03 December 2006

advent 1

Readings from the Revised Common Lectionary:
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36
In today's Gospel reading Jesus says, "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. People will faint from fear and forboding of what is coming upon the world..." (Lk 21:25-26).

Jesus' description hits close to home - if not for us here in the relative safety and comfort of the US, it is nonetheless the reality for peoples throughout the world.

Our sisters and brothers in many places find their homelands tossed about upon the rough seas of international strife. They worry whether they will live to see the sun rise upon another day. They are weary unto fainting with the turmoil that surrounds them. From Darfur to Baghdad, from Vietnam to Palestine, from China to Indonesia, many Christians live in fear of the powers that rule their skies.

Even many of us, on a personal level, find ourselves in analogous situations, even if the stakes are different or the troubles are sometimes self-inflicted.

We are distressed and confused by roaring voices surrounding us, which send up waves of interpersonal conflict and wranglings for control that threaten to destroy what we hold dear. Those places and people to whom we once looked as lights and guides have turned into signs of the brokenness that exists even among God's own people. Perhaps we feel the darkness of depression, or illness, or severed relationships. We fear what might become of us or of our loved ones or of the communities we inhabit.

Jesus' original audience would live to see such times themselves: "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place" (Lk 21:32). The church of the apostles was a church ravaged by senseless divisions and party spirit, by the false teachings of the exclusivistic Judaizers, and by threatening political powers from Jerusalem to Rome. And then, in the AD 60s, Jerusalem itself fell under seige, the emperor Nero committed suicide, the new emperor was deposed, and the whole empire seemed in turmoil. The church found herself to be a fractured people in the midst of a fractured world.

And where is our God in the midst of all this, they might have thought. If God is "gracious and upright," the one whose "paths...are love and faithfulness" (Ps 25:7, 9), then why do we so often not see this more clearly? Where, we wonder, is the tangible evidence of his love?

With God's early church and with the Psalmist, we find ourselves crying out, "Let none who look to you be put to shame! Let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. Show me yours ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths!" (Ps 25:2-3). We repeat, "Remember, O Lord...remember," calling upon our God to fulfill his promises (Ps 25:5, 6).

The God we know in Jesus Christ, however, is a God who keeps his promises, who has secured those promises for us in the person and work of his Son.

In that light, we can look back to today's Old Testament text, the prophetic word that came through Jeremiah: "I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel...I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David" (Jer 33:14-15). Jeremiah writes from Israel's exile, when Israel's kings had failed, God's own people had fallen into sin, and all seemed lost. He writes from a fractured nation in a fractured world.

Yet in the midst of such times of distress among the nations - times of fear and foreboding - Jeremiah could look forward in confidence to the fulfillment of God's covenant promise: an heir to David's throne upon whom the fate of Israel would rest, the righteous Branch springing up from the shriveled stump of a failed monarchy.

And not only would God raise up this royal heir to David, but this king would make God's ways known among his people: "he shall execute justice and righteousness... Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety" (Jer 33:15). Through this king God's own saving power as creator and redeemer would be manifest - power to deliver his people from oppression, to vindicate them among the nations, and to secure them from harm.

In response to this display of Yahweh's own righteous acts, in light of God's faithfulness to his covenant promises, the Branch from David would be given the title: "Yahweh is our righteousness" (Jer 33:16).

Yet, after the exile of Israel was over and David's heir Zerubbabel had rebuilt Jerusalem and laid the foundation of the Temple, the royal line once again seemed to fail, Israel fell again into sin, and other nations ruled over God's people, waging war in their land. God's promise, it seemed, had not come true after all. And once again it was clear that Israel was part of the problem.

If "the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Ps 25:9), how could God ever carry forward his mission when the vehicle of that mission was a covenant-breaking and faithless people? From within that tension, God's people still could cry out, "Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me!" (Ps 25:1), the cry again of a fractured people in a fractured world where things are broken more deeply than we ever imagined, a brokenness extending to the heart of the very people through whom God's purposes were supposed to be fulfilled.

From the standpoint of Christian faith, however, we know that our God is a God who will not allow human sinfulness to frustrate his mission.

