Excerpted from My Soul Magnifies the Lord, an Advent Guide for Lectionary Year C from the North Carolina Council of Churches. This post contains the scripture passage, a brief commentary on the text, and a reflection on its application.
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.’ Then he told them a
parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves
you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when
you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have
taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
Searching for signs of the times is nothing new. Jesus is really only offering up what should be obvious to anyone paying attention. When there is distress, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” When is there not distress?—would be my question if I’d had the chance to raise my hand in discipleship class that day. Of course, the answer would be—Never. There is always distress and the real question is—How will we respond? Will we stand up and raise our heads? Jesus said we ought to do that because our redemption is drawing near.
In a culture that has minimized redemption to an event that happens after we die, we readily spiritualize what Jesus is saying about distress. In truth, Jesus taught that redemption is always present for the taking, dependent most often on the choices we make in the dilemmas, also known as distress, that confront us. Observation of the signs is only preparation for action.
Historically, most scholars attribute these verses in Luke (and similar ones from Mark) to sayings that arose after Jesus rose—from the grave, that is. Bearing in mind that the Gospel of Luke was penned nearly 60 years after the resurrection, there would be ample time for the timeline to get fuzzy. It’s hard to recall who said what 60 years ago when we’re all sitting around trying to remember it, especially if the one we’re trying to quote said so many memorable things. Whether Jesus said these exact words before he died or whether they emerged from the community that formed after he was resurrected is beside the point. The point is, those who follow Jesus have a responsibility to pay attention and behave accordingly.
“Be alert at all times,” Jesus tells us, so we will be ready to “stand before the Son of Man.” Son of Man is the typical way that Jesus refers to himself and can readily be translated from the Hebrew as, “the human being.” It is not an honorific title, but actually a leavening title. Through the course of his life and teachings, Jesus has been showing us how to be human. Now, he implores us to be ready to stand before the one who has been showing us how to be human. Will we measure up as humans, the humans that Jesus knows we are capable of being, the humans that do not “faint from fear and foreboding,” but act as his disciples in the face of distress?
Distress is all around us:
- Thousands are marching toward our border seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Will we stand up and raise our heads to welcome the stranger?
- 11 worshippers were massacred at Shabbot. Will we stand up and raise our heads to demand that the “right to life” include some sensible gun laws?
- The income gap between the richest and the poorest in this country is the greatest it’s ever been for any nation at any time in the history of humanity. Ever. Will we stand up and raise our heads to proclaim economic justice? Jubilee year, anybody?
Yes, our redemption is at hand. It’s Advent. We should expect Jesus to show up and ask us—What will it be? Will we seize redemption and act like the human beings Jesus showed us how to be or will we continue down the road to hell? May we be the ones who “stand up and raise our heads.”
~Jennifer Copeland, Executive Director
Although we modern Christian folk might dismiss the desire for divine signs and symbols as atavistic superstition, I’m not so sure we don’t have a quiet, secret yearning for them, even now. I receive a progressive Christian blog called “Signs of the Times” and one of my closest friends, ambivalent about a marriage proposal, confessed to closing her eyes, opening her Bible, and letting her finger land on a passage as a sign of what her decision should be. She’s not the only one. I also know a number of forward-thinking, highly rational Christian friends who spent the week before Election Day hoping for some divine clue as to what the outcome might be (I was one of them).
Why this yearning for divine intervention that signs and symbols supposedly represent? Because human beings aren’t keen on living with uncertainty. We want guidance to make the right decision, reassurance that everything is going to be okay. We want God to move in and show us somehow, someway, that things will be different than they are in this highly uncomfortable and downright scary present moment.
I can’t imagine many people who ever experienced uncertainty at the high-pitched level as did Mary, the Mother of Jesus. An unwed, low-status young virgin, she did receive a whopper of a sign—visited by an angel!—who tells her she’s going to birth the Son of God, of all things. Her immediate response is right on target: “How can this be?” But what has always caused me to wonder is her final response at the end of this Visitation: “Let it be.” How was it possible—even given this mighty big sign/thumbs-up from God—to go from the uncertainty of “How can this be?” to the certainty of “LET it be”?
It wasn’t as if things miraculously worked themselves out during that Visitation. Afterward, Mary took off “with haste” to the Judean hills and the home of her kinswoman Elizabeth—and no wonder she was in such a hurry, because she couldn’t just LET THIS BE. She had to find the one human being on earth who could know anything about any of this, who could possibly help her understand Gabriel’s impossible message. And soon Mary would undertake yet another arduous and hair-raising journey with Joseph to Bethlehem where there would be no room for and her child. Then would come Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, and yet another journey, this time into Egypt and exile. Years later, Mary would journey into Jerusalem and then back again, searching with growing terror for three days for her lost l2-year-old. She would journey to a wedding feast in Cana with him, now a grown man, and having pondered in her heart all that she has seen of him for more than thirty years, turn to the servants of the house and say, “Do whatever he tells you.”
And then, one day, Mary would journey back to Jerusalem to stand at the foot of a cross to watch her son die.
In other words, Mary would experience: want, loss, political persecution, genocide, exile, horrific government-sanctioned violence—all the living darkness and terror of our own world.
And then, one bright dawn, Mary would make her final journey, to stand before an empty tomb.
How can this be?
Let it be.
What I love about Mary’s story is that it shows us a unique form of faithfulness, what I would call being Advent people. Those whose faith is based not on certainty, but on pondering the difficult mysteries of faith in our heart. Those whose faith is based not only on a sure and happy outcome, but which is embedded in the struggle to see a promise made by God come to its fruition, through fear and pain and death and despair and darkness. It’s not about lining up beside the empty tomb in the victory stretch, but about walking the long, miraculous, unpredictable, and sometimes seemingly pointless journey that leads to the empty tomb, one step at a time, holding on to that promise made by God and affirmed by the beloved human beings who walk alongside us.
How do we go from “How can this be?” to “Let it be”? By seeing. By listening. By paying attention. By believing, not with utmost certainty, but by pondering these things in our hearts. By showing up for the journey, and refusing to take any shortcuts. This Advent season, I invite you to walk the journey of Mary, to begin not with the certainty of your destination, but with the question “How can this be?” Not fleeing from the darkness but moving through it, through the infinite and incomprehensible pain of the world, remembering that always we are contained by the love of God that led Mary through the darkness, that overcame the darkness. So that we, too, with Mary, trusting in the promise that has been made to us, might arrive at that place where WE say, “Let it be.”
~Karen Richardson Dunn, PHW Regional Coordinator