Quick, sit down with a pen and notepad for the next two minutes and jot down the first things that pop into your mind when you think of Advent. Go! I’ll wait.
Finished? Chances are that the darkening of the sun and moon, fear and foreboding, and distress do not top your list (unless, perhaps, you happen to find yourself in a shopping mall somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas). Hope, joy, peace on earth, and goodwill to all people are the things we most associate with the season before Christmas. So it is a bit of a curveball when, in the passage many Christians will open for the first Sunday of Advent, we read the words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel:
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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because redemption is drawing near. Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be 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 21:25-36).
Luke is reporting Jesus’s words concerning the end of all things; similar accounts are found in Matthew and Mark. Biblical scholars have called this the Little Apocalypse because it is a condensed form of the kinds of things readers find in the larger Apocalypse, the book of Revelation.
Advent, as the first season of the Christian calendar, is the gateway into the yearlong remembrance of the story of Christ’s coming, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. As a gateway into Advent, then, this text is odd and jarring. There seems to be a disconnect between it and the rest of Advent, between birth announcements and the shaking of the cosmos, between Immanuel as God with us and the one who is coming to throw everything into turmoil.
Advent is a time of expectation, but what is it, ultimately, that we are expecting?
I remember vividly one particular night of my teenage years when the moon hung low and orange in the night sky. I was out with two of my closest friends on one of their family farms for an impromptu walk through a cattle field and campout. Upon seeing the large, reddish-orange moon, my friend immediately peeled away from our walk through the field, knelt beside a hay bale, and began to pray. Afterward, I asked him what he was up to, and he said he was making sure he was prepared in case this was the moon that heralded the return of Christ. He didn’t want to be left out or behind.
The words of Jesus here in Luke’s gospel, in the hands of those who exploit rumors of wars and super-blood-moon eclipses for fear and profit, have conditioned us to expect disaster, destruction, and ultimate escape. Even as recently as October 2015, several Christian groups heralded that the end was near and the world would be completely obliterated with Christ’s return. The fact that no global catastrophe happened on the predicted date no doubt brought disappointment for some that things continued on as usual. Comedian Stephen Colbert sent a tongue-in-cheek sympathy card to those disappointed that the world did not, in fact, end: “My condolences for everything still existing.”
But are the words of Jesus meant to inspire in us this kind of disconnect in our theology? Should we be disappointed that we’re still here? That the world is still here? We confess that in the beginning God said, “Let there be . . .” and there was. We confess that, though the world God created turned away, God so loved that world that God sent Jesus to save it. We confess that the gift of the Spirit is how God works out new creation, renewing the face of the earth. And yet when we come to eschatology (the theology of last, or ultimate, things) the loudest voices speak of the world’s destruction and the believers’ escape from the world that God created, redeemed, and continues to renew.
The first thing we need to understand about this language is that Jesus is using the language of the prophets of Israel, employing dramatic, symbolic words related to the undoing of creation (Joel 3:15-16; Isaiah 13:9-13; Jeremiah 4:23-26, but see 27-28). This language paints the judging and saving work of God on a large canvas. The kind of change envisioned here is total, holistic, complete. The transformation God intends for all creation is so thorough that language of cosmic upheaval and reconfiguration is the only appropriate kind of language to use. The rearranging of the created order speaks to the dramatic action of God to make right what is wrong.
If we can begin to articulate our eschatology consistently within the rest of our theology, we will be faithful to the biblical narrative and to our Wesleyan heritage.
So the emphasis in Jesus’s language in Luke should be placed on hope rather than fear. In the midst of the shaking of the cosmic reality, Jesus invites his hearers not to despair but to trust and be confident. “When these things begin to take place lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus urges his hearers to be prepared to stand before the Son of Man, whose coming is good news for believers who wait for his reign and rule.
