FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“And there will be signs in the sun and the moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and glory. Now when these things begin to take place, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28.
Frankly, Jesus’ advice is counterintuitive. When I see threatening conditions beginning to materialize, my gut instinct is to “duck and cover.” I would not be at all inclined to raise my head at the approach of a tsunami or in the eye of a hurricane or in the midst of a terrorist attack. If I thought civilization as I know it were about to collapse, I would want to keep my head low, stock up on beans and bullets and hunker down in the root cellar. Raising your head under such dire circumstances is the last thing you want to do.
But Jesus is telling us that, “in, with, and under” all of these terrifying phenomena, is the sign of the coming of the Son of man, our redemption and salvation. In Luke’s telling of the story, this discussion about the Temple’s destruction and signs of the end times is a lead-in to the Last Supper. “I have yearned,” says Jesus, “to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Luke 22:15. It all comes down to the table.
Meals are big in the Gospel of Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a dinner party. Jesus loved table fellowship and he didn’t much care whether he was sitting in the house of a notorious outcast filled with disreputable people or in the home of a respected religious leader. He would have us understand that our humanity depends on companionship every bit as much as our existence depends on eating. We are never more truly human than when these two primal needs are met at the table. In the most wretched refugee camp on the face of the earth, shared meals hold together the last frayed bonds of family and community that have somehow survived displacement and exile. In the wealthiest of neighborhoods, where most of all household food winds up being discarded, shared meals testify that we do not live by bread alone. That is why every table in every home, in every diner, in every tent, under every tree, in every human community is a sign of the redemption God intends for all creation. The table is where we encounter the coming of the Son of man.
At the table, we discover that we are sitting on the same level. We must rely upon one another to pass the turnips, ham and potatoes. At the table we learn the truth about who we are and the purpose for which we were created. So even as “the powers of the heavens” are shaken, the sign of the coming of the Son of man appears in our midst whenever we gather around the table. When seated around the table, we find the courage to raise our heads in hope.
Not surprisingly, the table is Jesus’ favorite metaphor for the reign of God. That great messianic banquet, Jesus tells us, will be an upside down feast at which the poor, the lame, the blind and the outcast are honored guests. Those who come to this feast with a sense of entitlement are rebuked and relegated to the most humble of seats (yet these seats also are places at the table). The ones fearing even to seek crumbs falling from that great table are invited to come forward and sit at its head. In that great supper of the Lamb, the high places are brought low, the valleys exalted and the way is made clear for the coming of the Lord.
On that note, here’s a poem by Joy Harjo.
Perhaps the World Ends Here
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
From The Woman who fell from the Sky (c. 1994 by Joy Harjo, pub. by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.)
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. Vs. 15. This one will rule Judah with justice and righteousness as the kings of Israel were intended to do. See, e.g., Psalm 45:4; Psalm 72:1-14. 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 is checkered with 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 once again in 70 A.D. In 132 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, as the prophet Jeremiah rightly observed. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Jeremiah 32:39. 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.
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:
Awesome is our God and Creator.
Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.
Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.
And so on down to letter Z. 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. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. 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.” Vs. 3. 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 her 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 46:10. It is because we are a frenzied people who imagine 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.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written about 45-52 A.D., making it the earliest of the New Testament writings. The purpose of the letter is to encourage the struggling church in Thessalonica. According to the Book of Acts, Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development (Acts 16:11-40) 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. I Thessalonians 3:1-2. Paul was overjoyed to learn from Timothy that his congregation had not merely survived, but was thriving. I Thessalonians 3:6-8. 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.” Vs. 12. 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.
The Revised Common Lectionary used 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 in 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. Reading from the Gospel of John are included 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.
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 is that he 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, its early encounters with the gentile world and the conversion and ministry of the Apostle Paul. So too, the most irritating 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 waiting to be filled with the promised Holy Spirit. 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 8th. 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.” Luke 21:10-11. But that does not necessarily signal the end. The church has a long road to travel through days of persecution, suffering and opposition. Luke 21:12. The church’s job is to bear faithful witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus. Luke 21:13. The destruction of Jerusalem is a piece of all this, but it is not the harbinger of the end.
Then, in our lesson for Sunday, 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. Not so very long ago, Hurricane Sandy gave us a good deal of “distress and perplexity at the roaring of the sea and its waves.” Vs. 25. 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. Terrorist attacks, 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.” Vs. 28. 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 own present generation would live to see “all these things” take place. Vs. 32. 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.