~ Luke 21:25-36/Jeremiah 33:14-16 ~
Apocalyptic images greet us on this First Sunday of Advent. “Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” says Jesus. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Be afraid, be very afraid.
“Why,” we ask? Not very encouraging, not uplifting – not hopeful. This First Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Hope, we’re told. Well, this ‘end-of-the-world’ talk doesn’t inspire hope. Warnings to be alert, praying for strength to escape these travails? Enough, already. Being on guard so you don’t slip into “dissipation and drunkenness, and the worries of this life?” Sheesh. Where is hope in such a distressing message?
When followers of Jesus first read this gospel account rendered by Luke in the 1stcentury, they were living in the wake of several destructive events, particularly the Jewish-Roman war. The followers of Jesus are trying to make sense of all these events even as they read these words of Jesus. This early Jesus community, even in the chaos of their changing world, could perceive an opportunity to make the world a just, more compassionate place. They could, indeed, have hope.
Jesus says that in the midst of these travails the people “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” Jesus is quoting directly from the book of Daniel, written probably 150 years before Jesus, also a time of despair and war, this time at the hands of the Greeks. The Book of Daniel, also, is filled with apocalyptic imagery. In this case, the oppressive empires of the world are depicted as great beasts who dominate and destroy, wreaking havoc on the Jewish people. However, the author of Daniel says, the beasts are all brought to judgment and are consumed. In their place comes a human or human-like one. This “one like the son of humanity” (as it reads in Daniel), or “Son of Man” (as it reads in Luke), replaces all the empires of this world, and represents the Jewish people’s triumph over their oppressors and a just future where all the violence, injustice, and oppression of the world is put right. In other words, a Hebrew understanding of God’s justice is that the beastly empires of the world come to an end to make way for the creation of a more ‘humane’ world.
Jesus’ listeners, therefore, were quite familiar with the concept of the “Son of Man’. Luke’s readers, a half century later, as well. To them, the Son of Man, or maybe more appropriate, the ‘human one’, coming on the scene is a sign of hope. Not judgement – hope. Not despair – hope. The hope of liberation from oppression and injustice. Indeed, if I may suggest, hope that love can overpower power.
Over time I’ve come to realize that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, along with being a racial justice activist, a profoundly deep philosopher, which is why you might hear me quote him quite often. In his book, Where Do We Go from Here, he says this about power, love, and justice:
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
This is the kind of hope the readers of Daniel dared to embrace, the kind of hope Jesus’ listeners embraced, the kind of hope Luke’s readers embraced, and the kind of hope we can and should embrace.
The ‘Son of Man’ image is not the only Hebrew scripture theme in Luke’s account. Here, we also encounter the image of the fig tree from the prophet Isaiah. For Jesus’ listeners, the parable of the leafy fig tree meant that summer and the time of harvest was near. Normally, this would be a good image, a harvest of goods for the people’s well-being. But, in this case, Jesus is warning of the unfortunate harvest of what the oppressive powers have wrought. Jesus says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation (or ‘carousing’, as some translations render it) and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.” In other words, I think he is saying, don’t give in to despair. He goes on to say, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.” Don’t give in to despair. Keep on hoping and praying. Keep on doing the work of justice and liberation. He concludes with the idea of standing before the Son of Man. Again, I don’t think this is a word of judgment. No; the Human One is coming (indeed, is here) to do justice, bring liberation, and hope.
What do we followers of Jesus do with this message from Luke? It seems to me that Daniel’s depiction of beastly powers could be a description of our era. These are dark, despairing times. We are living in what some observers see as the final stages of predatory capitalism. As the wage gap increases, we realize that the status quo is not sustainable. A common analysis of our nation’s economic situation is that of a severe labor shortage. But there is not a labor shortage. No; instead, we are finding that front-line workers – cooks and service staff and cleaners and on and on – don’t want to work for oppressive wages and are making that abundantly clear. In our consumerist culture, we are experiencing rising prices in the cost of living, supply chain breakdowns, increased demand for services and goods, and people who still can’t return to their workplace and/or are feeling strained by working 40 hours weekly for pay they can’t survive on.
We are seeing the once sort of hidden racial structures of our society, burst open into overt blatant racial animus. White folk who at one time wouldn’t ever us the N-word, even though they might have wanted to, now say it openly and aggressively. Just trying to have an open conversation about the historic racial structure of our society results in threats of violence. No; not just threats but for real as recent murder trials demonstrated all too well. We just might despair of such developments.
As we emerge from the pandemic, many are at a loss to explain why so many have decided to make vaccinations a political choice. The partisan nature of it all is discouraging. We would like to move on past it all but we just can’t seem to. And then we hear of a new scary variant, Omicron, out of Africa resulting in further shutdowns. Hope is so hard to muster in such circumstances.
Hope is, indeed, a rare commodity these days. Discouraged by the deeply divisive environment of these times, one might be prone to give up, check out, shrink back. But now is not the time to give into despair and fear. Now is the time to step up even more boldly to embrace hope rather than abandon hope.
In a world increasingly characterized by fear and conflict, Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church is called to stand as a community of hope. A caring community for those within and without, a beacon of love for the most vulnerable of our society, an outpost for God’s work of peace and justice. I believe we can and should be stewards of hope.
And, if you haven’t guessed it, this is a stewardship sermon. Over the course of this past year plus you stepped up admirably to keep Noe Valley Ministry afloat. After laying almost dormant for many months, our beautiful, functional building is once again affording us the capability of funding much of this ministry through rentals and special events. As you know that income provides only a portion of our annual budget. The rest is provided by you, the people of this community. So, in this time of stewardship considerations, now is the time for us all to step up with our lives and our financial support of this ministry. With your generous financial commitment, we are able to continue to be stewards of hope to the world around us.
In the coming days you will receive a letter from me and a pledge card. Next Sunday, December 5, is Consecration of Pledges Sunday at Noe Valley Ministry. You are encouraged to bring that pledge card with you, filled out of course. The Session asks you to prayerfully consider a generous annual pledge.
As we enter this Advent season we are called to be people of hope. We are called again to build a better world. Hope can give way to despair if we concede the high ground to the unjust systems that keep perpetrating harm in ever increasing new ways. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose something different. We can choose hope – and act on that hope.
Often, when we encounter this First Sunday of Advent, we can get a bit confused. Just which advent are we looking for – the first advent, the birth of Jesus, or the second advent, the apocalyptic climax of history and God’s eternal reign. It’s easy to see these as two different advents. But there is another way to look it. I don’t think there are two advents (first with baby Jesus and a future second return), but one continuous advent. Think of it as one entire process of transforming the world into a just, compassionate, safe, and life-affirming home for everyone; a process distributed over time. The first advent was just the start. It began there and continues on into our time and into the future – all part of the same whole.
Our reading from Jeremiah said, “the days are surely coming, says God, when I will fulfill the promise…” Of course, this text is a harbinger of a coming Messiah. That promise, a “righteous Branch to be sprung up for David,” culminates in the doing of justice and righteousness. That doing of justice and righteousness is an ongoing enterprise.
We, the people of Noe Valley Ministry, are engaged with that Advent enterprise. So, keep at it; keep on keeping on. That is what Advent is genuinely all about. As we live into Advent this year, may we continue to be stewards of hope. Amen.