The First Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

This morning’s readings set before us a feast, beginning in our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. King David will have a descendant—we might mentally cue up “Once in royal David’s city” as the sound track—through whom through God will establish, well, righteousness. “A righteous Branch… execute justice and righteousness… Jerusalem… called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

“Righteous” and “righteousness” are today pretty much restricted to religious contexts. That’s a pity, because ‘righteous’ (tsaddiq in Hebrew) is a remarkably useful word. A person who is righteous is a person who does what needs to be done to fulfill the obligations of a relationship.

The Lord, precisely in this sense, is righteous. It doesn’t matter how powerful Israel’s enemies are. It doesn’t matter how deep a pit Israel has dug herself in. The last thing the Lord will say is “Well, you brought this on yourself; what do you expect me to do?” The Lord is righteous. If that means bringing Israel out of Egypt, the Lord will do it. If that means toppling the Babylonian Empire so the exiles can return home, the Lord will do it. If it means taking on human flesh to live as one of us, the Lord will do it. The Lord is righteous.

It’s that confidence in the Lord’s righteousness that animates the psalm. It doesn’t matter what combination external enemies and self-inflicted wounds the psalmist is dealing with: the Lord can sort it out.

The psalm—and there’s more to it than we read a moment ago—does a good job of balancing awareness of being a sinner and being sinned-against. That language is Raymond Fung’s, who served for years as the WCC’s Secretary for Mission and Evangelism. We are both sinners and sinned-against, and as we acknowledge both the Lord’s righteousness is good news.

It’s that confidence in the Lord’s righteousness that animates the Gospel reading. For this reading, however, we need a bit of context. It occurs in the conversation that starts with some touristic oohing and aahing over the temple. “Not one stone—says Jesus—will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Asked for more information, Jesus responds with a collage of images and instructions that—like most prophecy—intermingle the immediate and the distant future.

Toward the end of this we get “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” The NRSV sets off ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ in quotation marks since it’s a quote from one of Daniel’s visions. In that vision four monsters, each worse than the last, stake out their turf. That’s Daniel’s take on about 500 years’ worth of empires in that region: four ill-tempered beasts. But God intervenes and vindicates a human figure: “with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom.”

Our future is not bestial but human. The terrorists will not have the last word; the institutionalized terror of the nations will not have the last word. The advertisers with their pictures of happy mindless consumers will not have the last word. Alleluia!

Jesus has been using “Son of Man” as a way of referring to himself; he hears the phrase in Daniel’s vision as pointing to himself, and so uses it later in the week when, now a prisoner, he’s questioned by the council about his identity: “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (22:69), at which point the council either turns leadership of the meeting over to Jesus or sends him off to Pilate for crucifixion.

Scriptures like today’s second reading, together with our creeds and Eucharistic prayers confess that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Through repetition it can easily go right over our heads, but it’s profoundly good news: our future, the future of this world, is human, not bestial. It’s good and dependable news: this Jesus is righteous, and will continue to do what it takes to make it happen.

Alleluia. Notice, though, Jesus’ warnings toward the end of the text: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.… Be alert at all times…” Why be on guard/be alert? Mark’s account spells it out: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). So these elaborate interpretive machines into which we dump Jesus’ collage of images and instructions so that they can spit out a precise timeline? Save your money.

We do know what Jesus’ coming again will mean. It is the definitive triumph of God’s righteousness, God’s willingness and ability to move heaven and earth for our salvation. Our salvation: the people who harvest our crops not themselves suffering from malnutrition, the people who build our homes not themselves living in leaking shacks, all of us offering worship not to the idols that teach us to hate, and rob us of our humanity, but to God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That’s not a future we can bring about. It is a future to which we can—and must—witness, a witness expressed also in response to Jesus’ words: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly… Be alert at all times…” To the degree that we believe in this future, dissipation, drunkenness, etc. are not temptations. But, if all we can expect is one more ill-tempered beast after another, then dissipation etc. begin to sound pretty good. Advent is about there being a better future for this world than it deserves, a better future than any of its current trajectories would lead us to expect. Because of that better future, that Jesus-shaped future, it makes perfect sense “to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”

Someone once asked Bishop Lesslie Newbigin whether he was an optimist or a pessimist on some issue. His answer was “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” The Lord has acted and will again act in righteousness, remaking heaven and earth. “Be alert at all times?” Sounds like good advice.

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