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.
Luke 21:25-28 (from the Gospel reading for Advent 1)
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” we sing in Advent, thinking as we sing about the Christ child to be born in Bethlehem. But one of the challenges of this season for preachers and parishioners alike is that the baby Jesus is not the only Jesus who is expected, and he is not the only Jesus who shows up.
For most of us, the focus of our attention in the bustling days between Thanksgiving and December 25 falls quite naturally on the arrival of Christmas and on the coming of the holy child. This time of anticipation is often a warm time, a family time, a time to sing “I’ll be home for Christmas,” even if that homecoming is only in our dreams. Indeed, part of the astonishing good news that the angel announces to the shepherds outside Bethlehem is just how close to home, how immediate and how personal is the birth of Jesus: “To you, is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior.” In other words, the shepherds are assured that this great event will happen not on some remote shore or in some distant galaxy; it will happen to them, here and now, in their own neighborhood. Nothing could be more local, more close to the heart and the hearth.
But the Jesus in swaddled cloths, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” is not the only Jesus for whom we wait in Advent. As the lectionary’s trumpet blast on the inaugural Sunday of the church year reminds us, we are waiting not only for the lowly Jesus who is born in a manger down the street at the neighborhood inn, but we also wait for the Jesus who shows up emblazoned across the vast canvas of the heavens as the curtain rings down on history. We wait for the Christ who arrives not this time in a tiny village but in cosmic splendor at the end of all things, the “Son of Man coming in a cloud,” appearing in power and glory, who brings “distress among the nations” and a shaking of the “powers of heavens.” Even though we sometimes forget it, or repress it, in Advent we not only celebrate the first coming of Jesus, but we also look up and out toward the second coming of Jesus as well.
I have received hundreds of Christmas cards with pictures of the babe in the manger, but I have never received (or sent) a single card depicting the second coming. There are several reasons why the infant Jesus gets most of the press during Advent. First, the heaven-rattling, smoke-and-lightning images of the second coming are more jarring to our imagination, more disturbing, less comfortable. The infant Jesus is easier to embrace than the Jesus who prompts people to “faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” This idea gets picked up in the film comedy “Talladega Nights,” in which Will Ferrell, playing the part of racecar driver Ricky Bobby, always begins his table blessings and other prayers by appealing to the “Lord baby Jesus.” At one point, his wife, Carley, calls him on this.
“Hey, um, you know, sweetie,” she says, “Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him, ‘baby.’”
Ricky retorts, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace.”
ENTERING THE WORLD OF THE APOCALYPTIC
We, too, probably like the Christmas Jesus best. Given the choice between the tender infant born in a cattle stall so long ago and the Jesus who might be coming in a thunderclap at any minute, causing distress among the nations, we’ll take the baby Jesus.
Perhaps another problem with the second coming of Jesus, and one that is more significant, is that we can scarcely imagine any more what we should do with such a notion. Christians who are more literalistic in their interpretations of Scripture can perhaps think of Jesus descending from the clouds to the Mount of Olives as trumpets blast while the whole event is covered on CNN, but that sort of flat and prosaic interpretation of the Bible has lost its grip on the imaginations of many. Some Christians still say things like, “I’ll visit you next summer, if the Lord doesn’t come,” but most of us go about our business without wondering if a thunderclap from heaven will cancel Wednesday’s sales meeting.
So, then, what should we do with these biblical images and with the promise of the second coming of Jesus? What difference to our Christian faith and life here and now can we make of this depiction of a savior who arrives, not at the end of the holiday sales at Macy’s, but “like a thief in the night” at the end of the ages, a Christ who ambushes time and history so suddenly and startlingly that people collapse with dread?
It helps, I think, to remember that Luke’s picture of the “Son of Man coming in power” is in apocalyptic language, which is a vocabulary, a form of intense poetry really, that the Gospel writers trotted out when what they were trying to say what simply could not be said in everyday speech. When we enter the world of apocalyptic, we leave ordinary, literal description behind and enter the world of metaphorical religious imagination. As biblical scholar John Barton noted, “We know that a text which began, ‘The stars will fall from heaven and the sun will cease its shining, the moon will be turned to blood’ … will not be likely to continue, ‘The rest of the country will have sunny intervals and scattered showers.’”
So, when Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Luke, begins to talk about the end of all things, he speaks in an apocalyptic voice: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.” In fact, Jesus borrows the picture of the Son of Man in a cloud from an early apocalyptic document, the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The fact that he speaks in apocalyptic language means that he is in effect saying, to his disciples and to us, “Look, you want to know about the end of time. Well, it cannot be described in ordinary speech. You have to reach for it out on the edge of your faithful imaginations, and even then you will not grasp it. But let me give you these images, these parabolic pictures, to help you along.”
