- Jeremiah 33:14–16 and Psalm 25:1–10
- 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
- Luke 21:25–36
Introduction – Celebrating the One Who Comes
During the period that begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, communities that observe Advent have an opportunity to reflect on a significant dimension of faith: God as the Anticipated One.
So much of religion seems to be concerned with the past. Tradition plays a large (and vital) role in most people’s spirituality. Intense debates rage over the historicity of certain (alleged) events from the past. The creedal and liturgical formulations that so largely define contemporary forms of faith are themselves legacies from the past. The Scriptures, necessarily, are documents of the distant past rather than ring binders in which we are expected to collect future issues from an ongoing series.
Christmas itself is a celebration of a particular past event: the birth of Jesus. Even if we consider the canonical stories to be symbolic narratives that disseminate theology more than history, there is little doubt that Jesus was born. Anyone whose death is well attested can be assumed to have been born.
Advent is unique in that it celebrates the incomplete and the not-yet. Advent draws us beyond a fascination with the past, and invites us to consider the possibility that the God of sacred tradition might also be a part of our immediate experience, as well as having something far greater to reveal in the future. Advent can name the reality that we do not have the final word. There is always more to God, and to life, than what we have seen so far.
Advent is not simply a preparation to celebrate Christmas. It is an invitation to welcome the One Who Comes. It is rightly designated a prophetic season, for this is a time to identify with the prophets of all times as people who have ears to hear and eyes to see; people who are awake to the possibilities of God’s dynamic presence in our own circumstances.
Over the four Sundays of Advent this year, as we begin a year that will focus especially on the Gospel of Luke, the themes will be as follows:
- Seeing beyond the horizon of humanity (Luke 21:25-36)
- John the Baptist: prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 3:1-6)
- Responding to prophetic voices (Luke 3:7-18)
- The child of promise (Luke 1:39-45)
First Reading: The days are surely coming …
The brief passage from Jeremiah 33 designated for the first reading for RC and RCL communities, captures the essence of the Advent theme. It looks to a future time of blessing when a Davidic ruler will executive justice and righteousness in the land.
Several aspects of an ancient world view are encapsulated in this brief text:
- The idea of the ruler as a divine delegate who serves as an agent to implement divine justice. Such a “lord” is acclaimed as “savior” (Greek: soter) and celebrated as a divine “son” of the community’s patron deity (“God our Father”). Notice, in Paul’s formula from 1 Thessalonians, how these ideas are applied to God and Jesus by the earliest Christian communities known to us.
- The role of the prophetic oracle promising dynastic succession as a guarantee of divine blessing.
- The powerful tradition of Davidic descent for an authentic claim to Jewish leadership.
A text such as this can also invite us to think about the role of prophecy in ancient Israel and in post-biblical times:
- The original prophet seems to have been a recognized figure who could be invited to speak a word “from the LORD.” Such characters could be on the ruler’s staff, and receive their living from the state. But they could also be independent charismatic figures who sometimes acted in opposition to the ruler and the official cult.
- In time prophetic texts are produced: a scroll for Isaiah, a scroll for Jeremiah, a scroll for Ezekiel, and another collecting the words of “the Twelve” into a single work. These “Latter Prophets” excluded Daniel, but were matched by another set of “Former Prophets:” Joshua, Judges, Samuel & Kings. The origins of the Latter Prophets are a puzzle, but each of the four scrolls appears to be an anthology of texts designed to fashion a self-conscious prophetic voice apart from the historical deeds and words of the named prophet. What, if anything, was the relationship between the historical figure of Isaiah or Amos and the books that have become their legacy to humanity?
- Centuries later when Tiglath-Pileser and Nebuchadnezzar are but vague memories, the prophetic texts are appropriated in new circumstances. Often they were reduced to catalogues of predictions and employed in theological confrontations between opposing factions of the pious. At times they tapped deep wellsprings of the human spirit. The prophetic books of Scripture have been both springs of fresh water and poisoned wells fostering hatred between different human communities.
