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Many years ago, I had the privilege of singing in one of Rossini's most popular operas, Il Barbiere di Siviglia. We had soloists from La Scala in Milan, one of the top opera houses in the world, and the Bombay Symphony Orchestra performing under a conductor from Germany. The prime minister of India at the time, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, was in attendance, along with Italy's defense minister, Giovanni Spadolini.
We spent months rehearsing. Operas tend to be three hours long, and if it's Wagner, even four hours. If you are not familiar with the opera, you sometimes ask yourself, "When is it going to end? How do I know it is now coming to an end?"
I remember going to the Royal Opera House in London to watch Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and because the last train back home was at 10 p.m., I had to constantly try to figure out when the opera was coming to an end.
"It ain't over till the fat lady sings." How many of you, I wonder, have heard this rather delightful expression? The expression is used when a situation is (or appears to be) nearing its conclusion. In many operas, the soprano is portrayed as stereotypically overweight.
In Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung, the "fat lady" is Brünnhilde, who is usually presented as a very buxom lady. Her farewell scene lasts almost 20 minutes and leads directly to the finale. As Götterdämmerung is about the end of the world (i.e., the world of the Norse gods), in a very significant way, "it is [all] over when the fat lady sings."
Any major musical work, whether it is a sonata, a symphony or a concerto, has signs to tell you when it is reaching its finale. These signs are bunched together in a transitional passage called a coda, from the Latin cauda, or tail. What happens during this transition? Well, everything suddenly starts getting restless. Often, there is a crescendo, and the main themes from earlier movements are replayed in different variations.
On the one hand, there is a return to all the themes you've heard so far — you tend to feel comfortable, but on the other hand, there are unsettling harmonies that make you feel tense and create in you a sense of expectation. Prepare yourself — the end is near! Get ready — everything is about to explode in a fortissimo! We are about to reach the grand finale!
This is what the season of Advent is all about. On the one hand, the Church is frantically drawing our attention to those passages from the Bible that constitute the main themes of the plot of the story of salvation. The biblical word for this is "promise." We feel comfortable with God's promises. On the other hand, the Church is revving up the tension, creating in us a sense of expectation, and preparing us for the grand finale of the story. The biblical word for this is "fulfillment."
The gospel writer Luke is a genius at reminding us that we are living in the period between promise and fulfillment. In operatic terms, the fat lady has sung her final aria. In symphonic terms, the coda has begun. What is the final aria that the fat lady sang? What is the coda that has begun the countdown to the end? It is the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Do you see what Luke is doing? He begins his Gospel by reminding us of God's promises to Israel in the Old Testament. He ends his Gospel by narrating to us the ascension of Our Lord into Heaven. He then begins the sequel to his Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles by describing the descent of the Holy Spirit and the empowering of the disciples to go out and preach the good news of the kingdom to Judea, Samaria and unto the very ends of the earth.
The book of Acts seemingly ends with Paul preaching the gospel in Rome, the capital of the civilized world, but the story remains unfinished. The Holy Spirit does not tell us what happened to Paul. Rather, the Holy Spirit leaves it to us to continue that story and preach the gospel to the whole world. The story will only properly end with the return of Christ.
This period is like the coda — it is going to be wonderfully comfortable being reminded of God's promises, knowing that the opera or the symphony is drawing to its finale. But it will also be awfully tense with unsettling chords and people rejecting the kingdom and making trouble for us and wars and plagues and political turmoil. But again, it will be wonderfully joyful as we are full of expectation waiting for the Messiah — the King, the Lord — to return and establish His kingdom, sit on His throne and rule on earth as He now rules in Heaven.
What Luke is telling us is that, with the fat lady singing her final aria and with the coda beginning, the kingdom has already been inaugurated.
God has begun to rule. The King is exercising His power, flexing His muscles and signaling His authority. But there is also a "not yet" element in Luke's Gospel. The fullness of the kingdom has not yet come. When it comes, God's promises will be brought to full realization, and God will restore everything. Anyone who wants to participate in God's program — God's opera or God's symphony — can do so through repentance and faith in God's Messiah.
