Watching for the Son of Man

25‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars. On earth the nations will be in distress and confusion because of the roaring and swelling of the sea and its waves. 26People will faint from fear, and from imagining all that’s going to happen to the world. The powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the son of man coming on a cloud” with power and great majesty. 28When all these things start to happen, stand up and lift up your heads, because the time has come for you to be redeemed.’
29He told them this parable. ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30When they are well into leaf, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is upon you. 31In the same way, when you see all these things happening, you will know that God’s kingdom is upon you. 32I’m telling you the truth; this generation won’t be gone before all of this happens. 33Heaven and earth may disappear, but these words of mine won’t disappear.’
34‘So watch out for yourselves,’ said Jesus, ‘that your hearts may not grow heavy with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life, so that that day comes upon you suddenly, like a trap. 35It will come, you see, on everyone who lives on the face of the earth. 36Keep awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will happen, and to stand before the son of man.’

Travel with me, back in time, to Jerusalem. The year is AD 58, nearly 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Many people in the holy city came to believe in Jesus in the heady days nearly a generation ago, and many of them are still here, older and more puzzled perhaps, but still waiting and hoping and praying.
Things have been difficult, on and off. Once Pontius Pilate stopped being governor people hoped life might improve, but there was then a huge crisis over the emperor’s plan to place a vast statue of himself in the Temple. The threat, fortunately, was seen off; Gaius, the emperor in question, had died soon after; and when one of Herod’s grandsons, Agrippa, was made king of the Jews in AD 41, everyone in Jerusalem stood up and cheered. To be ruled by one of your own might be better than having governors from far away who didn’t understand local customs. That didn’t last, though. He too had died, struck down (said some) by God for blasphemously claiming the sort of divine honours that his pagan masters had given themselves. Now there had been a string of new Roman governors, each one (it seemed) worse than the last. But in 54, when Nero became emperor, many people hoped again that peace and justice would triumph.

All along, though, people in Jerusalem were aware of the political tensions building up. Revolutionary movements arose, had their moment of glory, and were brutally crushed. Some said the priests were secretly involved. Some said it was all the wicked brigands, refusing to let ordinary people go about their business in peace. Some wanted an easy-going peace with Rome, others were all for driving hard bargains, others again wished the Messiah would come. Daily life went on: buying and selling, growing crops, tending herds, woodwork, leather work, money changing, pottery, with the daily round of Temple sacrifices, music, celebrations and the seasonal feasts as the constant backdrop. The Temple itself was almost complete: the program of rebuilding begun by Herod the Great 70 years earlier was finally drawing to a close.

And in the middle of all this, those who named the name of Jesus, who still met to break bread and worship in his name, and to teach one another the stories of what he’d done and said, were pulled and pushed this way and that. Some of them were friends of the ex-Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, now known as Paul. He had been here not long ago, and had caused a riot (his friends said his opponents had caused it, but the word on the street was that riots tended to happen wherever Paul went). Now he’d gone, sent to Rome for trial, and he wouldn’t be back. Peter, too, had gone on his travels and hadn’t been seen for years. Others were skeptical of Paul; he had compromised God’s law, they said, allowing Gentiles to worship God through Jesus without demanding circumcision. The leader of the Jerusalem Christians, the wise and devout James, the brother of Jesus himself, was getting older, and his prayers for the redemption of his people didn’t seem to be answered.

How easy it was for Jerusalem Christians to become weary! If the gospel was producing exciting results, it was doing so across the sea, and they only heard about it every once in a while, and didn’t always like what they heard (Gentiles claiming to worship Jesus but not keeping the law of Moses—that sort of thing). Their lives dragged on day by day. Friends asked them, sometimes unkindly, when this Messiah of theirs was going to reappear, and could he please hurry up because much more of these Romans banging around would bring on a world war, and anyway look what’s happened to the price of bread, and if Jesus had really been the Messiah, why has nothing much happened since? Not much use to say that when you met for worship the sense of Jesus’ presence and love was so real you could almost reach out and touch him. Not much of an answer to say that you had been told to be patient. Thirty years is a long time. All you could do would be to retell the stories, including the sayings of Jesus such as you find in this passage. Hang on. Be alert. Prop your eyes open—physically, perhaps, spiritually for sure. Pray for strength to meet whatever comes. The son of man will be vindicated, and when he is you want to be on your feet.
Now travel with me to San Francisco, or Sydney, or Bujumbura, or San Salvador, in the twenty-first century. You emerge from the church on Sunday morning—the Pentecostal celebration, the Anglican Matins, the Spanish Mass—and there is the world going about its business, or as it may be its pleasure. Your friends think you’re odd still going to church. Everybody knows Christianity is outdated, disproved, boring and irrelevant. What you need is more sex; more parties; more money-making; more revolution. Anyway, hasn’t the church done some pretty bad things in its time? What about the Inquisition? (They always say that.) What about the Crusades? Who needs Christianity now that we have computers and space travel? (They said it before about electricity and modern medicine.)

And anyway, they say, if your Jesus is so special, why is the world still in such a mess? They don’t want to know about the freeing of the slaves, the rise of education and the building of hospitals; they certainly don’t want to know about the lives that are changed every day by the gospel. They want to load you with the cares of this life; and, as Jesus warned, with dissipation and drunkenness, literal and metaphorical. They want to wear you down, to make you think you’re odd and stupid. Why study an old book, they say, that’s never done anyone any good?

The answer is the same for us as it was for the Jerusalem Christians nearly a generation after Jesus. Keep alert. This is what you were told to expect. Patience is the key. Pray for strength to keep on your feet. There are times when your eyes will be shutting with tiredness, spiritual, mental, emotional and physical, and when you will have to prop them open. This is what it’s about: not an exciting battle, with adrenaline flowing and banners flying, but the steady tread, of prayer and hope and scripture and sacrament and witness, day by day and week by week. This is what counts; this is why patience is a fruit of the spirit. Read the story again. Remind one another of what Jesus said. Encourage one another. And keep awake.

Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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