Received this way, the portrayal of the second coming in Luke’s Gospel is almost unimaginable good news. It announces that the ultimate end of all things is not some tinhorn human dictatorship but Jesus Christ, the savior. History does not end in a whimper but in redemption. Standing there in glory at the conclusion of all things is not the evil of Hitler, or the greed of Wall Street, or the pride of our own egos, but the Son of Man. Those who try to bend history toward horror and holocaust do not get to tell the end of the story. The end of the story is the mercy of God. So don’t tremble in fear; rather “stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.”
As the priest confessed in Bernanos’ “Diary of a Country Priest,” the suffering world “that has ceased to reason or to hope, that lays its tortured head at random, will awaken one day on the shoulder of Jesus Christ.”
The reason why the end of the ages creates foreboding and distress among the nations is because they have chronically invested in the wrong future. The nations have always desired to be empires and to maximize profit and power, but when the curtain lowers on history, and the glory and power are seen to belong to Christ, the words of the old hymn are shown to be true, “O where are kings and empires now?” And as theologian John Howard Yoder put it, “The people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”
CHRIST’S REDEMPTION SPROUTING FORTH
However, this picture of the end of time and the second coming of Christ is not an invitation to stand on our tiptoes and look out over the horizon of history for the signs of his coming. Down through history, there have occasionally been Christians who thought they knew when the Day of the Lord would be. They would sell their possessions, abandon their vocations, don white robes, and stand on mountaintops waiting for the great cataclysm, which, of course, always failed to happen.
No, Jesus says, this misses the point. We should instead “look at the fig tree and all the trees. Every time they sprout leaves, you know the seasons are changing.” I think what Jesus is saying by this commonplace image of the fig tree is that even today, here and there, now and then, we can see the green leaves of Christ’s redemption sprouting forth. We should look for the cosmic and the ultimate in the immediate and the nearby. The light that will shine in glory at the end of all time is already beaming shafts of light into the darkness now. Looking for the breaking in of God’s kingdom is not a matter of wearing a robe and climbing a mountain; it’s more like watching the fig tree in your backyard garden.
Christopher Morse gets at this difficult theological truth in his book “The Difference Heaven Makes.” Morse surveys what the New Testament has to say about heaven, and he finds that many of us have it only half right. We talk at funerals and elsewhere about people “going to heaven,” as if heaven were a distant place toward which we are traveling. But the Scripture more often puts it the other way: Heaven is coming to us. “Heaven” is a biblical image for the place from which God acts toward the world, and heaven constantly draws near to us. Like ocean waves breaking on the shore, the very life of God keeps breaking into the world, and we can feel the spray and smell the salt. In other words, the life of God keeps “adventing” into our time, our history, our life.
So, putting this all together, what we see in these Advent pictures of the end of time is that the glory and saving power of God, which are finally all-in-all, even now keep peeking through ordinary time and revealing themselves in the middle of things. As Blanche DuBois says in “A Streetcar Named Desire” when she suddenly experiences a moment of love and grace, “Sometimes there’s God so quickly.”
Therefore, Christians are to “be on hand for that which is at hand but not in hand,” says Morse. We are to stay awake, to keep our eyes open, for the “adventing” of God that could happen in any situation and at any tick of the clock. That is, we are to be “on hand” for the arrival of God which is surely “at hand.” We can then join in with God in what God is doing in the world, reminding ourselves it is God’s doing and not our good intentions or worthy deeds. We can be a part of God’s redeeming action in the world, but we do not own it or originate it. Thus, it is “at hand” but not “in hand.”
When I visit my 95-year-old father in the assisted living facility where he lives, I see other people like myself visiting their aging and declining parents. What is more, every time I walk down the hall I see interactions that, from one point of view, are quite ordinary, but from another point of view are amazing sacrifices and remarkable deeds of love and mercy. A woman pats the arm of her mother and speaks soothingly to her, even though her mother no longer recognizes who she is or remembers her name. A man carefully feeds his mother a piece of birthday cake, and another man changes his father’s diaper. These are, of course, family obligations and everyday deeds of support. But when we see them in the light of the end of time, in the light of the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” we see something more. We realize that what we see in bright lights at the end, the victorious mercy and kindness of God, is even now breaking forth, “adventing” into the shadows of this time and place through these loving acts of care. These everyday acts of mercy are being gathered up into the ultimate victory of God in Christ. Because of that, they matter eternally.
So we come around full circle. The second coming of Christ, the cosmic revelation of redemption that brings all human history to resolution, is to be watched for not just in the clouds but also in the everyday events of life — in nursing homes, in fig trees, in works of mercy and justice, in our homes and backyards, and yes, in that small-town inn where the baby we have all been waiting for, the Jesus who walked among us doing deeds of mercy and peace, is born.
THOMAS G. LONG is Bandy Professor of Preaching Emeritus at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.