Awaiting what?

2 December 2012
First Sunday of Advent
Advent 1C (RCL)
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

The readings on the First Sunday of Advent always focus on the “Second Advent” of Christ, the return of the Son of Man. That means the readings often carry a tone of dire calamity soon to come. Not the best day in the liturgical calendar to celebrate a Name Festival (as for Church of the Advent). How does one await dire calamity and rejoice at the same time for the gift of a congregation named Advent?

The early church lived with the expectation of Jesus’ immediate return as the Son of Man, coming with the clouds and with God’s glory (an image taken from the book of Daniel). The early we can go back in the literature, the greater the expectation, it appears — Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians seems to think it could be any day now. Scholars talk about the problem the delay of the Parousia posed for the church. Luke, writing his Gospel well after the destruction of the Temple, seems to grapple most with the problem. He has created a three-fold division of history. The age of Israel and the prophets last up until John the Baptist; the age of Jesus of Nazareth lasts from Jesus’ baptism until his Ascension (note that Luke moves John out of the way before Jesus’ baptism, a difficult literary feat); and then the age of the Church from Pentecost until — who knows? We are living in “this generation,” that is, the age of the Church. His second volume, Acts, chronicles the age of the church up until Paul’s preaching in Rome, to all the nations.

Luke has some work to do with Mark’s “little apocalypse” (chapter 13) to make it fit with this scheme of history. Mark, writing much closer to the destruction of the Temple (and possible just before), saw that event as the final, cataclysmic event of history. All that’s left is the final credits. There are those standing here who will not die before they see the coming of the Kingdom, says Mark.

Luke changes that to “This generation will not pass away until . . .” Luke also softens the cataclysmic character of the end. When you see these things happening, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your redemption is near. This is quite different from “run for the hills.” Also, in using the parable of the fig tree, he suggests that summer is near, altogether a good time.

What are we waiting for? We are no longer waiting for the “Second Coming” and tend to laugh at or pity people who are. But every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, we read about the second advent of Christ. What does that look like? In Luke’s version of the little apocalypse, Jesus warns his followers not to let their hearts be heavy with drunkenness and a hangover. In Ecclesiasticus, the godless decide to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow they die. Clearly, Luke expects Jesus’ followers to be waiting for something other than death.

But the word for hearts being heavy occurs only twice in Luke, once here, and once on the Mount of the Transfiguration, when the disciples eyes were heavy with sleep. Fortunately, they were able to stay awake and see the transfigured Christ. Again, in the garden of Gethesmane, the disciple fell asleep, and failed to watch with Jesus. Luke wants us to see the second advent of the son of man in the midst of every day life, and even in the midst of what looks like calamity.

When Luke uses the parable of the fig tree putting forth its leaves, he adds, “and all the other trees.” The fig tree is often used as a metaphor for Israel (see especially Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Mark’s Gospel, sandwiched around the parable of the wicked tenants). Is Luke expanding the second Advent to include all the nations? Certainly, in Revelation, the tree with its leaves is for the healing of the nations.

Perhaps Luke is interpreting the calamity of the destruction of the Temple as the opening of the way to God to all nations. Where are we afraid of losing identity that we could see instead as an opening of the closed circle to all?

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