The difference may depend on the spirit in which we approach these texts. When approached with an Advent mind \set — in anticipation that the God Who Comes is also the God Beyond All Names and the God who has yet more (new) truths to reveal — these ancient texts can draw us into the liberty of the children of God.
Zechariah 14:4-9 – On that day
The ECUSA lectionary designates Zech 14:4-9 as the first reading. This passage provides another example of Jewish apocalyptic anticipating a collapse of the natural order as the eschatalogical moment draws near:
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward. And you shall flee by the valley of the Lord’s mountain, for the valley between the mountains shall reach to Azal; and you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him. On that day there shall not be either cold or frost. And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the LORD), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name one.
This passage has many affinities with the Apocalyptic Discourse in Mark 13=Luke 21=Matt 24 and also with Paul’s apocalyptic instruction as seen in 1 Thessalonians.
Second Reading: Ready for the coming of our Lord Jesus
Advent themes are not central to this passage from 1 Thessalonians 3, but that makes this an even more significant passage for gaining a perspective on Paul’s own thorough-going apocalypticism. Even when not especially focusing on such issues, Paul reveals by his choice of words how deep is his debt to older prophetic and apocalyptic texts.
Notice Paul’s familiar way of mentioning God and Jesus in the same phrase. As also seen in the opening and closing formulae of his letters, Paul limits “God” to “the Father” while typically speaking of Jesus as “our Lord.” The following examples come from the opening paragraphs of Paul’s letters:
1 Thessalonians 1
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 1
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, …
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
These phrases have become familiar religious texts to us, but in 1C they were formulations that reflected current political terminology. They represented not so much a subordination of Jesus to God as an elevation of Jesus over against the emperor. Such talk could cost people their lives. And it did.
Finally, it is worth noting how Paul recycles older ideas. The reference to “the coming of our Lord Jesus …” in 1 Thess 3:13 can be placed alongside the tradition already known to us from Daniel 7 and Zechariah 14:
Dan 7:13-14 – As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Zech 14:5 – Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.
1Thess 3:13 – that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (Greek: hagioi = holy ones, or angels).
2Thess 1:7 – … when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels
Gospel: Natural calamities and the End
The core of this week’s Gospel, and the only portion used in the RC lectionary, is Luke 21:25-28:
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 foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
The ECUSA and RCL selections include the following “parable” of the fig tree (which is not really a typical parable and lacks the hallmarks of a classic Jesus’ saying) and the RCL also includes vss 34-36 (a concluding call to personal watchfulness lest one be caught unawares by “that day”).
Luke 21 represents a re-working of the apocalyptic discourse taken from Mark 13. Both Matthew and Luke have taken over this tradition from Mark and each given it a slight edit to focus on themes of concern to their communities.
Underlying this portion of the discourse is the common view of the world as a structure put in place — and kept there — by divine command. The ancient priestly account of creation (Gen 1:1-2:4a) assumes that the natural condition of the world without God’s intervention is watery chaos. As part of creation, God separates the waters and sets boundaries to restrain the sea (often imagined as a fearsome Dragon or some other “monster of the Deep”). When God later punishes the world for human sin, in the flood story, in effect the divine ordering that kept creation in place is suspended. The waters flood back in and destroy everything God has made — except for the handful of people and animals on board the Ark.
These images may derive from the irrigated agricultural societies of ancient Mesopotamia, where human life was sustained by a constant struggle with river and sea. The levy banks that were essential for irrigation imposed a human order on nature. But the floods could sweep them all away, and sea monsters (crocodiles) could emerge from the deep to devour the unwitting farmer. Ancient archetypes are to be found in these biblical texts. The dragon in Revelation 12 and its servant, the “monster from the sea” in Revelation 13, are 1C Christian expressions of the same primal mythology.
