday of Advent. Everything starts with four weeks of waiting for the coming of Christ.
And with that a new cycle of the Lectionary begins: we now are in “Year C” in which the Gospel readings will mostly come from Luke.
You might be expecting that with Advent and Luke we would jump to the great stories of Gabriel, of Zechariah and Elizabeth, of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. Chapters 1 and 2 of Luke have Advent written all over them. (And if you want to spend your Advent diving deep into those texts, see the info about my online class at the bottom of this page.)
But that is not how the readings for Advent are put together.
On Advent 1 we look to the coming of Jesus, not as a baby in Bethlehem, but at the end of the age. The text (Luke 21:25-36) is actually part of the same Holy Week speech we heard a couple weeks ago from Mark.
As I said then, these texts about the end of the age, whether in the Gospels, the Epistles, or the Prophets, always push at least a portion of the Christian reading public to piece them all together and make a calculation about whether we have days, years, or centuries to wait.
Let’s not. There is more important stuff to attend to here.
First, there are a couple brief but interesting theological issues.
1. The claim of Messiahship
Just in passing, by quoting Daniel, Jesus connects his predictions to the Old Testament apocalyptic tradition.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27 NRSV)
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven,…” (Daniel 7:13 KJV)
It seems like a claim about himself, of his own messiahship and apocalyptic role, at least in the context of his statements earlier in the chapter.
2. The question of timing
Jesus doesn’t come to the aid of those who want to predict his return in our time, however. In the simplest reading of the text, he seems to say that his predictions are about the very near future of the Apostles:
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” (Luke 21:32 NRSV)
So… by that statement he’s not talking about now, nineteen centuries and change since the death of the Apostles.
He’s really emphatic about the reliability of the claim:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Luke 21:33 NRSV)
Hmm… It’s almost as if he suspected people in centuries to come might make the mistake of thinking it was about their own future.
Beyond those little notes, though, I think it is wise to look to see what Jesus actually asks of us in this passage.
3. The call to confidence and joy
Christians often let these passages fuel the fires of anxiety.
- We use them to scare nonbelievers into conversion.
- And we get kind of freaked out ourselves, especially if we aren’t quite sure which side of the old “sheep vs goats” thing we’ll find ourselves on at the final judgment.
But that really doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ intention.
In this passage Jesus acknowledges that people are going to get scared when the “signs” come.
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, …” (Luke 21:26 NRSV)
And who doesn’t get frightened by wars, and earthquakes, and famines, distress among nations, tsunamis? Disasters, whether natural or of human origin, are terrifying.
But Jesus tells us that, at least to the degree that these things are tied to the timeline of his return, we should take hope.
Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28 NRSV)
Don’t think of these things as signs of judgment. Remember instead that the One who is coming loves you and will make all things well.
When is the end? Who knows, really. Paul didn’t claim to know. He just said it was sooner now than when we first came to faith (Romans 13:11).
Like every 24 ours it gets one day closer.
4. The call to watch
So what do we do in the meanwhile? We are called to keep watch.
Be on guard…” (Luke 21:34 NRSV)
Be alert at all times…” (Luke 21:36 NRSV)
I think that it is pretty easy to get this very slightly wrong and be back in the “let’s predict of the end times” club.
Does keeping watch mean focusing our attention on which signs and symbols relate to which events in the newspaper? I don’t think so.
The question we should ask is “HOW should we keep watch?”
The first part of the call is to maintain good spiritual and mental health. Really. Check it out:
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life,…” (Luke 21:34 NRSV)
“Dissipation”? To be quite honest, I haven’t heard many Christians say they were working hard to get past their dissipation. But maybe it’s worth a thought.
Dissipation means squandering our resources — our good stuff goes to nothing, like when smoke spreads out and disappears.
- We spend too much and our finances are dissipated.
- We put our attention into social media and our time is dissipated.
There are countless ways a person can pour out what is good and valuable in life and see it just spread out and be gone.
A good spiritual practice might be in order to bring some focus. (Like maybe an Advent course on classic lectio divina? Read on, my friend, read on.)
“Drunkenness” is pretty obvious. But then there are a bunch of other things besides alcohol that can be addictions and consuming passions.
Drugs, gambling, eating, spending, video games, sex…
Our addictions lead our lives out of control and bit by bit erode our relationships, our vocations, our well-being.
Maybe a good 12-Step program is the thing to pursue.
The worries of this life?
“The worries of this life?” Well that’s a kicker. Who doesn’t have worries? Relationships, jobs, homes — we worry if we don’t have them, then we worry when we get them.
Something is needed in our spiritual life to nurture the deep-down trust in God called faith.
Personally I think we need to go to Scripture, and as the old collect in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” it.
- We need to really chew on the stories that teach us God’s goodness, faithfulness, and providence.
- We need to soak ourselves in the passages that proclaim God’s promise to us in Christ.
- We need to pursue the daily, tiny, faith-sized steps of trust in God’s goodness and God’s promises.
That’s the antidote to the worries of this life.
All of those steps toward spiritual health? They define keeping watch this Advent. And they lead to having the strength to stand firm before Christ, no matter the situation. And that’s the second part of the call in our passage. (Luke 21:36)
My Advent course on the ancient spiritual discipline of lectio divina (or “divine reading”) is open for registration! This Advent can be a time of real renewal
- approaching Scripture in a way that is prayerful
- practicing prayer in a way steeped in Scripture
There is even an option to use the materials as an adult education class for your church.