Homily for the First Sunday in Advent
December 3, 2006
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Jeremiah 33L:14-16; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-42; Luke 21:25-28,34-36)
On this first Sunday of Advent we are simultaneously doing two things. We are joining the whole church around the world in entering upon a new year, a new stage of our journey to the Father. And we are also beginning our preparation for the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
When we turn to the two major readings of the day, in Jeremiah and Luke, they don’t seem to have anything to do with the story of Jesus. We might have thought that if you are going to begin the new church year and build up to the birth of Jesus the place to begin would be with the annunciation, the place it all starts with the Mary’s yes to the conception of Jesus in her womb.
But actually we are plunged into two rather disturbing accounts.
Jeremiah is writing in a time when the Israelites are about to be utterly destroyed by the Assyrians. Jerusalem is about to be sacked and their holy Temple destroyed. Just listen to some of the phrase he uses:
How desolate it is, without man, without beast! . . . the streets of Jerusalem are now deserted, without man, without citizen, without beast . . . the palaces of Judah’s kings are being destroyed in the face of siegeworks and the sword . . . men come to battle the Chaldeans, and these houses will be filled with corpses.
It’s a scene of terror. Everything that they held sacred, all that gave them any meaning, was being taken away.
And the scene in Luke’s Gospel is no less troubling. It’s in the context of yet another destruction of the city. After a journey in which he ‘set his face toward Jerusalem,’ Jesus has finally entered it with his disciples. And they begin to act like country bumpkins or tourists from the boonies. They look especially at the Temple with its gold and jewels. They had never seen anything like this. And it at that moment that Jesus brings them up short:
“All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon a stone that will not be thrown down.”And they ask him when these things will happen and he lays out those frightening signs we read in the Gospel passage.
How does all that tie in with the beginning of Advent? How does it prepare for the coming of the Lord?
To understand that, we need to turn to the very first words of that reading from Jeremiah: “I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Judah.” I will raise up a savior. Judah will be safe and Jerusalem will be secure.
And so, too, in the passage from Luke: “when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads – because your ransom is now at hand.”
It’s all about God’s renewed promise in the face of darkness and destruction.
In both instances, in Jeremiah’s time and Jesus’ time, the situation was very real, and very threatening. This is no metaphor, the holy city, and the most sacred sanctuary, are in grave danger. And we need to recall that in both instances the prophecy came true. The city was indeed destroyed, first by the Assyrians 600 years before Jesus and then again by the Romans, not long after his time, in 70 AD.
But God’s word is: I promise! Your ransom is at hand.
The question for us this Advent is: will we allow our God in this coming year to deepen our trust in the promise given to us in the coming of Jesus?
That brief passage we read from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is touching. That community was one of the first local churches founded by Paul. He spent considerable time building up the community. He had a great affection for them, so when he had to leave them he soon wrote back to find out things were going. He recalls his joy at hearing how they are progressing in the faith, but then he urges them on to “even more.”
It turns out that Advent is not a matter of waiting for a God who has not come before. It’s not a matter of pretending and then being surprised. (I think we often make a mistake in catechizing our children about Christmas: Oh, God is finally coming!) No, we await a new coming of a God who has already come and fulfilled the promise, again and again and again. We await another manifestation from a faithful God who invites us to a new act of faith in a new day and year.
You know, one of the most wonderful images runs as a thread all thought the Scriptures. It’s the image of darkness gradually, gradually being overcome by the light. We see it in nature, as the cold darkness of winter begins to be overtaken by tiny buds and sprouts at the beginning of spring. And it happens every day, when the darkness of night is broken by the first tiny glimmer of dawn and then light creeps forward till we experience the full light of day.
Advent invites us, calls us, to enter into the darkness, to get in touch with the darkness in ourselves and our world. We need to face the fact that we face the new year with our same old selves. Our vanity and jealousy and impatience and self-righteousness. The need to put down our neighbor, to load it over others on the basis of economics or gender or ethnic background, where we live and eat and do business. As a world we bring our temptation to violence as the way to resolve difficult conflict. The seven capital sins, plus.
We haven’t the foggiest idea what this year will ask of us, personally or as a people. We are in darkness. Sometimes it can take the form of terror. And we need to allow ourselves to experience that darkness, otherwise we will never appreciate fully the gift of light.
We bring our old selves to that new moment. But we also bring two other things: We bring the promise of the Lord: “I will be with you; you are my people and your ransom is at hand.”
And more than that, we bring our story. The history of God’s fidelity to the promise. Again and again, time after time, in the story of our people and the story of our own personal journeys. As we have often sung: Our God is a faithful God.
The Jerusalems of the past suffered annihilation. They are like so many of our own personal Jerusalems. Our personal failures, the failures of our church and our nation and our world. The failure of all our grand projects that never achieve what we hoped for from them. Our inability to heal painful breakdowns of relationships in our personal lives, our life as a human race. Our inability simply to listen and communicate with one another. All those fractured Jerusalems are the darkness that cries out for light.
In this new moment, this new year, our faithful God promises us a new Jerusalem, a new beginning, a new chance to go deeper, to that ‘even more’ in our spiritual lives. No matter what darkness of destruction we find ourselves in, will we trust, will we allow our God to deepen our trust? Will we stand up straight and raise our heads high in the belief that Jerusalem will be secure? Will we let ourselves trust that our ransom is at hand?