Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, November 29
First Sunday in Advent
Signs of Things to Come
O God of all the prophets, you herald the coming of the Son of Man by wondrous signs in the heavens and on the earth. Guard our hearts from despair so that we, in the company of the faithful and by the power of your Holy Spirit, may be found ready to raise our heads at the coming near of our redemption, the day of Jesus Christ. Amen.
[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."
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.
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day 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."
All readings for this Sunday
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
1. How do you respond to "apocalyptic talk"?
2. How do Jesus' words in this passage bring you hope?
3. What "near and close at hand" things are signs of God's coming changes?
4. What is your greatest longing this Advent season?
5. What do you think the stillspeaking God is calling you to in this new year?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
After Thanksgiving is over, the world around us seems to get even more serious about preparing for Christmas. Perhaps the word "serious" isn't the best one to use, since the preparations that occupy our time and thoughts (and consume our money, and perhaps put stress on our relationships and health) can't compare to the preparations that Jesus advises us to make, in our reading from the Gospel of Luke on this First Sunday in Advent. While we set up Nativity scenes with a sweet baby Jesus lying in a manger, we hear from the grown-up, just-about-to-die Jesus, standing in the Temple, teaching about the coming catastrophe – the destruction of that Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. – which Luke of course must have known about when he wrote his Gospel fifteen years or so later. But Jesus seems to be talking about even more than that: the end of all things, the End of Time itself. It certainly puts those Christmas preparations in a different perspective.
Here, at the beginning of the beautiful season of Advent, the intent of the church is not to spoil things with talk of the end of the world while the culture around us is set for weeks of parties, gift-giving, family reunions and, for many who stay away the rest of the year, attendance at church. Actually, these are (or can be) all good things; however, there's more going on here than just celebrating a festive season at the end of one year before we begin a new one. The season of Advent itself actually begins a new church year, even though it comes before the end of the secular calendar year. It's no wonder we get a little confused among these beginnings and endings, when a new year opens with a reading that appears to be about the end of everything. But it's important, at every beginning, to take the long view, to have the end in mind, even here, at the start of another new church year.
New beginnings mean change
We can't enjoy beginnings and endings if we don't like change. And Jesus is describing the biggest change of all, the transformation of all things, when "the Son of Man" (in the Common English Bible, "the Human One") rides in "on a cloud with power and great glory" (v. 27). People will be filled with fear, even more fear than when the Romans completely devastated Jerusalem and the Temple. We know that the violent, mighty power of Rome was impressive to behold, but on that great day, the heavens themselves will collapse, and the stars and the moon will fall out of their places in the sky, nothing will work as it should, and things will no longer go on as they have in the past. This time, even the Gentiles are going to be on the receiving end of the suffering and the judgment. There's going to be some kind of day of reckoning for everyone, just you wait and see.
Now, this is "apocalyptic" talk. When things are especially threatening for a group of people who feel persecuted and small in a big bad world, they express their hope for deliverance and their trust in the God who is really in charge of everything by speaking in large, dramatic terms about a day of justice when all things will be made right. Back in the book of Daniel, the same kind of language expressed the people's hope for rescue from the evil tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, almost two hundred years before Jesus. How else would God up-root the power of something as mighty as the Empire of Rome, if not by doing big things in big ways, even bringing down the heavenly bodies from their courses?
Bringing down the powers that be
Dianne Bergant reminds us of the chaos that reigned before God brought order, back in the beginning of things, at creation itself. All those frightening metaphors and apocalyptic images like the moon and stars falling out of the sky draw our attention to God's return and the beginning of a whole new age. William Herzog observes that the sun was the symbol of Rome itself, with the moon and the stars representing the Empire's "client kings" clustered around it, so we can better understand that, when Luke is talking about the "powers of the heavens" being shaken, it's a kind of code about events that are quite down to earth, even, we might say, political, because the powers-that-be, right here, are about to be brought down.
I wonder if young (and not-so-young) adults might relate this to the destruction of the Death Star in their own epic, the (original) "Star Wars" trilogy. The language of empire was also used in that series to describe the terrible might of the evil power that oppressed planets and galaxies. Empires come and empires go, but they rarely come or go gently, or quietly.
Not surprisingly, there's a tension in the commentaries on this text. Some scholars emphasize the cosmic over the personal dimensions of the upheaval Jesus foretells: Paul Scott Wilson claims that Luke isn't talking about our own individual deaths but about the end of all things, including time itself. Even for those of us who have grown up with the threat of nuclear holocaust over our lives, the end of time is the ultimately frightening thought. Or perhaps not: rather than the destructive "tantrum" of a "spoiled child," Wilson continues, this is about God bringing an end to sin and injustice, which ultimately ought to be seen as a good thing, rather than a frightening one. If we trust the One who makes promises to us, we can indeed stand up then and raise our heads in anticipation of the redemption at hand (v. 28).
