St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36
While conducting my research for this sermon, I encountered the following thought-provoking characterizations of Advent.
- “Advent is a season for feeling out of kilter… a period of waiting in the darkness. It is a season in which we are caught between joyful expectation and the harsh realities of the present condition while we wait for the promise to be fulfilled. . . . In Advent, we live in the unsettling tension between what is and what will be” (Anne Stewart: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2693 ).
- “Advent invites us to name the places in our lives and society that are at odds with the divine vision of justice and righteousness . . . Advent is a process of looking to Christ’s birth and the inauguration of his kingdom on earth” (Anne Osdieck: http://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvC112915/reflections_osdieck.html ).
- “Advent is anticipation. . . Advent is promise and prayer” (John Kavanaugh, S. J.: http://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvC112915/theword_embodied.html ).
- “Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—yes, his first, but also, and perhaps even more, his second. So the season of Advent is not a time of high festivities; we’re not yet celebrating “The Holidays.” It is a time of sober reflection aimed at growing in holiness; we should treat the days of Advent as “holy days” (Stan Mast: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-1c-2/?type=lectionary_epistle ).
During this awkward in-between time we are in the Church calls us apart to wait, to reflect upon a promise, to pray, to anticipate the coming of Jesus’ birth as celebrated in Christmas, and to hope for Christ’s Second Coming wherein all things shall be renewed. We are called apart from the bustling activity of shopping for a Christmas tree and gifts, from decorating, from attending parties and open houses. How do the readings for today reflect the spirit of Advent?
Jeremiah 33.14-16 follows the prophecy that God “will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first” (Jer. 33.7; NRSV). Jerusalem, to God, will be “a name of joy” and once more shall be heard “the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing” (Jer. 33.9-11; NRSV). Jeremiah proclaimed the impending destruction of Jerusalem, but assured the people that God’s promised restoration would follow. Furthermore, God would “cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, a branch that would “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 33.15; NRSV). In Hebrew, justice (“Mishpat”) and righteousness (“Tzedekah”) are related but they denote different things. Mishpat concerns practices and processes for reconciling and restoring broken relationships among the people, the king, and God. Tzedakah is more concerned with one’s personal character and integrity; one is adjudged righteous when one’s character and actions reflects the attributes of God’s character. Mishpat fixes, mends and restores, while Tzedakah sustains what has been restored. Hence, Jeremiah was assuring the people of God’s ultimate restoration and continued sustenance and exhorting them to live in character with God’s attributes (Chesser, et. al.: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/first-sunday-of-advent-year-c ).
Psalm 25 tells us more about the development of character, about training in righteousness, about living into the attributes of God. The Psalmist pleads (as should we): “Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long” (Vs. 3-4; NRSV). As the LORD is ‘gracious and upright . . . he teaches sinners in his way. He guides the humble in doing right, and teaches his way to the lowly” (Vs. 7-8; NRSV). The Psalmist confesses that this development does not take place overnight, and rarely occurs in one’s youth. Thus the Psalmist pleads with God, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD” (Vs. 6; NRSV).
The theme of teaching, learning, developing character also appears in the reading from 1 Thessalonians: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (Vs. 10; NRSV). Paul desired personal one-on-one instruction and exhortation. He prays, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (Vs. 12-13; NRSV). To put it more tersely, recognize our love for you, and in response, grow in love that you may be found holy and blameless at the Second Coming. Christian character development, the development of righteousness, is best cultivated and nourished in love; the attribute of God’s character God would most have us emulate is God’s love. When we can truly love, we will be righteous and will act righteously.
Immediately prior to our reading from Luke 21, Jesus speaks of the horrible impending desolation of Jerusalem, a desolation which occurred in 70 C.E. when the armies of Rome quashed the Jewish revolt. In verse 24, Jesus notes that “Jerusalem will be trampled upon by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (NRSV). Jesus then speaks of events which will precede the coming of the Son of Man, which we commonly interpret to be the Second Coming of Christ – heavenly signs in the sun, moon, and stars and distress among the nations. People will faint from fear. What are we Christians to do in the midst of such times and signs? We are to “stand up and raise” our heads for our “redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21. 28; NRSV). Jesus then tells them of the signs of the fig tree and all trees – when one sees buds, one knows that summer is near. When we see the signs, the portents, we should recognize that the kingdom of God is near.
Jesus went on to state, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (Luke 21.32; NRSV). How are we to understand this statement? If Jesus was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, then the statement is true. But if Jesus was referring to the Second Coming, it appears to be false. N. T. Wright has suggested this passage may not refer to the Second Coming of Christ, but may rather focus on Jesus’ prophetic realization that continued attempts at military rebellion would only bring about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/advent1c.htm ). If we understand the statement as referring to Christ’s enthronement at the right hand of God, then again, it is true. If we are to interpret this passage as referring to the Second Coming of Christ, we must disconnect it from Jesus’ prophecy that not one stone of the Temple would be left upon another and that when Jerusalem is seen to be surrounded by armies, one would know that its desolation is near (Luke 21.6, 20; NRSV).
At any rate, the important thing is that we be prepared for such calamitous times – for times when we experience terrorist attacks on innocent people, the beheading of Christians by the Daesh, millions of refugees being denied entrance to other nations on the basis of fear and racism, and the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkey. Jesus told the people, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21.34-35; NRSV).
And now we come back to character grounded in righteousness, grounded in the love of God and our fellow neighbor. If we are going to develop the character of righteousness, we must remember and affirm our baptismal vows; “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?…Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?…Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” (BCP, p. 302).
Having renounced these things, we see the importance of Paul’s prayer: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (Vs. 12-13; NRSV). Our love is a reflection of our holiness. As 1 John 4.17-20 tells us, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Let’s reflect on the words of the Collect: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”