First Sunday in Advent November 30, 2003.
All three readings underscore the importance of context. By itself, the brief reading from Jeremiah may seem uninspiring. When we understand that this word came to Jeremiah while he was under arrest in the court of the guard of King Zedekiah, during the siege of Jerusalem, because he kept saying there was no use resisting the army of Nebuchadnezzar, the passage changes remarkably. Apparently, King Zedekiah tried desperately to build morale during the siege by forbidding discouraging words. Looking honestly at the situation and then beyond it, Jeremiah declared that, though God would give the city and the land to the Babylonians, this was not the last word. In his Handbook of the Old Testament, Claus Westermann said of this passage, "The tired and bewildered people in the last stage of the siege were told, 'All is not lost!"' (p. 164) Zedekiah and Jeremiah illustrate the difference between false optimism and real hope. A most interesting play on words in the last phrase underscores this. The new name of the city will be "The Lord is our righteousness." The Hebrew word for righteousness is zedech. The phrase in Hebrew is "Adonai is our zedech," meaning perhaps that the Lord is our hope; Zedekiah is not.
The context of the second reading also is very important. 1 Thessalonians 1-3 reveals that opposition, persecution, and attacks by Satan are all very real experiences of these believers and their pastor and teacher, Paul. Paul longed to come and see his beloved children in the faith but was prevented, and so he sent Timothy to find out if they survived. Timothy returned with the miraculous report that the Thessalonians held fast to the faith. Verse 8 says, in a nutshell, what this means to Paul: "For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord." Our text continues this theme. The Greek reveals that the question mark belongs at the end of verse 10, not verse 9. Placing the question at the end of verse 10 focuses on the primary verb so that the verse reads, "How can we thank God enough?" The primary verb in verse 10, "pray," is a participle, indicating that this praying to God is done in the context of thanksgiving. Supported by the Greek word order, these verses read that Paul is rejoicing exceedingly, night and day, for the faith of the Thessalonians and, in that state, prays to see them in order to continue to build them up. As the rest of the passage makes clear, Paul's concern is that they not falter in their faith. Paul does not pray night and day to see them but rejoices night and day that God has sustained them in the faith.
The Gospel parallels Jeremiah in that Jesus distinguishes between false optimism and real hope. Luke 21:5-6 provides the context as Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, saying: "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." King Zedekiah forbade discouraging talk about the city of Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonians, and we can be sure that Jesus' talk of destruction was forbidden by the chief priests and scribes. Again, there was a denial of imminent destruction. The stark contrast between those who welcome the coming of the Son of Man and those who do not makes a case for the difference between false optimism and real hope. While some "faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world," believers are encouraged to "stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
What is the difference between false optimism and real hope? What is the difference between being merely optimistic in a shallow wishful way and the hope that comes from knowing the Triune God? Imagine a retired couple; the wife is dying of a chronic illness and the husband simply can't bear the thought of life without her. He is angry that at the last doctor's appointment the physician said, "She's dying, and there's nothing we can do." He wants somehow to forbid this kind of talk. Or, imagine a severely dysfunctional family situation such as alcoholism. Family members pledge to one another not to tell "the secret about Mom," which, of course, everyone knows. But real hope comes from speaking the truth and getting Mom to treatment.
The ability to call a thing what it actually is, is a necessity of real hope. False optimism is perpetuated when we insist on calling evil good and good evil. Our tendency as fallen beings, as those whose bondage to sin is real, is to insist that real hope comes by refusing to look at evil and call it what it is. This is not so. The Cross invites us to call a thing what it is and then believe that God is at work even there, in the darkest, most difficult times. Our North American culture is particularly adept at refusing to call evil what it is and refusing to take it seriously, lest we somehow became "less optimistic"! Christians can offer a hopeful alternative by being willing to live a life that believes that God is at work, yet without denying that pain and grief, hardship and turmoil, tragedy and death are part of life.
In reflecting on the difference between false optimism and real hope revealed in these texts, I am struck by the image of a jigsaw puzzle. Wintertime in our house is a time for working puzzles. Starting a puzzle is always a bedlam of cardboard confusion. In difficult puzzles, pieces are even cut to keep one from seeing the true shapes of the pieces at first. But as one fits them together, the whole picture begins to emerge.
Perhaps a way of describing a "puzzling" state of affairs, a place of confusion and difficulty, whether it be Jerusalem under siege, Thessalonica under persecution, or the coming of the Son of Man, is to use the image of a puzzle. Real hope, perhaps, can be described as taking a look at all "the pieces" without flinching, realizing that God's design will in time emerge. Imitating Paul, who offers extravagant praise to God even in the face of opposition and persecution, we, too, can keep our eyes on what God is doing in the world. Through puzzling days, days under siege, and times of "distress among the nations," we need to proclaim that God is at work now and will be to the coming of the Son. This is finally the basis for real hope.
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2003|
|Previous Article:||"900 Words": initial reflections of an emerging editor.|
|Next Article:||Second Sunday in Advent December 7, 2003.|