The jarring gospel for the first Sunday of Advent is Jesus’ response to his disciples' question about when the destruction of the temple will happen. It seems to have nothing to do with Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem… except that it has everything to do with just that.
The gospel, (Luke 21:25-36), is Luke’s account of Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple. In the gospel he answers his disciples’ questions about when this destruction will happen. (We read Mark’s account a few weeks ago, on November 14th.)
Here is the exchange between Jesus and his disciples that happened just before the start of this morning’s gospel, Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
The gospel for the first Sunday of Advent begins with his answer to this question.
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 your redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus seems to be answering the question about a sign that the destruction of the temple is about to happen. But his answer is ambiguous. The first thing he points to is the sun, the moon and the stars but he does not say what those events will be.
Next he says that there will be distress among nations. Some have translated this phrase as "conflict among nations", but the better sense is that there is ‘internal confusion leading to anxiety or distress’.
He also said that those who are living at that time, will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.
Jesus sometimes used the Son of Man to refer to himself. The scriptural reference comes from the Book of Daniel and reads, there before me was one like a son of man,[a human] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
In ‘theology-speak’ this is called High Christology. It describes the long-anticipated savior as someone who comes as human but who has authority, glory and sovereign power from God. It is the glorious, magisterial version of the anticipated Messiah.
As Advent recalls the Jewish people’s time of waiting for the promised savior, Jesus’ self-reference to himself as the Son of Man told his disciples that he was the one for whom the nation of Israel had been waiting. Moreover, he adopted the magnificent imagery of Daniel’s description as his own.
Note, also, that Jesus had said, your redemption is drawing near. (Other translators render Jesus' words as your liberation is drawing near.) Redemption was the point of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. This realignment … another way of saying redemption… of humanity towards God was his life’s purpose. His teaching, example and miracles supported this redemptive purpose. His birth at Bethlehem was only one step… a big one… on the route to redemption.
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.
Jesus’ words, these things, have been the subject of many different interpretations. One is ‘when you see the signs in the heavens, know that the Kingdom of God, and the end of the earth is near.’ Over the millennia many have tried to use Jesus’ description to predict 'the end', without success. These days with climate change being a political as well as environmental stress-generator we may wonder if the floods, fires, heatwaves and droughts are the harbingers of the end.
This generation could be taken as referring to all of the people living in Jesus’ time….in which case, his prediction could be judged as being mostly correct, because the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. On the other hand, we did not see the Son of Man coming on a cloud. Biblical scholars now read this generation as referring to those who are alive when the signs appear.
But back to the question of what this reading has to do with Advent. This gospel was chosen because Jesus’ birth was only part of a transformative chain of events that leads to redemption. His teaching, miracles, death and resurrection all pointed the way to our collective and personal salvation. God’s intended final destination for us became the reason for God becoming human. Everything in his life ultimately directed our attention to this end. This gospel addresses the ultimate reason for celebrating his birth.
The concluding verses of this gospel describe the implications for our behaviour: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” A paraphrase might be ‘live each moment with the awareness of your ultimate end.’
Advent is not just a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is a time when we meditate on the fundamental reason for which God became incarnate in him…and its implications for each person. This gospel offers us a framework for thinking about that.