“This is my friend David Lewis, whom I’ve never met before.”
Those of you who came to the recent demonstration of the Digital Hymnal may remember me using those words. David, the minister of Hutton and Shenfield Union Church, brought the equipment to show us what it could do. I knew David through Internet connections – Facebook, Twitter and his blog. But before that evening we had never met. I had seen photos of him, I knew what his work was and had some idea of his interests. But I had never actually met him.
On Advent Sunday, we think in similar terms about Jesus. We know him, but we have never met him face to face. Yet on Advent Sunday, our thoughts traditionally go not to his first coming in the Incarnation but his ‘second coming’ – although the expression ‘second coming’ is not a biblical one. The main Greek words used in the New Testament mean his ‘appearing’ or his ‘royal presence’. Right now he is hidden from us and we know him from the Scriptures, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments and what we see of his work in others and in creation, but we have not seen him. Advent Sunday is when we look forward to seeing him when he appears.
So we turn to these words in Luke 21, a chapter where Jesus addresses all sorts of world-changing events – the Resurrection, the coming fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the ‘second coming’ – or, if you prefer, ‘the appearing of his royal presence’. What does Jesus say to his followers?
Firstly, he gives his followers a sign:
‘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.’ (Verses 25-28)
Is this a weather forecast? No. you don’t expect these verses to be followed by someone saying, “And tomorrow will be windy with scattered showers.” Rather, various Old Testament prophets referred to the ‘Day of the Lord’ having cosmic portents involving the sun, moon and stars – there are echoes here of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel.
So is it a sign of the Last Judgment? You might think so when you read about ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with great power and glory: that fits our stereotypes about Christ’s return. Except … it’s a quotation from Daniel 7, and the context is one of vindication after suffering. Which makes the more likely context here not the Second Coming but the Resurrection.
So – the Resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the Second Coming. Why? Because the Resurrection was the first evidence of God making all things new. Jesus received his resurrection body, just as others will at the End.
What does that mean for us? It means that in the Resurrection we already have the guarantee that God will renew creation and bring justice. The Resurrection is what the New Testament calls the ‘first fruits’ – it’s the harvest that happened in late Spring which reassured people the main harvest would come at the end of the summer. For us, then, the Resurrection means we know Jesus will appear again, and God will put right all that is broken and that contradicts his will. Because we are Easter people, we are also Advent people.
When I was a teenage Christian, I discovered the music of an American Christian singer called Randy Stonehill. The last song on one of his albums was called ‘Good News’. I expected a song called ‘Good News’ to be about the Cross, but it was about the Second Coming. ‘Good news, Christ is returning,’ sang Stonehill.
And now I think he was right. The coming of Christ is good news, because it means all will be well. And we believe that because we have the sign of the Resurrection. So when injustice prevails, remember Jesus is risen and will come again. When suffering overwhelms, remember Jesus is risen and is returning. This is a doctrine of hope for the Christian.
Secondly, Jesus gives his followers a parable, the story of the fig tree:
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. (Verses 29-33)
I have two problems with this story: firstly I am no gardener, and secondly I don’t like figs. However, it is clear even to a garden-phobic, fig-hating person like me that there is a simple principle at work in this parable. When a tree sprouts leaves, you know what is coming: it is certain.
What does that mean for the followers of Jesus? I think it means this: the purposes of God are certain. When God sets out to accomplish his great plans for creation and for humanity, they will be fulfilled. I am not suggesting that God dictates everything and that we are mere pawns, nor do I believe that our every action is predestined. What I believe is simply this: that God has free will and we have free will, but God’s power means he has more free will than us, and he uses it to further his purposes of salvation. As the fig tree sprouts and later summer comes, so God speaks and his words do not pass away.
How do we respond to this parable? In rather similar ways to the sign of the Resurrection. We respond with hope and with humble confidence. We put our lives in the hands of the God who promises to work for good in all things with those who love him, those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
So this is a parable of hope for the disciples of Jesus. Those of us who entrust our lives into his hands and follow him know that a good outcome is promised for creation. Suffering will not render life meaningless. Evil will not prevail. Things may happen which cause our pulse rate to rise and worries to increase, but in the midst of the anxiety God offers us peace, because his Son is risen from the dead and is coming again. Be encouraged! As the communion liturgy says, ‘Lift up your hearts – we lift them to the Lord.’ And, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’
Thirdly and finally, Jesus gives his followers an exhortation:
‘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.’ (Verses 34-36)
What is the essence of this exhortation? To me, it is a call to a disciplined life. ‘Be on guard,’ says Jesus. Don’t have a lifestyle of dissipation and drunkenness. ‘Be alert.’ These are the watchwords of lives with a focus, a focus on Christ, and therefore matched with a discipline to keep that focussed concentration on him and not on sin or a casual approach to life. The watching and alertness are not about working out exactly when Jesus will return, but about keeping our eyes fixed on him in our lives.
So the way to prepare for the coming of Christ is not to work out a celestial timetable, but to concentrate our efforts on doing what pleases him. We do that in contrast to a lifestyle of ‘dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life’, as Jesus puts it – which remains a very contemporary challenge.
The temptation to ‘dissipation’ or self-indulgence is all around us, but Jesus calls us to self-discipline and self-denial. The life of the world to come will not be a hairshirt one, but it will be one where joy and pleasure are based not on what I get, but on what I give. So let’s get in tune with it now.
The temptation to ‘drunkenness’ is not merely about alcohol, but about addiction to all sorts of things from drugs to food to shopping to relationships. Often our addictions mask pain in other areas of our lives, but Jesus calls us to face that pain and find healing with him. Then we can let go of damaging habits and live a life that anticipates the healing found in God’s kingdom.
As for ‘the worries of this life’, our whole consumer society is based on feeding those worries. It isn’t that Christians can’t enjoy good things, but an obsession with them is counter again to the values of God’s kingdom, where true riches are found in other things, notably the fruit of the Spirit as God renews people to be more like his Son. Those are what the Christian will chase.
So in conclusion, Advent is a time of hope for the Christian. As we recall Christ’s first coming and anticipate his appearing again, God’s action in the Resurrection gives a certainty to our hope. His purposes of love are certain and we are in his hands. That means we respond by reordering our lives according to the purposes of his kingdom, which means living distinctive lives –counter-cultural lives. May the hope of Christ’s coming give us the passion to do so.
 Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope, chapter 8.