30 November 2009
Jeremiah 33: 14-16 & Luke 21: 25-36
First Sunday of Advent/ 29th November 2009
“I can’t wait ‘til Christmas.” It’s a phrase we begin to hear a lot this time of year; particularly from the lips of children, but not exclusively so. We probably love to hear it most from children because it reminds us, perhaps, of our own longings for that day of days, of that time before, of what seemed like endless waiting as a child for Christmas Day to arrive. I can remember saying it over and over again. It probably began when the Sears & Roebuck Wish Book catalog arrived bursting with colorful images of all the toys we hoped Santa Claus would bring us. By “we,” I mean my brother, Craig, and me who fought –and I mean fought – over who would get first crack at that catalog.
There’s probably no other time of year and no other holiday that generates this kind of forward-looking hope, this extraordinary sense of anticipation and expectation than Christmas. As we wait, in the meantime, as we mark off every day on our Advent calendars, every day as we countdown to that day is informed and shaped by the day to come. Our present is informed and shaped by the future coming of that day. We wait and wait until we get to the point that it seems like we can’t wait any longer, can no longer bear the excruciating delay of Christmas morning. You can feel it in the air at the Family Service of Christmas Eve. At times it seems like our children are about to burst with tension and excitement. Bring it now. Hurry up and get here.
There’s probably no other time of year when we’re more thoroughly eschatological than the weeks leading up to Christmas. This time of year is the perfect opportunity to get into a mind frame that informs the writers of scripture. Eschatology means, literally, the study of end things or end times. It’s really one of the most important concepts embedded in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, but easy to miss and difficult to understand. I’m not throwing this word around to be difficult or to over-intellectualize the Bible. It’s there, infusing everything. It’s a word we’ve talked about quite a bit on Thursday morning during Bible study over the last nine years. Every book in the New Testament has been influenced by the meaning of this word. Without grasping the sense of this word, this outlook, we miss a considerable part of the good news.
Eschatology and its related word apocalyptic (meaning revelation) has to do with our perceptions of time, or orientation toward time, of how we view the past, the present, and the future. By reference to “end” we can mean, “the end,” as in finished or caput, but it can also mean end, as in purpose, or when we talk about the Great Ends of the Church. Think of the opening question of the Westminster Catechism. “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Eschatology has a future orientation – and that’s why this time of year, our perspective in Advent leaning toward Christmas is thoroughly eschatological. It’s a focus upon what’s coming.
When I reflected earlier on our waiting for Christmas, I intentionally used plenty of eschatological words, like “waiting,” “longing,” “day of days,” “that day,” “arrive,” “forward-looking hope,” “anticipation,” “expectation,” “meantime,” “day to come,” “excruciating delay,” “bursting,” “tension,” “excitement.” There are plenty more. They all have to do with time, how we envision the future, of what we sense is coming – coming, that, too, is an eschatological word – and how our day-to-day living is informed by the future we know is coming and about to break in, appear, and change our lives. Change, too, is an eschatological word, like conversion, and being born-again, and the most significant eschatological term: resurrection. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945) said Advent is like sitting in a prison cell. One cannot do anything except hope, pray, and wait; deliverance must come from the outside, he was being eschatological. (1) He’s sitting, waiting in hope, waiting for liberation, breaking into time from outside of history.
You can hear it in our text from Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel.” Can you hear the orientation to time? “In those days and at that time,” the text says,” I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…” “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” Can you hear it? The focus is on the future, of a day that is on its way coming to meet us – not a product of the past, not coming out to us through the progress of history, not from yesterday, but from tomorrow, from the future. And not just any future, the new future, the new day, the salvation of God that will yield something new in the midst of time.
Our Luke text, not surprisingly, is also full of eschatological and apocalyptic imagery. It’s why both of these texts are chosen for the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is thoroughly eschatological. In fact, embedded in the Greek of Luke’s text is the word “advent” – coming. Something is coming. Someone is coming who will be and is the salvation of the world. Something is coming. Someone is coming who will put the world to right, who will establish justice, who will embody the love and mercy of God.