In fulfilling his promises, God turns our longings and expectations on their heads. He shows himself to be a Storyteller who delights in the well-timed plot twist. He is the God who embraces and enters into the upside down and inside out nature of our lives, and in so doing accomplishes more than we could ask or imagine.

And so the prophetic word of Jeremiah comes to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. It was this Jesus, the heir of David, whom God raised up to display his saving power and to accomplish the vindication of his people.

In Jesus Christ, God demonstrates his love and faithfulness through executing justice and righteousness. He does so, however, not as we would expect - simply by defeating Israel's external enemies. Rather, he does so paradoxically in the death of the righteous Branch himself as the one who took up the fate of God's covenant-breaking and faithless people, embracing the enemy of sin from within the heart of Israel itself.

Moreover, God fulfills his promise to save Judah and to cause Jerusalem to live in safety by delivering the Branch from the power of death, the Branch who embodies Israel's identity and place in God's plan. Therefore, all who are united to Jesus Christ by faith share in his vindication, enjoying the salvation of Judah, resting secure within the safety of Jerusalem. In this way God's promise for Israel spills over far beyond national Israel, sweeping people from every tongue and tribe and nation into the righteousness of Yahweh that was manifest in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But let's return to the first century, to the early Christians living as a fractured church in the midst of a fractured world. These believers, despite similarities, did not find themselves in the same situation as Israel during the exile or even after the return. Though they knew themselves to be exiles and sojourners, they nonetheless knew this from within a life of faith on the other side of Jesus and his work.

In the resurrection of Jesus, they could confess "you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long" (Ps 25:4). They also had Jesus' promise that they would indeed "see the Son of Man coming in a cloud" (Lk 21:27), alluding to the figure from Daniel of God's public vindication of his people, summed up in the reign of the Son of Man. Though precisely how that promise would come to pass was yet to be revealed, they knew it as the promise of a risen Lord and Savior they could trust.

When, in the midst of the turmoil of their world, Jerusalem fell and the empire began to stabilize again, they knew they had witnessed the reign of Christ and the vindication of his people. Those who had persecuted the church were unseated by their own ambitions and pretensions. The exclusivistic claims of the Judaizers suddenly rang hollow. And though the church was not yet free from Caesar's sometimes painful rule, it was all the more clear that Jesus remained the world's true Lord.

Today we see distress and fear around us. We are tossed upon roaring waves and witness troubling signs. We are a fractured people in a fractured world.

Nevertheless, in light of the Scriptures we have seen, we can grasp all more tightly to the hope we find in the story of Israel and of the early church. We can live the meaning of Advent as we remain "alert at all times, praying," anticipating and awaiting even now the appearing of the Son of Man, the rule of Christ made known among us today and the future completion of all things through him.

This hope is not just a conjecture, a wishful hunch, an empty longing, but begins to take concrete shape even now as we strive to live Jesus-shaped lives as the people of God.

Now in the present, with Paul, "we pray most earnestly that we may see [one another] face to face and restore whatever is lacking in [our] faith" (1 Th 3:10) so that Christ's rule may be known among us, seen and believed in the faces of our sisters and brothers. We pray that "the Lord make [us] increase and abound in love for one another and for all" so that the love of Jesus may live among us as a present sign of his reign (1 Th 3:12). And we pray that "he so strenghten [our] hearts in holiness that [we] may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus" (1 Th 3:13).

In all these ways we, the church, can live as a fig tree in the midst of a world looking for a sign of hope. As the followers of Jesus, we can put out sprouts of faith and love in the present as a tangible sign that God's kingdom is near (Lk 21).

We may still call out, "Let none who look to you be put to shame!" We may yet cry out to God to "Remember!" The way that God will bring us through our present troubles may be obscure. We may remain distressed and full of fear.

And yet, in the midst of all this, we can also be confident that the God in whom we trust - the God who lifted up his righteous Branch, who raised Jesus from the dead, who made the sign of the Son of Man appear - this very same God will fulfill his promises of deliverance and safety. This is the same God who will never allow his mission in the world to be frustrated, even by the sin and brokenness of his people, since it is in their weakness that he proves strong. And this is the same God whose love and faithfulness will be made known in ways that exceed what we could ask or imagine.