25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.” 29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away. 34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.” (CEB)
Happy New Year! You probably noticed with the changes in decoration, but this is the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the first day of the Christian New Year.
There’s somewhat of a persistent misunderstanding about the season of Advent. Most people think it’s a time where we get ready for Christmas. But really, Advent is a separate season where we focus our attention primarily upon the Second Coming of Christ and the end of days. In fact, the word advent means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival.’
It seems odd, doesn’t it; that at the beginning we anticipate the end? But this focus on the End during the season of Advent is done on purpose in order to help us remember what it is that the Christian Faith is all about. After all, the Coming of Jesus Christ at the Great End of all things means the fullness of our salvation. We look for the End of Days at the beginning of the Christian Year because the End is, in a very real sense, nothing less than a new beginning for God’s people.
In this text, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the signs of the end before his advent: “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 waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.” (NRSV).
Jesus came to bring good news to the world: the word gospel, after all, is a Middle English word that means good news. But this stuff that Jesus is talking about really doesn’t sound like good news to me. It sounds rather frightening, a little fearful. It doesn’t seem to fit with the whole peace and love thing that we usually think of when we talk about the Good News.
This text tells us that the Savior of the World saves by disrupting things. Jesus dispenses with the old order and is bringing a new, different order. His reign is adversarial to our dominions and powers-that-be. God’s order is so against the grain of our natural inclinations that we would be correct to label his work among us as nothing less than a revolution.
But do we really want this kind of revolution?
A now retired professor from Duke Divinity School, the Reverend Doctor Peter Storey, was formerly the Methodist bishop of South Africa. He was also Nelson Mandela’s prison chaplain. Mandela was a Methodist. Peter Storey, along with many others, labored long and hard—at great personal cost—in the removal of racial apartheid from South Africa. When the evil of apartheid was finally removed from that troubled land, there was dancing in the streets. Yet, some time after that victory, Rev. Storey said, “Now is the hard work for us. It’s one thing to begin a revolution, even to win the revolution. It’s another thing to finish it. The creation of a truly just, truly compassionate society is not easy. Isn’t that what your country found out after its revolution?”
History points to this truth: people say they want change. We say we want the solution to our problems that change promises. But do we really? A new order brings new challenges. At least in the old order of things we knew what was expected of us. We have that as a comfort, whether the old order is good or bad.
The Hebrew people were miraculously delivered from the horrors of slavery in Egypt. Those who were enslaved had escaped Pharaoh and were free at last! It was a revolution! They hadn’t been in the desert more than a few weeks when the food gave out and they started murmuring against their leader, Moses. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt,” they cried, “when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (NRSV). The revolution had been won, and already the Hebrews were longing for the way things were under the old order when they were slaves in Egypt. Revolutionary change isn’t easy to accept.
Most of us will note a sort of somberness in many of the hymns that we’ll sing in Advent. Many of the hymns are in a minor key. Some people ask, Why can’t we sing the more upbeat, joyful Christmas songs? Why all these somber Advent dirges? I’ll tell you one reason why, though there are many: the promised Advent of a Savior is not pure, neat, perfectly acceptable good news for most people. A revolution, a fundamental sweeping change in our situation, is not always welcomed by us. People are often more resistant to change than accommodating to it.
We were warned. At the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Mary sings a battle cry that speaks of the revolution that Jesus is bringing. Mary’s Song is, in fact, the theological crux of over half of the New Testament. Luke’s entire story, which includes his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles, makes up 51% of the New Testament. Mary’s song is the shot heard round the world. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (NRSV). Kings are being cast down from their thrones, the hungry are taking over everything, and the rich are sent away empty.
The technical term for what Mary was singing about is gospel. Unfortunately, the word gospel has become rather cliché. When some people use the word they often mean, something of individual significance, the forgiveness of a person’s sins, a ticket to individual eternal life. Others mean, right thinking about the teaching of Christ. Gospel is the body of doctrine that Christians are expected to believe. For others, gospel means a particular genre of music, which usually makes me involuntarily gag.
But when you take the Greek word, ευαγγέλιον, that we translate into English as ‘gospel,’ there are some scholars who say that the word would best be translated as ‘revolution.’ In the classical world it meant simply ‘good news.’ But ευαγγέλιον is not just any old good news. It is news that has political and social significance. If a Greek city was fighting a war, ευαγγέλιον, good news, was the report that a runner brought to the city from the battle if their army was victorious. Pheidippides took such good news to the Spartans following the victory of the Athenian army over the Persians at the battle of Marathon.
Mary’s Song is an example of such a gospel proclamation, as was Zechariah’s song at the birth of his son, John the Baptizer. And when John grew up and began to preach in the wilderness, Luke described his message as gospel—good news—for the people.
But listen to John’s words, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The people asked him, “What should we do?” and John replied, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (NRSV). We may ask, That’s the gospel John was preaching? Give to the poor? And the answer is, absolutely and unquestionably, Yes! You see, God’s kingdom is coming, and the giving of our possessions and of our selves is what God’s revolutionary kingdom values.
Do you see a pattern to the good news of Jesus Christ? God is moving against the present order. The gospel is good news for the poor, bad news for the rich who don’t want to share. The good news is not only religious, but also political and economic. No wonder there were people in Judea who thought that such “good news” didn’t sound very good at all. John the Baptizer ended up dead shortly after he preached this sermon. He was killed by a wealthy king because of the conspiring of a wealthy queen.
This is the same good news that Jesus preached when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NRSV).
This is the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus has started a revolution. On the cross he fought the battle, and in the resurrection he won it. And when he comes back he will finish the revolution. He will bring about radical, sweeping change, and no dominion or power of this world will stand at the advent of Jesus.
The battle may be won, but the revolution is not yet finished. The finale of the revolution is coming. Jesus says, “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.” (NRSV).
In this scripture lesson, Jesus tells us what’s coming, he tells us how we will know it’s coming, and he warns us to keep alert. He tells us, “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.” (NRSV).
The new revolution has begun, my friends. Jesus is coming back to set things right, to turn the current order of things on its head. Here at the beginning of the Christian New Year, we look for the end of the world with the advent of Jesus, and the beginning of the new order of God’s reign. And all I have to say is “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!