Now, this Luke text is not, obviously, a text that points to the coming birth of Jesus. It’s a reference to the coming of Christ in glory at the culmination of time. So why are we hearing this on the first Sunday of Advent when we really want to sing Christmas carols because we can’t wait for Christmas? Because Advent is more than remembering the “first coming” at Christmas, it’s more than remembering Jesus’ birth back when. And Advent is more than getting ready because Christmas is coming again, when it seems like we just did this only yesterday. This is not the focus of our hope during Advent. But, rather, purpose of this season is to intensify our expectation for God’s final fulfillment. It points to the future when all the things God promised in and through Jesus Christ will be fully realized, embodied and enfleshed in the world. The world Jesus promised is not here yet.
Advent means coming. It’s a rendering of the Greek word parousia, which is what we find here in Luke. In secular Greek, parousia means the coming of persons, or the happening of events, and literally means presence; but the language of the prophets and apostles has brought into the word the messianic dimension of hope. The expectation of the parousia is an advent hope. In the New Testament, it is used exclusively for Christ’s coming presence in glory. Some have translated parousia as Jesus “coming again” or “second coming.” But both are wrong, because they presuppose a temporary absence of Christ.
Christmas celebrates that Christ is born. Advent turns our attention that Christ is coming. Christ is and is still coming. Christ is born and still being born within us and within the world. This is the tension of the Christian life. We live in the now and the not-yet. This is Advent. It is dark. It’s full of unresolved tension. It’s why we sing Advent carols in minor keys. We’re called to be alert.
All this talk of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,…distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves,” is not some kind of ancient prophecy about the destruction of the world, something you might see in the new movie, “2012.” What we find here is evocative, fanciful language that should not be taken literally. It’s typical of apocalyptic literature; it’s full of symbols and metaphors. It’s a way of saying, pay attention to the signs. Be alert! For the “the Son of Man” is “coming in a cloud,” with power and great glory.” Be ready, for “your redemption is drawing near.” Be alert. Watch.
Wait for what? Do we wait forever and like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s (1906-1989) play, “Waiting for Godot,” who wait for someone to arrive who never shows? In a world consumed by war and pain, injustice and abject poverty, sorrow and death, haven’t we waited long enough? How long, O Lord, how long? How long?
Yet, for the writers of scripture, waiting is never in vain, because in the waiting we also experience the one who is coming toward us. “Peace to you,” begins the book of Revelation, “from him who is, and who was, and who is to come (1:4).” The God of the Bible is the one who is on the move and on the way to us. Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann says it well, “The God of hope is himself the coming God. When God comes in his glory, he will fill the universe with his radiance, everyone will see him, and he will swallow up death forever. This future is God’s mode of being in history. The power of the future is his power in time. His eternity is not timeless simultaneity; it is the power of his future over every historical time.” (2) God’s future is coming toward us all the time. Isaiah declared, “Arise, become light, for your light is coming and the glory of the Lord is rising upon you (Is. 60:1).” The proclamation of the near – the coming – the arriving kingdom of God makes human conversion to this future possible.”
What are you waiting for? For whom are you waiting?
The Christian posture is always leaning into the future. We don’t lean into the past; we don’t look backward with nostalgia, but forward in hope, with hope. Advent is a season in the church that calls us to pay attention – to the future, to the new thing God is doing in our midst, of Christ being birthed into our lives in new and profound ways. As the culture so easily becomes seduced by nostalgia this time of year, of Christmases past long ago, the church is called to look forward, to hope and wait – to sit in waiting, to wait because we can – until that day when the glory of God is revealed and in the face of Christ find all our hopes and longings, our dreams and our waiting find their meaning in him.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Dated 21 November 1943, Tegel Prison, Berlin, Germany (New York: Macmillan 1972), 134.
2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996),25-26.