First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012
Psalm 25:1-10 1
Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, O Lord, and come. Protect us by your strength and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Greetings and welcome to the start of a new church year. The older I get, the more conscious I become and the more sensitive I am to the passing of time. I also have discovered that there are many different ways to measure time. Time is measured by historical events that change the world and shape the outlook of generations that have lived through them. “Was that before or after 9/11?” we hear people ask. For my parents, no such moment was more significant than the bombing of Pearl Harbor-an event that marked a sea change in our nation’s understanding of its place in history. For my own generation, there was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1962; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the first moon landing in 1969. For my children, the attack of September 11, 2001 stands out as a formative historical event. For most of us, our outlook on the world and our self understanding is shaped significantly by historical events that occur in the most formative years of our lives.
Historical markers are not the only way to measure time, however. There are also cyclical measuring points that recur with each passing year. The beginning of school in the fall and its coming to a close in the spring were principal markers for me as a child-along with Christmas. As I took my place in the working world, April 15th began to take on an ominous significance. Since I have been married, my anniversary has become an important date on my calendar. With children come birthday celebrations and, as the children grow up and marry, more anniversaries and more birthdays. In addition to honoring milestone events in our lives and signaling the approach of impending deadlines, these annual dates tell us where we are in the year and remind us of everything that has shaped and continues to transform our lives.
Obviously, the way you mark time says a lot about who you are. That is why disciples of Jesus have their own way of measuring time. Our year begins in Advent with the hope born in the manger. It ends on Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate the joyous expectation of Jesus’ coming in glory. We measure time by the narrative of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and victory over death. We measure time from the milestones of Jesus’ nativity, his baptism in the Jordan, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. We order time from the outpouring of Jesus’ Spirit upon his disciples. Keeping the liturgical year helps keep Jesus in focus. It reminds us that our lives are part of a larger story that is grounded in those things that matter eternally. We are reminded that we share the road with a “great cloud of witnesses” like Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Ruth, David, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, Peter, James, John, Mary, Paul and countless other women and men who hoped for, witnessed and followed Jesus, God’s incarnate Word. So I welcome you to this new church year, undoubtedly another one filled with hope, challenge and anticipation.
Jeremiah 33:14-16 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961070
The time is immediately before 587 B.C.E in the reign of Judah’s last Davidic King, Zedekiah. The Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem. The city, shut off from the outside world for over a year, is stricken with famine. Jeremiah the prophet is imprisoned for his preaching against Judah’s unfaithfulness to her God and specifically for declaring that God will not fight on her behalf against Babylon. To the contrary, God has brought the wrath of Babylon on Judah’s head as a judgment for her faithless reliance upon foreign military alliances, idolatry and cruel injustice against the poor. That is a message the people of Judah desperately do not want to hear. They want to believe that God will come through with a miracle at the last moment to save them from the Babylonians. The last thing King Zedekiah needs is for Jeremiah to be frightening his already demoralized army with dire predictions of defeat. So Jeremiah’s imprisonment is understandable. It appears as though the end has come for Judah. Indeed, the end has come for Judah as an independent nation. The end has come for Judah’s magnificent temple built by the hand of Solomon nearly five centuries before. There will be no going back to the past. The good old days are gone for good.
But the end of the past is not the extinction of the future. Israel’s story is far from over. As dark as the situation looks for Judah and for poor Jeremiah, Jeremiah nevertheless maintains that there is salvation and a future for Judah. A righteous branch will sprout from the corrupt line of David. This one will rule Judah with justice and righteousness as the kings of Israel were intended to do. This promise shaped much of Israel’s faith in the difficult years of exile and domination under the empires of first Babylon, then Persia, then Macedonia and finally Rome. It continues to play an important role in Judaism today.
Yet even as this messianic hope can sustain a people in times of oppression, it is a dangerous hope. Israel’s history has seen any number of persons claiming to be God’s messiah, rallying Israel behind them and leading Israel into disastrous military confrontations ending in crushing defeat. It was at least partly messianic fervor that led to a Jewish revolt in the late 60s A.D. which, in turn, brought the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of her temple in 70 A.D. In 135 A.D. another revolt, led by the self proclaimed messiah Bar-Kokhba, brought on another fierce drubbing by Rome and further misery to the Jews.
