Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-end; Luke 21.25-36
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
THE design of our lectionary means that, as a new cycle begins each Advent Sunday, we meet the Gospel-writer for the coming year through dramatic warnings of the signs that will announce the coming of the Son of Man in glory and judgement. It is not until we move into “Ordinary Time” that we begin to build up a sense of the Gospel as a developing narrative.
This tension between beginnings and endings, the start of another year and the end of time, is made stranger by its position in Luke’s account, as well as those of Matthew and Mark. Jesus is still on the way to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, as he pauses to explain to the disciples how difficult things are going to be for them as they watch for the signs of salvation (Luke 21.5-24; Mark 13.1-23; Matthew 24.1-28). Is this to assist them to understand his death as what in Churchillian language might be called “the end of the beginning”?
Out of it will come something whose real end lies at an uncertain point in the future. While the earliest Christians seem to have expected an imminent Second Coming, Luke, who wrote somewhere between AD 75 and 130, envisages a longer time-frame. He is interested in the urgency of being prepared to stand before the final judgement of God in Christ (Luke 21.26); yet, unlike Matthew and Mark, he has another volume (Acts) in view, and another time to deal with — the time of the founding and early life of the Church.
That perspective adds a dimension to his handling of what superficially mirrors corresponding passages in Matthew and Mark (Matthew 24.29-44; Mark 13.24-37). Luke considers the human reaction, the confusion and paralysing fear (Luke 21.26). He also subtly adjusts the appearance of the Son of Man, who will come in power and glory “in a cloud” (Luke 21.27) rather than “on the clouds of heaven” or “in clouds” (Matthew 24.30; Mark 13.26; cf. Daniel 7.13).
The Jesus who returns in this way is the same Jesus who “was carried up into heaven” at Bethany, and, according to Acts, hidden from view in a cloud (Luke 24.50; Acts 1.9). Two angelic figures who appear to the disciples promise that their Lord “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1.11).
There is, then, something joyful about the way Luke presents the prophecies of the final signs. He seems closer in spirit to Jeremiah, who assures exiles that the Davidic kingship will be restored, and that Jerusalem, reduced to ruins by Babylonian armies, will be rebuilt in righteousness (Jeremiah 33.14-16).
Luke’s signs embody hope as well as terror, and the way to face them is with confidence, standing up, heads raised, expecting redemption (Luke 21.28). Even though the disciples do not yet have the angels’ assurance at this point in the narrative, the story is told in a way that counts on things’ becoming clear later on.
What are the implications for the time between the resurrection and ascension, and the glorious return of Jesus as saviour and judge? Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is believed to be the oldest document of the New Testament. It glows with the affection and concern of the apostle who brought the gospel to this northern Greek trading port, and offered “a living and true God” in place of the idols its citizens worshipped (1 Thessalonians 1.9).
Yet even these most responsive converts need continual encouragement to remain firm in their faith in the face of persecution, and to be active in their love for each other (1 Thessalonians 2.14-15; 3.10-12). Paul knows that they will face the judgement awaiting the whole world. His concern is to shape them in the present to a perfection that will make them able to meet their judge in the confidence that their lives already bear his likeness (1 Thessalonians 3.13).
Advent is the only season in the Church’s year which invites us to think seriously about judgement. Four weeks of mutual encouragement, keeping others going, considering what in our lives is not consistent with those “destined not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5.9), might be a surprisingly renewing way to prepare for Christmas.