A reflection on Luke 21:25-38 for the First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2021.
‘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.’
Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
Luke 21:25-38 (NRSVA)
Our passage is an odd place to begin the Advent Season. We are in the latter part of Luke’s account – much closer to Jesus’ death and resurrection than to his birth!
On top of this, few passages raise as many challenges for the reader as the one above. How literal is all this to be taken? What happens if it is taken in a more figurative way? What do the words ‘this generation’ imply in a context widely understood to be referring to end times?
One clue to answering these questions might be found in the reference to “…the Son of Man coming on a cloud”. It was originally found in Daniel 7:13 and comes straight out of Daniel’s strange ‘night visions’. The book of Daniel is apocryphal and employs a rich and varied symbolism – a consciously cryptic genre. To take Daniel seriously may not imply taking him literally.
We have no historical record of the events Jesus describes. It would be reasonable to expect some evidence if they had occurred – a man flying on clouds would be news-worthy! This absent evidence has caused literal interpreters to look to events yet to occur, namely, end times. This is not without its challenges. After all Luke specifies that whatever Jesus is referring to will take place before the passing of ‘this generation’.
History does tell of violent upheaval for Israel within a generation of Jesus. The sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD was a time when all that was taken for granted about the world had to be reconsidered. A time of great ‘distress’, ‘fear’, and ‘foreboding’. A time when the activity of God was difficult to discern. It was a message relevant to its original hearers. Indeed, it would seem almost unfair for Jesus to warn of these future events, suggest that they would occur before the end of the current generation, and then ask for their watchful response – all the while really sending a message that was only relevant to readers thousands of years into the future.
These debates are not, however, the core message here. This is an urgent call to watch expectantly – even in the darkest of times – for God is on the move in our world. Our passage seeks a people ‘on guard’.
It would seem that ‘dissipation’, ‘drunkenness’, and ‘the worries of this life’ can add up to a heavy and distracted heart. Even after hearing Jesus’ warning, and its inherent implication that God knows and sees what is to come, the day-to-day can so easily take over. Jesus’ audience can become so distracted that the day he graphically anticipates just may arrive ‘unexpectedly’ and ‘like a trap’.
Odd isn’t it. We can be forewarned and unmoved; informed and unprepared; knowledgable and unaware. We can know of the trap and then find ourselves raging in frustration against its bars.
Jerusalem’s downfall will engulf the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the faithful and the unfaithful. We are not a people apart from the events of earth. We are, with all its dangers, involved.
And as such we are called to be a vigilant and alert community who prayerfully seek God’s strength in all circumstances.
It is a big ask that may make our final verses look somewhat pedestrian. In comparison with Jesus’ grand apocalyptic vision they tell simply of the place our travellers sleep and the teaching opportunities Jesus embraced.
But maybe there is more here. In the darkness of night Jesus makes himself scarce; in the light of day he openly teaches inside the temple. He sleeps unhoused in a public garden while inspiring crowds to gather eagerly around his message.
Perhaps Jesus words and actions are more dangerous than we initially realise. If Jesus is understood by his hearers as unveiling the dark future of the stones that surround, he may already have powerful enemies. Better to sleep rough than remain too long inside temporary walls.
Encouragingly even in this compromised cathedral there are some who rise early in recognition of the treasure of ‘God among us’.
We are a peculiar people searching – though the world shakes – for any reminder of God’s activity.
And that is a relevant call for every generation.
How do you respond to the possibility of taking these prophecies in a more apocalyptic sense? How does this make you feel? Is it something you are used to or not?
What does it look like for you to be ‘alert’ to the activity of God around you? When are you most attuned to God’s presence?
Why do you think this passage opens Advent for us? What isd the connection between this anticipation and the anticipation of the birth of Jesus?