I shared the following sermon on November 28, 2021 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY.
Passage: Luke 21:25–36
If I could paraphrase the words of a Jedi master this morning:
“This isn’t the Advent sermon you were looking for.”
And if you were hoping for a clever, light-hearted opening anecdote after a Gospel reading like that, I’ve gotta tell ya: you’re out of luck.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we have a rather unexpected story of waiting. Rather than waiting for the wonder of God’s coming as a tiny infant, the disciples were waiting for a national tragedy and a personal upheaval.
The disciples had just walked out of the temple courts and marveled at the massive stones around them. And as impressive as these stones surely appeared then and now, Jesus assured them they would also marvel at their destruction in the near future.
The disciples were waiting, but they were waiting for the loss of a treasured national and religious institution and many of their hopes for the future.
What did Jesus say to people who were on the brink of a major national disaster? He didn’t give them precise details. In fact, he spoke in a lot of symbolic language that was derived from the literature of his day.
Today’s passage is full of sayings and images that are extremely unfamiliar to us but would have been familiar to the disciples and Jesus.
At the risk of getting too tangled up in the background, I want to at least draw your attention to the title “Son of Man.” By considering what Jesus may have meant here based on the words he chose, we may get a better sense of the entire passage.
Jesus frequently referred to himself as the Son of Man, and it’s a phrase that could have meant just someone who is a human. But it can also carry a deeper meaning based on Daniel and Jewish literature between the Old and New Testaments.
Even the language of turmoil in the heavens with “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” was a common literary device from Jesus’ day that could refer to currents events in symbolic terms.
The Son of Man was a figure who would bring justice and judgment at the end of time after a period of suffering and struggle. It’s not hard to see why Jesus would refer to himself in this way during the Roman occupation.
In addition to promising a kind of relief to Roman rule through the Kingdom of God, Jesus also saw himself as revealing the truth about those around him. By their words and deeds they would be rewarded by God, even if Jesus’ ministry and salvation have always been based on God’s mercy and grace.
Now, about that time of suffering and struggle, Jesus had a lot of disturbing things to say to his disciples. This passage is the ending of a longer conversation about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, if not the entire city by the Roman Army.
Historically, we know that it happened in 70 AD and that it was a horrifying loss of life and destruction. We can visit the old streets of Jerusalem today that have been excavated, and the massive stones the disciples once marveled over are still indented deep into the sidewalks.
It was a national trauma we can only approximate in small parts with our nation’s recent history of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and the coup of January 6th. It’s no wonder that Jesus has described people as being in distress and faint from fear.
Prior to today’s passage, Jesus also described the kind of persecution his disciples would face at the hands of their own religious leaders. In short, his disciples would face alienation from every religious institution they had known all of their lives and then watch their nation’s most treasured buildings get laid to waste.
These were inexplicable tragedies they would have to wait for. This isn’t the kind of waiting we expect to find during Advent where we typically look to the hope of a newborn infant king. This is a difficult, dreadful waiting. But Jesus offers his disciples and us some simple, concrete ideas about how to handle this kind of waiting.
Now, before we say more about Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, I feel like I need to address the part of this passage where Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming in the clouds. It’s an unusual statement that doesn’t really have a consensus of views that I can find.
One moment Jesus was speaking about the walls of Jerusalem being toppled and his disciples being persecuted by the Jewish religious leaders, and then the next, he is predicting the arrival of the Son of Man in the clouds.
He doesn’t say what the Son of Man is going to do in the clouds or where he’s going or what happens next after this moment in the clouds.
Now, we know that Jesus will return. That’s not in dispute. In the book of Acts his disciples watched Jesus ascend, and the angels assured them that Jesus would return in much the same way.
It’s interesting in this passage that Jesus chose to use the title Son of Man to describe this appearance in the clouds. And it’s interesting how this brief divine inbreaking in history is more or less sandwiched between quite practical advice about how to deal with historical events that happened to his disciples.
Some have made a lot about this passage addressing the return of Jesus. While I don’t dispute the hope of Jesus’ return to bring justice and deliverance, the burden of proof falls significantly on those with a future focus rather than those with a historical focus.
Consider this, if we added up all of the verses in this chapter that have a clear historical reference against those that may speak to the future, the majority speak to the history and perhaps two or three could speak to a future coming of the Son of Man.
Remember, we aren’t quite sure how Jesus was using this phrase “Son of Man,” and the details in this passage are sparse about what the Son of Man will even do when he appears in the clouds or what exactly he meant when he spoke of people standing before the Son of Man.
