Advent I: The Ultimate Hope
Advent I: The Ultimate Hope
by David Suter

For the first Sunday of Advent, I suggest choosing the gospel reading as the primary focus for a sermon for two reasons. The first is that its overt eschatology enables the preacher to address the ultimate goal of the Advent journey, expressed in this passage with the phrase, "to stand before the Son of Man," with a sermon on hope. Hope, in the tradition of Christian thought, is one of the three theological virtues, along with faith and charity. It is oriented exclusively toward the future as confident expectation and fervent desire (for the Christian, hope is informed by faith and motivated by charity). The ultimate focus of hope is the return of the Lord Jesus Christ as judge and savior (or the fullness of the knowledge of God in the kingdom of God), but hope may also be directed towards objects within the course of human history. The eschatological dimension of faith is an essential part of the Christian message, and the gospel of Luke is a good starting point for an effort to explore this dimension since the gospel tends to de-emphasize the immediacy of the parousia, fitting its eschatology into a clearly articulated theology of history centered around the present mission of the church.

While in Mark, the little apocalypse (Mark 13) interprets the fall of Jerusalem as part of the cataclysms associated with the arrival of the reign of God, the gospel of Luke separates the two, developing a period in which Christian witnesses to the resurrection engage in mission to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:6-8 and Luke 21:24, which speaks of waiting "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled"), an idea that is given literary form by the addition of Acts to Luke. The writer is responding in part to the delay of the parousia (the return of Jesus), which seems to have troubled Christians in the later first century, but the positive element of the change in the treatment of the fall of Jerusalem is the development of a theology of history that gives greater meaning to the present age.

The second reason for choosing the gospel reading as the primary text is that I find it speaking to me at the moment in the wake of last Tuesday's election. The common metaphor for the transfer of power in Congress is an earthquake, best summed up by Daniel Schoor's comment on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, "The earth shook alright, but the world is still there," an image that may help to explain why the Biblical writers turn to geological and meteorological metaphors to speak of the transformation of the ages: no other metaphors are available to communicate the momentous nature of the transformation of the ages and the advent of the reign of God.

As I work with the Advent readings, I will want to pay attention to their poetic and musical character. The poetic element of Advent I is to be found not in rhyme or meter but in the global character of the images: "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken." While the images here refer to the dawning of God's reign, it is quite clear from the Lukan treatment of the apocalyptic themes that there is at least a similarity between cataclysm within history (the fall of Jerusalem in 21:20-24) and the cataclysm of history (21:25-28), providing a vehicle for reflection upon momentous events in history. By observing that "the world is still there," Schoor has both likened the election to, and distinguished it from, the end of the age.

The language of Luke 21:25-27 is extravagant, not only in its use of metaphors involving cosmic cataclysm for the coming of God's reign, but also grammatically in the piling up of participial phrases expressing the cataclysmic events, almost as if the meaning is at odds with the structure of the language. Norman Perrin describes a similar phenomenon in Revelation in this way: "When one gets to a certain level of experience or expectation, the normal structure of language is simply shattered, and what is experienced or expected can be described only in symbols, often in archetypal symbols that have deep roots in the consciousness of [humanity] as [humanity]" (_The New Testament: An Introduction_, 1974 Edition, p. 84).

The passage from Luke also gains symbolic power through the stark contrast between the terror of the tribulations and the dawn of salvation in the revelation of the Son of Man: the encounter with God's reign is a profoundly transforming experience in which one must turn loose of the past in the process of embracing, or being embraced by, the future. It must be thought of as involving both pain and joy.

The global character of the symbolism is communicated with the observation that even "the powers of the heavens," the elemental forces of the universe, "will be shaken" (you may wish to consult Walter Wink's recent trilogy on the language of the powers in the New Testament, but be careful not to get bogged down here). The approach of redemption (presumably from the cataclysmic events or from Roman domination, rather than from sin and death) is symbolized following Daniel 7:13-14 in terms of "the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." The parable of the fig tree concludes with the observation that "this generation will not pass away till all has taken place," a remark difficult to interpret, particularly in light of Acts 1:7, which leaves the time of the kingdom quite indefinite. Verses 34-36 are a Lukan addition intended to exhort the reader to watchfulness. The focus of the entire passage seems to be upon surviving the events of the end of the age to stand before the Son of Man, who comes to redeem and restore (cf. Acts 1:7) rather than to judge (as far as I can determine from the Lukan version of the little apocalypse, but George Nickelsburg will probably disagree).

The real homiletical test in using the Lukan passage will be in the preacher's hermeneutical approach to dealing with the eschatology of the passage and the theme of hope, and the way that those ideas can be cast in forms that will make sense to the congregation. My own interest in the theme of hope comes from struggling as a divinity student in a pastoral counselling practicum with the deaths of children on a pediatrics ward in a cancer research hospital and from teaching in the area of death and griefwork. The experiences left me with a multitude of questions, which led to teaching extensively in the area of theodicy and the problem of evil. In an experience of grace, I was surprised several years ago by the presence of a student, whom I discovered was a survivor of one of those wards from the era in which I had worked there, and who was in the process of taking my classes in a search for answers to the questions her experience had raised. While my experience raises the question of hope within human life rather than "eternal hope," the Lukan passage links the two forms of hope to a certain degree by placing emphasis on survival to stand before the Son of man, making personal experience at least a relevant starting point for understanding Biblical eschatology.

