by Herb Montgomery | November 29, 2021
(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast, click here.)
“As we enter this Advent season this weekend, we are called again to build a better world. Hope can give way to despair if instead of change, we witness unjust systems evolving to perpetuate harm in new ways. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose something different. We have the power to begin the world over again.”
As we enter the Advent season this weekend, our reading is from the gospel of Luke,
“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. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 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. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 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 21:25-36)
As I wrote about our reading from Mark’s gospel two weeks ago, by the time this week’s reading was written, the Jesus movement was living in the wake of several destructive events including the Jewish-Roman war. The followers of Jesus are trying to make sense of all these events in both Luke and Mark.
In Mark we read a similar passage:
“But in those days, following that distress,
‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:24-27)
I like how the early Jesus community, even in the chaos of their changing world, could perceive an opportunity to make the world a just, more compassionate place. Let me explain this idea.
The phrase “son of man” in Mark and Luke has a deeply Jewish, apocalyptic, liberation context. It’s from the late book of Daniel, and when that portion of Daniel was written, it was written in the context of deep “world change” for the Jewish community reading it. It was meant to inspire hope in the place of fear and anxiety.
Let’s look at a section of Daniel to understand this context. I’ve bolded the key words we’ll be focusing on in Daniel chapter 7:
“In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’ After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully.
“As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
As with all of the Bible’s prophetic passages, people have spent endless hours arguing over possible interpretations from the themes to the most minute details—so much so that these arguments can cause us to miss the forest for the trees.
What is the overall narrative theme here? World empires that oppressed the Jewish people are likened to violent beasts of prey who dominate and destroy. The scene has tension from the beginning: the first beast-empire is both beast or monster and human. From there, the text speaks of a divine intervention where each empire meets the end of its unsustainable exploitation and is consumed. Then we meet a fifth being, not a beast but a human or human-like one. This being is “one like the son of humanity,” a person who replaces all the empires of this world and represents both the Jewish people’s triumph over their oppressors and a just future where all the violence, injustice, and oppression of our world is put right. This very apocalyptic narrative therefore repeats the Hebrew prophetic hope of God’s just future in our world. Consider how the narrative in Daniel 7 ends:
“But the court will sit, and his [little horn’s] power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His [the son of man’s] kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’ (Daniel 7:26)
Following this model, a Hebrew way of interpreting the end of violent empires and the chaos such transitions create is that they could be the end of something beastly making way for the creation of a more humane world.
The fact that beasts and humans symbolize the contrast between societies that are destructive and those that are life-giving brings to mind the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding power, love, and justice.
“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” (Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here, p. 38)
The son of man is not the only image borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures in this week’s reading: it also includes the fig tree. This reference also hints to its hearers that we may look through the chaos to the hope of God’s just future.
“All the stars in the sky will be dissolved
and the heavens rolled up like a scroll;
all the starry host will fall
like withered leaves from the vine,
like shriveled figs from the fig tree.” (Isaiah 34:4)
For the scriptures’ first audiences, a leafy fig tree meant that summer and the time of harvest was near. For both Isaiah and the gospel writers, “the time of harvest” was the time when societies would finally reap what the powerful had sown.
Mark and Luke also both use the phrase “being on guard,” but they use it differently.
In Mark, being on guard means being wary of false messiahs and being handed over to local councils. It is connected to the watchfulness Jesus implored his closest disciples to join him in in the garden of Gethsemane as he was about to face state execution for standing up in the Temple courtyard to an unjust status quo.
By the time of Luke’s writing, though, being on guard has expanded to include carousing, and this shift may reflect struggles within the Jesus community at the time Luke was written.
Luke’s gospel also shifts our vision of God’s just future as a time of reversal that “traps” some kinds of people. Mark used this idea of entrapment to refer to those who were powerful and using their power in unjust ways, but in Luke the trap captures those who are distracted:
“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.” (Luke 21:34)
Lastly, where Mark’s gospel focuses on the Jewish community, Luke’s gospel expands the focus to the entire world: “For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth.”
How can we as Jesus followers read the above passage in Luke today?
Today I think of the beast of Daniel 7 when I think of our era. We are living in what some observers see as the final stages of predatory capitalism, and we are also transitioning to a post-pandemic world too. In the U.S.’s consumerist culture, we are experiencing rising prices in the cost of living, supply chain breakdowns, increased demand for services and goods, labor shortages, and people who still can’t return to their workplace and/or are feeling strained by working 40 hours weekly for pay they can’t survive on. Over the last two years, many of us have experience personal losses while witnessing others’ gains, especially the wealthy whose net worth increased exponentially during the pandemic. This week we once again see our legal system’s disparities on display via the Rittenhouse trial, the trial of those who killed Ahmaud Arbery, and the trial of those who orchestrated the racist violence in Charlottesvile.
Dare we see in these moments an opportunity to build a better world? If we can, it would be characteristic of the Jesus story itself.
As we enter this Advent season this weekend, we are called again to build a better world. Hope can give way to despair if instead of change, we witness unjust systems evolving to perpetuate harm in new ways. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose something different. We have the power to begin the world over again.
The lectionary texts our Advent season begins with this year are interpreted by certain Christians to point not to the first advent that many celebrate at Christmas but to a second advent, or God’s reign, or God’s just future in some form at some point in the future. Certain Christians see these as two advents. I want to challenge us to move past surface distinctions. I want to encourage us to see not two advent events (first with baby Jesus and a future second with an adult returning Jesus), but instead as one entire process of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone; a process that is distributed over time. The events of our text this week, and the narratives of a baby in a manger, are both parts of the same whole. As we move into Advent, remember, the hope and belief that a new iteration of our world is possible, and that the creation of that new iteration has begun, is what Advent is genuinely all about.
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. As Advent begins this year, what does Advent in our social context mean for you today? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
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