The Son of Man is coming

Published 5:27 pm Friday, December 3, 2021

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By Charles Qualls

Maybe you’ve seen the painting. It’s called “Starry Night,” and at times we’ve had a framed print of it hanging in our entry hallway at home. How might that painting connect with this week’s text in Luke 21: 25-26? For that matter, why might we begin our Advent season with that apocalyptic scripture from near the end of Jesus’ story?

Kathy Beach-Verhey, a scholar, draws parallels between this text and perhaps Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting. She suggests that the painting captures the essence of this text well with its colors, swirling disarray, a church steeple that dominates the town and a cypress tree. Cypress trees would have symbolized death and cemeteries in Van Gogh’s time.

Of interest, Van Gogh’s father was a Dutch pastor. Who knows? Surely he was at least familiar with apocalyptic imagery such as what Jesus uses in Luke 21 here. Interestingly, if one looked out the window in the asylum where he was healing from paranoia and depression at the time he painted it, some of these very elements are what you would have seen.

Ancient peoples, including the Romans, were open to the notion that cosmic events, especially unusual ones, were harbingers of some bigger happening. Emperor Augustus collected up the prophecies that were swirling in the streets of the ancient empire so that he might quote from them, as needed, to explain policy decisions.

So, why has Christian tradition drawn from this Luke 21 message from Jesus over the years as an occasional starting place for Advent? It contrasts with the typical cultural wish to revel in the pageantry and things of the secular Christmas practice. It also speaks to the anticipation of something bigger in the preparation. Secular practices of Christmas and Easter want to just jump to the big day. Grounding ourselves in the implications behind the big day strengthens our faith.

Rather than city sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style, this is liminal time that we live in. Something the ancient Hebrews knew and spoke of. That is a time caught in-between. As Christians, a time where we know Jesus, we watch for Jesus, we wait for Jesus. But there is another realm, another season or chapter of Creation out there somewhere that we can’t hurry up.

This year, we start at the end, because these powerful words are “hope” and “promise.” Nothing will make much difference to our lives, not even the story of Jesus’ birth, if we don’t recognize the power of anticipation, hope and promise.

You see, the power of our faith is in hope. In painful times, in uncertain times, in times that are beyond our understanding, the key is to reach for hope. Jesus has come. Today, as we peer over into the joy of what the Christmas season truly has to give us, scripture reminds us that He also plans to come back again.

In this text, Jesus offers us an important perspective that could brighten our Advent. He offers these words that tell us of what God is doing for us. Jesus has come. We celebrate his birth each Christmas. Jesus is coming again.

Can we go back to mention of the second coming and see instead why Jesus is coming again? That’s what this text offers us. The first time He arrived, how did we treat Him? Why would God send this gift a second time when we didn’t open that package too nicely the first time around?

The question of Advent is not so much when? The question of Advent’s grace and mystery is “why?” Why did God do this? Why would God do this?

I invite you to pay attention to the scriptures we’ll read in these weeks. Pay attention to the hymns or carols we’ll sing in church or elsewhere. If you pay attention and sing them with a little extra intent, some of their words or phrases just might prompt you to ask that question born of mystery — why?

One of the reasons we pay such careful attention during Advent is because this baby brings hope into the living of our days. But only if we pay attention. Only if we ask the questions of Advent. Only if we search for their answers as we move through this time awake and alive!

This just could be important to you and to me. Because the answers we find along the way are where the hope is found.