Preaching Luke 21:25-36
The church year begins anew today with the first Sunday of Advent. We are getting ready to sing carols about sweet baby Jesus lying peacefully in a manger. Children are donning bathrobes and fabric wings in anticipation of the annual Christmas pageant. A sense of joy is beginning to pervade even the darkest places as wreaths and tinsel and sparkling lights decorate the ordinary fixtures of our lives. What a jarring shock it is, then, to welcome this special season with a Scripture text about dreadful signs in the heavens and distress on the earth! We thought Christmas was about lions and lambs lying down together and peace among all people.
Perhaps the first thing we must deal with in preaching this gospel text is its radical discontinuity with the traditional expectations we bring to the Advent season. We might focus on the Messiah's dramatic entrance into human existence that is ever-present as a theme parallel to the kind of "silent night" portrayal of his coming with which we are more familiar (and more comfortable). Mary's "Magnificat" from the first chapter of Luke's gospel is an obvious example of the dichotomous nature of the incarnation. Through the baby Mary carries in her womb, God has "shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree." Matthew's birth narrative includes its own element of horror with the story of the slaughter of the innocents, and John's gospel opens with an account of light breaking into darkness and of the Word's rejection by the world he was sent to save. The confrontations of the established order with the unexpected nature of God's reign and of the forces of darkness and evil with the forces of light and good appear to be a necessary prelude to the establishment of God's new order.
Like the gospel text of two weeks ago, this text raises the problem of preaching apocalyptic texts in an age when most of Christendom is either far removed from preoccupation with the end times or obsessively engaged in preparation for them. Much of Jesus' teaching was eschatological in nature, and the situation of the early church perpetuated Christian concerns with and hope for the end time. As followers of Jesus Christ today, we have inherited this eschatological outlook. Believers before us and around us have translated that eschatological outlook into some perhaps well-intentioned but misguided behavior. Some have removed themselves from society to await Christ's Second Coming. One such group from American religious history was the Millerites of the mid-nineteenth century. Following their leader who claimed to have calculated the precise date and time of Christ's coming from his study of Scripture, the Millerites gathered on a mountain in New York state to greet the returning Savior. The event portrayed in the gospel never occurred, resulting in what became known as the "Great Disappointment." More recently some believers expected Christ's appearance in October, 1992, and went so far as to resign their jobs and sell their possessions. Once again, a great disappointment occurred, reminding us of Christ's admonition against predicting the day or hour of his coming.
The message of today's text mediates the two extremes of obsessive concern with Christ's coming and disinterested complacency. It speaks of a mode of living characterized by expectation rather than preoccupation, by hope rather than dread, and by active involvement rather than passive resignation. The "new thing" God is doing in the coming of Christ is a cataclysmic interruption in the routines we have come to know and cherish. There is nothing ordinary nor predictable about the dawn of God's redemptive work. Such a realization should offer hope and comfort to us as we face the challenges of life, for we live in the knowledge that God can—and does—work on our behalf in the most unexpected ways.
Like the season of Advent itself, this text is about waiting, giving us an ideal approach to a sermon. Waiting is never easy. From the ancient Israelites to the early church community, faithful believers have waited for the dawn of God's redemption. Now it is our turn to wait. Of course, we should be used to waiting by now, for we do so much of it. We wait: for loved ones who are ill to become well or to pass on to another realm; for prodigals to return home; for relationships to change. We wait as a community: for the church to become more like the reconciled body Christ intended it to be; for walls of prejudice to fall down; for peace to reign on earth.
The good news of this text is that although we as Christians wait along with the rest of creation for the appearance of the Son of Man, we wait with hope. Our eyes of faith can see beyond this present darkness to the light of God's redemption that shines brighter than any despair that threatens to impair our vision. We can see beyond the way things are to the way they can be. Such farsightedness is the result of our sure and certain belief in God's ultimate rule. We know "the rest of the story," as radio commentator Paul Harvey would say. We know that God will triumph, and God's people will be redeemed. Our faithful waiting will be rewarded.
Many first-century Christians waited for the return of Christ only to be martyred for their faithfulness. History reports that some of them—perhaps even some from the community of Luke who wrote down these apocalyptic words—sang an ancient form of the doxology while being led to their deaths. Like them, we can stand up and raise our heads. We can wait patiently yet expectantly through the long, dark winters of the soul with hope, for we know that the future belongs to God in Jesus Christ. Here is good news for those who wait.