In this week’s Gospel, the created order is imagined as coming apart prior to the arrival of the Son of Man. This is an ancient expression of the eternal human wish for order and predictability. That deep desire for order allowed the Nazis to take power in a Germany weakened by its defeat in World War One and devastated by economic distress. The current “war on terror” may be playing into some of the same ancient dreams of a savior/ruler who could eradicate chaos and guarantee the regular cycles of “normal life.”
Although Jesus does not seem to have invoked these mythological themes in his own prophetic role as the child of Wisdom/Sophia, his followers soon reverted to traditional apocalyptic categories to celebrate his significance for them and to quieten their own deep-seated fears. In early Christian apocalyptic texts, the Christ figure always takes on the role of the conquering hero who saves God’s people. In most other respects, Christian apocalypses are indistinguishable from their Jewish antecedents.
In the Synoptic Apocalyptic Discourse, the image of “a son of Man” (ie, one in human form) from Daniel 7 has now been reinterpreted as a specific individual coming from God to rescue the elect, rather than as a positive metaphor for the covenant people in contrast to the monstrous beasts that emerge from the sea and were used as symbols for Israel’s imperial oppressors:
- Dan 7:4 – lion with eagle’s wings (Babylon)
- Dan 7:5 – bear (Medes)
- Dan 7:6 – leopard (Persia)
- Dan 7:7 – ten horned monster (Alexander and the Greeks)
- Dan 7:13 – human-like figure (Michael=Israel)
The original referent of the one like a human being in Dan 7:13 was probably Michael, an Archangel once thought to have special responsibilities to protect the people of God (see also Dan 12:1 and his similar role on Rev 12:7-9). In Daniel 7, Michael represents the people of God who will receive an eternal empire. Over the 200 years or so between Daniel 7 and the earliest Christian apocalypses (see Mark 13 and parallels, Didache 16, Revelation to John, and 2 Thessalonians 2), this figure ceases to be a metaphor for the nation and becomes an heroic individual sent from heaven to rescue God’s people. We can trace something of this transformation in the earlier layers of 1 Enoch, a book long revered by the Ethiopian church but now known to have been influential in Jewish circles such as the Qumran community.
These ancient apocalyptic texts reflect the best historical and scientific knowledge of their time. While often understood as the literature of the marginalized, their authors must have been well educated. They had both the skills and the time needed for literary efforts, and their writings sometimes drew on current descriptions of the physical universe as well as historical archives.
The ancient imagery of a collapsing cosmic infrastructure no longer speaks to us, but we can still ask what ways of speaking about justice and hope do speak to the contemporary person? How do we “sing the Lord’s song” in this strange 21C world in which we find ourselves? What does faithfulness mean for us — here and now?
- 002 Jesus Apocalyptic Return: (1) 1 Thess 4:13-18; (2) Did. 16:6-8; (3) Matt 24:30a; (4) Mark 13:24-27 = Matt 24:29,30b-31 = Luke 21:25-28; (5a) Rev 1:7; (5b) Rev 1:13; (5c) Rev 14:14; (6) John 19:37.
- 007 Of Davids Lineage: (1a) Rom 1:3; (1b) 2 Tim 2:8; (2) Matt 2:1-12; (3) Luke 2:1-20; (4) John 7:41-42; (5a) Ign. Smyrn. 1:1a; (5b) Ign. Eph. 18:2c; (5c) Ign. Trall. 9:1a.
- 188 The Unknown Time: (1a) Mark 13:33-37; (1b) Matt 24:42; (1c) Matt 25:13; (2) Luke 12:35-38; (3) Luke 21:34-36; (4) Did. 16:1.
- 265 Within this Generation: (1) Mark 13:28-32 = Matt 24:32-36 = Luke 21:29-33.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site. See also:
- Advent Wreath – a liturgy for the Advent Wreath on Australian themes and prepared by Rex Hunt, Canberra (Australia)
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.