As secular as we may be in this country, I believe that there is still a very deep longing within us for a messiah. I suspect that might be a large part of what lies behind the anger and lack of civility in our politics. We want to believe that there is someone out there who can take us to a better place; somebody who can solve all of our complex problems without asking us to sacrifice anything to get it done. Political strategists are all too aware of this deep messianic longing we have for a savior. Not surprisingly, then, they package their client candidates as messianic figures capable of meeting our unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, when the campaigning is over and the hard work of governance begins, reality sets in. We discover that we have not elected the messiah. We have elected a fallible human being like ourselves who cannot work the sort of magic that makes all of our difficult problems go away. Predictably, we feel betrayed. In fits of anger, we turn upon the idols we have created, kick them off the pedestals where we placed them and erect new idols in their place.
Israel had to learn (and hopefully we will one day learn as well) that no human being is able to bear the weight of messianic hope. Furthermore, that hope cannot become reality without a fundamental change in our hearts and minds. A change of leaders or a change in government without a change of heart is futile. The truth is, the Messiah, the Davidic branch that rules with justice and righteousness came-and we killed him. We were not then and we are not yet ready to live in the sort of world we long for. But the good news of Advent is that God did not wait for us to be ready. Jesus comes to us while we are still headstrong in our self destructive ways. Jesus embraces us even as we struggle to break free from that embrace. What is more, the love with which Jesus embraces us is stronger than sin and death. It refuses to let go. So the message of the season is clear: Here comes the Messiah, ready or not.
Psalm 25:1-10 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961127
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, meaning that the first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
I find particularly moving the first half of the third verse: “Let not those who wait for you be ashamed.” Advent is about nothing if not about waiting. And unfortunately for nervous, impatient and hurried people like us, we have a God who likes to take his sweet time. God waited for four hundred years while the children of Israel languished in slavery before sending Moses to liberate them. God led Israel for forty years in the wilderness before bringing them into the Promised Land. God sat with Israel for seventy years in exile before bringing her home. After hearing that his dear friend Lazarus was ill, Jesus waited a full two days before even beginning his journey to Bethany where Lazarus lived. In a world where time is measured in nanoseconds, where everything is urgently needed yesterday and cries for immediate responses come from every direction, it is maddening to hear the command: “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:20. It is because we are a frenzied people who imagine that our “historic” presidential elections, our “Giant Black Friday Sales” and our never ending string of international, economic and social crises are so very important that we need a slow God. God’s salvation, like God’s Kingdom, will come in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will not be rushed. So we might just as well stop running around like chickens with our heads cut off and learn to wait patiently for God to act.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961183
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written about 45-52 A.D. making this the earliest of the New Testament writings. The purpose of the letter is to encourage the struggling church in Thessalonica. Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development and he was understandably concerned that it lacked the maturity and solid leadership to survive under the pressures of persecution. Paul sent his fellow worker, Timothy, to visit and encourage the little congregation. Paul was overjoyed to learn from Timothy that his congregation had not merely survived, but was thriving. The lesson for this Sunday reflects Paul’s thankfulness and relief upon receiving this good news.
Paul’s prayer is for an opportunity to visit the congregation himself. He prays that, in any case, the Lord may make the congregation “increase and abound in love to one another and to all people so that Christ may establish your hearts in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This prayer brings into sharp relief how the church is a community that lives out of the future. The future is Jesus. Yet it is Jesus’ presence with his church now that prepares it for the future. For the church, the future is now. Among us, Jesus is already recognized as King. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. But the church does not wait for that day to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and live for him.
Luke 21:25-36 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961248
The Revised Common Lectionaryused by the ELCA, Roman Catholics and a number of other protestant churches provides a three-year plan for Sunday readings beginning at the start of each new church year with the season of Advent. For each Sunday and festival, four readings are suggested and include: a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Psalms, and a New Testament reading. Each year of the lectionary centers on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. John is read in each year in the major seasons of Christmas, Lent, and Easter. This year we focus on the Gospel of Luke. So before we begin looking specifically at this Sunday’s lesson, let me say just a few words about Luke.