In seeking hermeneutical resources for interpreting the Biblical eschatology, I recommend ones that deal with the eschatology as symbol. Perrin's comment (noted above) presupposes a hermeneutic derived from Paul Ricoeur, which interprets symbols by relating them to fundamental human experiences. Perrin finds that the apocalyptic symbols are related to "the consciousness of evil, sin, and guilt . . . with the expectation of a cataclysmic, eschatological act whereby evil, sin, and guilt will be no more." From this perspective, the global character of the metaphors and symbols are not to be taken literally but to be understood as a means of communicating the momentous nature of the "arrival" of a new age.

In a sermon entitled "The Shaking of the Foundations" (printed in a readily-available book by the same title), Paul Tillich comments that the prophets use images of doom and destruction, "because, beyond the sphere of destruction, they saw the sphere of salvation; because, in the doom of the temporal, they saw the manifestation of the Eternal." He also has a sermon (which I heard him preach at the University of Chicago) entitled "The Right to Hope" (recently published in _Theology of Peace_, edited by Ronald H. Stone), in which he discusses both "eternal hope" and hope within history. I am also impressed by the final chapter, "Ultimate Hope," in Kermit D. Johnson, _Realism and Hope in a Nuclear Age_, which argues that, while one must hope that God's creative purpose can never be frustrated whatever humanity does ("ultimate hope"), there is also the penultimate hope that human beings will hear the prophetic voice and repent.

My own conclusion from teaching in the area of death and griefwork is that one must think of hope not only in terms of healing and survival but also in terms both of meaning in life and the meaning of life. If one applies that understanding to the recent congressional elections, which I mentioned at the outset, one must conclude that not everything that happens in human events will be to our liking, but that the historical process is inherently meaningful as persons are called to respond to the unfolding of God's reign. I trust that the fact that Sermonshop is interactive will elicit responses from some of you who have preached on these themes.

The other three lectionary readings can be related to different facets of the gospel lesson. Jer. 33:14-16 is a variant of 23:5-6. The royal or messianic title "Branch" is applied to Zerubbabel in Zech. 3:8 and 6:12, but is not the word found in Isa. 11:1. The promise of Jer. 33:13 is probably the dynastic promise to the house of David in 2 Sam. 7:8-17, which itself may be an echo of the promise to Abraham in Gen. 12:1-4. The name given to the "Branch" (or perhaps to Jerusalem) in Jer. 33:16 is "The LORD is our righteousness," which may be a play on the name, Zedekiah, the king of Judah prior to the Exile. If the word _tzedeq_ is translated as "legitimate" rather than "righteous," the passage could be interpreted as a comment on the legitimacy of the line of David prior to the Exile as well as the promise of a legitimate ruler (or a legitimate community) in the future (God alone defines legitimacy).

Taken in the context of Christian messianic exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures, the passage may be used to support the messianic element of the gospel lesson: note that for Luke/Acts the coming of God's reign (cf. Luke 21:31) can be interpreted as the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6), a concern similar to Jer. 33:14-16. If this analysis is correct, salvation in Luke 21 is to be understood in terms of the restoration of the people of God (in continuity with Jer. 33:14-16) rather than the new heavens and new earth of the book of Revelation.

Psalm 25:1-10 is taken from a psalm of lament. The psalm is in the acrostic form, each line beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The one exception is the final verse of the psalm, which is not included in the acrostic pattern and may have been intended as a refrain to individual verses, or as a postscript to apply the lament of an individual to the community. While the reference to the "sins of my youth" in verse 7 (in conjunction with the ascription, A Psalm of David) may tempt some to read it from a biographical or autobiographical perspective in reference to David, the acrostic pattern suggests a post-exilic date and a psalm composed for use in a variety of situations.

Even if it is a psalm composed for general purposes rather than one rooted in a specific crisis, the religious sensibilities of the psalm are significant. The psalm begins with a profession of trust in God and a request for deliverance from the singer's enemies. It expresses a desire to be led in the truth and to be forgiven, and the lectionary passage concludes with an affirmation of God's steadfast love (covenant loyalty) to all those who keep the covenant. As a psalm of lament and expression of faith, it could be sung by those enduring the tribulations of Luke 21; however, there is a significant difference between the unspecified troubles of the psalm and the shaking of the powers of the heavens in Luke 21:26. If used in preaching, the psalm would be better dealt with alone as the profound expression of a soul longing for the presence of the Holy one of Israel.

1 Thess. 3:9-13 holds the greatest promise of an alternative text for preaching. As a matter of fact, one could follow the epistle readings throughout the season and come up with an interesting and somewhat different journey through Advent, since these readings tend to strike a more personal note, rooted at least for the first three Sundays in a personal relationship between the Apostle and a Christian community. The Advent theme of anticipation and arrival is echoed here in the anticipation of the writer that he will soon see the recipients face to face, while the closing reference to spiritual preparation for "the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints" ties it into the gospel lesson. The references to thanksgiving and joy add to the seasonal note.

The passage also serves, in a way, to introduce the Pauline variation on the Synoptic little apocalypse in 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11. Note that this variation strikes a more hopeful and reassuring (pastoral, perhaps) tone than the Lukan version in the gospel lesson, although Luke and 1 Thessalonians seem to share an emphasis on sober preparedness.