Happy New Year!
That’s right. Today marks the beginning of the new church year. For you liturgy geeks, this is Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle, which means we will be hearing a lot from the gospel according to Luke over the next 12 months.
But the gospel passage assigned for the first Sunday in Advent, this first Sunday in the new church year, does not come from the beginning of Luke. It comes from near the end, as Jesus is preparing his disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them in the flesh. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for one purpose only: to give his life for the redemption of us all. His earthly ministry is nearing its completion, and he knows it.
So see if this gospel reading sounds a little familiar, like something you’ve heard from Mark and John over the past couple of weeks:
“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 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.” – Luke 21:25-36
What did you hear? Was any of this familiar to you? Did you hear the words of revelation – or apocalyptic writing – about what will happen at the end of time? Did you hear the warning to be alert, so that the Day of the Lord does not catch you unprepared?
This is why we hear these words during Advent. It is the season of preparation for the coming of the Christ. Only, we aren’t just anticipating the cute baby Jesus in the manger during this season. We also anticipate Christ’s coming in glory at the end of the age, when he will usher in the Kingdom of God in its fullness.
But how do these verses bring us Hope? To get to that answer, we need to tackle a couple of problems they throw at us.
First of all, there’s this element of fear associated with the images Jesus reveals in these words. Jesus even acknowledges this in verse 26 – “People will faint from fear,” he says. Now, keep in mind that throughout scripture, whenever humans encounter a heavenly being or the voice of God comes to them, the first words we usually hear are “Fear not.”
When God is revealed to us in a way our senses can process, the enormity of that encounter can be pretty scary. So each of these encounters in scripture usually starts with, “Don’t be afraid.” We’ll hear more about that in a couple of weeks. For now, it’s important to notice that Jesus does not offer these words of assurance to his disciples – or to us – as he is revealing the signs of God’s coming kingdom. Instead, he warns that people will be so afraid, it will take their breath away, and they will faint from fear. Where is the hope in that?
Another problem presented in this passage is the sign of the fig tree. Now, Jesus likes to use fig trees as illustrations. We get this same fig tree parable in Matthew 24:32 and Mark 13:28, and in both of those gospels, Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit. In the gospel according to John, Jesus calls Nathanael as a disciple after seeing him sitting under a fig tree. Throughout the Old Testament, being able to sit under your own fig tree is a sign of peace and prosperity.
The problem with this “parable” as Luke calls it, is the way Jesus describes the predictability of a fig tree’s growth cycle as like something that is completely unpredictable – the coming of the Son of Man. We know what to expect from a fruit tree when it starts to bud out in the Spring, because we’ve seen it happen year after year. We can count on it, because we’ve experienced it. Leaves coming before fruit is within the realm of how we know the world works.
So how can Christ’s second coming be anything like that? We’ve never experienced it before. It’s a once-in-an-eternity event. There is no precedent. And the signs Jesus tells us to look for don’t help at all. Distress among nations, confusion, natural disasters – we’ve heard about these things for so long we’ve become numb to the news.
And maybe that’s the point Jesus is trying to make.
Look up. Lift up your head when you see these things. They are a sign that your redemption is near.
Not soon. Near.
Salvation is close enough you can reach out and touch it. Christ’s presence is with you. That’s what the name Emmanuel means – God is with us. That’s reason to hope. Lift up your heads.
I love that encouragement! It’s sprinkled through the psalms of David.
In Psalm 3:1-3 we read:
O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying to me, ‘There is no help for you in God.’
But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory,
and the one who lifts up my head.
Can you just picture David, the mighty warrior of Israel, exhausted from battle and worried by the taunts of his enemies, bowed down in despair – and God reaching out to this one he loves, gently lifting his head so he can see that God is with him? Can you see God reaching down to you in your despair, and gently lifting your head to see that your redemption is near, you can reach out and touch it?
We often hear Psalm 24 on Palm Sunday: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!”
Kathy Beach-Verhey writes, “The good news of Advent is not simply that Christ is coming, but that his coming means we can hope, despite all that is falling apart in our lives, our communities, and the world around us. Just as the leaves on the fig tree offer hope in late winter that summer is coming again, so God’s Word, in Jesus, promises us new life.”
This is a new church year, the year of Luke. A theme woven throughout this gospel is the theme of reversal. We get it even in the arrangement of the readings for Advent – starting at the end and working our way forward in the story. We will hear it most clearly in a couple of weeks, as Mary sings her song magnifying God.
But in the meantime, we watch for the signs that God is doing a new thing in our midst. Right here, so close you can reach out and touch it.
A few weeks ago, most of your elected church leaders gathered on their regular meeting night, but they set aside the work they would normally do at a monthly meeting. Instead, they surrendered that time to considering the patterns of behavior that have shaped this church. Some of those patterns are healthy ones. They have promoted growth and fruitfulness. Other patterns they identified have not served us as well. These patterns of behavior, repeated over the years, have prevented this congregation from being as fruitful as it could have been.
In a few weeks, you will be invited into this conversation – partly because some of the unhealthy patterns named in the leaders’ conversation had to do with transparency, trust, and communication bottlenecks, but also because giving you the opportunity to name the patterns you have seen will allow the whole congregation to participate in correcting behaviors that don’t serve us well, so we can focus our energy on following Jesus so closely others want to follow him, too.
This is our hope. This is why we endure with hope: so that we can share the love of Christ we have come to experience ourselves with people who need Christ’s love. We endure with hope so the redemption we experience in Christ Jesus can become redemption for all God’s children. The kingdom of God is near.
 Kathy Beach-Verhey, Feasting On the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 25.)