How is God exercising His power and displaying His activity now? By empowering us to preach the gospel of repentance and forgiveness and announce, as heralds, the imminent arrival of His kingdom. Like a good composer, Luke wants to prepare us for the end and for the return of Christ.
In Luke 21:20–36, a passage read during the season of Advent, Luke does this by painting for us a picture of the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This picture foreshadows what is going to happen in the end. In the Bible, Jerusalem is the center of the universe. What happened to Jerusalem in A.D. 70 will happen to the whole cosmos when Jesus returns. The end of Jerusalem is a major sign, triggering the countdown to the end of the world.
Luke 21:20–24 describes both events as one: "For there shall be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people" (i.e., the Jews). Jesus is speaking of two events. Both are in the future when he is speaking, but one — the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70— is now past and one is yet to come. In good prophetic style, Jesus unites two events that picture the same reality. One mirrors the other.
The fall of Jerusalem, occurring in the lifetime of many of the disciples, will guarantee the coming reality of the end-time judgment of the world. The fall of Jerusalem will indicate that God's program is on track. That is why we can trust Jesus' words: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away (Luke 21:33). His words came true — the Roman general Titus marched into Jerusalem and razed it in A.D. 70.
Luke calls the period after the fall of Jerusalem "the time of the Gentiles." When the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled, there will be signs in the heavens and the seas. These cosmic signs will indicate that it is not just Jerusalem that was shaken, but the whole earth is about to be shaken at the coming of her Creator.
But the cosmic signs can also be interpreted as symbolic language, telling us that the great political powers of nations and kingdoms will go through political convulsions and upheavals. "The roaring of the sea and the waves" noted in Luke 21:25 is a common figure for political instability, both in the Old Testament and outside it.
Luke doesn't offer us these signs for our speculation. He offers us these signs for our action. When Jesus' followers saw the signs that Jerusalem was about to be destroyed, they did not imagine, out of false loyalty, that they had a duty to stay in Jerusalem and go down with the ship. Jesus' followers are to leave Jerusalem while there is still time. Because the end is near and preparation for the end requires such radical commitment to Christ, any worldly attachment is an impediment that could tie us down.
The grand climax just before the grand finale will be the coming of the Son of Man: "And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Luke 21:27). This is a reference to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 7. One of the most popular prophecies of Jesus' day, this passage spoke about the time when God's true people would be vindicated after their suffering at the hands of the "beasts," the pagan political powers and nations that had oppressed and persecuted them.
If the end is so near and if the convulsions are so great, how are we to prepare for them? I remember how I had to leave about an hour before the end of Wagner's opera because I had to catch my train home.
The ticket for the Royal Opera House was very expensive, but I had to get up and go because getting home was more important, and there was no way I could get home if I missed my train. So, a little after the interval, I kept looking at my watch and kept alert for the signs of the finale.
Luke, in 21:34, challenges us to "watch" lest our hearts become weighed down with "dissipation and drunkenness and the care of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap." We can become locked into both what is wrong and what is right. We can get so weighed down by family and work commitments that the kingdom becomes remote instead of near.
On Advent Sunday, Jesus is prodding us to action. First, He calls us to recognize the signs of the times. Twice in this passage, there is an emphasis on the Holy Scriptures. Luke 21:22 says that this will happen to "fulfill all that is written." This is part of Luke's scheme of promise and fulfillment. God's promises are written on the pages of Holy Scripture. But the signs are not just in Scripture. They are in culture, in nature and in politics.
Secondly, we're called to stay awake at all times — which is a very odd command, given that if you stay awake at all times, you will suffer from sleep deprivation. But Luke wants to underline how close the end is and, therefore, how radical our commitment must be.
Of course, we are not to stay awake and spend hours on Facebook, but we are to stay awake and pray. We're urgently advised, "Pray that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:36).
The fat lady has sung. The orchestra is playing the coda of the symphony. The music is reaching its grand finale. But sadly, the Church is in a state of narcosis. Most Christians are in a state of narcosis. Will we behave like drug addicts and drunks, reaching for another drink, another high on social media, or another fix of entertainment? Or will we remain awake at all times — alert, praying, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, calling people to repentance and waiting with great expectations for Our Lord to return in glory?