(Luke 21: 25-36)
Suffice to say this is the last thing we expect on the first Sunday of Advent.
Can I level with you? Our lectionary is on a three-year cycle, and every time this passage has come up in the past, I’ve avoided it like the plague. It has always struck me as rather odd that someone would tap these verses as the kick-off to our Advent journey – something near the end of Jesus’ life, rather than the beginning of it. Something that sounds heavy and foreboding – it just seems out of place. And I don’t like it. I’ve secretly wondered if they perhaps got a digit wrong in the citation – maybe they meant Luke 2 and the “1” somehow found its way in there?
But no. This is our passage for First Sunday Advent. This is how the journey begins.
So instead of flocking to our wonderfully-decorated sanctuary, we are told to flee to the mountains.
Instead of counting the days to Christmas, we are told these days are days of vengeance.
Instead of finding peace on earth, we find distress on earth.
Instead of a bright star shining in the night sky, we are told there are signs in the sun and moon and stars.
Instead of getting caught up in the “reason for the season,” we are caught up in the roaring of the sea and the waves.
And instead of preparing the way of the Lord, we are told to do something else entirely. We are told to:
SEE THE SIGNS!
On this inaugural Sunday of Jesus’ first advent – his first coming, the one that brought him into the world as a tiny baby in a manger – our lectionary passage instead has us considering his second advent. His second coming, and it doesn’t look a thing like the first. And throughout it all, we are not just told to prepare the way of the Lord. We are told to beware the way of the Lord.
Luke 21 puts us right in the middle of one of Jesus’ last teaching and preaching moments in the temple. He is in Jerusalem with his disciples, it is mere days before the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion. The air is heavy with tension and conflict, like the feel in the air before a storm hits. The chief priests and scribes seek him out – and not to listen and learn, but to plot and plan. Pharisees and Sadducees try to trip him up over theological minutiae. It is Passover in Jerusalem, when Jews from all over the Holy Land flock to the city, which means the Roman army is out in full force, a constant presence flexing their military muscle. Injustices both religious and political are happening all around. It seems like at any moment, the slightest spark might ignite a raging inferno.
And in all of this we find Jesus talking about, of all things, the future destruction of Jerusalem, the beloved holy city. If there was anything Jesus ought not to have said in this particular circumstance, talking about the destruction of Jerusalem would’ve been at the very top of the list. Such talk would be seen by the faithful as a huge affront, and to the powers-that-be a flashing red warning light of trouble brewing. Such talk could only inflame an already tenuous situation.
Jesus tells them there will be signs “in the sun and moon and stars” that will let them know when all of this is upon them. These are cosmic signs he speaks of; the kind you cannot miss. Jesus tells the parable of a fig tree sprouting leaves. When you see these leaves, he says, you know that summer is coming. In other words, you don’t need a calendar to tell you what season you are in. You can tell by something as obvious as leaves growing on a tree. There will be no mistaking it. It’ll be clear to everyone.
And Jesus finishes his little spiel with a simple imperative:
SEE THE SIGNS!
Beware the way of the Lord.
Again, we wonder – what is Jesus doing here? What are we doing here, on this first Sunday Advent?
Perhaps part of our answer comes when we consider not just the content of what Jesus describes here, but the reason he is describing it. Years after the gospel of Luke was penned, biblical scholars = come to see that this little section in the 21st chapter falls into the category of biblical literature known as “apocalyptic writing.” The word, “apocalypse,” comes from a Greek word that means “to uncover” or “to reveal.” To show that which had previously been unseen, kept out of sight. That’s what apocalyptic writing is designed to do – to bring it into the light
Apocalyptic writing was written during times of persecution from the vantage point, and for the benefit of, the persecuted. It grapples with the harsh realities of evil, and the struggle of good against that evil. Apocalyptic writing does anticipate the coming of the kingdom of God when all will be set right and the persecuted will be persecuted no more, but it makes no bones about the pain involved in getting there.
Probably the most well-known piece of apocalyptic writing in the Bible is the book of Revelation – all those weird signs and symbols, all those bizarre visions, the cosmic and final struggle of good and evil. We also find apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Isaiah and Zechariah. And we find it right here – in Luke 21, what I remember my seminary professor somewhat affectionately referring to as “Luke’s little apocalypse.”
And it makes sense, if we consider not just what was going on in the life of Jesus during that last week, but also for Luke and his fellow Christians some fifty years later, when this gospel was written. The church was still trying to find its place in the world. The powers-that-be still ruled with an iron fist. For Jesus, for Luke and those in his community – and I would submit for us today – following Christ is kind of a “living in between.” We are here with Jesus. We are also waiting for Jesus. And we are not just waiting for Jesus, but waiting on him while living in the midst of a chaotic and unpredictable and even tumultuous world.