The Gospel of Luke is probably best known for its story of the Nativity. Only Luke tells us of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John the Baptist. Only in Luke do we find the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her of the child she is about to bear. Luke alone tells us of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the Christ child in the stable and the angels’ tidings of joy to the shepherds. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells us anything at all about the childhood of Jesus. In the one story he tells us about Jesus’ youth, Jesus does exactly what we all tell our children they must never do-wander away from us in a strange place without telling us where they are going.
The Gospel of Luke also has many other popular stories not found in the other gospels. For example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan all are parables recorded in Luke alone. More than any of the other Gospels, Luke reveals to us the important role played by women in Jesus’ ministry. Elizabeth, Mary and the prophetess Anna have high profile involvement in the story line. Luke’s gospel tells us about the group of women who provided logistical and financial support to Jesus and the disciples. Women are frequently prominent in Jesus’ healings, his parables and in his teaching.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Luke is the fact that Luke was the only Gospel writer who also produced a sequel that we know as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts Luke narrates the early years of the church, it’s early encounters with the gentile world and the conversion and ministry of the Apostle Paul.
The most remarkable thing about Luke-Acts is its lack of “closure.” The Gospel ends with the disciples returning to the Temple in Jerusalem (where his gospel began) rejoicing and gathering for prayer. The Book of Acts ends with the Apostle Paul under house arrest in Rome, but still preaching and teaching from his place of imprisonment. We never find out what happens to him. It is as though Luke has deliberately avoided bringing his story to a fitting end because he knows that it is not over yet. The drama of the church in mission to the world continues. We are invited to become a part of this exciting story as it continues to unfold in our age.
Now for this week’s lesson. As is the case for Mark, Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction follows upon his noting the widow’s payment to the Temple treasury all she had to live on. For the connections here, see my post for Sunday, November 11th. The disciples ask Jesus when the destruction of the Temple will take place, assuming no doubt that this event would mark the beginning of the end of time. Not so, says Jesus. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be great signs from heaven.” But that does not necessarily signal the end. The church has a long road to travel through days of persecution, suffering and opposition. The church’s job is to bear faithful witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus. The destruction of Jerusalem is a piece of all this, but it is not the harbinger of the end.
Then comes Jesus enumeration of the “signs” of the coming of the Son of Man. What are we to make of them? It should be obvious by now that ominous signs have occurred throughout history. Hurricane Sandy gave us a good deal of “distress and perplexity at the roaring of the sea and its waves.” Someone suggested to me recently that perhaps “God is trying to tell us something” through Sandy. Maybe so. But I doubt it means that the end is near. Still and all, I think we might rightly refer to hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters as “signs” in some sense. They remind us that the earth upon which we stand is not as solid as it appears. Our orderly lives are not as stable as we think they are. Though we don’t like to think about it, we are always just one genetically altered cell, one virus, one careless driving error away from the end of the world. If we ever thought our years of careful saving and investment could give us a measure of security, the crash of 2007 surely disabused us of any such fantasy. International co-existence, economic stability and ecological balance are extremely fragile creatures. It takes very little to throw them off kilter. Recessions, hurricanes, wars and famines all serve to remind us how fragile and vulnerable we are.
Now that should make us all rather paranoid, but hear what Jesus says: “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” For the new creation to be born, the old has to die. And whether you see these “signs” as death throws or as birth pangs depends on whether you view them through the cross. Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples that his present generation would live to see “all these things” take place. The presence of God with human beings-the longed for hope of Israel-is put to death on a cross. It doesn’t get much worse than that. In fact, you could say that the worst thing that could ever happen to the world has already happened. The world murdered its last, best hope. Yet even this dark and terrible sin could not deter God from God’s redemptive purpose for the world. In the midst of death, God was working the miracle of new life. And so we can confess with St. Paul that “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16 Even in the signs of death and destruction, disciples of Jesus discern a new creation struggling to be born.