As Jesus speaks these words to his followers, he is about to be crucified and buried. The main thrust of his words here are promise and reassurance, rather than threats of exclusion. Jesus promises them that the one who is about to be crucified for them, the one who is victorious over death, is coming in that kind of power and glory. The kind of power and glory displayed in divine love’s triumph over sin and death is coming to be victorious “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
But there is warning and woe in what Jesus says too. Because of the symbolic nature of the language, we should be careful about taking literally the catastrophic descriptions of cosmic destruction. It is important to remember that Jesus speaks these words while teaching in the temple. In fact, these words appear over a series of several days when Jesus teaches in the temple, after he drives out those selling things there but before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion (Luke 19:45–21:38). This whole section of the gospel portrays Jesus actively teaching against the status quo of the entrenched and exploitative power of the Jerusalem temple system.
The language of judgment and upheaval, then, can be seen as indicating the kind of sea change that Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection make possible in a preliminary way within the community of disciples and in the fullest sense at the final return of Christ. Just as his mother sings in the Magnificat (Luke 1:4655), Jesus comes to overturn unjust uses of power and privilege in order to establish justice and lift up the downtrodden. This is why the judgment language of cosmic upheaval is here: the return of the King is good news for those who actively wait for it as kingdom subjects—for them it is redemption and joy. But this same return is bad news for those who rely on the exploitative and broken system and use it to their advantage at the expense of others—for them it is the loss of their world.
This rendering of Jesus’ vision of the end times seems to be much more in line with a Wesleyan way of reading the whole sweep of the scriptural story. Our reading should hold creation, justification, and eschatology within the broader scope of the God we confess as love. When we sing Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we proclaim that God is “pure, unbounded love.” But for some reason we often want to make this love bounded when it comes to eschatology. Love gets lopped off, God’s redemptive purposes get placed on hold, and fear and foreboding take center stage. But perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:8), and it can do so with our understanding of the last things as well.
God’s purposes for creation are not different at the end than they were in the beginning, in the liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian oppression, in the covenanting at Sinai, in the prophetic reminder of what it is to be the people of God, in the Advent, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, or in the gift of the Holy Spirit. If we can begin to articulate our eschatology consistently within the rest of our theology, we will be faithful to the biblical narrative and to our Wesleyan heritage.
However, that consistent articulation will also mean reckoning with the fact that the world has indeed gone wrong and that the present order of things will indeed be shaken up. Out of our conviction of God’s love and ultimate purpose for making right what has gone wrong, we must refuse to accept the way things are as the way things must be. Because we have a vision of God’s love at the end of everything, we will refuse to baptize injustice or sanctify harmful ways of living. This means allowing our present way of doing things to be shaken in order that we might live in ways that correspond to the coming kingdom.
This Advent season, what if we seek to discover what an eschatology of unbounded love looks like?
If we take our cues from these words of Jesus in Luke, we will see the coming of Christ as our redemption and, ultimately, the renewal of all creation. It means finding, as songwriter John Mark McMillan sings, “love at the end of the world.”1 We will refuse to separate the love of God from God’s work of making right what has gone wrong. Our lives and our testimony might look like what poet Czeslaw Milosz says about poetry: “Today the only poetry worthy of the name is eschatological, that is, poetry which rejects the present inhuman world in the name of a great change. The reader of today is in search of hope, and he does not care for poetry that accepts the [present] order of things as permanent.”2 Our conviction that God will work out God’s loving purposes if it’s the last thing God does means that God’s love is “pure, unbounded”— unbounded by our sin and frailty, unbounded by our tendency to wound and harm one another, and unbounded by our drive to pursue gain at others’ detriment and expense.
When we know what to expect, Advent is a time for both being shaken and resting in God’s love. God’s coming to be with us is both redemption and rearrangement. Perhaps this text is not such an odd entrance into the season after all.
RYAN HANSEN serves as lead pastor of Blakemore Church of the Nazarene in Nashville, Tennessee.
1 Jesse Proctor, John Mark McMillan, London Gatch, Stephen Williams, "Love At The End," Meaux Jeaux Music and Racous Ruckus Publishing.
2 Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (New Yaork: Vintage, 1990), 237.