First Sunday in Advent: December 3. 2006.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
The common theme for today's readings is a "coming day of the Lord." Yet, the pericopes seem to have little else in common. Jeremiah spoke a word of hope for what God would do in the future to a city that was about to be destroyed. Here the "day that is surely coming" is a day of restoration and fulfillment of promise. Paul writes to a city in which the Christians are the subject of his rejoicing and thanks, and encourages them to remain faithful until the "coming day of the Lord." At first glance, Luke's words might have more in common with Jeremiah, as he is writing about cosmic destruction (though Jerusalem's destruction is probably at the center, as in the preceding section) and what God is paradoxically doing. But, rather than including images of hope, Luke offers a word of warning, and potential escape.
It is not unusual that Luke invokes the fig tree at this juncture. In the Older Testament the fig is referenced 28 times. As the tree is cut down, it is a symbol of exile and destruction. The living tree is also a symbol of anticipation, as one waits for the first sweet ripe fig in season. Finally, the fig tree is a symbol of shalom and restoration, as the people will sit under their fig trees and eat figs in the Lord's future restoration. I wonder, as I read this text, which of these things Luke intends? It could be any one, or all of them.
The next issue to wrestle with in Luke's text is the saying that "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place." What does Jesus mean by this? What does Luke mean by quoting Jesus? Who are the people of "this generation?" Are they long gone? Are the readers of any generation who read these words to see themselves? Have all the things Jesus describes already taken place? Have heaven ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] can also mean "sky") and earth really passed away? If so, how? If not, when? Questions like these lead preachers to select another text or theme for preaching. Our people are asking, however, and our culture is answering them. Some answers (like the Left Behind novels) are not finally faithful to what these texts are saying. Even if we don't have definitive answers to these questions, we finally need to address them in a meaningful way, or our people will feel left behind--pun intended.
I try to look for what God is doing in the texts of the day because that is where the gospel will always be found. God is doing some interesting things, according to Luke's text. God is bringing the present age to a close. The "Son of Man" is coming with power and great glory. Redemption is drawing near. Though some will experience this with fear and foreboding, Jesus tells his disciples (assuming they were the ones who asked the question in v. 7 that started the discourse) that they should approach it with anticipation. In fact, the disciples are caught up in cataclysmic events (some described in Acts; some will come with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans). In Acts, Stephen sees exactly what Jesus describes as he is stoned to death (7:54-60). In a world in which disciples could be killed at any moment, and many were, Jesus' words may well have been recorded to help them know how to die rather than how they will survive. It is possible that Jesus was telling the disciples to watch for the signs so that they will be ready to die as Jesus dies, and, in dying, bear witness to the power that life has, even over death itself. Only knowing and seeing what God is doing behind the events makes such a death a witness to the power of life. Only seeing in the cross of Christ the very fulfillment of Jesus' words gives the disciples, ancient and modern, a sense of how to face our crosses.
Many in our world approach the biblical words as future predictions that are coming true and so see the cataclysmic events from the Bible in the events of the news. A brief run through any epoch of history shows us that these events have always been present and are always seen as that fulfillment. Yet the heavens and the earth do not seem to have passed away. In the face of the popular Left Behind novels, it is necessary for sermons to address these texts not so much as a roadmap to use to escape the dangers of life but as a warning how we might live as witnesses to the salvation of God in the midst of the dangers of life. These texts, taken together, serve that purpose well. Some preachers may be tempted to address only the words of warning at the end of the Gospel text. I always try to keep in mind how tempting such a sermon is to preach, and no matter how meaningful it may be to the people, it is not "gospel," it is not "good news," if it is only about us and what we are doing. Unless it is about what God is doing, it will not be a complete sermon.
By pairing Jeremiah's theme of redemption beyond the destruction of Jerusalem with Luke's theme of redemption in the midst of cataclysm, we can stay focused on the consistent action of God for creation, not against it. Armed with this, we can begin to build a full theology of Advent with this first Sunday. We need to see how God came in order to see how God continues to come into our world. This is especially true as we see the terrible natural disasters and human atrocities of our time. Without an understanding of how God has been and is suffering with us in the midst of these things, we will not see the victory of life over death that is the climax of the Gospel. God's present coming allows us to see God's future coming clearly. God's consistent fulfillment of promise is the theme that ties all of this together. Our participation in this promise allows us to prepare differently and to participate in God's way of being in the world as we live in this dangerous and unpredictable time in between.
The film The Green Mile offers insight into how life is experienced even in a place of death. Through the eyes of a guard on death row at a prison, we are led to see how life and death contend, and some become witnesses to the power of life. In the various stories that are told, past, present, future, life, death, and knowledge are woven together in characters who variously understand or are clueless about any or all of them. Death is not sought but embraced with dignity and courage by the main characters in this fictional account of life and mystery on death row. LLB
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Bouman, Luke L.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2006|
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