A world where every day brings with it a sense of uncertainty as to what might happen next.
A world where the drumbeat of injustice seems to be getting louder and louder.
A world where we are losing confidence and trust in those institutions we used to rely on without question.
A world where the divide seems to only be growing wider and deeper.
That was the world that Jesus was preparing to die for; that was the world that Luke and his followers were trying to negotiate; and in more and more ways we are finding that that is the world we are living in today ourselves. A world where Advent calls us to do three things:
SEE THE SIGNS!
I remember a Christmas pageant I saw some number of years ago. I’ve seen them every year, as I imagine you have; and in a few weeks we’ll get to see our very own right here in our Fellowship Hall. I saw this one when I was in high school. I went with a friend of mine to his church to see their Christmas pageant – I believe his little sister was in it.
The tiny stage is crammed full of little ones in barnyard animal costumes and angel outfits and shepherd garb. Over two dozen of them – more a reflection of making sure every kid gets to play a part, and less about reflecting the actual attendance on that first holy night. At one point near the end, after the plastic baby Jesus is revealed in the makeshift manger, an eight-year old Mother Mary stands to carry her newborn son and the savior of the world out into the world. And as she does, we hear the narrator giving voice to the prophet Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight,
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill be made low,
The narrator then repeats the opening line: Prepare the way of the Lord, but does so with added flair, obviously coached up by an over-eager pageant director. Which turns out to be quite appropriate, given the unplanned drama that begins to unfold on stage. As Mary starts walking through the mass of people, she quickly realizes that, just as there was no room in the inn for her earlier, now there is literally no room on the stage either.
The narrator’s voice bellows: PREPARE!, right as Mary’s foot slips on a cow’s tail. The narrator continues: THE WAY!, as Mary wobbles, steps back and crunches the hand of a little lamb with her foot. OUCH!, it shrieks, off-script. Sorry! Mary responds. The narrator, unfazed, breathes deep and blares out the finish: OF THE LORD!, right as Mary, twisting around to avoid another misstep, loses her balance and falls full-on into a pack of four-year old angels, plastic baby Jesus and all. A holy mosh pit if there ever was one, bending pipe-cleaner halos and twisting fabric wings, leading to more than a few angelic tears. And Joseph, standing in the back beside the manger, looking like any father of a first-born: what do I do??
Prepare the way of the Lord, he said. He’s talking about a road, you know. A way through the wilderness is the image the prophet gives us. It’s a massive building project, utilizing every resource, every piece of equipment, a hoard of workers. Prepare the way of the Lord. Think of the effort, the sheer power required to “lift up valleys” and “make low mountains.” We’ve been lifting up the valley that used to exist where our new entrance soon will be, and “making low” the mountain we’ve had in our back parking strip for well over a year now!
It’s not a real road construction the prophet describes, but it is an appropriate metaphor for the kind of work he is talking about – the work involved in making wrongs right, in building the kingdom of God on earth, in bringing to fruition all the hopes and expectations and promises of this Advent journey.
This work is not work without danger. It is downright risky, when you think about it. Risky like that sweet mother Mary in the pageant trying to make her own way through her surroundings, and the chaos that ensued. Not “Prepare the way of the Lord,” but “Beware the way of the Lord.”
Beware the way of the Lord, because it requires of us radical change and sustained effort.
Beware the way of the Lord, because the signs of the need for it surround us.
Beware the way of the Lord, because hope – real hope – is not for the faint of heart
Our Advent sermon series is titled, “The Promises of Advent.” Here, my friends, is our promise: that the making-right of things that Jesus is coming for, the building of that kingdom of God we all long for, it is going to impact us all. In hope-filled and glorious ways, to be sure. In life-changing ways, absolutely. But it’s going to leave a mark, too.
And it’s going to force us to ask: are we really ready for what is coming? I mean, beyond the red and green, beyond the joy of our Advent season and our Christmas Eve service and the arrival of Christmas morning. These are signs – not the change itself, but signs of the change. Leaves sprouting on a fig tree. The roaring of the sea and waves. Signs of what we are preparing for.
Are we ready for the real change coming after that? Are we prepared to live a life of faithfulness beyond the signs?
These are the times we are living in, my friends. Times when preparing is being aware, times where preparing is watching out. Times when the signs are not the point, but what they are pointing us to.
And what they are pointing us to, what they have always been pointing us to, is what U2’s Bono sings about on the final track of their album that came out just this past week:
If there is a light we can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark, no we shouldn’t doubt
Cause there is a light – don’t let it go out
The light is coming. The light is already here. May we see what it seeks to show us.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 “13 (There Is A Light)” by U2 off Songs of Experience, 2017.