OLD TESTAMENT: Jeremiah 33: 14-16
In this season of Advent, we are reminded to wait and prepare for the coming of Christ. It is a time of new hope and new birth. But these words from the prophet Jeremiah are spoken into a world that is filled with uncertainty and despair. Situated somewhere around the middle of the sixth century before the common era, the powerful Assyrian nation is threatening to overrun the small community of Hebrew people. At this time Judah was literally squeezed between this powerful and foreboding Assyrian nation to the north and Egypt to the south and the west.
So, the rulers of Judah had to often deal with the prospect of making alliance with Egypt to avoid the destruction from the north. But this would of course shake the political, social, cultural, and even religious foundations of the fledgling nation. It often seemed as if there was nowhere to turn. And so, like all of us, they were looking for answers. But Jeremiah’s words do not speak of national survival but of a future of promise and hope.
The time is not now but they are surely coming. Jeremiah wasn’t promising that he would be with the people; he was promising that God would. He was not promising that everything would be “fixed”; he was promising new life. Jeremiah would speak these words under three different rulers. He told King Josiah not to side with Egypt. He preached warnings against false prophets promising false hopes under Johoiakin’s rule. He forewarned the destruction of the nation if this continued. And he urged King Zedekiah not to engage in a fight with the Babylonians. No one listened. The temple would fall. The people would be carried into exile in Egypt. The nation lay in ruins. But the promise remained.
This is no different a scenario than we often experience. We want God. We yearn for God. We want to be the people of God. But often that feeling of God’s presence eludes us. Has God deserted us? Or have we somehow deserted God? We want God but we want God on our own terms. We want to somehow control the Divine and fit God into our already-formed lives. We want to experience a Presence of God that is comfortable and familiar.
So the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work is nothing less than the inauguration of a new world. And as we look for the coming of Christ, we look for the one who will point us in the direction that we should be looking for that new world. It is not what we have planned. God comes in ways and places that we do not expect God. That’s what this season of Advent is about. We are not called to plan for God’s coming the way we plan for our Christmas festivities. We are, rather, called to open ourselves to the way that God will be revealed in our lives. We, like these anxiety-ridden people, yearn desperately for God. We beg for God to come into our lives. And, yet, we too, are out of step. God’s coming does not begin with light. God’s coming begins with darkness that the light enters. So, perhaps if we turn out all the bright lights that we insist we need, we will finally see that light that is just over the horizon.
God does not come because we are ready or because we are prepared or because we’ve gotten all our shopping done. This Lord of Righteousness, this Creator of Hope, this God of unfathomable love who desires nothing more than the best for all of Creation comes into our waiting, into our wilderness, into the darkest of days. So, wait with the anticipation not of how God will come but that God will.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What gets in the way of our anticipation of God’s Presence in our lives?
- What does this passage say to us about waiting for God?
- How can this passage speak to our world today?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Paul has founded the church at Thessalonica and before he was really able to solidify its existence, he was whisked away to prison. Paul was, of course, concerned about the fledgling community. He was probably worried that they would turn their backs on him and what he had taught them, that the surrounding culture and the surrounding environment would just be too much.
In order to find out how the Thessalonians were faring, and to determine whether they still looked upon him as their founder, the apostle sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Timothy returns with a very positive report (possibly even a letter from the congregation), and Paul writes this letter to the church.
Paul begins by thanking God for them, affirming who they are and the work they do. And then he holds his own love up for them to imitate. He reminds them who they are and who they should be. He reminds them of the practices that they should keep—thankfulness, prayer, and community. He reminds them that they grow together, that they support each other and encourage each other.
In a way, these few verses sound a little sappy. Are we ready for the big group hug? But, seriously, you have to think about this in light of the environment in which these believers lived. It was not easy. There were always other powers pulling them away, cultural norms that were easy to fall back into. Paul’s exhortation was not a sappy, feel-good letter. It was a reminder that there is something more, something better. It was a reminder to hold on, to persevere, and to open one’s eyes to the signs of God’s Presence that surround us even in the midst of all these things that get in the way.
