11/28/21 – Comings and Goings

COMINGS AND GOINGS

November 28, 2021
First Sunday of Advent
Jer. 33:14-16; Ps. 25:1-10; 1Thess. 3:9-13; Lk. 21:25-36
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

My mother was a very busy lady, and like all of us, especially so before Christmas. As the principal of a K-8 school, the pre-Christmas weeks involved attending Christmas programs, basketball games, and school dances, in which the 7th and 8th graders lined up on opposite sides of the gym while loud music played. She also handled all the seasonal preparations for the household, shopping for presents for her family and my father’s, sending out Christmas cards, decorating, and making Christmas treats for co-workers and neighbors. At times like this, she would say: “I’ve got so much to do; I don’t know if I’m coming or going!” To speak of “comings” and “goings” means there are a lot of busy activities going on.

Each year, retailers encourage us to start preparing for the holidays earlier and earlier. This year, advertisements warn us not to procrastinate because of inventory shortages, rising prices, and shipping delays. I am grateful for the season of Advent, which encourages a longer, never-ending even, circular timeline to prepare every year for the coming of Christ into the world. What God has done in the past, gives us comfort in the present and hope for the future. The Advent scriptures promote the virtue of waiting expectantly, watching for the signs of God intervening in the world, to lead us into renewal and growth. We are to slow down and look up, like the shepherds and the Wise Men, to what is above and beyond us and watch the descent of the divine into our worldly existence.

There is another American idiom using the words, “coming” and “going.” This phrase means being caught in the middle between opposing rules or commands. For example, one could say immigration laws require an immigrant to have a job before entering a country but do not allow jobs to be given to immigrants. The immigrants are trapped, punished “coming or going” by unjust and impossible regulations. Another example: women in Texas cannot get an abortion if they are more than 6 weeks pregnant, yet many women do not know they are pregnant until after 6 weeks of pregnancy. The Texas law punishes pregnant women who need or want to have an abortion, most particularly women who do not have the means to travel out of state. The laws get the women “coming and going.” Another example, American citizens have the right to vote, but if election officials take away all the polling places and ballot drop boxes for miles away from a community that has few car owners; and then, make it illegal for a person to drive others to a voting site unless they are immediate family members, the law gets them “coming and going,” rendering them without the means to vote. The Advent scriptures speak a lot about God’s justice and humanity’s injustice.  Unlike God’s reign, worldly empires eventually fail, but they sure can do a lot of damage before they fall. The imperatives of living the gospel of Jesus Christ can ensnare us with the “coming and going” of worldly rules and expectations, but only if we consider the opposing forces equal. If Christ is our ultimate authority, there is no dilemma. However, as Paul warned the early Christian congregations, there may be hardship in following the Way of Christ.

In the historical context of our passage from Jeremiah, it is hard to see signs of hope. The prophet is in jail for delivering the bad news that Israel would be conquered because of her failure to keep a covenant with God. At this point, Babylon has conquered Judah and many of the people had been 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 a few short chapters near the end of Jeremiah, the prophet 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. With the promise of judgment, Jeremiah also delivers a promise of return and renewal in human time, not the holy hereafter.

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 views of justice as only judgment. This feeds our self-righteousness without making the world, and ourselves, more welcoming of 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 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 permanent 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 with ourselves, our neighbors, and God. 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 relationship with God and God’s creations.

In our epistle text, we fast-forward about 600 years after Jeremiah. Like 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 the 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, and Caesar, revered as the “son of god.”  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.

The majority of biblical scholars consider 1Thessalonians to be Paul’s first letter to a congregation, giving us particular insight into the earliest congregations. After being with them during the early days of their formation as a worshipping Christian community, he sends a message back to the congregation to remain strong and continue to fight the good fight by loving God and one another. For Paul, who believed Christ’s second coming was imminent, this is the most important action we should take between the ‘going’ of Jesus and the ‘coming’ once again. The congregation was not to wait idly for Christ’s return, but to engage in active loving, so that when the day of Judgement arrives, they will be “blameless before our God (v.12).” We must assume Paul was using a bit of hyperbole there, in that he acknowledged “we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.” Throughout his letters, Paul declares that, though we will be judged at the time of the Second Coming, Christ the Judge will be loving, merciful and forgiving.

In our 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 people on the opposite ends of the age timeline – newborns and elderly. We read about two elderly couples, Simeon and Anna, Zechariah and Sarah and two infants, Jesus and John. Those coming into and those going out of life. 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. The message to us is that with faith, hope remains even in the darkness of death. The psalmist confesses that with the darkness of night, comes joy in the morning. Active, intentional hope requires that we also remain alert for signs of God’s redemptive joy in our lives. Jesus warns his disciples not to become distracted by worldly enticements or they will miss the signs of the kingdom of God entering the world.

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. 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. Today we see the damage of intentional misinformation and the dissemination of conspiracy theories as a way of creating a false reality that we are in control of the world. If we create scapegoats for the anxiety we feel, we have a target we can destroy. If we believe there is nothing or no one we can trust but ourselves, we can identify an enemy. This all-consuming, self-generated world at war with us distracts us from seeing, or even hoping for, the signs of God’s coming reign.

Jesus cautioned his disciples: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.” In the business of our own “comings and goings,” we are to pay attention to opportunities to invite Christ into our lives that we may be a sign of the kingdom of God breaking into the world. In our observance of the Advent season, we watch and wait and testify to the coming Kingdom that judges injustice and hostility and renews the world with justice and peace.  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, even unexpected, way.

Amen. May it be so!

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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