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Be alert at all times!

This Sunday, Advent 1, offers a stirring warning to stay awake – so don't be lulled by festive overtures.

Peter Carrell   |  25 Nov 2015

Sunday 29 November 2015 - Advent 1

Theme(s) :
Advent - Coming of Christ / Alert and Ready / Now and Not Yet

Sentence :
To you Lord I lift up my soul; my God I have put my trust in you;
you are God my Saviour; for you have I waited all the day long. (Psalm 25:1,4)

Collect :
Come, O come Emmanuel,
You are the way, the truth and the life;
you are the true vine and the bread of life.
Come, living Saviour,
come to your world which waits for you. Amen.

Readings :
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36
Jeremiah 33:14-16

Jeremiah prophesies a "righteous Branch to spring up for David" (15) and we readily, reading backwards from the New Testament, understand this Branch to be Jesus Christ. Thus the Lord's promise has been fulfilled (14). Yet an honest reading of the passage must allow that not all Jeremiah's prophecy has come to pass: "justice and righteousness in the land" have not yet been fully "executed" and the days of "Judah and Jerusalem [living] in safety" have not yet come to pass. See further, below, re the Now and Not Yet of the kingdom of God.

Psalm 25:1-10

This is a prayer of waiting (3) in which the psalmist prays on behalf of all those who earnestly seek the ways of the Lord in order to follow in them (4), with a prayer that sins not be remembered (7) in order that one day fulfilment in the Lord may be reached. In short, an Advent prayer!

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

We need to read this whole passage through to the last half of the last sentence to realise why it is set down for Advent! Paul prays for his Thessalonian congregational readers/listeners, both thankfully and hopefully.

(Do we pray like this for our fellow Christians: thankful for the joy their progress in the Lord gives us (9) and hopeful for the Lord to work in their hearts (and ours) in order that we may "increase and abound in love" (12), with hearts "strengthened ... in holiness" (13)?)

He has a target in mind for his prayers that they might be found "blameless before our God and Father" (13): there is a day coming when the Lord Jesus will appear "with all his saints" and by that day all Christians will wish, with Paul, to be ready to meet Jesus in his full presence (13).

On that coming day, in respect of the Thessalonian correspondence, we might usefully read the following passages as background to today's passage: 1 Thess 1:10; 4:13-18; 5:1-10; 2 Thess 1:7-12; 2:1-12.

Luke 21:25-36

We are in to a new Church Year, a new year in the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle, Year C, so we have a new gospel to proclaim: Luke. But it is Advent so we begin in an odd place, not with chapter 1 (we'll be there on 20 December, and we could be there next week if we choose Luke 1:68-79 as an alternate to the psalm).

Before we get to Luke 21:25-26 let's remember four things about Luke's Gospel:
- It sets out to be a faithful witness to the stories and sayings of Jesus, even improving earlier versions (most likely Mark, possibly Matthew also): Luke 1:1-4.
- It has special interests compared to the other gospels: women, the poor, the Holy Spirit.
- It has treasured material not found in the other gospels (e.g. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son - stories which have shaped the language and cultures of Christian nations and peoples).
- It has a sequel, the Book of Acts which means the story it tells of Jesus is matched by another story it tells of the advance of the kingdom Jesus established.

So, to Luke 21:25-36 on Advent or "Coming" Sunday 1:

In Luke 21 (as also in Mark 13 and Matthew 24) Jesus is responding  to the question "When" in verse 7, asked by the disciples in response to Jesus saying that the temple would be destroyed (6). Verses 20-24 envisage what actually happened in AD 70 ("... Jerusalem surrounded by armies ... Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles ...").

Verse 24 ends with "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." Such description could refer to the time of Roman domination ending (but, if so, then we have not seen the temple restored in Jerusalem, though we have seen the reestablishment of a Jewish state with Jerusalem as capital). It might be better to think of Jesus prophesying that Jerusalem's temple would remain a desolate site without a temple until a much later period, for instance, until the time of the gospel spreading throughout the Gentile world comes to an end.

Verses 25 - 36, our passage, could then be understood as referring mostly to the end of the "times of the Gentiles".* This end, according to this passage, will be a time of world shaking events, both natural, supernatural and geopolitical. But the precise understanding of what will take place is difficult to pin down. The language running through verses 25-27 is drawn from Joel 3:3-4; Isaiah 24:19 (according to the Greek form of the Old Testament); Isaiah 34:7; Daniel 7:13-14; Psalms 65:8; 46:4 89:10; Wisdom 5:22; Jonah 1:15; Isaiah 13:10; Joel 2:10 and Zephaniah 1:15. In other words Jesus is invoking the grand prophetic theme of the coming great day of judgement rather than scattering cryptic clues about a timetable for history. (*But, as we will see below, things are a bit more complicated than that).

Verse 28 makes the simple point that when such events come to pass we who love the Lord Jesus should not be scared but confident, holding our heads up high "because the day of your redemption is drawing near."

Verses 29-31 reinforce the point being advanced about knowing when these things are taking place that the kingdom is near. But 32 is a problem (as with its parallels in Matthew and Mark). What does "this generation" mean and what is its significance at this point in the passage?

We should not beat about the bush. "This generation", interpreted in the light of Luke 9:27, is the generation of people listening to Jesus speak. So, some aspects (at least) of what Jesus expected to happen as "shaking" events were expected to happen within a reasonable span of years. That, in fact, is what happened, since Jesus spoke around 30 AD and Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in 70 AD - 40 years, which was one measure of a generation.

Yet just as clearly we can say that the following has not yet happened: (1) we have not seen the visible return of Jesus Christ (e.g. as 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud', 27); (2) we have not experienced the fullness of the kingdom of God; (3) the Last Judgement has not taken place.

That we need to explain this situation of 'something happened' and 'some things have not yet happened' is heightened by the fact that verse 33 offers a form of "lifetime" guarantee that what Jesus is saying is true, "... my words will not pass away."

The simplest, most repeated explanation offered by biblical scholars is that whenever Jesus speaks about the 'coming' of himself/kingdom/judgment there is a "both-and" set of aspects to consider and hold in mind.

First, the "Now" aspect: through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ has already 'come' again into the world, following his death, resurrection and ascension; the kingdom came with Jesus of Nazareth, it is growing in the world (according to Jesus' own teaching through kingdom parables); God is always judging the world: the consequences of sin have their own effects on sinners in this life.

Secondly, the "Not Yet" aspect: the day is coming and is not yet here when Jesus Christ will return to earth in full visible glory and power, judgement of the living and the dead will occur and the kingdom in all its fullness, completion and perfection will be experienced.

So, what then? Verses 34-36 offer a stirring warning and challenge: "Be on guard ... Be alert at all times ..." Whether we are wondering (say, in 65 AD) when Rome will sack Jerusalem or (say, today as we read this) when Jesus Christ will require us in judgement to "stand before the Son of Man", we are warned by Jesus to be ready for calamity and judgment. We do that best by avoiding evil living (dissipation, drunkenness), praying for strength re calamity and generally living faithfully as Jesus' disciples.

Advent is the season when we especially invite each other to both remember and celebrate Christ's first coming and to remember and carefully note Christ's teaching about his second coming.

The Rev Dr Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House in Christchurch.

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