Jeremiah 33:14-1614 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.
15 “‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.’”
This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.’”
Luke 21:25-3625 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Every year we come to this moment, just after American Thanksgiving (which somehow seems to define the Christmas season, even for Canadians). The stores have big sales that push them into the “black”—a meaning for Black Friday, for any Friday, with which Christians should struggle. Cyber Monday follows, as so many of us make the push to get our Christmas shopping done.
Then we get to church and we are reminded: It is not yet Christmas. First we remember Advent. First we prepare. We get ready for the coming, the advent, of the baby in the manger. First we look again at our world and ourselves and begin the difficult process of making sure that we are ready, that we can be ready, when the angels sing their tidings of great joy.
Thoughts on the Texts1. Remembering the first coming always draws our attention also to the Second Coming, when Jesus returns in power and great glory and draws all things to himself. The texts we read refer to both comings. Jeremiah heralds the birth of the heir of David’s line; Jesus refers to his return.
Yet the two comings do not divide so neatly. Jeremiah heralds also Christ’s return. “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety”: These words do not describe what happened when Jesus was alive, or what happened in the century following his death and resurrection. Still less do we see Jerusalem at peace and in safety today. God’s people (whether we think of the Jews or of the Church) still live scattered and persecuted. Something remains to be done.
And when Jesus describes the end, he says: 25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Clearly Jesus is referring to the end of all things; but then he continues: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
We have used these words to guess at his return, and that may be what he meant. But it seems at least as likely to me that these words refer both to his coming death and resurrection as well as to the consummation in the future. One commentator observes that Jesus may have meant his own impending death and resurrection, but that Mark and Luke (who recorded these words) apply them to his return. In any case, we take Jesus’ first and second coming together: The one reminds us of and prepares us for the other.
A brief aside: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” The difficulty these words cause disappears if Jesus was referring to his own death and resurrection. But even if Jesus meant his final return, the difficulty is only in the way we take “this generation”. Another commentator notes that it means something like “the generation of humans on earth”. In other words, “People will not die out before I bring everything to its proper end.”
2. A second thought: These words are words of hope. Jesus came into this world to bring us hope. Jesus’ return is the guarantee that our hope is rooted in reality.
Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. If anyone lived without seeing their hope realized, it was Jeremiah. He prophesied constantly that Babylon would destroy Judah—and so they did. He warned the remnant in the land not to flee to Egypt, not to fight against their Babylonian rulers. They ignored him and carried him off with them into Egypt, where he died, never seeing the hope that he proclaimed. Jeremiah complained bitterly to God, but he did not give up hope in God; and when God told him to buy a field at Anathoth (Jer 32), he did so.
So when Jeremiah speaks the hope of future peace and security for Jerusalem and for God’s Chosen People, he held to that hope in spite of his own great distress.
This past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday before Advent. Lissa Wray Beal, our OT professor at Providence spoke in chapel on the theme of Christ the King, using Zechariah 9 as her text. Hear the prophet:
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you. 13 I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.
Verse 13 locates the historical context of Zechariah’s words: slaves under Babylon, who have become slaves under Persia, and now live as slaves under Alexander the Great’s successors, the “Sons of Greece”. They knew what it meant to live as slaves and prisoners in a foreign land.
But Zechariah calls God’s People something else in verse 12: “Return…you prisoners of hope”! Prisoners of hope! What can it mean to live as a prisoner of hope?
Jesus tells us: 25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Look Around Us TodayWe live in a world divided between those who have more than they need and those who have almost nothing. Increasingly people are imprisoned by poverty and wealth.
You know the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25. Often we use the parable to remind us that we should take care of “the least of these, my brothers.” That is a good application of this passage, but there is something deeper, more powerful. Everywhere else in the gospels, the term “my brothers” refers to the disciples. One reading of this text is that Jesus is telling us how the Gentiles are judged: by how they respond to his followers, whom they find in those who are marginalized and oppressed. This remains true for us today. We find not only God’s people, but God’s Messiah himself, the King, when we meet the marginalized of the world.
Malcolm Guite is a “priest, chaplain, and teacher at the University of Cambridge.” He has written a sonnet on the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25.
