Welcome to Advent. I’m not sure why, but I do seem to have a habit of turning up at St Catherine’s on the first Sunday of Advent. And here we are again, at the beginning of a new church year, looking forward to Christmas. In previous years, I’ve brought along a round tuit, talked about being alert, because the world needs all the lerts it can get, and waved a coffee mill at you.
Today I have for you a fruit. Who knows what this is? Yes, it’s a fig. Perhaps you might be more familiar with them in that classic English tea time treat – the fig roll. Has anyone here ever grown these things? I was going to say that I thought you had to grow them under glass in the UK, but a friend of mine assured me that her parents’ tree fruits just about every year in the garden. Does anyone know how you can tell when a fig tree is going to fruit? I suspect it’s much the same as any other fruit tree. At the moment the apple trees in my garden are busy losing their leaves. Come next spring, the leaves will come again, then the blossom, and then the fruit.
The summary is, it’s easy to tell what season it is by looking at a fruit tree. In the middle of our passage from Luke’s historical account of the good news of Jesus, we hear Jesus using this as a parable, suggesting that it is also easy for us to look at what’s going on around us in the world and understand what season it is.
We’re going to come back to this in a minute, but first a bit of background. I said a moment ago that Luke wrote a historical account. How do we know this? Well, right at the beginning of his book he says that is his intention, “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning … to write an orderly account”.
Luke wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples, he probably wasn’t there for any of these events, but he’d talked to eyewitnesses, read other accounts, and brought them together into his gospel. If it was just the author claiming this, then it wouldn’t carry much weight, but there is external evidence as well. More than the other gospel writers Luke refers to important government officials, locations, and dates. These match up well with other ancient documents and archaeological evidence.
The section we read today comes towards the end of Luke’s gospel, and Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. He is in Jerusalem, in the days leading up to his betrayal and crucifixion. At the beginning of chapter 21 Jesus and his followers are walking through the temple courts, and they are doing the tourist thing – amazed at the beautiful architecture. Jesus begins to talk about the fall of the temple, and of Jerusalem itself. He warns his friends about all the difficulties and challenges that they will face as his people. He describes what will happen when the Roman armies descend on Jerusalem in conquest – it will be truly dreadful.
This is where we pick up the conversation. Up until now Jesus has definitely been talking about the fall of Jerusalem that will happen about 40 years after his death. The things he predicts happen, on the national scale, and to the disciples – many of the things he says are fulfilled as we read through Acts, and the temple and Jerusalem do fall.
Now, however, things get a bit more complicated, and quite a lot less clear.
In verses 25 and 26 we hear Jesus describing chaos in the natural order – shaking in the heavens and in the seas, causing terror and fear.
In verse 27, we read about the Son of Man coming on a cloud. This has echoes of a verse in the Old Testament, in Daniel 7, in which Daniel has a vision of a son of man coming on the clouds, to take his seat on the throne of heaven, which Nick referred to last week.
Then we get the parable of the figs, and then the strange verse 32 – “This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened” and in verse 33 a reference to the heavens and earth passing away.
Many have understood these verses as talking about the end of time, when Jesus returns to earth to establish his kingdom once for all. He has moved on from talking about the final days of Jerusalem to talking about the final days of creation, before its restoration.
There are two problems with this understanding. Firstly, the Daniel passage is clearly about the Son of Man coming to heaven to be enthroned, not him coming to earth. Secondly, the natural reading of “generation” as “those who are alive now” can’t have been right if Jesus was referring to the end of all things. This difficulty can be got round – it is possible that Jesus was talking about “the people of Israel” or the whole of humanity – but none of these are the obvious or natural reading. Or, we could say that Jesus was wrong. He thought that the fall of Jerusalem and his return would happen at the same time, but he was mistaken. That would leave us with some serious questions to address about how we’d know whether Jesus was right or wrong on other occasions.
So, an alternative suggestion is that Jesus is still talking about the fall of Jerusalem, and not about the end of time at all. In this understanding, Jesus is using dramatic picture language when he describes the chaos in creation, to emphasis how awful it is going to be. Here the “coming on the cloud” is Jesus ascension to heaven, and the fall of Jerusalem is the sign to the whole world that Jesus was right – it’s his vindication. And, the generation that Jesus was speaking to did see this. This view solves the two problems we had, but does introduce others. Does it take seriously enough the sense of creation wide calamity in what Jesus says? It doesn’t seem to me to explain satisfactorily the second half of verse 28, in which Jesus says that at this time “redemption will draw near”.
Many theologians, Bible scholars, and writers have different views on this. Despite this, we can take a couple of things from it, that most agree on. Jesus was talking about the fall of Jerusalem for at least some of it, and what he said would happen, did happen. We know that Jesus talked about him being enthroned in heaven, whether this describes his ascension to it, his return from it, or both. We also have his instructions to his followers on how to behave in difficult times – whether during the fall of Jerusalem, at the end of all time, or at any point between those two things – the times we are living in now, which are all the “end times.” Throughout his gospel and on into his sequel, Acts, Luke makes it clear that the end times were not simply something future, but have already begun with Jesus’ Ascension, the fall of Jerusalem, and Pentecost.
So, how are we to behave now, in the end times, in which Jesus, our King, is enthroned in heaven, and as we await his return?
Jesus tells his friends three things, “Stand up and lift up your heads. Be careful. Pray”. There is no uncertainty of difficulty in understanding here. It’s clear what we are to do.
Stand up and lift up your heads. This is counter intuitive advice. When things are difficult, when are faith and beliefs are being attacked or treated with contempt, the natural thing to do is to keep a low profile, to duck away from the limelight, to drop our heads. But Jesus encourages us to confidence. Not self-confidence or arrogance, but confidence in our King. We stand up for our faith, we stand up to the opposition, we lift our heads to fix our eyes on Jesus, so that we don’t get overwhelmed by the waves.
Be careful. This isn’t careful in the sense of cautious, but careful in the sense of deliberate. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t slip into relying on escapes like drink, it won’t help in the long run, it’ll just lead to hangovers. Be careful, deliberate, about what you focus your thoughts and hopes on, choosing as much as possible not to get caught up in the anxieties of life. Sometimes we get anxious, but for most of us, most of the time, we are able to choose how much focus we give to those anxieties. We can be deliberate about putting them aside and choosing to trust Jesus.
Pray. In the challenges and difficult times, Jesus calls us to pray, and he calls us to pray for some specific things. He says, “pray that you may be able to escape … and to be able to stand before the Son of Man”. These are prayers of humility. They are the prayers of those who know that they can’t get themselves out of the mess that they find themselves in, and who know that they are sinful and can’t stand before the judge of all. What a blessing that the very one who commands us to pray for these things is the one who, by his death and resurrection, is the answer to our prayers. We can stand before the Son of Man, if we accept the righteousness that he bought for us. We are rescued by Jesus from the mess of sin and death, if we reach out to him.
As we go into Advent, we know what season it is, we are in the end times. We are waiting for Jesus to return. We believe that he is enthroned in heaven, and so let us choose to lift our heads, to take care, and to pray in faith and hope.