I was preaching on the lectionary readings set for Advent Sunday, from Jeremiah and Luke, which were both rather challenging! I found Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone helpful for thinking how best to explain that reading, and Brueggemann’s commentary on Jeremiah was also helpful.
Happy New Year!
This is the first day of the Church’s year – Advent Sunday. It’s the time when we start getting ready for celebrating the coming of Jesus.
But this Sunday is also the lull inbetween so-called Black Friday and Cyber Monday. A day of discounts in the shops and the day of the year with the highest amount of online buying. All of course in the run-up to Christmas. The rush to prepare, to get a good deal, the stress of making sure that everyone has a present, that you’ve arranged to see all the relatives that need to be seen, as well as the relatives and friends that you actually want to see! Or, the disappointment of not seeing family and friends as much as you’d like. Or at all. This time of the year can also be a painful time as we remember people close to us who we’ve lost, in whatever way. We may very well feel that our hearts are indeed weighed down with the anxieties of life.
So, it might very well not feel like a happy new year. A new start, a new beginning, or whatever it is we want from a new year. It might not, but for others of us it might not. Either way, this is part of the reason that we prepare during Advent by looking back. Looking back over our shared life of faith. Looking back over our own lives of faith. Which is what our readings this morning are about.
So, let’s start with the sort-of easier one shall we? The prophet Jeremiah was prophesying at a time when there was turmoil and confusion, despair and denial. Jeremiah was warning the people of Jerusalem of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and that the people would be carried into Exile. The people had ignored God’s repeated warnings to turn away from the wrong that they were doing, the injustice and oppression of the poor and the needy. They had ignored God’s pleas to worship him, rather than idols and false gods. And so God was going to allow the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and send them into Exile in Babylon.
And Jeremiah spent most of his time warning about that. But Jeremiah also looked forward to God’s promises being fulfilled in a new and better way. The days were coming when God’s promises would be fulfilled. When the righteous branch would sprout, when the Lord our Righteous Saviour would come.
And, of course, as we look back, we can see the time, almost 600 years after Jeremiah, when God’s promises were fulfilled. When God himself, our Saviour, would be born. That’s what we celebrate, and that’s what we are called to prepare for. Probably alongside all the other things, let’s be honest! But, the challenge and call of the season of Advent is to prepare for that celebration. To get ready to celebrate
This isn’t a call to be busier! It’s perhaps a call to be less busy. But, how can we prepare? How can we use Advent to prepare for our celebrations of Jesus, not just our celebrations with our friends and family?
Well, it depends what you’re like and what you’re doing already of course. But you might want to think about lighting your own advent candle each day and taking just a minute to stop, look at the candle and pray. Or telling something of the events of that first Christmas as you or your children open their advent calendars. If you’re feeling more ambitious, it’s not too late to start a Jesse Tree. A Jesse tree. Where, each day you put another symbol on a tree to remind us of God’s faithful people.
Or perhaps a Reverse Advent calendar – each day or each time you go shopping put something aside for the foodbank. If you don’t already, spending some time each day reading the Bible and praying. Or walking through the parish and praying. Or listening to the Bible on an audio CD or online. Or whatever it is that helps you to take a bit of time to spend time with God inamongst the busyness and preparations, or whatever is going on for you at the moment.
So, as we look back to the righteous branch coming, as we look forward to celebrating the coming of our Righteous Saviour, let us also reflect on what is still to come. “In those days Judah will be saved, Jerusalem will live in safety”. Jeremiah looked forward to a time when the city and the land would be restored, saved, as a result of God’s king being on the throne.
This is part of God’s plan and promise. It’s not simply that we as individuals will be saved. It’s that our city, our land, the whole of creation will be saved, will be brought back into God’s kingdom. That’s what we’re looking forward to, that’s what our Advent preparations and Christmas celebrations are about. The Righteous Saviour has come and is coming.
