Only 203 Days Until Summer
This morning's reading from the Gospel of Luke is anything but calm and peaceful. Instead, this morning's reading tells us that Advent is not about us waiting around for a cute little baby to appear in a manger, and for some friendly old shepherds to wander in from the fields. No, Luke says, that's not what Advent is about. Jesus has already come and gone. And so what Advent is about is us waking up and being alert and looking for Jesus to come again. And according to Luke, his return is not something that we're going to be able miss. Instead, Luke says that there will be signs, violent signs—in the sun and the moon and the sky and here on earth. And when we see those signs, Luke says, we can know that Jesus' return is at hand.
And so the question that we ask, that Christians have been asking for the last 20 centuries is: when will all this take place? Exactly when will Christ return? One time there was a commercial on TV. And this religious sort of fellow was trying to get people to send in money to buy a set of his audio tapes, on which he explained his predictions about the End Times. But as he was talking, on the screen it said: "Jesus is coming soon—perhaps tomorrow. Send $10 right away for tapes that explain the second coming of Christ. Please allow six weeks for delivery." It seems that if that fellow really thought that Jesus was coming tomorrow, he might have found a little speedier way to get the tapes to his customers.
But many people have a real fascination with talk about the End Times. I know that just a couple of weeks ago I saw an ad in the local newspaper about a man who was coming to Apollo to put on a paid program about how and when, according to his reading of the Bible, the world will come to an end. And I imagine that quite a few people probably turned out to hear what he had to say.
Making predictions about when Christ will return has been an obsession for some people ever since the beginning of the Christian church. Back in 1694, there was the Woman in the Wilderness cult that spent their time each night, sitting on their roofs with telescopes, looking for signs from heaven to announce that the end was about to take place.
In 1836, a man named William Miller announced that according to his calculations, the world would come to an end in 1843. Well, 1843 came and went, and some of his followers began to doubt. But then early in 1844, a comet appeared in the sky and those people started to get excited, thinking that that was the sign that they had been waiting for. And because of that, William Miller ended up with about 50,000 followers, who believed what he had to say about Christ's return. But as time went by, and Christ didn't return as quickly as Miller predicted, his followers slowly began to fall away.
The Jehovah's Witnesses were founded by a man who thought that the world was going to end in 1874. Later he changed his prediction to 1918, 1920, 1925, 1940, and then 1975. Finally, the Jehovah's Witness adopted a new policy—a policy that said that you shouldn't try to set dates.
But people continue to look for signs that the end is near. That's what that mess with the Heaven's Gate cult was all about, the ones who committed that mass suicide out in California. When comet Hale-Bopp appeared, they figured that was their cue that the Last Days were at hand. Or down in a trailer park in Texas, there is a group of 500 people who call themselves the House of Yahweh, who predicted that nuclear bomb explosions would bring the world to an end on October 13, 2000.
What are we to make of this passage in Luke, that tells us that Jesus is going to return? Should we look at all those wrong predictions that have been made across the ages and just sort of chuckle to ourselves? No, I think we need to take the belief in Jesus' return very seriously. But what we also need to take seriously is where Jesus said: "As for the day or the hour, no one knows. Only God the Father knows." In other words, Jesus is coming. But exactly when, we cannot know.
At one point during World War II, General Douglas MacArthur decided that it was time for him to leave the Philippines. You see, the Japanese were approaching the Philippine Islands in overwhelming numbers, so MacArthur left, in order to regroup his forces. But before he departed, he uttered the famous words: "I shall return." MacArthur didn't lay out his plans as to precisely when he would return. Rather he simply gave his word, his promise, that he would indeed come back. And in a similar way, that's the promise that Jesus has given to us. The promise that he will return.
But still there's something inside of us that wants to know when. For instance, after the Russians defeated the Germans at Stalingrad in the Second World War, many people predicted that Germany would fall within three months. Well, the fall of Germany didn't happen quite that quickly. And so the people were wrong as to their prediction of the time. But the people were right in seeing that the battle of Stalingrad was a real turning point in the war. That it truly was a sign that the end for Nazis was drawing near.
And that's what the resurrection of Jesus is for us. When Jesus was raised from the dead, that was a sign to us that a turning point had been reached. That the forces of evil and death in the world aren't going to march on triumphantly forever. Instead the day of their final defeat and God's final victory is getting closer and closer.
Right now we look around outside, and all we seem to see is death: cold, gray winter skies, barren trees, shriveled, dried up corn stalks out in the fields. But even though there seems to be no life, no hope, anywhere we look, we can still know that in 203 days or so, it will be summer. Even as the icy winds blow and snow starts to fall, we can know that summer is on its way.
And Luke reminds us that it's the same with Jesus. As we look around us and see a wintry world filled with hate and violence and war and crime and disaster, we can trust that the day is coming when that winter will come to an end, and the never-ending summer of God's kingdom will come upon us.
So when we read in the Bible about the End Times, that isn't bad news. It's good news. It's good news that all of the hate and violence and war and crime and disaster in the world, that those things aren't going to go on forever. Instead, their days are numbered.
Recently I saw a cartoon, and the one character said: "Look here. I just developed a completely reusable newspaper. It's the last newspaper that you'll ever have to buy." So the other person looked at the headlines: "Pope denounces violence. Unrest in the Middle East. Consumer prices continue to rise." The idea, of course, is that the bad news we read about today is basically the same bad news we read about years ago and is quite probably the same bad news that we're going to read about in the years ahead. But here in our reading today from Luke, Jesus tells us that that bad news won't go on forever, there will be a day when all the bad will come to an end.
So, knowing that Jesus will return, knowing that all the evil in the world will come to an end one day, that gives us the ability to look at the world in a different light. For instance, probably you've seen those black and white pictures. If you look at the picture a certain way, you see of a picture of say, a lady. But then if you turn the picture on its side and refocus, all of a sudden you see another picture, a picture of a circus. In both cases, it's the same thing there on the paper. But it's a matter of how we look at it. You see, so often we look around, and we end up believing that it's the power of sin and evil that's really in charge. But Jesus tells us to take another look. And when we do that, we start to see that those powers of sin and evil are really on their last legs, that their days are numbered. And that in fact, it's God who's the one who's really in charge.
It's like the story in the Acts of the Apostles. One of the leaders in the early church, Stephen, was taken away to be stoned to death. And just as everyone was about to start throwing rocks at him to kill him, Stephen looked up in the sky, and he saw a vision of Jesus standing there. Stephen could have been tempted just to look at his executioners. But if he had done that, he would have figured that his situation was rather hopeless. But as he lifted up his head to heaven, he saw Jesus. And he realized that he did have a hope, a hope that nothing in the world could take away from him.
The message of Advent is not that the world is falling to pieces. We don't need Luke to have to tell us that. And the message of Advent is not that God is in heaven and so all's right with the world. We know that's simply not true. Instead, Advent is a season to remember that even when the whole planet and everything it seems to be spinning out of control, we don't have to be afraid. Instead, we're told to lift up our heads. To lift our heads and see Jesus. Because he is coming. And he alone is our hope and our salvation.
C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church