The First Sunday of Advent, Year C – Luke 21:25-36
I want to talk with you today about the future. The First Sunday of Advent always focuses our attention on the future. It’s a theme that runs through today’s gospel (Luke 21:25-36) and the entire Season of Advent.
Many of you know that the word advent comes from the Latin word meaning “to come.” So something or someone is coming to us in this season. We most often think of what’s coming as Christmas and the birth of Jesus. And it is but I also think it is bigger and more than that. In today’s gospel Jesus speaks of the “‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” I think that’s a metaphor for the future. I’ve recently begun to think of Advent as the coming of our future, and a time when we prepare, as best we can, if we can, for that future.
What comes up for you when you look toward or think about your future?
We all have a future and we all deal with it in our lives. Some look toward the future with fear, anxiety, and worry. “People will,” Jesus says, “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” When have you felt like that?
Others look to the future with hope, eagerness, and optimism. They “stand up and raise [their] heads” with anticipation and expectancy. When have you jumped out of bed ready to get the new day started, and excited about the possibilities of what might be? My grandmother called it being “journey-proud.” She said she was too excited to sleep. She wanted to get going. When have you been journey-proud?
Most of us, I suspect, live with both of those outlooks. Which predominates for you today? What is the future you dread? What is the future you want and anticipate? What parts of your life are fearful and what parts are journey-proud?
Regardless of which it is, “the force of the future is to prevent the present from closing in on us, from closing us up” (Caputo, 8). Advent “pries open the present by promising us the possibility of something new, the chance of something different, something that will transform the present into something else” (Caputo, 8).
I am not talking about the foreseeable future but the unforeseeable future. We all have both. Most nights my wife or I will ask, “What’s your plan for tomorrow? What have you got going on?” Or we will talk about what we want to do on the weekend, for summer vacation, or even retirement. We’re talking about the foreseeable future, the future we are planning and have some control over, the future toward which we are working. With prior planning, common sense, some work, and a bit of luck we can have a reasonable expectation that the future will be as we plan. It’s within our reach and control. Most days I come home from work having lived the future I planned days, weeks, or months before. It was foreseeable.
While we can plan and prepare for the foreseeable future, the unforeseeable future comes “like a thief in the night.” It takes us by surprise. It’s completely unknown and unimaginable. We can’t understand or make sense of it. We are at our wits’ end, seemingly pushed beyond the limits of what is possible, without power or control. We’re not prepared for what is happening. How can you prepare for what you cannot see, know, or understand? It’s those times in our life when we say things like, “Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined or guessed that,” “No, that’s not possible; it can’t be,” “God only knows.”
I’m betting every one of you knows what I am talking about. I am betting every one of you has felt the unforeseeable future pry open and forever change your life. Surely, that’s how Mary felt at Gabriel’s announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God. She felt the impossibility of a future she never imagined. “How can this be?” Haven’t you also asked that question?
And let’s not forget the context for today’s gospel. Jesus and the disciples have just left the temple, the center of religious and civic life, when Jesus says, “Not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.” It’s something they never could have imagined. Hasn’t there been a time when you felt the stones of your temple being thrown down? Unimaginable, unforeseeable? Yes, but not impossible.
The unforeseeable future always holds the possibility of the impossible. The unforeseen future is, however, always unfolding, always calling us forward, always asking of us a response. So let’s not be too quick to name or judge it as good or bad, joyful or sorrowful, desired or unwanted. We just don’t know. We cannot name the impossible.
To name or judge the impossible would be to relativize it and close ourselves off from the advent of God. In Advent the unforeseeable future comes to us as a “chance for something new, for a new birth, for the expectation, the hope, the hope against hope, in a transforming future” (Caputo, 12). Advent does not promise an escape from the circumstances of our lives or the world. The promise of Advent, the possibility of the impossible, is revealed and fulfilled in the midst of those circumstances.
The foreseeable future falls within the scope of our power and possibilities. Things are manageable and, for the most part, we know what to do. With the unforeseeable future, however, “there are no guarantees, no contracts or warranties…. There is a lot of risk” (Caputo, 12). That’s why Jesus says, “Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down…. Be alert at all times. Pray.” He’s reminding us that the impossible is the realm of faith, hope, and love. That’s how we are to live when “heaven and earth are [passing] away,” when there is “distress among the nations,” and “when the powers of heaven [are] shaken.”
That means we do not give up when the sands of our life are shifting under our feet. We do not give up “when we come unhinged,” when our ability is driven to its limit, “when we are overwhelmed,” or “exposed to something we cannot manage or foresee” (Caputo, 13). And we do not give up on ourselves or each other.
I am not talking about rosy optimism or determined perseverance. I am talking about staying open to the possibility of the impossible, to a future we could never imagine. I am talking about the call of faith, hope, love, courage, compassion, beauty, forgiveness, healing. Aren’t those the things that speak to your heart and tug at your soul?
I don’t know what the future holds for you and neither do you. But I know this. Those things I just listed – faith, hope, love, courage, compassion, beauty, forgiveness, healing – are the voice of Advent. They speak the possibility of a new life, a transformed life, and they call to us from the most improbable, unforeseen, and impossible places of our lives. They will pull you into and through the rest of this day. And when you wake up tomorrow morning, guess what? They will be there, waiting for you and calling your name.
I am indebted to and grateful for John Caputo’s On Religion (N.Y.: Routledge, 2019), 7-13.