How is God’s kingdom coming? Through God’s Spirit working in the world, in all sorts of different ways. In ways that we’re called to get involved in. And through God’s Spirit working in us and through us. Helping us, calling us, shining God’s light and love into those around us. And as we work and pray and prepare the kingdom of God is coming. Because of us, and also despite us. In ways that we recognise, and in ways that our beyond our imagining.
But meanwhile there is a part of Jeremiah’s prophesy that still hasn’t been fulfilled. Jerusalem wasn’t living in safety, isn’t living in safety. Which is where the second reading, from Luke’s gospel comes in.
When we’re looking at Bible readings like this one of the things that we need to remember is that it was supposed to be meaningful to the first hearers. It might well have been confusing, needed explanation, not necessarily straightforward. But it was meant to tell them something that they needed to know. Which rules out most of the more fanciful explanations of passages like this, and of the book of Revelation straight away!
So what’s Jesus talking about? Well, that’s easier to explain if we take the whole of Jesus’ speech rather than just this bit. Because just before the reading that we heard Jesus has been talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. He’s warned about the coming of persecution for his followers, warned of wars, warned that Jerusalem will be besieged and then destroyed, and warned that his followers should flee.
This bit isn’t separate. Jesus hasn’t gone on to talk about something else. He’s still talking about Jerusalem’s destruction, and using images, pictures, from the Old Testament to describe what that will be like and why.
The people, the leaders, hadn’t recognised their King, the Righteous Branch from David’s line. They weren’t following his call, weren’t walking in his ways, weren’t returning to their King and their God. Which, of course, had been the problem the last time the Temple had been destroyed.
The Temple was the place where God dwelt amongst his people, the place where the people could come to meet with and worship God. The Temple was meant to be at the centre of the whole of their life together. It was meant to be the thing around which their whole lives revolved, as a physical sign of their lives revolving around, being shaped by, God himself.
Well, that hadn’t worked. And so the Lord, God, our Righteous Saviour, had been born as a living Temple, as God who dwelt amongst his person as a human being. As a person in whom people could come to meet with and worship God. As a person who could be at the centre of their whole lives together.
So, says Jesus, as this is true, and to show that this is true, you don’t need the Temple any more. The Temple will be removed. And when it is removed, says Jesus, you will be able to see that what I’m saying is true, that I am truly the Son of Man, the Righteous Saviour, Emmanuel, God with us.
What does that have to say to us now? Well, that’s still true. And the destruction of the Temple wasn’t the first major upset and destruction and it won’t be the last. We’ve seen the terrible events in Syria and Iraq and in many other places. Advent is a time of preparation, but often a time when we’re weighed down with the anxieties of life, perhaps a time when the anxieties of life are increased, or we’re reminded of them. Jesus doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. Jesus doesn’t promise that we’ll have an easy time. Jesus doesn’t promise that it won’t be tougher than we imagined, or tougher than we thought we could cope with.
But Jesus does promise that if we’re watchful, if we’re prepared, then we will be able to stand before the Son of Man. We will have been brought into God’s kingdom, through his love and in his power.
Many of us celebrated the church wedding yesterday. It was a lovely day and a lot of thought and prayer and hard work had gone into it. But, Jane’s talk reminded us, although she didn’t put it quite like this, that it’s also really important to focus not just on preparing for the day, but preparing for the life that comes after the day.
That’s true for weddings and it’s true for Christmas as well.
Advent is a season when we look backwards. Backwards over our own lives and our shared life together so that we can look forwards with renewed hope. Hope that God is with us, hope that God is calling us on to new things, hope that God has plans for us, hope that God will bring his kingdom, hope that God is bringing his kingdom in our lives, into our town, into our world. Hope that he is doing this through us his church. And hope that he sends his Holy Spirit on us so that this is possible. This Advent let us seek God with renewed hope, let us be changed by that hope and let us look forward in hope to the future that God is calling us to. Amen