Advent is a season that messes with our sense of time.
While we typically live with a fairly linear view of time -- one event coming after another -- the church's liturgical and lectionary calendar is cyclical -- patterns of events repeating themselves. For this reason, the church year that begins in Advent puts in front of us passages about the end of history before moving in later weeks to prepare us for the coming of the Christ child and the dawn of a new age. While this may explain why we begin Advent with the second half of an apocalyptic address by Jesus, it hardly makes preaching these verses any easier. Attending to the intersection of the historical context of the passage and the cultural context of our hearers, however, may provide some guidance.
The message recorded by Luke greatly resembles the scene in Mark on which it is probably based (13:24-37). The subtle differences, however, offer a picture of the circumstances of the Christian community Luke is addressing. In particular, it is clear that Luke's community is also wrestling with the question of time or, more accurately, timing. In particular, the question at hand is when the promised return of Jesus and consummation of history will occur. Whereas Mark seems to tie these events to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke -- writing nearly two decades later -- distances the promised end of history and the Temple's destruction. Luke is, in fact, down right vague about when Jesus will return, refusing to offer any hint of a timetable. Instead, Luke asserts that, just as budding fig leaves unmistakably herald the advent of summer, so also will the signs of the coming kingdom be transparent to the Christian community. The emphasis therefore shifts from when these things will happen (21:7), to the proper disposition of the discipleship community (21:34ff.).
Christians should be alert, ready for the coming of the end. They should therefore not be caught up in either the excessive pleasures or worries of the day, but rather remain watchful. At the same time, Christians should be confident, eager for the events Jesus describes as they signal the approach of the deliverance of the Christian community. Indeed, the events Jesus describes will be most worrisome for the "world" and the "powers of heaven" (21:26). Interestingly, the word usually translated as "world" isn't the more general kosmos but rather oikoumene, which conveys the more specific sense of the political and economic realm and sometimes signifies the Roman Empire. The coming of the Son of Man will therefore be threatening to the powers that be, but it will bring release from oppression for the followers of Christ.
Both 1) the distance Luke puts between the events of his day and the end of time, and 2) the emotional tenor of watchful confidence he calls for create space for the mission of the church. In early verses in this chapter (21:12-19), in fact, Luke seems to anticipate the later story of Acts that he will write as the events Jesus describes foreshadow many of the major episodes in the life of the early church as Luke depicts it. For this reason, whatever rumors Luke's community may have heard about the coming end, and no matter what rumors may yet come, the Christian community is to remain steadfast in its ministry, trusting that Jesus will provide the necessary words and inspiration so that the discipleship community may witness to the gospel through word, deed, and prayer in any and all situations.
Apocalyptic texts come across to most of our hearers as alien, strange, even off-putting. Truth be told, whatever worries we may occasionally harbor about nuclear or environment holocaust, most of us express little day-to-day concern about the end of the world and even less about Jesus' second coming. In this respect, we may feel that we live at a great distance from Luke's audience.
At the same time, we are as intimately acquainted as they were with the challenges presented by waiting for an event that seems late in coming. We may be waiting for an event on a national or global scale like economic recovery, an end to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or concerted international action to reduce pollution. Or we may be waiting an event on a personal level like the results from a biopsy, a letter from an estranged child, or the safe return of a loved one from a tour of duty. Whatever the case, we know the challenge of waiting, the stress of waiting, the anxiety of waiting.
In this context, Luke offers us a perspective that, while it will not remove our waiting, it may affect its character. We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God's intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh and his triumph over death - in this regard we should not forget that these verses serve as the hinge between Jesus' teaching and his passion -- and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. This "in-between time," though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope as both the beginning and the ending of the story of the Church -- and therefore of our story -- which has been secured by Christ. We are therefore free to struggle, to wait, to work, to witness -- indeed to live and die -- with hope because we know the end of the story.
From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can "stand up and raise [our] heads" because we have heard Jesus' promise that our "redemption draws near."