Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 33:14–16 | Psalm 25:1–10 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 | Luke 21:25–36
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28).
Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent: a season of anticipation and preparation… getting ready for the coming of Jesus, first of all at His birth, but even more so His coming again at the end of time to bring God’s good kingdom to completion at last. It is a season meant to get us excited, but also to get us going… to inspire us to act, and remember what it means to share in Christ’s Kingdom today.
The Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it well: “The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”
Our Scripture readings today also invite us to reflect on what it means to await God’s Kingdom, and to do so in hope.
This morning our first reading comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who shared a message of hope for God’s people at a time when things looked pretty bleak. Within Jeremiah’s lifetime, the kingdom of Judah would fall to Babylon. The city of Jerusalem, and the Temple of Yahweh would be destroyed, and its people would be killed or carried off into exile.
But even so, the Living God gave these words to His people: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time 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.” The LORD would be true to His word. Though they suffer, God would not abandon His people.
Though it was not in our reading today, Jeremiah’s prophecy goes on: “For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.
…Thus says the Lord: If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken, so that he would not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with my ministers the Levites. Just as the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will increase the offspring of my servant David, and the Levites who minister to me… Thus says the Lord: Only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David and not choose any of his descendants as rulers over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy upon them.” That was Jeremiah 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26.
At a time when the kingdom of David’s descendants, and the priesthood of Israel were all in serious jeopardy, God was re-affirming His covenant promises, assuring His frightened people that even though they were headed for exile… that would not be the end of their story. They would return, and God’s kingdom and priesthood would never come to an end.
Several centuries later, during the time of our Gospel reading this morning, the people of Judah were back in the land, but things were not yet as they should be: they had a royal family, but not from David’s line. Herod the “Great” and his sons had served as Israel’s rulers for some time, but only under the rule of the Roman Emperors who used them to “keep the peace.” A few weeks back we heard how Herod had rebuilt Solomon’s Temple, but by this time the priesthood had become compromised in the eyes of many… enmeshed in all the political power-games of the day. Though it was better than sitting in exile, God’s people were still waiting for the LORD to fulfill His promises… to bring in His ultimate, and unending Kingdom at last.
But Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading don’t seem to offer a hopeful picture. Instead, He’s warning His followers about the hard times to come. The words we heard today mark the conclusion of a much longer passage in which Jesus predicts the downfall of Jerusalem… it’s leaders, it’s Temple… and many of those who live there.
Right before our reading today, Jesus says this to His disciples in Luke 21:2-24, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
Jesus goes on, as we heard, to speak of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations… People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26). In other words, chaos. A world where everything that seemed steadfast and sure would suddenly come undone. Where even heaven and earth, it seems can no longer be counted on.
Doesn’t exactly seem like a hopeful message… but it’s one we might be able to appreciate a bit more these days, especially after COVID. So much of what we had trusted in has proven to be unsteady, leaving us longing… waiting for this season of fear and uncertainty to end.
But here is where Christ tells His disciples, including you and I today, to hold onto hope… to “stand up and raise [our] heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near.” For the Son of Man, the LORD’s Messiah, is coming in power and glory to bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us to trust, to place our hope, not in our own leaders, or piety, or power… but in Him, whose words are more faithful and enduring than Heaven and Earth.
He is the one we’re hoping for. He is the one we’re waiting for. The Son of God and Son of Man who will come again one day to bring God’s glorious redemption… the one who will fulfill the promises God made to His people. Jesus is the King of Kings… the Righteous Branch of David’s family, who as the Risen Lord will never leave His throne empty again.
Jesus is the Eternal High Priest, who offered up His own life at the cross as the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. In Jesus, God’s promised salvation has come, but not just for Judah and Israel, but for all nations… all people everywhere.
And as we hope and wait for Him to renew Heaven and Earth, Jesus puts His own Spirit within us so we can share in His rule and ministry. In Him, we are drawn together into what St. Peter called: “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9). As the Church, the body of Jesus, filled and empowered by His Holy Spirit, we are graciously being made a part of God’s promise through Jeremiah for kings and priests without number… called to make God’s kingdom and mercies known in every way we can.
In his book, Surprised By Hope, the bishop and scholar, N.T. Wright makes this point: “what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom.” We’re called to actively participate in God’s mission here and now, resisting the real temptations that can so easily distract us.
In our Gospel reading, right after reminding us to place our hope in Him, Jesus tells us to “Be on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with dissipation (that is, indulgence)… and drunkenness and the worries of this life” but to pray for the strength to stand before the Son of Man when He returns. And St. Paul, in our reading today from 1 Thessalonians, prays for these Christians to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all…” that the Lord may “strengthen [their] hearts in holiness that [they] may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (1 Thess. 3:12-13). Resisting the traps of overindulgence, and preoccupation with life’s distractions. Living lives of holy love, for one another and for all. These are the hallmarks of what it means to share in God’s Kingdom. This is how we anticipate and prepare for our LORD’s return.
Advent offers us hope that our Risen Lord is coming again to redeem Heaven and Earth, but it also invites us to put this hope into practice here and now… even in the midst of our own times of fear and uncertainty… when we are tempted to distract ourselves, and get caught up in other things… or when we are tempted to give up on the work of holy love. But in Jesus Christ, God calls us to take our part in His Kingdom. To place our hope in Him, and put our whole lives in His hands.
I’ll end now with another, longer quote from N.T. Wright, encouraging us not to lose heart as we wait for the Lord and get to work: “what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings, and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which has begun with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world.” Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, ed. Jana Riess, trans. O. C. Dean Jr., First edition. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 2.
 Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 218–219.
 Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 219–220.