As I speak there are 22 days 13 hours and about forty minutes until Christmas. If you haven’t done it already, you have less than a month to get all your gifts, you have slightly over two weeks to get your Christmas Cards together if you want to send them second class, and Christmas Pudding… well, you can forget about making one now! Last week was Stir Up Sunday, the point of no return for Christmas Pudding makers! The countdown has started and the next few weeks are sure to be some of the most frenetic of the year. And whilst it can be hard waiting for christmas, particularly if you’re a kid, I am sure that we are all glad that we have just a little bit more time before it arrives.
To be honest, it is quite good that Christmas is predictable. Every year, the same date. How can you possibly prepare for a big celebration if you lack even the most basic details, like when it’s supposed to be! Imagine how you would feel if you knew that all your friends and family we going to turn up at your house, and you had to prepare yourself and your home to entertain them all, but, nobody was prepared to tell you when they might descend upon you. All you know is that it’s going to happen.
Advent feels a lot like that. Everything we say and do in worship points us to the future. Not to the baby in the manger but to the return of the king. Just listen during the Eucharistic prayer, “Confident that your promise will be fulfilled, we now watch for the day when Christ our Lord will come again in glory.” We are supposed to be preparing for something, the event to which Christ’s coming at Christmas directs us, for his second coming. But the details of this advent, when it will be and what it will look like, slip through our hands like sand.
The gospel reading for today is tantalising. On the face of it, it appears to offer ‘signs’ which will help us, or some future generation, work out when Jesus will return. And just like observing a budding tree tells us that summer is a coming in, so observing these signs tells us of God’s coming kingdom. In the USA there is almost an industry which specialises in speculating about the signs of the end of time. But when you read this passage more closely, there are some big problems with reading this as Jesus’ roadmap for the apocalypse.
The main hint that there might be more to this reading than appears at first comes when Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” (Luke 21.32) Now that is a very tricky verse. If Jesus is talking about his second coming, then it looks like he might have made a mistake. The first generation of Christians lived and died, and Jesus didn’t return. Subsequent generations have come and gone, and Jesus hasn’t returned. And there have been lots of wars and natural disasters since the first century. There have been plenty of ‘signs’ of the king’s return, but still, we’ve been waiting rather a long time. So did Jesus make a mistake? Has Jesus made a massive theological blooper? Well, I don’t think he did. And before you commit to thinking that I have gone out of my mind, let me explain why.
It all hinges on the word ‘generation’. When I hear ‘generation’, I usually think of a group of people born roughly at the same time, like ‘Generation X’. Either that or it sometimes means a period of about 30 years, so you might talk about a famous scientist and say ‘She was the kind of mind that comes once in a generation’. But the writer of Luke’s gospel uses ‘generation’ in another sense. We often hear Jesus talking about ‘this generation’, and he doesn’t have kind things to say about it. There was a crowd who were constantly badgering Jesus to perform miracles, treating him like a circus magician, and Jesus says to them, “you faithless and perverse generation” (Luke 9.41). A bit later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a story about an unjust steward who cheats his master to build up his pension pot. Breathtakingly, Jesus commends the steward saying, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16.8). For Jesus, ‘generation’ is often used to refer to the attitude of opposing God’s rule, people who are keen to have Jesus perform magic tricks, but who do not want to take up their cross and follow him.
I think that it’s quite possible that Jesus is using ‘generation’ in this way in our gospel reading. So rather than making a prediction about the world ending within thirty years, Jesus might be saying something like this: “Don’t be fooled, God’s kingdom won’t come easily. God’s purposes will be opposed, his love will be rejected. Don’t expect a golden age. The generation which opposes God will be around right to the very end, but even so, God hasn’t deserted the world, his rule is very close.”
Gloomy message, hey? Where is the Christmas cheer? But in our desire to be constantly cheery, might we be missing something really important? When God was born as a human being on the first Christmas day, a radical chain of events was set in motion which will lead to God’s final triumph over all the forces of evil. All injustice, all cruelty, all selfishness and violence will one day dissolve away as God’s kingdom comes in all its fulness. God’s becoming a human being and living with us, and dying and being raised for us and ascending to heaven has consequences for humanity.
Those times when we tolerate injustice, when we are happy to see one group of human beings trampled under the feet of others, when we use violence or cruelty to get our way. Those types of behavior which we all from time to time engage in are shone on by the floodlights of God’s kingdom. And we’re beckoned to, to live the life of the future in the present. Jesus calls us in a sense, not to look for signs of his coming, but to be signs of his coming. Whilst we are trying to get the last of the Christmas shopping in, and making sure we don’t miss the nativity play, and trying desperately not to get fed up with it all, Advent points to the future and asks us to think about the end of time, and how we should live in the light of God’s coming kingdom.
Jesus’ message to us is that, if we genuinely seek to live the life of God’s kingdom, to be a sign of his good, just and peaceful reign over all things, life may very well be difficult. The old world does not easily give way to the new. The fact is that life isn’t always like a Christmas party. Faith doesn’t always, or even often, lead us to the crib, with the infant Lord quietly cooing.Very often, faith leads to conflict and trouble. When everything seems to be going wrong, should we freak out and panic? Should we pour ourselves another drink, and try to ignore it (Luke 21.24)? When things seem difficult, God and his rule are very close. At that time, Jesus says, ‘stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21.28).