Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Day of Redemption is at Hand -- A Lectionary Reflection for Advent


Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

The Day of Redemption is at Hand

            Advent has once again arrived.  We’ve completed another cycle and are ready to begin another cycle in our journey of faith.  We start with a sense of expectation, anticipation and hope.  Those of us who have taken this journey before know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean we must become complacent about the journey.  We can, if we choose, embrace the journey and its story with the same expectation as that person taking it for the first time.  So, with Charles Wesley we sing:

Come, O Long expected Jesus, born to set your people free.
From our fears and sins release us; Christ in whom our rest shall be.
You, our strength and consolation, come salvation to impart;
Dear desire of many a nation, joy of many a longing heart.

The season of Advent announces that a new day is dawning, but it also reminds us that it has yet to arrive in its fullness.  There is more to come, so don’t be satisfied with the present moment.  Instead, stay awake; be alert, so that you will be ready when the day of the Lord arrives.   

As with Lent, this is a season of preparation, but there is less of the penitential tone and more excitement and expectation.  But the season begins with warnings and an invitation to take a different direction with life.  It’s an invitation to embrace the means of our redemption.  As a more recent Advent hymn writer (more recent than Wesley), puts it:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. (Alberto Taule, 1972).

Advent, Year C, opens with words from Jeremiah, 1 Thessalonians, and the Gospel of Luke.  There are words of hope and expectation, but also words of warning.  They tell us to be aware of the signs of the times, and yet a warning not to get caught up in them.  But, be ready when the time comes for the Human One (Son of Man) to be revealed.

The promise of hope begins in Jeremiah 33, where the prophet declares that a time is coming when the Lord “will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah” (Jer. 33:14 CEB).  A people that has lived in exile and occupation receives word that God has not forgotten them.  The promise of the covenant remains in effect.  God will not forget, but instead God will provide the means of their redemption.  The nation will be restored, by the one who will be called “The Lord Is Our Righteousness.” It is a word of grace that infuses the hope Jeremiah proclaims.     It’s a necessary word, because the people living in exile were losing hope.  Their lives have been dealt a great blow, and their faith in God was faltering.  But Jeremiah remains undaunted.  A time is coming – and soon – when God will “raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the Land.”  This is the day of Israel’s salvation and its embrace of the safety of God’s presence.  When that day arrives, the people will confess “The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”  You would have thought exile would have left Jeremiah a bit nonplussed, especially since his own people tend to reject his leadership.  But such is not the case.  Salvation is at hand.  Israel heard this message of redemption in relation to its land, its home, but what about us.  What is our form of exile?  Where do we feel alone and abandoned?  What word of hope do we need to hear?  Jeremiah says to us – the one who is our righteousness will come, for God is true to God’s promises.  Take hope, keep the faith.

Jeremiah offers a word of hope, and Paul adds to this a word about love.  This passage from 1 Thessalonians speaks of a deep and abiding relationship between founding pastor and the continuing congregation(s) in that Macedonian community.  Paul speaks of the joy that he and his companions have as a result of their relationship with this church, and they long to be reunited – day and night they pray that they could return and be present with them, so that they might complete what is lacking in their faith. 

Love is the foundational word in this passage.  Paul speaks of his own love for them, and prays that their love for each other will increase and be enriched, just as Paul has loved them.  This word about love is deeply relational, but Paul uses this relationship to spur them on to greater heights of faithfulness.  He prays that they would be found blameless in their holiness.  They’re obviously not there yet, but are we?  What is clear is that in this time of anticipation and expectation, community is important.  Paul believes that their growth in spiritual maturity is to be discerned within the strong bonds of this loving community.  Paul feels a sense of responsibility for them, and thus he does pray that he can be with them again to complete what is lacking in their faith journeys, so that they might be prepared when the Lord Jesus comes with his people.    As we hear this word on the first Sunday of this new liturgical cycle, do we (you) know what needs to be completed?  Do you know where God still needs to work in your life?  On this first Sunday of the new cycle, we can and should look back at our lives, so that we might be better prepared to receive God’s Word for our journey ahead.   There remains work to be done – but not just on our own part, but on the part of God who visits us with divine favor.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke has a clearly apocalyptic tone.  Luke places this message in the midst of Holy Week.  Jesus has entered the city in triumph, but now, teaching in the Temple, the opposition begins to mount.  Jesus, in Luke’s telling of this story, has announced the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem (21:20ff).  It is a word of warning.  There’s nothing soft about this word.  The question is when all this will happen?  What should we expect to see occurring?  It’s a question asked in every age of history – is this the time of God’s unveiling of the new heavens and the new earth?

The passage begins in verse 25 with a word about signs in the sun, moon, and stars.  A day is coming when the seas will roar and the heavens shake.  Then, you will see the Human One, the Son of Man, coming in glory.   When Luke wrote this gospel, Rome had already succeeded in destroying Jerusalem and the Temple.  Christianity was beginning to take shape in a new more Hellenistic form.  People were settling in for the long haul.  And we’ve been settling in for a very long time.  We read apocalyptic texts and either read our own realities into them or simply ignore them.

But here we are on the First Sunday of Advent (or thereabouts), reading these words of expectation.  There is foreboding in them, but also hope.  But what should we take from this passage?   What is the word of hope we take from this?  Perhaps we’re not at that eschatological moment, but we know anxiety and fear.  What word of hope do we find here that will not only sustain us, but empower us? 

Part of the answer is found in the parable of the fig tree, which reminds us that we’ll know when the day is arriving.  We’ll be able to see what is at hand?  When the fig tree begins to sprout leaves, you know that summer is near.  We, who live in colder climes, know that when the blossoms appear, winter is dissipating, and we grow expectant.  A frost may come along and spoil the party, but we know that sooner than later, a new day will come.  So, when you see signs that God’s kingdom is making headway – pay attention.  This is the time when the old passes away and the new emerges.

There are words of warning, calling for alertness as the day of reckoning will come without warning.  There’s no time for drunkenness or drinking parties.  But not only that, don’t let your hearts become dulled by “the anxieties of day-to-day life.”  My sense is that for us, our hearts are dulled less by our partying, and more likely by the anxieties produced by life.  There are bills to pay, things to do, life is busy and we feel unable to keep up – and thus anxiety emerges, keeping us from recognizing the kingdom taking place in our midst. 

When we hear words like this, especially the more apocalyptic forms, it’s easy to toss them aside as irrelevant to life.  There are those who have their heads in spiritual clouds and pay no attention to what is going on earth, but is this necessary?  Perhaps the kingdom is taking shape in our very midst – so may we stay alert to that possibility and while we’re doing so, pray that we’re strong enough to endure the coming of the Human One!

Let us live forward in hope of our redemption!  

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