If you were like me, when you were very young, there were only two really important events in your life. You felt like they could not come soon enough. What were they? The first was… your birthday. The second was… Jesus’ birthday. Both involved presents. Lots of presents. Then when you were old enough to know that Father Christmas was not in the Nativity Play and you were allowed to stay up late, there was a third special day. New Year’s Eve. There were no presents but you still looked forward to the party and seeing in the New Year. For me, Summer holidays were special but never as special as my birthday and Christmas Day. We love to celebrate beginnings. We celebrate new life. Our birthday. Family birthdays. Jesus’ birthday. The birth of a new year. So what is it with the Church? When does the Church year begin? Not Christmas and the birth of our Saviour. Not Easter and the gift of new life. Not even Pentecost and the birth of the Church. The Church year begins with Advent.
Advent means coming. The secular world exploits Advent to make as much money as possible out of Christmas. But our Bible readings today reminds us of what Advent is not about preparing for Christmas, despite what the chocolate Advent calendars tell us. Advent is not about preparing for the birth of Jesus. If it were, the lectionary readings would reflect that. No, our Bible readings are about the second coming of Jesus not the first.
So why does the Church year begin with the return of Jesus? Because it is the most important event in the future. The Church year begins with the return of Jesus because it is about a new beginning. A new heaven and a new earth. It is about the beginning of eternity. So let us spend a little time reflecting on what Jesus has to teach us about his return and discover why we begin the church year with the end of this world as we know it.
1. Jesus is Coming in Glory
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:25-27)
How did you feel when you heard those words of Jesus? Did they fill you with joy or with dread? You see the return of Jesus is going to be inconvenient for many people. Very inconvenient. He is going to mess with people’s lives, their hopes, their ambitions, their dreams. Jesus says there will be “anguish and perplexity”. In fact he says “People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world.” Now when Jesus refers to “signs in the sun, moon and stars” and warns that “the heavenly bodies will be shaken”, it is possible Jesus is describing literal cosmological disturbances. We know the disruptive effects of sun spots for life on earth, and the impact of climate change in terms of extreme weather. But the prophets also used this kind of apocalyptic language to describe cataclysmic political events on earth.
Jesus is simply using vivid imagery taken from the Old Testament to describe his return. Isaiah, for example, wrote, “The stars will not give their light… the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13.10). What was going on? Babylon was being destroyed, never to be rebuilt. In the prophet’s world, that was like saying that London or New York would sink into the sea, never to rise. What language will do justice to such an event? That of cosmic collapse, of chaos …. The whole point is, of course, that the world has not actually collapsed; if it had, there wouldn’t be anybody around to be shocked and awed…” So remember, despite what the newspapers say, the most important future event is not Brexit. It is not even climate change or global warming or diminishing food supplies, raw materials or immigration. The Bible reminds us that while many people will be preoccupied with political and economic turmoil, the most important event in the future is going to be the return of Jesus. Jesus is coming in glory.
2. Jesus is Coming for Us
“When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)
The expression, “Lifting up your heads” is a sign of strength, of confidence that God is in control of this world. Advent therefore should fill us with as much joy and as much excitement as Christmas, or your birthday. In fact more so, says Jesus, “because your redemption is drawing near”. What will our redemption look like? Other passages give us a glimpse. In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul tells us what will happen to us personally.
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality…55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-58)
And in the Book of Revelation, we read what else will happen when Christ returns.
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
Think about that: No more war. No more death. No more crying. No more suffering. Plenty of reason to rejoice first, that Jesus is coming in glory. Second, that Jesus is coming for us.
3. Jesus is Preparing us for that Day
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)
Advent reminds us that Jesus is coming in glory. Because Jesus is coming for us. With that in mind, Jesus wants to prepare us for that glorious day. Jesus does not want us to be anxious about political turmoil, worried by ecological disturbance, disturbed by opposition or threatened persecution. Instead he wants us to focus on his return and not our circumstances. Jesus tells us to be careful. To be watchful. To be prayerful. Then we will be able to stand when he returns. Although no one knows when Jesus will return, two things are certain. First, we are nearer to that day than ever before in history. And second, the signs are certainly more evident than ever before. That is why we celebrate Advent. That is why today we celebrate the beginning of the new Church year. The last two verses in the Bible sum up the message of today. They contain the final promise of Jesus and how we should respond, today of all days.
“He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” (Revelation 22:20-21)