Sunday, December 3, 2023

Advent 1-B: Our hope is in Jesus

Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37 

As Christians our hope is in Jesus - that Jesus is always coming, always redeeming, always reconciling us back to God. This is the hope we pause to ponder on this first Sunday in Advent.

How do we do that given the pretty terrifying Scriptures assigned for today? It isn’t that hard, but it does take faith.

For example, in the reading from Isaiah, we see the acknowledgment of a God so awesome that the mountains (that is, all creation) and nations (all created people) quake in Their presence. This awesome God moves from astounding in our eyes to formidable, even frightening, as we recognize our guilt and the shame that causes us. We know what is wrong and when we do wrong, we anticipate being punished for it; and when we are wronged, we get mad, and most often, we get even, or at least we try to.

Road rage is a perfect example. I witnessed a car dual just the other day as I drove to work. I was the third car back at a stop light. The first car delayed moving when the left turn light came on. The second car laid down on their horn and didn’t let up, even after the first car started moving. Then I watched the second car speed around the first car and cut in front of them, forcing them across the double-yellow line into oncoming traffic, which had to swerve to avoid a collision. All of us behind them slowed down too – just in case. Both cars turned off at the next light so I don’t know how the story ended, but based on how it started, I can’t think it ended well. So many lives put at risk, and for what? There’s a reason God admonished us to leave our need for revenge in God’s hands. And seriously, over a few seconds delay at a traffic light? What has happened to our collective maturity?

It’s common to project our responses onto God, as happens in today’s reading from Isaiah, and while the sentiments in this passage are an honest expression of human experience, they are not how God works. God, who formed us marvelously in our mother’s wombs, who led us out of slavery into freedom, who gave his life for our redemption, is not petty or retributive, but just – and God’s justice is always, always bound together with God’s mercy in service to God’s plan of salvation for the whole world.

Our life is sustained by the very breath of God our Creator, therefore, while we live, God chooses life for us. While we live, we are beloved of the one who formed us and promised to be with us in every circumstance in the world around us.

And that is where we find the darkness – in the world around us – and the more we encounter this darkness, the more it enters us, wears down our hope, and displaces our inner divine light. We need only flick on the news to see the devastation war wreaks on the lives of God’s created. We feel our bodies respond by clenching our stomachs, raising our blood pressure, or shutting down our thoughts. In moments like these the ancient words of today’s psalm ring out in our hearts: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we will be saved.” 

…which is the point of Jesus’ teaching today. When darkness steals our hope, we are to awaken to the truth that God is already with us, in us, redeeming and reconciling us – all of us – from the four corners of the earth.

It’s important to note that Jesus was talking to Jewish people using language and concepts familiar to them. Apocalyptic language was a common device used in ancient Jewish religion. The word apocalypse actually means unveiling or revelation, so the apocalyptic teachings were meant to provide hope to the suffering by unveiling the assurance that God will redeem all things in the end.

Jesus was also speaking in this gospel about something very specific to his listeners in their time: the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish people understood the temple to be where the presence of God was found. The hope Jesus was giving them was that their sense of desolation from the absence of their temple would be filled by the light of the truth that Jesus himself, is the temple. In him is the presence of God. The hope Jesus gave them was that what the prophet Daniel had said would be fulfilled: that after the destruction of their temple, God would gather the chosen people, which is what the Jewish people called themselves, from everywhere they had been scattered, and restore them to unity.

That was for them. What about us? What can we understand now in our time as Christian listeners?

We can hear the same truth when we listen with the ears of our faith. Our hope is in Jesus, who gave us his own spirit at Pentecost. Being temples of his spirit, we have been made partners with Jesus in his continuing ministry of the reconciliation of the whole world to God.

In the verses ahead of today’s gospel Jesus describes the human experience of trauma and tragedy reminding us that horrible things will happen: wars, earthquakes, false prophets, betrayal by family, profaning the temple, which happened later, btw, when the Roman guards sacrificed pigs on their temple altars. When unthinkable horrors happen, Jesus says, you will wonder how the stars can shine or the sun can rise the next day as if nothing happened.

But the stars do shine, and the sunrise brings another day – not because of anything we do, but because of what God does. God breathes life into us, and so we have life. And not just life, but abundant life, full of joy as Jesus promised. That is our hope. He is our hope.

When horrible things happen in our lives or in the life of our community, Jesus reminds us to keep alert; to watch for him to show up as light in our darkness. We aren’t good at this. Jesus’ own disciples fell asleep when he asked them to keep watch while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. When they awoke, they were startled and afraid as they watched the Roman soldiers arrest Jesus and take him away to his trial and inevitable execution.

Like the disciples, we can get lost in the despair that swirls around us when horrible things happen. We tend to ask questions like, “Where is God? Why doesn’t God stop this? What am I supposed to do?”

Jesus teaches us to wait and keep watch. He is coming. He is always coming redeeming and reconciling us back into God. We can’t know when these things may happen, so we must always allow Jesus to wake us up so we can see him and be active partners with him in his plan of salvation.

I close with a short prayer from John Donne: Keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our calling that we may sleep in thy peace and wake in thy glory. Amen.

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