12/02/18 – Hope Comes First

HOPE COMES FIRST

December 2, 2018 – First Sunday of Advent
Sermon: Jer. 33:14-16; Ps. 25:1-10; 1Thess. 3:9-13; Lk. 21:25-36
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

As much as I enjoy this season of preparation for Christmas, I always struggle with the texts for the first Sunday of Advent. The previous Sunday we always hear the apocalyptic gospel texts with predictions of the end-times. While the similar texts for the first Advent demonstrate the circular path of eternal life in God’s kingdom, they always seem like the repetition of news we do not want to hear. Yet, each of these two Sunday readings is softened with a promise that gives birth to hope. We began our service lighting the candle of Hope on our Advent wreath. The next Sunday we light the candle of Peace, then Joy, then Love. Hope always comes first.

In our first reading, Jeremiah is in a pretty tough spot. He is in jail, and Babylon has conquered Judah. Many of his countrymen are forced into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah is in a most vulnerable position. He might have some satisfaction in that he had been the one to warn his people that this terrible situation would occur, but it is cold comfort since he must endure the same fate.

Yet, for once, Jeremiah is speaking words of comfort rather than judgment. He tells God’s people that this is not the end, it just seems that way. Jeremiah looks past the misery of the present situation and gives voice to God’s promise that the future will be brighter. God’s people will return home and live under the rule of a king who will ensure justice and righteousness for all.

In the Old Testament, the model for a judge is not one who merely renders a verdict of guilt or innocence. Ideally, the judge attempts to set things right, to justify something that has gone wrong. A judge endeavors to do the work of justice. We seem to have forgotten the purpose of justice and treat both our civil and theological view of justice as only judgment. This feeds our self-righteousness without making the world, or ourselves more like, or “justified” with the kingdom of God.

As a response to the reading of our passage from Jeremiah, the psalmist urges the congregation to put their trust in God. The poet/singer seeks to follow God’s ways and truth, with the conviction that God is their salvation – the only source of salvation. The psalmist entreats God not to remember the sins of their youth. Who doesn’t have regrets for past foolishness? I have heard it said that the most difficult person to forgive is our former self. Whether we admit it or not, we have all wished for “do-overs” for our regretted words or actions.

Yet, the psalmist speaks the truth to both the fantasy of the “do-over” and the stain of shame. Our hope and comfort lie in God’s forgiveness and steadfast love. With that assurance, we are freed to move forward toward salvation, which is living in peace. The biblical definition of peace, “shalom” is much more than being free from conflict. Peace is total wellbeing found in obedience to God and in living in harmony with our neighbors. With this “shalom” there is a deep joy found nowhere else but in a relationship with God and God’s creations.

In our epistle text, we fast-forward about 600 years after Jeremiah. The Apostle Paul is also in jail for delivering a message that the reigning empire does not want to hear. Paul’s message we heard today is, like Jeremiah’s – a word of hope for the future.

Paul has found joy where he did not expect it. His mission in Philippi was not a roaring success. He had little reason for hope that his mission to Thessalonica would have fared better as it was not fertile ground for his message.  Thessalonica was a former Greek seaport town that had been taken over by the Roman Empire. There were still monuments to the Greek gods alongside the altars to the gods of the Roman Empire, including Caesar. Yet, to Paul’s surprise, Timothy reports back to him that the new congregation Paul formed there has remained faithful. Despite his own dire circumstances, Paul is injected with a new source of hope that his work has not been in vain.  He sends a message back to the congregation to remain strong and continue to fight the good fight by loving God and one another.

In our gospel reading from Luke, Jesus speaks of the day when the Son of Man returns, recalling imagery from the prophet Daniel.  Jesus tells the disciples to remain alert for signs of his return. Most importantly, he urges his disciples to be ready by their constant commitment to a life of faith and service.

I find it interesting that the stories that Luke presents us with during Advent focus on old people—Simeon and Anna, Zechariah and Sarah and on babies like Jesus and John. Thus, we are directed to look upon those who are at the most vulnerable, marginalized times of life. These are the people that continue to be marginalized in our world.

We have two birth stories in Advent, John the Baptist, and Jesus; yet, both occur in the shadow of death. Shortly before Jesus’ birth, two thousand Jews are killed in an uprising against Judea’s occupation by the Roman Empire. Matthew tells us, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s death decree on all Jewish male infants. Against the death-dealing ways of the world, hope takes courage.

One of my profiles in courage comes from witnessing the faith of a young mother. Years ago, in the church in which I was a member, there was a young woman who was four months pregnant when she learned her baby had a terrible birth defect that was incompatible with life. Her baby would die soon after birth. Having one other child, she knew what the next 5 months would entail in terms of her physical well-being. Yet, she elected to carry the baby to term. Every day she was on her feet teaching young elementary school children, but she persevered. When the baby was born, the pastor was quickly called to baptize the baby girl in the hospital. With faith, hope remains even in the darkness of death. The psalmist confesses that with the darkness of night, comes joy in the morning. In hope we do not just expect, we also remain alert for signs of God’s redemptive joy in our lives.

Jesus teaches his disciples that there will be signs that the kingdom of God is near, and though others will be afraid, they will have no reason to fear his return.  Jesus warns them against falling into the ways of the world—the worries of this life, as well as the ways people escape, such as “drunkenness and dissipation” – the hedonistic “eat, drink and be merry” philosophy. Finding ways of dulling our pain without the labor of working against it and through it is nothing new. First-century people may not have had as many options for escape from reality as we do now, but the temptations were there, all the same.

On this first Sunday of Advent, traditionally we light the candle of Hope on our Advent wreath. We see hope in the words and promises of the prophets. We see hope in the prayers of the apostles to build up and encourage one another. We sing of hope in our Advent hymns, even when we really want to sing Christmas carols.

Returning each new year to Advent declares our continued hope in God’s promises, the fulfillment found in Christ, and hope for Christ to enter our world and lives in a new way. We come to the table today.  If we come expectantly, Christ will feed us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.  Our faith will be nourished, and our spiritual energy directed and increased.  As we stand in line to take the bread and cup let us proceed confidently with the expectation of meeting the Risen Christ in a holy encounter. Faith is born of hope. Let us begin our preparation for Christ coming into our world, our lives, with the hope that newness of life is God’s gift that awaits us through our Savior, Jesus Christ.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
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