It is a way of saying that this work of God, this Presence of God’s Spirit, has begun in us. Like God’s vision, they are not complete. They have to be developed. They have to be lived out in community. They have to be used to build up the Kingdom of God. We still have to wait for the full revelation. We still have to wait for the promised coming of God’s Kingdom in its fullness, but in the meantime, we have been strengthened and given the gifts that we need to live as the people of God.
Now keep in mind that these first-century people assumed that God was going to return any day or any minute. The possibility that our generation would still be waiting for the fullness of God’s Kingdom would have been positively anathema to them. And as time went on, they, like those Israelites centuries before them took matters into their own hands. Waiting is difficult for all of us though. Our world tends to operate on instant gratification. When we don’t get the “answer” from God that we think we need, we too tend to try to take care of things ourselves. In fact, we admire people that “get things done,” that take hold of the situation and make things happen. But that’s not what faith is about. Faith is about expectation. Faith is about anticipation. In fact, faith is about waiting. A life of faith is one of active waiting, believing that God will come when God will come and living a life with that vision in mind, a vision of peace, and justice, and unity within the Presence of God. But don’t wait to begin.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How does this passage speak to the concept of “waiting” that Advent holds?
- What does this notion of “active waiting” look like for us?
- What would Paul’s letter mean in our time?
GOSPEL: Luke 21: 25-36
We begin this Year of our C Lectionary year with a reading from The Gospel According to Luke. It’s not what we were expecting. I mean, really, what are all these signs? But our redemption is drawing near. To put it another way, “Surely the day is coming…”
The “parable” is really more of an observation and a warning. It heralds the coming of the Son of Man, calling the listener to have eyes to see the signs, and the good sense to be ready. Jesus tells us that there are signs that indicate the arrival, the advent, the presence, and the power of the Kingdom of God. Like leaves on a fig tree, such signs can show us our redemption, and our Redeemer; this is an important part of what we need to be about as children of that Kingdom: looking for its signs. Patience, it seems, may be exactly what is at issue for the fledgling Christian community as it awaits the day of the Lord. The need for patience, endurance, and trust may well have been amplified when to all appearances the promise that “all things have [will have] taken place” (verse 32) during that first generation, has proved untrue.
But we have skewed our understanding of Advent a bit. I think all of us know that. But, really, can you blame us? The world is so bent on being prepared for what comes next that it tends to live one season ahead at all times–the Halloween decorations go up the end of August, the Thankgiving decorations go up the end of September, and the Christmas decorations go up the end of October. The twelve days of Christmas tide, will of course, be filled with merchandise sales, a couple of unreplaced burned out Christmas lights, and and a flowering of little red hearts filled with candy to make sure we’re ready for the next thing. Somewhere in there, Advent is lost. Oh, we Christians, do alright with it. We faithfully light one candle at a time while we begrudingingly ward off the singing of any Christmas carols. But Advent is not merely a season of preparation for Christmas. It is much, much more. It is from the Latin “Adventus“, which means arrival or coming. It is not really meant to be only a time of shopping and checking off our “to do” list for the December 25th festival. Rather, Advent is our awakening to the realization that the Divine is even now spilling into our lives, even now a new humanity is being birthed, and even now all of Creation is being reformed and recreated.
And here’s a thought…all of those questions that we each ask ourselves when we read this passage (you know, like “what’s going to happen to me?”)…well, it’s not about us. This passage is about seeing something beyond ourselves, about seeing something bigger than us or the little lives that we have so carefully carved out for ourselves. It’s about waking up to the realization that God is bigger than we imagine.
We cannot live one season ahead. God will come when God will come. The full revealing of what God has in store is yet to be. But this season of Advent, this season of waiting, awakens us that we might see that it has already started to be. The feast has yet to be set but the dancing has begun. All we have to do is learn to stay awake.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How does this passage speak to us in our world today?
- So what does this concept of “staying awake” mean to you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
One needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful… [One] cannot be satisfied until [one] ever thirsts for God. (Alexander Baillie)
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)
First, we see God, the void, the incomprehensible one. Second, we draw closer: we tremble in the presence of God, the enemy. Our own unworthiness is revealed in the holiness of God. Third, there, in encounter, through repentance and forgiveness, we may behold God, the Friend. Then we come alive! (Alfred North Whitehead)
Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. Amen.
(Ann Weems, “The Coming of God”, Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 13.)