(Year C) Luke 21: 25-36
Good morning, a word of welcome on this Sunday of the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend—and “Happy New Year!” as well. Not quite the celebration out in the wide world a month or so from now, with First Night concerts and fireworks at the Point, college football bowl games, New Year resolutions, Guy Lombardo and Auld Lang Syne. But on the calendar of the Christian Year on this Advent Sunday--beginning again, and with themes of the New Year centered in the character of Christian life rather than Times Square.
There is a strangeness to this first gospel reading of the New Year as Jean has read it for us this morning, the 21st Chapter of St. Luke. Sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse.” A word than be translated “revelation.” A vision that is both compelling and repelling—as it draws us in but then also seems to push us back. A moment in which the edge of the curtain is pulled aside so that we can catch a glimpse of the stage as it is set for the last act of the play. We don’t see it all in detail, of course--but in the symbolic language of visionary experience, a glimpse. In the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer one year lectionary this was always the reading for the Second Advent Sunday, but with a three year lectionary the patterns aren’t quite as consistent.
In any event, the setting of this passage in Luke is Holy Week, a day or two after Palm Sunday. Which again may feel a bit off-track at first, here in the weeks before Christmas. Jesus is teaching in the Temple precincts and causing quite a stir among all the pilgrims gathered for the coming festival of the Passover. The Temple authorities are worried, pushing back and questioning and confronting him, trying to discredit him in the eyes of the crowd. The opposition is growing intense. We get the feeling the pot is about to boil.
Just before this passage, at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus pointed up at the glorious walls of this magnificent building, to say that soon, very soon, it would all be rubble. “Not one stone left on another.” Perhaps an insightful foreshadowing of the destruction that would come a few decades later in the Year 70, when the Romans would destroy the building—perhaps a symbolic way of talking about his own death, which was about to take place—perhaps also a wider vision of what will be true for every generation, and even as we would look around here today. What we build, no matter how magnificent, how strong, how beautiful is destined to be dust. All of this. All of us too. We’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.
The T.S. Eliot poem East Coker has that haunting refrain. In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning. So interesting that on this first Sunday of the year we are asked to pause in a meditative way for a few moments over the end of the story, the final leg of the journey, the great contest of darkness and light, good and evil, the Way of Sorrows and the hike up that hill to the place of the Cross. Manger and Cross blurring together as one.
In theological terms we might say that Advent has for us the complex intertwining themes of Incarnation and Atonement. The identity of Christ and the work of Christ. The world around us loves the soft twinkling lights and gentle Bing Crosby sounds of the winter holiday, but for the Christian proclamation-- there is no Christmas possible unless it is held together with Good Friday. No Manger, again, without the Cross. They are fabricated from the same Tree—the one that stood at the beginning, in the center of the Garden. In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.
The vision here for us begins with imagery of distress shaking to the foundation all our securities. In the natural world. The sun, the moon, the stars. The whole created order spinning wildly off its center. It’s like the stories we read about El Nino, but on steroids. Polar caps melting, oceans rising, storms and earthquake, fire and flood. And the nations of the world all human society imploding with fear and violence. We might say poetic language, though perhaps in some ways all too real. Just pick up the front page of the morning paper. Natural disasters striking suddenly or unfolding gradually over decades and centuries. Wars and rumors of war. Terror in the night.
And then, Jesus says, people will truly hope for a savior. And he reminds them of the great vision of the Prophet Daniel in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 7, when the Prophet sees “one like a Son of Man” coming on the clouds. The end of the story. Hark the glad sound, the savior comes. Happy New Year, indeed.
And then in the midst of the crowd Jesus turns to speak to his disciples. These simple men of rural Galilee. Farmers and fishermen from the countryside. And he offers a promise—one that we would continue to pay attention to. He says, You know by looking at the trees whether it’s spring, summer, or fall. So don’t worry. When the time comes, you’ll know. Just sink your roots down deep in my Word. Closer and closer to me. Heaven and Earth will pass away, but not my Word. Everything else is destined to be dust. But not God’s Word. Make that your solid ground. It will be a lamp unto your feet in the darkest night. A consolation in the time of sorrow. True food, true drink.
I’ve told the story before of Pope John XXIII, when he spoke to some students of a dry period in his own Christian life. Without a sense of the presence of God. A spiritual dark night. A kind of moral and spiritual and vocational depression. And how with the persistent care and urging of a friend even through that period he continued to read the office lessons and prayers every morning and every afternoon to sit quietly for 15 minutes or so say the prayers of the Rosary. Even when they all seemed just empty words. Going through the motions. Until one day, all at once, it was as if the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, and he could see Christ again and hear his voice and feel his presence and love in the depths of his heart. To know himself as a sinner forgiven: I once was lost, but now am found. Someone asked him, “how long did that empty period last?” And he answered, “17 years.” Which is something, when we think about how impatient we can be. I know I am. So easy to give up and move on. I tried prayer once. I tried reading the Bible, once. I tried going to church. But nothing happened.
Though of course the point of the story was that in retrospect Pope John had come to know and understand in a very deep way that it wasn’t at all right to call this an empty period. That God was present indeed. All along. Feeding him with the Word and supporting him as the Holy Spirit. Even though it seemed an absolute silence. For 17 years! So much was going on under the surface. A seed waiting deep in the soil for the right season before coming to life and growing to flower.
So as Jesus says here, when it looks to us like the end is upon us and everyone everywhere is hiding in deep denial or quaking in fear: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Advent Sunday. A New Year! The first chapter and the last word. The new year of our lives, the new old story. Given for our healing and our forgiveness and our renewal and our salvation.