Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; I Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36.
Advent looks for a leader who, through great adversity, stands for hope and a just world to come.
The traditional scripture readings during Advent proclaim alternately judgment and hope.
The great judgment impending over all humans and their worldly enterprises is balanced by a special promise to the humble, poor, and exiled. A great turning of salvation is already secretly at work for them, and it will soon be revealed to all eyes.
The prophetic reading is a brief promise to exiled Israel and desolate Jerusalem that a Ruler will appear for them, one called “the Branch of Righteousness.” That One will execute justice and righteousness in the land.
The symbolic term “Branch” (Hebrew semach) is one of several images which use growth, sprouting, or new life from old roots to express the vitality of a new age beginning for an oppressed people. Isaiah promises that a “shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, / and a branch [netzer] shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1, NRSV). The term used in our passage is also applied in the post-exilic period to the would-be king Zerubabel and to the high priest Joshua (Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12). By that time, “Branch” is on its way to becoming a technical term for the messianic heir of David’s throne.
Our passage occurs in a part of the book of Jeremiah dedicated to hope for the future (chapters 30-33). This particular oracle represents a down-sizing of the hope that Jeremiah originally held out to the people. Originally, Jeremiah had expected the reunion of the northern tribes of Israel with the house of Judah, all under the rule of a Davidic king, Josiah. In those early days Jeremiah had put it this way.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6)
Thirty to forty years later, after the kingdom of Judah was destroyed in judgment, the same promise runs this way:
In those days… I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it [“she,” Jerusalem] will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:15-16)
In the later (exilic) period it is a large hope just to see a promising future of any kind for the little sub-province of Judah and the ruined city Jerusalem. The days of large and muscle-flexing kingdoms have gone down the tubes in God’s judgment.
The oracle of Hope has been redressed to a new time and a new scale.
The first ten verses of this originally acrostic psalm can well be understood as the speech of a “Branch,” a representative of the remnant of people who wait for returning signs of divine favor and help.
First he speaks for himself:
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me (verse 2, NRSV).
Then he speaks of the people who make up his following, and of their foes:
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous (verse 3).
These latter enemies are probably envious neighbors who do not want the struggling Jewish community around Jerusalem to flourish.
The speaker next prays for guidance as leader of the community:
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long (verses 4-5).
Finally the leader prays for forgiveness of his own sins, in harmony with God’s merciful character (verses 6-7).
The reading portrays a community in need of forgiveness and of restored hope. But the community has a leader who includes himself in the prayer for forgiveness and who stands forward to present God’s ways to a humble and waiting world.
I Thessalonians 3:9-13.
Another glimpse of a devout – one could say passionate – leader and teacher is presented by the reading from the Epistle.
In these verses we hear an outpouring of care and love by Paul for his humble but faithful church in Thessalonica. He hopes desperately that God will make a way for him to visit them in person again, and – here the teacher comes out – restore anything lacking in their faith. In any case, he prays that God will keep them in the holy way so they will be ready when the Lord Jesus comes with all his saints.
In his missionary work, Paul created a community of faith, love, and hope (see 1:3). That community now waits, following the instructions of its leader, for the fulfillment of God’s promise.
With the beginning of Advent we enter a new year of Gospel readings, those for Year C, the Gospel According to Luke. We will get reacquainted with this amazing work of Christian witness as the year advances.
For now, we hear the traditional judgment on the world that stands as the first word of Advent.
Luke keeps most of the content of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse (Mark 13), given now in Luke 21:5-36. It is the last climactic paragraphs of this discourse that we hear this Sunday.
What Luke shares with Mark and Matthew: All three synoptic Gospels have this discourse on the end time. Three features of the end-time scenario are common to all of them:
First, it will be cosmic – or we might say galactic. There will be signs among the sun, moon, and the stars (verse 25).
Secondly, all three Synoptic Gospels present the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds as the climax of the apocalyptic drama (verse 27). This comes straight from the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14), the archetypal Son of Man passage in the Jewish scriptures.
Finally, all three Synoptic Gospels present the “parable” of the fig tree, whose leaves are a sure indicator of summer. This is accompanied by Jesus’ pronouncement that all these things will come about before the present generation passes away (verses 29-33).
What only Luke reports. While Luke presents this common view of the coming Judgment, he also has his own personal touches, especially of heightened emotional coloring.
· When talking about the cosmic signs that will come, only Luke adds, “and on the earth [there will be] distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (verse 25, NRSV).
· And also, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…” (verse 26).
· And after the Son of Man appears, Luke leaps forward like a cheerleader: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near [!!]” (verse 28).
Finally, Luke has his own exhortation to conclude the scene, focusing also on the personal and individual elements of the awesome scenes that are forecast:
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down …” – with reveling or over-anxiety about this world. Do not let “that day” catch you unexpectedly, “like a trap” (verse 34).
Pray that you will have the strength “to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (verse 36).
In summary, Luke heightens the personal experience of world chaos and hysterical fears, but keeps his focus on the center of the drama. That center is each person standing before the great figure of the judgment, the Son of Man.