Reflecting ancient church tradition, the First Sunday of Advent focuses primarily on the Second Advent of Christ when God will come and make all things right. Of course, the companion theme—which becomes dominant from the Second Sunday on to its fulfillment at Christmas—is that of the promises made to the prophets and to the Virgin Mary concerning the coming of Israel’s Messiah, the Savior of the world. We should expect, then, that the Gospel lessons for this First Sunday of Advent would be derived from the apocalyptic texts that each synoptic Evangelist locates just prior to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. Although the Lukan pericope has parallels in both Matthew (Mt. 24:29-31) and Mark (Mk. 13:24-27), the Gospel lessons for years A and B turn to other apocalyptic texts--Mt. 24:37-44 and Mk. 13:33-37. A further note at this point is that the appointed Gospel reading from Luke omits the parable of the Fig Tree first rendered in Mark’s account (Luke 21:29-33). This parable is now included in the Revised Standard Lectionary used by Episcopal, Lutheran, and many liturgical Protestant churches.
A crucial social and political context for preachers on this First Sunday of Advent is the prolonged diminishment of eschatological preaching in liberal North American churches. Sermons have tended to focus on such themes as “Your Best Life Now” or “changing the world on behalf of a better tomorrow.” Neither approach has majored in what God is now doing in the world and promises to fulfill in the future. On the other hand, many Evangelical Christians in North American turn to an apocalyptic vision as the world’s problems appear to be increasingly intractable while many Progressive Christians trade on the crises of our age as an incentive to social reconstruction and prophetic action. Given the largely ignored matters of biblical eschatology in many churches, the First Sunday in Advent comes as a sudden and possibly disconcerting surprise, an “embarrassment of riches,” biblically speaking. Still, the church places these lessons before us on Advent 1 and these themes resonate in the Collect and the Preface. It would be wise to heed their warnings; they are words of our Lord.
Lk 21:25-28, 34-36. The pericope follows Jesus’ words related to the “end” of Jerusalem and the Temple. Joseph A. Fitzmyer notes that Jesus “moves to another ‘end,’ to ‘what is coming upon the world.”’ 1 By deleting Mark’s encompassing term, “in those days” (Mk 13:19), Luke delineates between the fall of Jerusalem and the events of the coming crisis. The entire pericope, then, of 25-36 takes up matters of the signs of the end and the alternate responses of the peoples of the world and the people of God. Here, as noted by Robert Tannehill, “the Lukan Jesus moves on from the upheaval of a war that will primarily affect the Jewish homeland to an upheaval that will affect all people and the cosmos.”2
25. The “heaven and earth” dimensions of the crisis are now sketched out. There will be signs (sēimea) of that impending end in the heavenly bodies while on earth “nations will be in dismay.” Some elaboration is needed here. On one hand, the use of “nations” may be anachronistic. Ethnōn is typically translated “Gentiles” in New Testament texts but its meaning is more that of all cultures and languages rather than our notion of a “nation” as a distinctive political entity. On the other hand, the peoples of the world will be more seized by “distress” and “anguish” than “dismay.” (In our preaching, we may need to ramp up “dismay” into sheer terror!)
26. “People will die of fright” is an excellent translation; “the verb apopsycho basically means “stop breathing” and sometimes refers to dying.”3 Luke also surprises us by employing oikoumenē for the “earth.” The prevalent usage of the word refers to the inhabited world and is the term used by the early church to designate the entire church throughout the world (hence, “ecumenical”).
27. Luke derives “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” directly from Mark, shifting the plural “clouds” to the singular “in a cloud.” The term “Son of Man “refers to the glorious appearance of the risen Christ coming in judgment to deliver his own.”4 Clergy and laity who join regularly at Mass also may notice that two of the Divine attributes present in the Sanctus—power and glory—are ascribed to the Son of Man at his coming at the end of the age.
28. The perspective now shifts and the faithful are addressed by Jesus. “When these signs begin to happen,” the Lukan Jesus begins. (The Greek has “these things” which is translated here as “signs.”) The response of those in Christ is diametrically opposed to those of the inhabited world. The latter are in distress and great fear. But Jesus announces, “stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is near.” The verb translated “stand up” literally means to “unbend” and carries strong connotations of a joyful bodily stance. The good news is proclaimed that “your redemption is at hand.” The Greek term translated “redemption” (apolutrósis) typically is interpreted as “ransom” or “deliverance” from debt or political penalty. Meanings widen, though, to include deliverance from oppressive circumstances and even the release of captured prisoners of war (as used by both Philo and Josephus).5 (Contrary to the convictions of some, the biblical term does not center on contemporary market-derived meanings. For example, one commentator on the “Political Theology” website argues that “one has to recognise that ‘redemption’ is a market term, which means a ‘repurchase.’”6
34. “your hearts do not become drowsy…” An odd metaphor here in “hearts” becoming “drowsy.” The Greek term’s root is bareó which means to be weighted down or burdened. (Hearts becoming burdened is much easier to grasp.) These hearts are burdened from “carousing and drunkeness.” Other translations choose “dissipation” instead of “carousing,” a more intensive and serious condition.