I won’t rule out some out some reference to the future in this passage, but any kind of future application is going to take a lot of work. Keep in mind that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
At the very least, the coming tragedy of Jerusalem that will upend what people rely on can stand as a kind of type for future disruptions. The way the disciples waited and prepared can stand as a type for how we wait and prepare.
Ultimately, our choices and preparation will be revealed by God for what they are. Have we waited well and prepared for the future or will the Son of Man reveal that we have only indulged in distractions to help us get through another day?
Whatever the details of the future of the revelation of Jesus may be, there is still so much we can meditate on without getting wrapped up in end times debates.
As much as we can get tangled up in how much Jesus was speaking about the future and how much of it applied to events in ancient Israel, there is a lot here about waiting. Jesus’ words may help us during an Advent where we are enduring and anticipating many difficult circumstances.
For starters, when people were in distress and faint from fear over the looming threat of Rome, Jesus told his followers “look up to God for your redemption is near.”
In the midst of these wars and rumors of wars and a time of unspecified turmoil in the sky, the followers of Jesus should pay attention a lot like a farmer watching the seasons. Changes will come. We can’t stop them, but we can observe them and look to God for comfort and direction.
Every farmer has plans for the different seasons. Farmers don’t spend the winter looking out the window longing for summers gone by. They test their soil and plan the next season. They are hopeful that enduring the winter will give way to the renewal of spring.
It is hard to watch the warmth of summer fade as each falling leaf beckons the arrival of the darker, colder days of winter. And it is hard to watch the comforting patterns of our past fade away, to see new disturbing trends, and to wonder and worry about what the future holds.
I miss living in a time when we didn’t have a pandemic looming over every gathering of people.
I miss living in a time when we didn’t have the immediate threat of climate change.
I miss living in a time when we didn’t have social media facilitating conflict between us.
I miss living in a time when we knew that politicians would honor election results instead of inspiring violence in our capital.
The reality is that far too many people have been living with injustice, inequality, and neglect. We aren’t guaranteed that violent crimes will be judged justly or that our laws will guarantee peace and safety.
How can we pay attention to the challenges of our time that are filled with rumors, anxieties, and worries? Jesus says to both pay attention and to not get weighed down by the worries of life. That seems easier said than done, but let’s give it a shot.
First, we can recognize the traps that prevent us from waiting well. If giving in to obsessing about our worries is one trap, another trap is denial or distraction. This is the trap that a lot of people prefer.
We can distract ourselves with buying things, entertainment, drinking too much, eating too much, and filling our lives with screens that help us escape being alone with our own thoughts. We can’t run away from the challenges of this moment, and sooner or later the anxiety and worry we avoid will overtake us.
Second, if avoiding or indulging our worries is bad for us, we can accept our circumstances. Even if we can do some things to make life better for ourselves and our neighbors, we also need to see this season of life for what it is and accept that we often can’t control what’s coming next.
Our one recourse is to turn to God in faith. We can look up for our redemption. We can wait in faith that God will not abandon us. In fact, God has already come among us once and given us his Holy Spirit to comfort and guide us through our uncertain season of waiting.
Jesus knows about the burden of waiting and that we may even be waiting for things that are beyond what we can bear. That is why Jesus said to pray for strength.
He urged his disciples to pray for strength to endure the tragedy coming to Jerusalem, and his words continue to speak to us.
While we wait, we have one job to do, and perhaps that one job can save us from obsessing or worrying or losing ourselves in indulgent distractions. Our one job is to watch and pray.
It’s not enough to just watch.
It’s not enough to just pray.
We need to be aware of what is happening around us and entrust ourselves to God, looking to God for our direction and comfort. Jesus will reveal what is in our hearts, what we value, and how we have spent our time.
This is a season to place our hope in God’s coming justice, but it’s also a time to face the uncertainty of life.
How will we meet uncertainty and worry?
How will we face the upheaval of tomorrow?
Waiting well doesn’t rule out action. Rather, waiting well may even prepare us to act.
Our foundation for waiting well is to watch and pray. Watch the events unfolding around us with clear eyed realism. Don’t get swept up in hysteria and reactions, but don’t hide from reality.
And then pray about what you see. Pray for strength. Pray with hope in God alone to help you stand with integrity and wisdom.
From the stability of faith in God, we may find renewed capacity to act in keeping with God’s will for justice, righteousness, and restoration.
Being alert and aware of our times doesn’t mean we have to be fearful or overcome with dread. Being alert means that we watch what is before us, and then we meet the moment with unwavering faith that God is for us and God is with us.
Our hope is that we will one day stand before the Son of Man to be redeemed because we have spent time today on our knees.
We have one job during this season: to watch and to pray.
Image source: Unsplash.