Luke 21: 25-36
1st Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah has long been one of my favorite prophets because mostly Biblical prophets were unusual characters, to say the least and Jeremiah fits that bill. They were everyday sort of guys usually with some sort of impairment for doing God’s work, and so they argued with God about why they should NOT speak on behalf of God. And, rightly so, they were up against a system that was oppressive and failing and hurting people. It’s hard to tell people to change their ways even if their ways just aren’t working for them anymore, no body wants to hear that. You won’t win any popularity contests by being a prophet. And, to top it all off, for a prophet, this nagging voice of God just won’t let up on them.
Jeremiah’s prophetic career coincided with very critical events in the history of the southern kingdom of Judah. There was horrible political turmoil, the past monarchy under the rule of David had failed and finally fell. It divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, Israel, fell and in 627 BCE the southern kingdom of Judah also fell and the people were taken to Babylonia into exile. It was a mess.
So in the passage that we just heard, Jeremiah is reassuring the people (prophets continually warn and then reassure, warn and reassure). He is reassuring them, that yes, God will restore their people back in their land, yes, they will return from Babylonia, yes, there will be someone who will execute justice and righteousness, yes, Jerusalem will be the heart and soul of her people again, and yes….everything will be ok. Sweet words of comfort this must have been for the people who lives had been turned upside down.
This passage from Jeremiah has long been used to foreshadow the coming of Jesus and while I loathe to use it solely as such it does lend its comfort and reassurance to us just when we need it most in the darkest time of the year as we prepare for the birth of a tiny baby. We all need such words of comfort when our own lives are topsy-turvy don’t we? Relax, it’s in God’s capable hands now, everything will be ok, you just need to wait it out. And then finally the light will come.
We know that some people returned to Israel and some stayed in Babylonia because they had reoriented their lives and after a few generations thought, why bother, it’s not so bad here. But the people who decided to go home again must have had questions. What must they do to prepare? What should they do with their time waiting it out while the camels were being packed? That was their question not unlike ours for today, what must we do to prepare now that we know that the birth of Christ will happen soon? How will we ‘wait it out’?
We too, now are in a season of waiting and preparation of our hearts. Advent. It’s joyful everywhere you turn out there yet here in the church, we won’t be singing many of those happy and joyous carols just yet, that’s in the future. If you need to hear them you can tune to into some radio station for all the Christmas cheer that you need or go to Shoprite. I was recently shopping with a friend at Shoprite and she was singing along with the musak and she said she comes to Shoprite just for the musak!
You see, for us, Advent is a study in minor musical keys, it’s not joy filled but it is soul filled. Music in minor keys has a different sound and emotional feel, and develops differently than music in a major key. Music in a minor key sounds more solemn, mysterious, or ominous than music that is in a major key. It aptly describes this time of waiting and anticipation.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel, God be with us and ransom us from our captivity. There is longing in the sound and the words and the music is a reflection of that. This is Advent, it is not Christmas. Call me a ‘Debby Downer’, I’ve been called worse but this is tone for the four weeks before the Christ event in Bethlehem that we will celebrate. So what must we do to prepare?
Jesus knew nothing of Advent. He didn’t know about the sweet story that we tell every Christmas Eve - about the inn and the lowing cattle and the shepherd’s keeping watch or even the star that lead the Magi to the stable. All he knew was what he saw and what he saw was political oppression, an occupied country, torture and crucifixion. He saw people begging in the streets and people with leprosy and other such diseases who were cast aside as untouchables. This was his reality.
Today’s reading from the Gospel is not a sentimental musical passage in a lovely opera. It’s harsh. It’s scary. It’s not comforting at all like Jeremiah’s words. It’s a vision of apocalypse and that’s always disconcerting when spoken by someone with influence, like Jesus!
In fact, you might wonder, what in the world is this text doing here, when we are patiently waiting for the birth of our sweet little Jesus? What you need to know about this passage, and to put it in context is that Christ’s birth, the coming of the Messiah is not an isolated event but it is part of God’s salvific work that is ongoing, that it is God’s saving grace of humankind. From the flood and the rainbow to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, to Jeremiah bringing the people out of exile, God saves. Here now the words of Jesus as recorded by Luke in the 21st Chapter……
The Coming of the Son of Man
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
29Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Exhortation to Watch
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.’
Some good news, eh? Those are some words to begin our Advent time of waiting and preparation, right? But they show us the tension that we sit in. We sit in the tension of ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. Jesus knew what he saw, and what he saw wasn’t good. He knows that what we have here on earth is nothing in comparison to what God has in store for us in the future. There eventually WILL be a time when the kingdom will be restored to righteousness, right living and there will be justice and equality for each and every person…everyone, it’s just not now, but it will come. And that’s Advent. It is the tension of living in the reality of our times knowing the future will be better. The now and not yet.
In their book, “The First Christmas”, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg state: “The Christmas stories are not about spectacular series of miraculous events that happened in the past that we are to believe in for the sake of going to heaven. Rather, they are about God’s passion, God’s dream for a transformed world.” They are yet another beginning in God’s ongoing work revealing God’s salvation. Christ’s birth, another beginning. God tries over and over again to save us. It’s God’s story of redemption.
God’s dream for a transformed world just hasn’t happened yet and this is what Jesus was trying to say back then, and the message that we must hear for today. God’s dream is still alive thank goodness, God hasn’t given up on us that this world and our lives will be transformed into something much better all when the figs begin to blossom. The tension of Advent is that we wait for Christmas - that’s the yearly short term wait. But we also wait in expectation for a much greater gift through the coming of God’s effable kingdom and that’s the long term wait that we carefully balance.
And how are we to wait? How do we sit patiently and watch and wait for the fig blossoms to appear? How do we stay alert and watch? We do this by giving prayerful attention to the people around us and our daily activities. We do this by living vitally in the here and now, missing not one opportunity to lift another person up or to repair the world, tikkum olam in Hebrew, in the many ways in which it needs repair. We remain alert at all times so that we can live in the present knowing that the best is yet to come.
Christmas will be here before you know it. Don’t rush it, don’t miss those abundant opportunities of growth and love that will appear between now and then, the now and not yet. May the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you today.