35. “…like a trap.” A continuation of the foreboding of that day developed in v. 34. The assault of that day will affect “everyone” (pantas). Here, Luke employs the more widespread
term for “earth,” ges rather than oikoumenē. Fitzmyer emphasizes “the universality of judgment which will ‘come upon all who dwell upon the face of the earth.’”7
36. “Be vigilant” derives from the Greek term meaning sleepless or awake and therefore watchful. “Tribulations,” an analogy for “all these things” (tauta panta). The two characteristics of the faithful are that at the time of tribulation they pray and they stand. Both are acts of vigilance before the coming of the Son of Man.
We begin by revisiting the state of eschatology in recent preaching and its long decline in many Catholic and (formerly) mainline Protestant churches. The situation presents us with a serious challenge on this First Sunday of Advent. Given our current context socially and internationally, to be sure, we may have a more attentive audience for the homily this day than in previous seasons. The Covid 19 pandemic still has not run its course, the murder of George Floyd unleashed a social and racial upheaval that persists and has taken root as “anti-racist” thought and actions. There is a new reckoning with racial injustice in the land. The third dominant crisis is that of the environment and its now obvious global threat of human-caused climate change. Certainly it will be easy in our preaching to identify signs in the cosmos and distress within the inhabited world this First Sunday of Advent! The problem is, as usual for those called to preach, “What shall we make of these things for the people of God in Christ?” “What is the gospel for this day?”
Two dominant approaches are evident as we Google Luke 21:25-36. On one hand, the majority of sermons posted on the internet regarding this pericope persist in a rather “hard” apocalyptic—Jesus said it, he will come again and soon, and our task is to wait upon that Day and be faithful believers. These posts reflect a thoroughly individualistic rendering of Christian faith. On the other hand, the new proponents of critical theory are now revising apocalyptic to be a call for fierce advocacy against all forms of privilege and injustice. But in place of a new heaven and a new earth promised by God in Christ, “God’s reign will be a fully realized one, where creatures in the creation will define, describe, and decide the reign.”8 In place of a Son of Man coming on a cloud to be present with the creation and the upright faithful as Lord, “the Son of Man becomes a co-subject along with the creation in that democracy of God’s reign, where he partakes and participates in that space.”9
On one hand, some of our Evangelical friends posit individual souls each seeking redemption by themselves. On the other hand, some Progressive friends insist on a reading of the situation in which collective struggles will bring the reign of God to completion. Both renderings are abstractions of full human being!
Given the signs and this season of dismay and great distress, can these polarities be the only ways to interpret Luke’s witness? Perhaps there is another way, one provided by St. Luke himself. Within our Gospel lesson, two vital aspects of discipleship are mandated by Jesus. First, we are told to pray. Those who lack faith, or even reject it, do not pray and their response to the current chaos in heaven and earth is that of distress and burdened hearts. Gathering as God’s people in Christ at the Mass is the central expression of Jesus’ mandate—we come together and in Christ’s Name we pray. Second, we are to be those who set aside weighted down hearts and, without fear, stand. We literally stand as we hear the words, “Lift up your hearts!” We enact standing up in our works of mercy and witness to this world so weighted down with fear and rage. Scott Hoezee nicely sums up our righteous response to these signs of chaos and confusion.
Jesus says that when all these big things happen, the end is near, the kingdom is near. But the implication is that until this happens—and it all looks to be a rather unmistakable set of circumstances when the end finally comes—things will probably continue on along the kingdom trajectory suggested by the bulk of Jesus’ ministry. We are to continue to witness to Christ and to his kingdom in Christ-like ways, which is to say in ways that keep an eye out for the downtrodden, the poor, the marginalized. As we do so, we may well continue to work largely in obscurity, even as Jesus did.10
St. Luke also comments on this “between the times” stance of Christian disciples, correcting by addition to Hoezee’s list of discipleship ministries an attention to the sacrament:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42).
The shape of an Advent 1 homily emerges from these reflections:
Move 1. Some anticipate the End with fear, accusation, and distress. They select among all the signs and point fingers at each other while shaking with fear and rage.
Move 2. But our risen Lord admonishes us to not be so filled with fear, but to pray, to join in prayer with all the faithful.
Move 3. Our Lord also admonishes us to not be bent over with despair and dissipation, but to stand, joining with the faithful in the breaking of the bread and in our manifold ministries to the world and on behalf of the earth.
(In this last Move, some specific expressions of this standing in solidarity with the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized may be imaged as examples of the ways in which we are called to stand with.)
1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, X-XXV, The Anchor Bible (New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, 1348.
2 Robert C. Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN: 1996), 306-07.
3 Ibid., 307.
4 Fitzmyer, Luke, 1350.
5 Ximena DeBroeck, “Becoming a Priestly People: A Biblically Theology of Liturgical Sacrifice as Spiritual Formation,” Spring, 2017, 184, Duchesne University Thesis, accessed Nov. 19, 2021, https://dsc.duq.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1124&context=etd.
6 Raj Bharat Patta, “The Coming Near of God—Luke 21:25-36,” Political Theology Network, November 26, 2018, accessed Nov. 19, 2021, https://politicaltheology.com/the-coming-near-of-god-luke-2125-36/.
7 Fitzmyer, Luke, 1355.
8 Patta, “The Coming Near of God.”
10 Scott Hoezee, “Luke 21:25-36 Commentary,” Center for Excellence in Preaching, Dec. 2, 2018, accessed Nov. 18, 2021, https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2018-11-26/luke-2125-36/.