Date: November 28, 2021
Bible Text: Luke 21:25-36 | Bart Smith
Jesus’ words couldn’t be more out of step from the mood of the season, could they?
I thought about this while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. I watched as some celebrity on a float belted out the Nsync song, “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.” Do you know that one?
It's a wonderful feeling
Feel the love in the room from the floor to the ceiling
It's that time of year
Christmastime is here
Contrast that with the gospel reading: “Panic and confusion will grow strong when they hear the sea roar and see the waves swell. The people will shake with fear, and hearts will fall to the ground when they see what is happening to the world around them.”
Because Christmas is right around the corner, we’re starting to think about the babe in the manger, but the lectionary doesn’t give us the cooing infant, not yet. No, we get the fully-fledged adult in his final days, the grown up who’s foretelling the impending destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the shadow of that same temple. We get Apocalyptic Jesus. We get Apocalyptic Jesus talking about the Human One, the Son of Man returning to earth to usher in the Last Judgment. Apocalyptic Jesus urging his followers to stand on guard for what is to come.
Again, happy Advent.
We can’t escape Advent’s apocalyptic tones. Advent is two-pronged: we turn our attention to the birth of Christ/the First Coming, but also to the Second Coming/the end of time. We name the fact that the church “lives and moves and has its being” in a saturated in-between time, in a now-and-not-yet season somewhere between the First and the Second Comings of Christ.
Matthew nodded to it in that passage about the sheep and the goats, the “least of these”. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica about it: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will be the first to rise…” The Revelation of John goes into fantastical detail about Armageddon, the New Jerusalem, and the like.
I observe that, in Christian circles, people either revel in the Second Coming — I’m thinking of the Left Behind rapture crowd — or sweep it under the rug as embarrassing mythology.
What I’m wondering, though, is this: is there a middle ground, perhaps, where we take this seriously, but not literally?
Any talk of judgment, let alone the Last Judgment, makes people squirm. Understandably so! The idea that God sorts people into camps of the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the damned, sounds like bad news. It’s unsettling, especially when we proclaim a loving and inclusive God. People warp the idea of The Judgment in all sorts of really harmful ways, so we have to be careful when we start drawing lines between who’s in and who’s out. Anne Lamott once quipped, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” We have to tread lightly; it's God's judgment, not ours.
But at its heart, the Second Coming is good news because it means that God will finally come to set the world to rights. Christ returns to bring true justice once and for all; to rescue the oppressed and balance the scales; to bring healing to fractured relationships; to restore creation to balance, to its original goodness and beauty; to establish shalom, that deep and abiding peace where all creaturely life flourishes as it was intended.
Put as plainly as possible: it means that God comes to clean up the mess we’ve made of things.
The team at A Sanctified Art, the collective of minister-artists who’ve created the content we’re using this Advent, center the season on the theme of “Close to Home,” of homecoming. God comes to make her home among us. With that theme in one hand and this text from Luke’s gospel in the other, the theme of homesickness emerges, homesickness for a world that has yet to arrive. There’s an old Welsh word that sort of translates to the English “homesickness,” Hiraeth. Hiraeth is “A spiritual longing for a home that maybe never was. Nostalgia for ancient places to which we cannot return. It is the echo of the lost places of our soul’s past and our grief for them… It is nowhere and it is everywhere.”
It doesn’t take but a brief glance at the headlines or a look at our own lives or the lives of our neighbors to know that things aren’t as they should be. I was struck by what the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta tweeted in the wake of the conviction of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers: “This verdict upholds a sense of accountability, but not true justice. True justice looks like a Black man not having to worry about being harmed—or killed—while on a jog, while sleeping in his bed, while living what should be a very long life. Ahmaud should be with us today.”
There is a holy yearning deep within us for human community to be a certain way, a way we’ve never really known or seen… not fully, at least. We’ve tasted it maybe, but it’s not yet realized. Advent suspends the manufactured holiday cheer long enough to tell the truth about that longing, that deep longing for home, that spiritual homesickness. It’s into that that Christ comes to the “house” we’ve let lapse into disrepair, to “renovate” it from the inside out.
So how do we live with this homesickness? How ought we to live in the in-between time between Christ’s First and Second Comings, however we understand those, literally or metaphorically?
As disturbing as Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Luke are, there’s something relatable about them: their urgency. There are indeed times when “on the earth the nations will tremble with fear. Panic and confusion will grow strong when they hear the sea roar and see the waves swell. The people will shake with fear, and hearts will fall to the ground when they see what is happening to the world around them.” Sounds like the last twenty months, doesn’t it, or the ripple effects of climate change over the last several years? Remember the children’s book, Chicken Little? It feels sometimes, on an interpersonal level and a societal level, as if “the sky is falling!”
In the face of that, beloved, we have choices. We can hunker down out of fear and withdraw into our “shells” like turtles. My hunch is that’s why Jesus references drinking in this passage, by the way, because we often try to numb ourselves to the chaos and calamity around us.
I’ll close with a story about a time when some people thought Christ’s return was imminent. People think that all the time it seems; history, especially American history, is littered with examples of would-be prophets who predicted a date, only to come up short. The New England Historical Society tells the story of May 19, 1780:
The sun came up as usual, but then the skies over New England darkened as far north as Portland, Maine, and as far south as New Jersey...
The Dark Day [as it was called] inspired terror, panic and puzzlement. Men prayed and women wept. Thousands left off work and took to taverns and churches for solace. Children were sent home from school. Bewildered chickens went to their roosts, frightened cattle returned to their stalls, the night birds whistled and frogs peeped as they did at midnight.
Was it an eclipse? A blazing star? The transit of Venus?...
[Actually, the storm resulted from the atmospheric collision of fog from the ocean and smoke from a wildfire in Canada.]
In Connecticut, members of the Legislature… feared the Dark Day signified the Day of Judgment. Some members clamored to adjourn the session.
[A man named] Abraham Davenport earned lasting fame for his response: “I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”
As people of faith we don’t “turtle up.” To the contrary! We lift up our heads. We take heart. We stay alert. That’s hope — not wishful thinking or passive waiting — but active hope. That’s our duty. As one theologian put it, “Christian hope [is not] an ‘opium of the beyond’ but rather the divine power that makes us alive in this world.” 
When the world seems like it’s falling apart so much so that the end is near, we keep our eyes open for signs that God is at work among us. We do this because we believe that we are ultimately within God’s story, that God is drawing us to a promised future.
 Jürgen Moltmann et al. Love: The Foundation of Hope; the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 4.