A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent
November 29, 2015
(Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-38)
Our readings for this first Sunday of Advent open with a declaration: ‘a day is coming’. It is an ancient glimpse into the future; a prophecy of things to come; a promise that God will fulfil; a hope inspired through a new and enduring ‘branch’ of the legendary King David.
Once again, Jeremiah assures, justice, righteousness, salvation, and security will reign.
And these wonder-filled developments are be credited not to human action, but to God’s action: ‘The LORD is our Righteousness’.
Of course, reading this through our Gospel-centred worldview, we easily see here the action of God in the person of Jesus: we see how close Jeremiah’s language is to Jesus’ self-designation ‘Son of David’; we hear echoes of the Kingdom of God in this unending reign, and; we relate to the crediting of this reign-of-righteousness, not to ourselves, but to the initiative and action of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Jeremiah’s message of hope to his exiled readers is infused with the story of Jesus.
Few passages raise as many questions as todays Gospel reading. How literal is all this to be taken? What happens if it is taken in a more figurative way? What are we to do with the words ‘this generation’ in a context that until then looks like it is referring to times that remain – thousands of years later – unfulfilled?
A clue to answering these questions might be found in Jesus’ reference to ‘…the Son of Man coming on a cloud’. It is from Daniel 7 and comes straight out of ‘the night visions’ recorded in the ancient prophet’s poetry.
Jesus is referring to Daniel’s God-inspired dreams.
Much of Daniel’s chosen genre is apocalyptic. Employing a rich and varied symbolism, apocalyptic literature is consciously cryptic. As such, there is something authentic and faithful about taking a figurative approach to such image-laden language.
To take Daniel literally may not be the only way – or even the best way – to take him seriously.
We have no literal historical record of such events within a generation of Jesus’ description. It would be reasonable to expect some evidence if they had occurred (a man flying on clouds and the shaking of the heavens would certainly be news-worthy!). This absent-evidence often causes literal interpreters to look to events yet to occur, namely, end times.
If we do take a more apocalyptic or symbolic approach, however, we may be able to conclude that Jesus is referring to a coming time of great upheaval within the lifetime of his hearers.
History does tell of a violent upheaval for Israel within a generation of Jesus. The sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD was a time when all that was taken for granted about the world had to be reconsidered. For all involved it was a time of great upheaval, ‘distress’, ‘fear’, and ‘foreboding’. Perhaps this event is what Jesus has in mind.
Such debates (as important as they may be) are not, however, Jesus’ core message. Jesus is primarily making an urgent call to watch expectantly – even in the darkest of times – for the action of God.
God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus and it is yet to come in all its fullness. It is both now and not yet.
Advent celebrates these two comings. Knowing this, heaven’s citizens are asked to wait and watch. We look for any sign of God’s activity in the same way a farmer waits, watches, and works for the first leaves and their promise of a harvest. We do this because God, in the person of Jesus, has instilled, and is instilling, in us the hope of heaven.
Jesus goes on to warn of the possibility of his words being forgotten. Odd isn’t it. We can be forewarned and unmoved; informed and unprepared; knowledgable and unaware. We can know of the trap and find ourselves raging in frustration against its bars.
And so Jesus calls us to be vigilant, alert, and prayerfully seeking God’s strength in every circumstance. Jesus hopes here for a people who will be faithful even through conflict and defeat; a people who can stand to the very end.
A relevant call for each and every generation.
After all, none of us know the timing of the return of our reigning Christ. Whether we live on the cusp of Jesus’ return or remain closer to the events of the gospels, is not for us to say.
What we do know, however, is that we are between the first and the second comings of the Christ. with no more detail than this, we watch and wait in hope-filled faith.
Paul writes to the Thessalonians of a God and Father who directs our way, increases our love for all, and establishes these all-too-dark hearts as blameless and holy before God. I can’t help but hear in this a deafening echo of Jeremiah’s God-crediting words: ‘The LORD is our Righteousness’.
Paul is patiently waiting for the full establishment of God’s David-echoing, Jeremiah-foreseen, and Jesus-initiated, reign of justice, righteousness, salvation, and security.
And this waiting is multi-dimensional: Paul waits for God to direct his feet to the people he writes; he waits for God to increase the love established in the hearts of the people who make up this community, and; he waits for the ‘coming of the Lord Jesus with all the saints’.
We may not know exactly where we are in God’s timing, but we, like Paul, can know and trust the time-keeper with every aspect of life.