"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations caused by the roaring of the sea and the waves," proclaims Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.
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 tings begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:25-28).
On the first Sunday of Advent, the traditional New Testament readings used in worship in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches do not direct our attention toward the joys of the first Christmas. No anticipation of the sweet infant mild, a beautiful young mother, angelic choirs, or a star-filled winter sky. Silent Night is absent from this scene. Instead, Advent 1 slaps us with the uncertainty and violence of human history--signs of dread, floods, earthquakes, and "distress among nations," that cause people to "faint with fear." Those awaiting Luke's lovely story of Jesus' birth will be disappointed; this is less Luke and more like the Apocalypse.
For many of us raised with Christian apocalyptic books like The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series, images of world's end are worrisome. Progressive Christians shy away from preaching from texts like these. Over the last thirty years, we've seen end-times fears manipulated into the powerful political movement of a Christian American Right--complete with its careless disregard for the planet, the poor, and peace. Those of us more attracted to the Jesus' teaching in the Beatitudes or his prophetic politics may find Luke's end-times vision a little hard to take. We've had too much experience with a callous form of faith that does not seek to redeem the world and only wishes to escape it.
Before what we know as end-times Christianity, however, nineteenth-century liberal Protestants believed that Advent was the most appropriate part of the liturgical year to consider the signs of the times, to consider what it meant to await the end. They appreciated the poetic interplay of the first coming of Jesus with the anticipation of the second coming of Christ. Were these two distinct events, separated in time? What, exactly, is an "end"? How is Christmas, the most beloved of Christian holy days related to the wild depictions of cosmic desolation? The quiet coming of the gentle Lamb Jesus and the mighty roar of the Christ-the-Lion? The book of Revelation even conflates the two: "See the Lion of the tribe of Judah...Then I saw a Lamb."
Part of the problem with end-times theology is that western people see time as a line. We think in terms of beginning, middle, and end. Thus, to consider the "end times" is to anticipate the end of the world-as-we-know it, such as a universal devastation on the scale of the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, when history will cease to be. But the biblical texts of Advent point in another, more mysterious direction--that time is not a line. Rather, time is held in the being of God. Indeed, time is timeless. Think about it for just a moment: What do the divisions past, present, and future really mean? When does the present slip to the past? When does the future arrive? When is the now of the present? Isn't time much more of a wonder, a spiritual or philosophical question, than a line?
If we enter the Advent journey with a different perspective on time, the apocalyptic texts speak afresh. Indeed, the words of the liturgical prayer weekly reminds us of the mystery of God's redemptive time: Jesus has come; Jesus comes; Jesus will come. This is the dance of time, grace-filled steps that enact God's vision that the end-times are all times; that all times are the end-times. In this spirit of times-enfolded-in-time, we walk through Advent. Jesus has been born, but we act as if we are still waiting. Christ will return, yet Christ has already come.
What words better describe our world than those of Luke? "People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world." These are not words of some far-off moment in time. They are words of NOW: Our cities and churches are full of people who are afraid--afraid of loss of their jobs, of income, of health care, of decency, of safety, of change, of pluralism, of... of ... of ... The list of fears is nearly endless. Yet--be honest--has there ever really been a time in human history when we've not been filled with such fears? Luke's words are also the words of all of yesterdays. We may imagine that the past was better, safer, cleaner, or more stable, but that is not the case. We are a fragile lot, we humans, and our history is roiled with fear--and the stupid things that we humans do when we are afraid. And sadly, enough, they are probably the words of many of humanity's tomorrows. Apocalyptic theology does not augur escape; rather, it provides a profoundly realistic view of history--a view that should plunge us more deeply into the shalom of God-in-the-world.
Jesus says, "When you see these things, do not cower in fear, for your transformation is drawing near." Advent teaches us that in the darkest places of human oppression, the pain of hunger, and political distress that God's reign is among us. "Do not be caught off-guard by the fear-filled tides of history," Jesus warned. "But be mindful, praying for strength, that you may escape the fears that roil the earth, and may stand with God" (Luke 21:36).