The gospel reading for the first week of Advent plunges us into the heart of some of Jesus’ scariest words, near the end of the Olivet Discourse. Jesus is teaching in the temple, in the shadow of his own cross. By the end of the week he will be dead. You can feel the weight of atonement in his words.
Several years ago I translated these passages, let me share them with you here again:
There will be a sign on the sun, and on the moon, and among the stars as well as upon the land. The Gentiles will have anxiety over not knowing what to do, like a sound tossing the sea. Men will have died from fear and the whole inhabitation of the earth will be waiting, for the power of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the son of man coming in the clouds’ with power and all glory. Now, when these things begin to occur, you straighten up and lift up your heads because your redemption is near. And he spoke a parable to them, “You see the fig and all those other trees? When it blossoms you see for yourselves and you know now that summer is near. In the same way, when you notice these things happening you will know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you that this generation will not pass by until everything happens. The heavens and the earth will pass away but my words will never pass away. Watch yourselves, that you do not let wildness, drunkenness, and the cares of everyday life overtake your hearts in those days. It will come upon every one of those living everywhere like a trap. You must be awake at all times; praying that you will have the strength to flee out of all these things that are about to happen and to stand before the son of man.”–Luke 21:25-36
Let’s just pick apart what Jesus is saying in a literal way.
- Signs–some kind of omen– will be everywhere–sun, moon, stars and the land.
- People will be so afraid, that fear itself will kill them.
- The heavens will shake.
- The Son of Man will come from the cloud.
I can’t tell whether this is theology or science fiction. This is some worthy of blockbuster special effects. You can see why Christ-followers have struggled for years to imagine this as metaphor rather than literal activities. However, as I contemplate the text, it sounds more and more plausible.
Could a sign not simply be atmospheric changes? Pollution that blots out the sun at day and changes the color of the moon at night could be seen as a sign. The stars I find particularly fascinating as we, today, see far fewer stars in the sky than our ancestor because of light pollution. Then we think of the land. Has the land not changed? Is it not a sign that whales beach themselves, bees die off, and the forest burns constantly?
Then Jesus talks about fear and anxiety that leads to death. Perhaps he means heart attacks, strokes, or paralyzing fear. You know, the kind of fear that would rather die than keep on living. Just being honest, I can think of no better description for some segments of our society today than to describe it as afraid. Politicians make their living stoking fear.
Shaking heavens seems harder to explain, but not entirely so. The powers of the heavens are what is shaken. Maybe this is an allusion to the gods, the false gods who live in the sky. They are shaken because the cosmic order is shuffling. Another view might be a simpler technological idea: airplanes and rockets moving through the sky could be described as powers shaking the heavens.
Last, the son of man comes on the clouds. Perhaps he comes to put a stop to the shaking heavens, the fear, and to heal the land. This is an article of faith, that some day we will look up (maybe not me as odds are death will claim me first, but it will be people who have the same faith convictions I do from all over the world) and Jesus will be coming again to set all things right.
The great teacher says these words, and he sees the trepidation on his disciples face. So he tells them to not be like the gentiles, don’t be afraid. He tells them that when this stuff starts going down, their redemption is near (v. 28). Lift up your heads, he says (Ps. 24), because the King of Glory is coming.
The Lord then comes back with promises.
- This generation (the disciples) will not pass away until this happens.
- Heaven and earth will disappear, but Jesus’ words will not.
- Wildness, drunkenness, and everyday cares will consume peoples thoughts.
Let’s work backwards. The promise of wildness, drunkenness and the trap of being swallowed by the mundane is stated as a warning. Jesus expects his followers to be better than that. His words, which mean his teachings but also, I think, extend out to the entire word of God. Philosophies, political systems, the power dynamics of this world will all disappear but the way of God does not.
But the generation–it surely did pass away and here we are, yet remaining? How can such a thing be? The simple answer is this all began before the end of the week when Jesus was crucified and signs were in the heavens, people were afraid, and everything changed. But it was not the end of this transition, for a generation later Jerusalem itself fell in a great holocaust–and ever since we have lived in the tension between the times. It is the times we live in now when the wildness, drunkenness, and mundane seeks to swallow us alive, trying to make us forget that we serve a God who shakes the heavens and terrifies the world with his death defying love.