Sonnet: Christ the King—Matthew 25: 31-46Malcolm Guite
Our king is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: “I am thirsty”.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
And With Us?Where is Freedom? Note that those who hope are those who have nothing. Those who have something do not have hope—they don’t need it, so they can’t have it. Those who have nothing, have hope. Those who have something, have no hope.
Perhaps this is the basic lesson for us as we begin the season of Advent. Thanksgiving and Christmas teach us to think of how much we have. Advent reminds us that our wealth can become our prison. If we want to be ready for the coming of Jesus, we have to discover our poverty, our need, and so become a prisoner of hope.
The truth is, of course, that it is not only the materially poor who live in great need. I think of one a friend who has what most would call "a good life". Recently she did a chapel presentation on her own struggle with depression, in which one realizes that she came face to face with herself as helpless in the grip of her depression. It was in that helpless state that she found hope.
I believe that it is always when we discover our essential poverty in this life that we become “prisoners of hope”, able to receive the King of the Universe. Mental and emotional health is one of the most common ways that we experience helplessness in our affluent society; but the discovery comes through every way in which we realize that without God we are adrift in a hostile universe, destined to disappear into the cold vastness of space. Think of the feeling of facing Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast last month, helpless in the face of the storm.
This discovery sets us free to become fully at human in the wonderful vitality of God’s presence. G. K. Chesterton expresses what I have been saying in a profound hymn.
O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation of
honour, and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!
Tie in a living tether the prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together, smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation, a single sword to thee.
Back to the TextAll of this is a general truth, found throughout Scripture. Our text locates the heart of this truth in the coming of Jesus into our world. It is not an idea that lives in some abstract space, unrelated to the historical specifics of our lives. Rather, we encounter God in the very concrete entrance of God into human history in the first coming of Jesus. And the promised return of Jesus at the end of history is as real as his first coming.
I have been reading J.B. Phillips, Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony. He observes about this strand in the NT: “But the prophetic vision goes far beyond this. It envisages the end of life on this planet, when so to speak, eternity irrupts into time. There is no time-scale: there rarely is in such an earthbound factor in prophetic vision. …
This is the preparation, the training-ground, the place where God begins his work of making us into what he wants us to be. But it is not our home. We are warned again and again not to value this world as permanency. Neither our security nor our true wealth is rooted in this passing life. We are strangers and pilgrims and while we are under the pressure of love to do all that we can to help our fellows, we should not expect a world which is largely God-resisting to become some earthly paradise.” (Phillips, 1967, 77f.)
I like that: “This is the preparation, the training-ground, the place where God begins his work of making us into what he wants us to be.” We anticipate Jesus’ return, because our hope lies in the truth that this world is preparation, what C.S. Lewis called “the shadow-lands”, less real than the reality that awaits us in eternity with God.
A Closing IllustrationLet me close with an anecdote from his life that Phillips tells in this little book: pp89f.
“Let me say at once that I am incredulous by nature, and as unsuperstitious as they come. … But from time to time in life strange things occur which convince me that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth,’ John Robinson and friends, ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ ….
Many of us who believe in what is technically known as the Communion of Saints must have experienced the sense of nearness, for a fairly short time, of those whom we love soon after they have died. This has certainly happened to me several times. But the late C.S. Lewis, whom I did not know very well, and had only seen in the flesh once, but with whom I had corresponded a fair amount, gave me an unusual experience. A few days after his death, while I was sitting watching television, he ‘appeared’ sitting in a chair within a few feet of me, and spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing. He was ruddier in complexion than ever, grinning all over his face and, as the old-fashioned saying has it, positively glowing with health. The interesting thing to me was that I had not been thinking about him at all. I was neither alarmed nor surprised … . He was just there – ‘large as life and twice as natural’! A week later, this time when I was in bed reading before going to sleep, he appeared again, even more rosily radiant than before, and repeated the same message, which was very important to me at the time. I was a little puzzled by this, and I mentioned it to a certain saintly Bishop who was then living in retirement here in Dorset. His reply was, ‘My dear [John], this sort of thing is happening all the time’.”
We wait for Christ, anticipating our entry into the reality God gives us, and living now according to that final reality.