“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 NRSV).
And so today we begin to celebrate Advent, though, remarkably, the texts assigned for Advent often don’t sound very celebratory. Jesus always seems to get infatuated with the end times, and we don’t like that sort of thing anymore. It lends itself easily to cheesy rapture-ready movies and novels. But I am convinced there is another reason we don’t like talking about the end of the world. Once we have placed our full confidence, trust, and well-being in the hands of the world as it is, why would we ever long for the end? As privileged, wealthy (compared to most of the people on the planet), over-fed, and under-prayed people, we don’t really approach Advent as if we need anything. And as such, we trivialize it into nice, quaint spirituality, and leave it at that while we decorate our homes for a Christmas we cannot fully appreciate without dwelling through the expectancy and hope of Advent.
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. What would cause us to faint and fear, unless we realize deep down that we have put our hope and trust in the wrong things? What if we have desired safety and security so much that we have created an idol of prosperity, propping up systems which, while benefitting us, place those people on the margins in demoralizing and dehumanizing circumstances? Can we truly call ourselves Christ-like if we value our own needs and desires over those of our neighbors’? When we realize we have placed our hope in someone or something else than our Messiah, any notion of his returning should cause us to faint. Any misplaced hope and faith, whether in ourselves or in our systems, should bring about fear and foreboding at any notion of the return of the Savior who loves his creation so much that he gave up his life in order to redeem it in its entirety. Once Jesus returns, the mess we’ve made of creation will be fully apparent, and fully judged. No wonder folks are fainting.
But as the Son of Man comes upon a cloud, our redemption is drawing near, and not only ours, but the redemption of all of creation. This blessed hope includes everything God has created and called good, and that not anything harmed or broken by sin and death will remain unredeemed. As Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:19-23 NRSV).
God’s redeemed and restored creation is breaking in even amidst the systems we have set up for ourselves. The task of the Christian bestowed upon them at baptism is to discern and recognize this in-breaking new creation, and to point towards it. To order our lives in such a way as to bear witness to the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that he is returning to claim all that he has redeemed. It’s odd that God would choose to redeem the world by calling the Church into existence, and share the good news of the new creation by the mouths of preachers, but that is how God has chosen to work. A new world is spoken of and bore witness to by the preacher who approaches scripture seriously.
This new world is what we long for, what we hope for, what we look forward to, when God’s home will be among human beings. The hope is not for us to float away in spiritual bliss once we die, but for God to return to his creation, and redeem it from the ill effects we have brought upon it in our sinfulness. This comes about, and is preceded by birth pangs. This is the sense in which the apocalyptic language of Advent makes perfect sense. All creation is groaning, bearing witness to the fact that things are not as they should be. Things are not as they will be, and that is a fearful reality for those of us who have much to lose at the end of the world. But for those who have nothing to lose but everything to gain, those whom the principalities and powers, both of this world and of the spiritual realm, they longingly hope for the in-breaking new creation, when all will be gathered at the feast, and no one will lack, and none will prevent them from eating and drinking their fill, in the presence of the Lamb.