Living "in the meantime"
Other voices seem to take a somewhat different approach to the text, focusing on things more here and now, as close at hand as the fig tree Jesus wants us to observe. Dianne Bergant reminds us of the distress and upset of all upheaval, large and small, personal and communal. We know that even good change brings a kind of stress and instability, and we humans prefer things to be calm, predictable, and comfortable.
Years ago, I read a book by William Bridges, Transitions, that described the in-between time we experience in any major change in our lives. There is a point, or a period of time, that we spend in between one time or place, and another time and place. In that in-between time, we have to live with things being not so clear or comfortable, not familiar and reassuring, and yet not being what they will be one day.
That seems to be what Advent living is about, Bergant writes: the way we live in the meantime, which, surprisingly and simply, "calls us to live the usual unusually well." Lately, it seems that we're developing a heightened awareness of the importance of the everyday; no, not just its importance, but its holiness. I think that's what Bergant is encouraging us to see, that Advent, a time of heightened awareness, is "as ordinary as the birth of a child; it is as extraordinary as the revelation of God."
Finding the holy every day
As an illustration of "living the usual unusually well" and keeping alert at the same time, Richard Ascough suggests a short story written by Leo Tolstoy, "Where Love Is, God Is," about a cobbler named Martin whose hope for a dramatic revelation of God is answered by the everyday sightings of God as love in action, in charity, justice, and compassion toward the people he meets each day. Could we write the story of our own lives, in our own, ordinary occupations, experiences, hopes and dreams, as a series of sightings of God in the everyday living of our lives?
Barbara Brown Taylor draws our attention to that fig tree, suggesting that the people might have been focusing on the wrong things, "abstract things, like judgment or salvation, or on dramatic things, like earthquakes and plagues." Instead, Jesus turns their attention to "the most ordinary events of their lives," and the most ordinary things, like the sprouting of a fig tree. In this way, he reminded them "that they did not have to work so hard." Taylor wonders about the way we use the time we have (it's really all we have, she says) while we're waiting for Jesus to return. Be alert, yes, she writes, but not because we're afraid of a coming disaster but so that we ready for the return of God.
And while we wait, we should pray. John J. Pilch observes that we seem to depend on human technology like satellites and telescopes to warn of impending disaster (not to mention weather radar, earthquake detectors, and other marvels of science), but it seems to me that more folks listen to dire predictions from fundamentalist preachers, the Left Behind series, and purported ancient Mayan prophecies about the end of the world (not that our scientists could predict that, of course). In any case, Luke urges us instead to pray to be delivered from the coming catastrophe. Catastrophe or not, a prayerful life is always a good thing.
Fear and hope
Fear and hope: I sometimes wonder if our culture feeds our ambivalence on this end-times question, with television and movies joining preachers and proselytizers to scare us to death, or at least to ramp up our anxiety to almost-unbearable levels with depictions and predictions of end-of-the-world cataclysms. But does all of this talk of impending doom lead to real change in the way we live now, or do we walk away from such "entertainment" having drained our spirits and our minds of some of that anxiety, safely, so that we can return to life as usual?
Years ago, when I was at home during the day, raising children, visitors to my front door came preaching to me about the end of the world, which I had already spent most of my childhood dreading. I suggested (sincerely) that they might consider preaching the gospel - the good news - of how much God loves us and forgives us and offers us a new life of grace; I assured them that they would find doors up and down the street opening much more often, because I knew how hungry my neighbors were (as I was) for such a message. They said no, they basically had their story and were sticking with it. The dramatic end of the world was that part of the biblical message that mattered most to them, but it didn't seem to be preached in the context of anything but getting people to see things their way, even if they had to strike fear in people's hearts to make their point.
Are these "the last days"?
These contemporary proselytizers are not alone, of course. Many people throughout history have seen themselves as living in "the last days." Jesus and Paul and many if not most early Christians spoke of the end coming in their own lifetime or at least in their own generation. But so did our ancestors later on, including Martin Luther and colonial Christians like Cotton Mather in North America (see, for example, Garry Wills, Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America).
