AN APOCALYPTIC CHRISTMAS
25‘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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’…34‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.’
(Luke 21:25-28, 34-36, NRSV)
I feel bad about today’s scripture reading. You’ve come to church today, in this season of joy, expecting carols, candles, and the comfort of tradition. You got that. But instead of hearing a warm, fuzzy scripture about Christmas, you had to sit through an extremist account of what sounds like the end of the world: earth in distress, nations confused, and people fainting from fear. For THIS you got up and made your way here? When you could have stayed home with the NY Times or gone somewhere for brunch? Kind of reminds me of one of John Walter’s favorite phrases: no good deed goes unpunished.
In my defense, I’ll let you know that this passage was recommended by the lectionary for today. The lectionary, for those of you here who did not major in biblical studies, is a series of readings from the Bible parceled out for each Sunday. If followed, a church will cover the majority of the Bible in three years.[i] Sounds reasonable, but why was today’s passage chosen for today? After all, today is the Second Sunday of Advent, the time we start looking toward Christmas, a time of birth, not the end of days.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” Each week in Advent has a theme, which underscores a crucial element in the Christian life. The first week points to hope, the hope we have from God in this life and the next. Today we highlight peace, the peace that God desires in the world as well as the peace of mind that our faith can bring. The third week focuses on joy, the kind of joy that cannot be bought and only comes through trust in something greater than ourselves. The fourth week points to love, the love of God shown to us in the birth of Jesus and the love for others revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.
This brings us to Christmas Eve, the night we sing “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” The night we watch our children become Christmas Pageant angels and sheep. The night we read Luke’s account of the humble birth of our heavenly King. The good stuff.
Until Christmas arrives, in all that busy in-between time, we live in the days of Advent, a time for looking back at the events leading up to Christ’s first advent on earth, Christmas. And a time for looking to our future meeting with Christ at the end of time, in his second advent or appearance.
At first glance it’s difficult to tell what today’s apocalyptic words have to do with the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. Where do we find hope amidst earthquakes, famine, pestilence, and strange signs in the stars, sun, and moon? What are we to make of ANY apocalyptic passages for that matter? And why are we reading them only a few weeks before Christmas?
Even though they’re not my favorite passages in the Bible, I do believe there’s a message for us here. It’s important to remember that the writers of apocalyptic passages in the Bible often wrote in symbols and codes so that their Christian audience would understand, but the people who persecuted them would not.
My own avoidance of the whole “end times” subject goes back to my childhood, spent in a theologically conservative church. Growing up, the Second Coming of Christ always seemed more of a threat than a promise. I was encouraged to always be ready and on the lookout for signs of his coming. And most importantly, to be prepared to stand before the judgment seat and account for everything, yes everything I ever did, said, or thought.
Naturally, this was enough to make me want to keep Jesus as far away as possible. I knew that when he returned, he would be really ticked. This threatening view of a vengeful God is far removed from my life today, but passages like today’s remind me of how the Bible can be manipulated to make people feel fearful and ashamed.
I don’t believe that God wants us to live our lives in fear, anxious about what punishment might be inflicted upon us. Instead of causing anxiety, I think this passage is meant to heighten our anticipation and to encourage our faith.
When we read apocalyptic literature, it seems best to avoid getting hung up on the details and images, most of which are symbolic, and instead ask the question of why this passage was written in the first place. Apocalyptic passages were written to encourage first century believers. The overriding message is that God has not forgotten us, and that oppressors will not reign forever. The point here is for us to keep the faith in difficult times, because with God there is always hope, in this life and the next.
In verse 28, Jesus says straight out that when it seems like the whole world is falling apart, “…look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (21:28b). This sentence sums up the reason why today’s apocalyptic sayings are part of the lectionary. The point of the passage doesn’t rest in the unsettling imagery. The point comes from the promise that “redemption is drawing near.” And that is the reason we observe Advent—to look back at that moment when redemption drew near to us in a humble Bethlehem stable, and to look forward to the day when our redemption will be complete, when we see God face to face.
Today’s scripture tells us to look forward in hope not despair, in glad anticipation, not paralyzing anxiety. When redemption first drew near, the angels told the shepherds, “Fear not.” “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall come to all people.”
All the people, from Mary and Joseph, to shepherds and Magi, to those of us gathered here today. May the tidings of this season calm our fears and bring us joy. May they remind us to always choose love. And may they bring us ever closer to the redemptive God who draws near. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
December 9, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, we long to feel your presence in this holy season. We long to bring peace and love and hope to a world sore in need of these gifts. We trust your promise that goodness and grace are drawing near in the person of Jesus. We see hope in the compassion which can overturn injustice, in the forgiveness which can heal a broken heart, in the wonder and wow which can illuminate our deepest longings. As we journey through Advent together, draw us closer to you and closer to one another.
Through Jesus the Prince of Peace we pray. AMEN.
This prayer was adapted from a prayer by Thom Shuman found at http://lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.com.
[i] Each week there are four scriptures in the following categories: a general Old Testament reading, Psalms, Gospels, a general New Testament reading. The passages often relate to one another, at least in theme and follow the seasons of the church year.