Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21.28)
Back Into Rehearsal
A friend and I were discussing Advent, and he summed it up splendidly as, “waiting and watching for the thing we most hope for.” He didn’t elaborate on what “the thing” was. The conviction in his tone made clear that he meant the Second Coming, which surprised me. He’s an alumnus of one of America’s most famously (or, if you will, infamously) liberal seminaries and forged his career not in the ivied traces of highbrow theology, but in the sciences. Therefore, I assumed he viewed Advent as the season when Christians gain entrance to the wonder of Christmas by revisiting Old Testament prophecies that shaped New Testament accounts of Jesus’s birth. As he talked on, however, it became obvious his Advent focus centered on what many dismiss as a far-fetched possibility, rather than the celebrated event that occurred 2000 years ago.
“Advent has always felt peculiar to me,” he mused. “It’s like we’re cast in this mammoth production and we rehearse like mad to get ready for it. But nobody can say exactly what we’re preparing for—what it will look like, how it will go, or even when it will happen. Year after year, we go back into rehearsal, thinking, ‘Maybe this time.’ But isn’t that how it went with the first coming? They kept praying and watching and waiting. Then—pow!—there it was. Those who were ready saw it. The rest missed it completely. They couldn’t see God, because Jesus didn’t come the way they expected. That’s how it will be the second time around, too, making Advent all about expecting the unexpected. How do we manage that? That’s the question that falls in our laps every year. And if Advent doesn’t gin up all kinds of conflicted emotions, it seems to me we’re not doing it right.”
Somehow my friend’s uneasiness with Advent—his faith that Christ will come again tempered with uncertainty about how that promise will play out—comforted me. Advent should make us uneasy. If we’re “doing it right,” we should feel deeply conflicted about it, because it asks more of us than we can manage. Each year, we reach for prophets of old and renew acquaintances with those who experienced the Bethlehem miracle as prototypes to emulate. Questions that challenge our belief in the Second Coming are no different than the ones that perplexed them. Our discomfort with hoping in a cosmic event that will somehow alter our reality is no different than Mary’s. When the angel describes the pivotal role she will play in God’s redemptive plan, her first question is, “How will this be?” (Luke 1.34) We ask the same thing when pondering Christ’s return. Expecting the unexpected is no simple task.
It’s not entirely wrong to say that those who awaited and witnessed Christ’s birth had a slight advantage over us. Their prophets were first-rate poets whose vivid imagery transformed everyday objects into extraordinary augurs. This weekend we hear the Promised One described as “a righteous Branch to spring up for David” (Jeremiah 33.15)—tipping off the hopeful that His pedigree would derive from Israel’s most celebrated king. Isaiah’s pages overflow with symbols and metaphors that spell out Messianic events with breathtaking precision. Even the minor prophets arrest us with their clairvoyant eloquence.
By comparison, Jesus’s Second Coming prophecies seem decidedly mundane and vague. In Mark 13, He talks about wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines as “the beginning of birthpangs” indicating Christ’s imminent return. This week’s Gospel (Luke 21.25-36) predicts bad weather: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth 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.” (v25-26) What are we to make of this? History has never known a time when there weren’t wars and rumors of war. Every generation is dealt its share of earthquakes and famines. Hurricanes, tsunamis, and atmospheric disturbances are part of planetary life. Yet Jesus points to these inevitabilities—and the tragedies they bring—as signs of hope! “Now when these things begin to take place,” He says in verse 28, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It’s here that the conflicted emotions my friend described rear up. How can we know what we’re waiting and watching for if we’re uneasy with what we’re looking at?
The great paradox of Jesus’s Second Coming prophecies is that their veiled randomness makes His message transparently direct. Because the signs He gives us are constant and inescapable, our longing for Christ’s return should also be constant and inescapable. Watching and waiting for the thing we most hope for should become as commonplace to us as turning on the nightly news. Expecting the unexpected should frame how we live out our days. We should believe something bigger is taking shape behind the violence of war, tremors and tragedies born of a groaning planet, disheartening rumors that fill the air, and turmoil roiling above our heads. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away,” Jesus assures us in verse 33. Troubles that confront us come and go. Yet we remain, constant in hope, steadfast in love, our joy and peace secured by unyielding faith that Christ will come again.
And so we approach Advent’s rehearsal as God’s great biding time. It's the season when we root out our deepest fears and uncertainties—when we realize there is more to this world than what we see, know, and understand. It is when we follow Jesus’s instructions to the letter: we stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near. Maybe this time we’ll see the thing we most hope for. It’s possible we won’t. Either way, Advent’s rehearsal prepares us to move forward in faith that something miraculous is moving toward us. By doing the hard work this season asks of us, we’ll be ready and know it when we see it.
Watching and waiting.