Theology, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Eschatology, the subfield of theology addressing “last things”, is no different. The people in our congregations are almost certainly curious and confused about Christian eschatology. While no longer in its heyday, the popularity of the Left Behind series is indicative of the vacuum of good, orthodox eschatological teaching within many American churches. I have yet to serve a church that does not contain the series on its shelves. The fever dream of the Left Behind series seems to have run its course. I’m in my 8th year of campus ministry and find students today increasingly less familiar with it. The eschatology contained within those novels is still alive and well.
The season of Advent, which begins this Sunday, is the right time to begin to address eschatology in your sermons. Advent is a season of preparation, not only for receiving the newborn Christ at Christmas but also to be prepared for when Christ returns in final victory at the end of the age. December in the United States has become a monthlong cultural season of Christmas. It will take some work to claim this time as Advent for the season of longing, expectation, and preparation for Christ including his return. While this will be published too late for this year, consider observing 7 weeks of Advent as was the custom when the season first began in the Western churches. The lectionary readings remain the same and give churches a chance to have intentional Advent time before December comes. Resources are available through the Advent Project.
The gospel reading from Luke contains the words of Jesus and is thoroughly eschatological. The reading comes from a larger section of Jesus’ teachings while at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 20:1-21:38). The teaching at hand is part of a longer teaching Jesus begins at 21:5. In this teaching, Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple in response to other speaking about the beauty of the Temple (. “They asked [Jesus], ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’” (21:7). The ensuing teachings of Jesus address both events that have taken place, such as the persecution of Christians and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (21:9-24), and events that are to come, namely the parousia or second coming of Jesus Christ. Our reading today is in this latter part and it is vital to read it in the wider context of the eschatology of Luke-Acts. For an excellent overview of various and competing interpretations, see “The Eschatology of Luke-Acts Revisited” by Beverly Roberts Gaventa.
Jesus speaks of a great upheaval as one age gives way to the next. The kingdom of God will come crashing into this world in all of its fullness. The Temple loomed large in the imaginations of the Israelites and 1st century Jews as the connection point between heaven and earth that housed God’s very presence. Its destruction meant the destruction of the focal point of Israel’s worship life. In turn, there is upheaval throughout the created order, from the heavens on down to the seas. What once seemed stable and predictable such as the movement of the heavenly bodies and the tides of the seas descend into chaos. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).
What are we to make of these dire and distressing images of what lays in store for us? Are we to take this passage in one hand and newspapers, astronomical reports, and tidal charts in the other hand and determine whether the birth of God’s kingdom in all of its fullness is at hand? Certainly the week I’m writing this, in which bombs have been mailed to Democratic leadership, a mass shooting has taken place at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, and both soldiers and migrants are on their way to the southern border, it seems like a good time for people to “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Are we then to live in anxiety that every convergence of evil events spells the impeding return of the Lord? There is an appeal to seeing such horrific events as signs that Jesus’ return is at hand because it rescues these violent, crushing events from meaninglessness. At the same time, while Jesus’ teaching is in part about discerning the season, it is ultimately about things more vital creating a timeline of Judgment Day’s arrival. In Acts, which shares the same author as Luke, Jesus himself rejects the question of such a precise arrival date (Acts 1:6-8).
Good eschatology is indispensable for the life of the church. How do we imagine history and the future? What is the story we tell of it? Is humanity on a path of progress or decline? Are we seeking to conserve and restore values and ways of life that are being lost or are we seeking to liberate ourselves from bygone strictures? Theologian and Anglican priest Sam Wells, borrowing an idea from N.T. Wright, encourages us to think of the Bible as a five-act play: I. Creation and Fall; II. Israel and Exile; III. Jesus; IV. the Church; and V. the Eschaton. The Christian life is learning to find our place in this story, namely in Act IV as the Church. We have the “script” of Acts I-III, the beginning of Act IV, and Act V in the Bible, and by studying and inwardly digesting the “script” of the Bible we learn how to “improvise”, or live faithfully, in the here and now in Act IV as the Church. A vital part of our story is where it is going, namely Act V: the Eschaton. We know that Jesus will return in judgment and set the world right. We trust his promise that a day will come when the kingdom of God will come in all of its fullness, when the injustices of this life are judged, when sin and death are at least overthrown, every tear is wiped away, and God will come to make God’s home here on a new earth. So with this assured ending in mind, we live in a way that bears witness that Christ will come again.
This passage offers a few avenues for eschatological preaching during Advent. I will touch on two. The first is that good eschatology makes for good Christology. The beginning point of shaping the congregation’s eschatology is to preach about Jesus as the one who will return to bring judgment and redemption in all their fullness. One of Jesus’ most common ways of referring to himself is as the “Son of Man” (21:36); it is vital to his identity. Is it vital to our understanding of who he is? Do we embrace Jesus as the one, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, will come “to judge the living and the dead”? The sermon could lay out Wells’ way of seeing the Bible as a five-act play, and help people see that how we imagine the future or destiny impacts how we live here and now. Think about the various stories of the future the people of you congregation might imagine: a story of human progress; a story of human decline and rejection of values; an individualized story of aiming for a cushy retirement; a story of nationalist dominance. While it is possible to coopt Jesus and his return to justify any of these narratives, good eschatology should critique all of our human made stories of our destiny.
The second possibility is that good eschatology makes for good discipleship. Jesus teaches what signs to expect in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom. He also teaches us what our response should be and it has little to do with how we vote, national or foreign policy, or creating a Judgment Day timeline. Rather, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The exhortation is to look to Jesus Christ himself, for he is our redemption. Jesus goes on to teach us to trust his word and promises (v. 33) as well as to “be on guard.” It was tempting in Luke’s day as today to become “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” (v. 34). When we hear of bad news and atrocities, we look for someone or something that will ensure our safety or put our troubled minds at ease. Jesus firmly points us as his disciples to himself: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and stand before the Son of Man” (v. 36). While posting “thoughts and prayers” on social media is terribly out of fashion right now, we as disciples of Jesus should never denigrate earnest prayer made with the understanding that God may ask that we make action of our prayers. So rather than trying to figure out which world leader is secretly in league with dark powers, Jesus calls us to discipleship: keeping our eyes firmly and prayerfully fixed on him whatever calamity may come.
 The Advent Project: http://theadventproject.org/  Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. 1982. “The Eschatology of Luke-Acts Revisited.” Encounter 43 (1): 27–42. https://alumniproxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url==http://search.ebscohost.com.alumniproxy.lib.duke.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a6h&AN=ATLA0000789106&site=ehost-live&scope=site.  Faith & Leadership. “Sam Wells: Improvising Leader.” https://www.faithandleadership.com/multimedia/samuel-wells-improvising-leadership Accessed: 19 November 2018.