Many years ago, I read that there was an upsurge in building and planning in Christian Europe after the year 1000 turned safely, without the expected end of the world at the close of one millennium. However, Richard Ascough's observation that our anxiety levels seemed lower in 2000 than they were in 1999, on the eve of another new millennium, is poignant, for he couldn't have foreseen the terrible events of 2001 and the fear of terrorism that descended upon us that year. Truly, we never know what is just around the corner, and current events make this even more tragically clear this Advent season.
Yearning toward peace
During Advent, we're looking forward, just as our Jewish ancestors in faith looked forward, to the fulfillment of God's promises of peace. Christians see in Jesus the gift of peace, and we sing carols about that peace, and yet we look around and see that the world is not at peace. Justice does not reign, and the earth groans in pain, and nations continue to settle their disputes by killing each other's young, along with any civilians who get in the way.
Richard Swanson reminds us that there are children in our congregations (or, alas, not there) who know well what it feels like for "the sun and the stars" to fall from the sky because of parental abuse and neglect; in their small worlds, their parents are the sun and the moon and the stars. Luke wrote his Gospel in a world where the population was overwhelmingly poor peasants who had to live in the moment because of the precariousness of their lives, while those at the top concentrated on maintaining their own position, power, and wealth. If, as John Pilch says, Jesus' warning was in fact to the rich (we can always substitute the word "greedy" for "rich" in Luke's Gospel, he says), then obviously the promises were for the poor.
Advent and repentance
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their excellent book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus's Birth, help us to approach Advent as the season of repentance and preparation, but with a deeper understanding of what those words mean. Rather than seeing repentance as contrition, sorrow for our sins, confession, and doing penance, Borg and Crossan describe it as a turning toward God, but in a way that stretches us, for "to repent" really means "'to go beyond the mind that you have'" so that we might see our lives, and the whole world, in a new way.
While this reading may tempt us toward anxiety about a sudden change brought on by God in a dramatic chain of destructive events, Borg and Crossan challenge us to hear the political message in this passage, a necessary dimension of repentance that has been "eclipsed" by our more comforting and comfortable reading of the gospel. Whether one celebrates or criticizes the American Empire, they claim that it is a reality, because 'empire is about the use of superior power – military, political, and economic – to shape the world as the empire sees fit. In this sense, we are the new Rome." A sobering thought, and not at all comforting.
Christmas past, present and future
This December, while we watch one more version (movie, animated television show or play) of the personal examination of conscience by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' story, "A Christmas Carol," we might also consider what Borg and Crossan call the "three tenses" of Christmas for the world: past, present, and future. Like Paul Scott Wilson, Borg and Crossan hear Jesus speaking about an end to injustice and suffering, about "the earth's transformation, not about its devastation." Jesus is promising that justice, peace and healing for which we all long.
Borg and Crossan helpfully articulate the different ways we understand such an eschatology and our role in it: is God going to act alone to transform the earth (and all we can do is wait and pray), or do we collaborate with God to bring this new earth to reality, "the world promised by Christmas"? Or do we ignore the whole question of transformation of the earth and just concentrate on our own personal, private salvation? "The Christmas stories," Borg and Crossan write, "are not about a spectacular series of miraculous events that happened in the past that we are to believe in for the sake of going to heaven. Rather, they are about God's passion, God's dream, for a transformed earth."
"Help is on the way!"
Perhaps the most artistic commentary on this text is provided by Kathy Beach-Verhey. In my office at the UCC Church House in Cleveland, I look up from my computer screen at Vincent van Gogh's magnificent painting, The Starry Night. It's always been one of my favorites, although I never connected it to this reading about end-times. But Beach-Verhey suggests that the "apocalyptic sky" in van Gogh's painting, with its strange and dramatic beauty, is a good image for this text, offering us "[f]rightening, bold, and beautiful glimpses of God" for our reflections here, at the beginning of Advent. It's an offer we might keep in our minds and hearts as we kneel before a gentle baby this Christmas, listening for the Stillspeaking God to call us into the birth of a new and transformed and beautiful world. Or, even better, as Eugene Peterson translates our Gospel text, we should be on our feet rather than our knees: "Stand tall with your heads held high. Help is on the way!" (The Message).
For further reflection
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 20th century
"For even the very wise cannot see all ends."
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Wisdom of W.E.B. DuBois, 20th century
"Eastward and westward storms are breaking - great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty. I will not believe them inevitable."
Arundhati Roy, 20th century
"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
Dorothy Sölle, 20th century
"God dreams for us today. Today, at this moment, God has an image and hope for what we are becoming. We should not let God dream alone."
Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction, 21st century
"Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all. Amen, and come Lord Jesus."
A longer, preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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