Monday, December 04, 2006

What's going on here?

The lessons for the First Sunday in Advent are:

  • Jeremiah 33:14-16
  • Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10+14
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
  • Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
If what you are looking for is nostalgia, Christmas is your season. Christmas cards featuring medieval paintings or Currier and Ives engravings are the norm. Advertisers devise various riffs on "tradition" to induce us to buy. It is supposedly a feel-good season, bringing families back together. (Which means that it can be an emotionally devastating season for some.)

So, what is it with these lessons? We get to learn, once again, that Advent may be the most counter-cultural season in the Church calendar. (A close second to Lent, perhaps.) These lessons aren't warm and fuzzy, they are frightening, particularly the Gospel lesson. This is the season for looking forward, not backward, and looking with open eyes. It is the time to look at the world realistically, and ask whether we are prepared to deal with it.

This Gospel passage, just prior to the passion narrative in Luke, is often called the "small apocalypse", paralleling similar passages in Matthew and Mark. And along with other similar passages and books, such as Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by modern readers, causing a great deal of mischief. An apocalypse is a revealing or unveiling of something hidden, bringing new knowledge or perspective. Apocalyptic literature in scripture uses vivid symbolic language to reveal the relationship between events on Earth with the eternal truths of heaven. Such literature is prophetic, but not because it is always intended to be a literal prediction of future events. A prophet speaks truth to power -- Jeremiah told Israel of the coming destruction and exile, not as a parlor trick, but as the direct consequence of the people's separation from God. The purpose of a prophet is not to condemn, but to call God's people back to a loving relationship with Him. When it became clear that Jeremiah's warnings were correct and disaster was imminent, Jeremiah completed his message with the promise of God's love and the redemption of his people, as set forth in today's first lesson:

The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
In those days, in that time,
I will raise up for David a just shoot;
he shall do what is right and just in the land.
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
"The LORD our justice."
As Jeremiah had warned, Solomon's Temple was thrown down, and many of the inhabitants carried off to exile in Babylon. But also as Jeremiah had foretold, the exiles did return to Jerusalem, and a new, Second Temple dedicated. The apocalypse in Luke has the same purpose, to reveal the eternal plan of redemption even in a time of threat and conflict.

This "small apocalypse" comes at the end of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem and the Temple itself. In Luke, Jesus arrives in town in the manner of the foretold king and redeemer of Israel. The first thing he does is to clear the temple of moneychangers -- in effect taking charge of the Temple and setting it to rights. He then proceeds to teach in the Temple complex with an authority and success that the established Temple officials find very threatening. This, the Second Temple (subsequently rebuilt by Herod), was the physical sign of God's presence with his people. But Jesus seems to be teaching that with the coming of the Kingdom of God this has changed. At the beginning of the longer passage that the lesson is part of, Jesus responds to admiring comments about the Temple with this shocking statement:

While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, he said, "All that you see here--the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down." Then they asked him, "Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?" (Luke 21:5-7)
The destruction of Solomon's temple is one of the great dividing points of Jewish history -- to lose it again would be comparable to the end of the world, which is what many people think of when they these words of Jesus.

As said above, an apocalypse is strongly symbolic -- it is intended to work on more than one level. There is the immediate context of Jesus speaking in that time. He speaks both of the coming destruction of the Temple (by the Romans, in 70 AD) and also about his own death and resurrection. The Gospel writer, some 20 years after that destruction, may have included this to reassure the persecuted church of that time. In our own time, we learn about how we are to live as Christians in uncertain times.

In this passage Jesus makes three points.
  • The challenges are not going to stop. When asked when the Temple would be destroyed:
    He answers, "See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,' and 'The time has come.' Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
    Sound like the evening news? Jesus warns us that we have to live out our faith in a chaotic and threatening world, no matter who we are. No coasting allowed.

  • Jesus will not abandon us.For us as Christians, Jesus is the "temple built not by hands" told of by Ezekiel -- our resurrected Lord is now our sign of God's presence. We have to look to our own experience of grace and redemption in our lives, and our knowledge of Jesus' current living presence as our anchor in these times.

  • We have to be prepared.We have to keep reminding ourselves which way is north, and to keep our face in that direction. Jesus warns us about letting either the pleasures or the anxieties of this world distract us from doing what we already know we should be doing. Problems are always with us --the only way we can have perspective on them is to turn to God for help in building lives of prayer, study, and service.
Over the next three Sundays in Advent we will continue to look at the challenges ahead for us, and what it will take to be prepared for them. Then we will be ready to unsentimentally understand just what the coming of Jesus in the flesh really means to our own lives today.

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