Grace Presbyterian Church
November 28, 2021, Advent 1C
Advent, Part II
Well, here we are again. At the inauguration of a new season of the church, even a new year in the life of the church, with the trappings of the season starting to sneak into our sanctuary, somehow we’re right back where we were two weeks ago; instead of looking backward to the birth of Jesus, as Advent is popularly portrayed, we are looking ahead, into the same apocalyptic discourse we covered then, albeit written by a different gospel writer. Advent does both, we are reminded, and as the scriptures of the season are typically arranged, it looks forward before it turns its gaze to the past. Part II comes before Part I, you might say. It’s a season Doctor Who would love.
Before we plunge into Luke’s version of Jesus’s apocalyptic discourse, it might help to step back into the prophetic literature – not for the apocalyptic predecessors of Jesus’s speech, but to a word of hope given in the midst of an apocalypse in progress.
For one often called the “weeping prophet,” and one whose name was turned into a descriptive term for the kind of accusatory tirades against wrong that pepper his writing, Jeremiah turns out to have a way with words of hope as well. Chapters 30-33 of this prophetic volume have been known as the “Little Book of Comfort” since Martin Luther’s time, for good reason; amidst the storm of prophetic outrage and the devastation of prophetic warnings fulfilled (and then some), these three chapters speak of comfort, based on the needed reminder that even in the worst of situations the Lord is still acting.
This particular passage gets its place in Advent mostly because of its promise of “a righteous Branch to spring up for David” who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” It’s not hard to leap to a conclusion (from a much later perspective) that this must somehow be a reference to Jesus, born of the house and lineage of David as the gospels tell us. There are two problems with this; one, it’s misguided to assume that this is the statement Jeremiah means to make, and two, it distracts us from the meat of this passage, the part that actually makes demands upon us.
It is today far too easy to dismiss the word “righteousness” in modern thought. We are frankly more likely to hear the word in combination with the prefix “self-” as a criticism than to hear it on its own. Pastor and biblical commentator Deborah A. Block reminds us that this is a key concept of the coming of Christ as portrayed in Advent:
…”righteousness” is one of the first words of the language of Advent. In Matthew’s gospel, “righteousness” is Jesus’s first word, spoken to John the Baptist: “Let it be so now … in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). Righteousness is not an attitude or an absolute standard. It refers to conduct in accord with God’s purposes. It is doing the good thing and the God thing: right doing as opposed to wrongdoing, and doing as opposed to being. Self-righteousness is the inflated ego of self-approval; righteousness is the humble ethic of living toward others in just and loving relationships.
Here is the challenge for us in Advent, particularly on this first Sunday when apocalyptic stuff gets thrown at us again.
The language of this reading from Luke is the kind of stuff that has been lifted by writers and others over the decades to make a quick buck off a best-selling book (or in recent years movies as well). The images are fearful enough; the suggestion of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” is ominous and foreboding; the suggestion of natural disaster run rampant resonates too easily in our own time. After the images of fear and destruction comes the line, found in very nearly these words in Mark’s “little apocalypse” from two weeks ago, that should be the impetus for our reassurance: “Then they shall see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
What follows is the part that all those Left Behind books and movies don’t include: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The illustration of the fig tree that follows is one we can grasp well enough if we substitute a tree more familiar in these parts; when it sprouts leaves and turns green, you know what season is coming. Likewise, when we see these signs that have been laid out in this chapter, we know that “the kingdom of God is near.”
To borrow a line from Mark 13, all those signs are only “the beginning of the birth pangs.” And Luke, like Mark, makes sure to remind us that everybody on the earth will see it come – no getting lifted away to miss the bad stuff. And yet the directions are the same: be on guard, keep watch, be awake. Pray for strength to endure it all and to be ready to “stand before the Son of Man.” After all, the very word “apocalypse” that we have so associated with destruction and chaos is in fact derived from a Greek word that means “unveiling,” “revealing,” or “revelation.” That’s how that last book of the New Testament got its name. And this reminds us that for all the fearful imagery in these apocalyptic readings, the point of it all is revealing – revealing the Son of Man, revealing the kingdom of God coming near. Revelation, not destruction.
Here’s where Jeremiah’s words connect. To live in the righteousness of God – not that nasty self-righteousness we rightly condemn, but the real thing – is going to be the thing that keeps us ready and mindful and watchful and aware as the signs of the approaching kingdom of God keep piling up. And we need to be reminded of this now, right at the beginning of Advent, lest we mistakenly start to think that the coming birth of the Messiah is the end of the story.
What we commemorate in Advent, the birth for which we prepare and celebrate, is a beginning, not an end. And for that matter, the events of Holy Week that come along in a few months, even including the Resurrection we celebrate on Easter Sunday, are not an end either. Seeing the working of God in the world will require great endurance on our part, doing justice and righteousness and being on guard and keeping watch while the signs of the times keep unfolding.
Another biblical commentator, Michal Beth Dinkler of Yale University, summarizes our task as the season of Advent leads us towards the Christmas event:
As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world — a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow. What is at stake is not just another annual celebration or making Christmas memories with friends and family. What is at stake is the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus reminds us, is both already and not yet here.
Even that birth we will celebrate ere long points to this coming and here and now and not-yet kingdom of God. For all our sentimentality over the event, it is the challenge that follows that we need to take from and live into during this and every Advent season. Living in God’s justice and righteousness; that’s how we remain on guard and keep watch for the coming of the Son of Man, in power and great glory.
For even the challenging and difficult words of scripture that are, after all, words of hope, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #129, Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; #357, The Days are Surely Coming; #348, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.
 Deborah A. Block, “Pastoral Perspective” commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 6.
 Michal Beth Dinkler, Commentary on Luke 21:25-36, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-4 (accessed November 23, 2021).