We're about to start a new year in the Christian calendar, as this coming Sunday begins the season of Advent. These four Sundays/weeks before the season of Christmas make up one of the more difficult seasons to talk about. It is about the coming of Christ, yes, but not precisely about preparing for Christmas---although that can be an aspect of it. See? It already gets convoluted.
I decided I wanted a look at the the lessons for the first Sunday of Advent. A sort of anticipation of the anticipation, if you will. In the jumble of this season that often gets swallowed up in the secular, commercial Christmas, I wanted to see how I can enter it with something else.
Looking at the lessons, two phrases leap out at me. The first comes from Jeremiah: "The days are surely coming, says the Lord . . . " It's a phrase Jeremiah likes a lot (and used to be spoken regularly by a woman I know who used it with a threatening tone whenever someone was annoying her, but I digress). It's phrase full of threat and promise and hope. Actually, a quick survey of how Jeremiah used it, it was most often with a promise or a hopeful look forward. There was threat in some instances, sure, but more often, the days that are surely coming are hopeful days, days of restoration and fulfillment. That's the sense that we find in the first lesson this coming Sunday. "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."
The gospel lesson is part of what is sometimes referred to as Jesus's apocalyptic or eschatological discourse. It's full of talk about the destruction of the Temple (for the immediate listeners) and of strife between nations (something we experience today). Jesus is trying to warn his followers and give them hope at the same time. It is the latter that I hear when I read, " . . . when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near."
Is Jesus talking about the future, making predictions? Maybe, to some extent. But I hear something more immediate in this word.
Jesus' mission is defined, at least in the synoptic gospels, as preaching the Kingdom or (as I prefer) Reign of God. This is described in parables and sermons in many and mysterious ways, but I've come to associate it with the Beatitudes. Also, while there is a forward-looking aspect of the Reign (it's always coming), there is also the word from Jesus that it is among or, depending on translation, within us. (Luke 17:21)
I've come to understand the the Reign of God as appearing whenever the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed and peacemakers are blessed as children of God. I no longer hear the Reign as being a place where all is perfect and beautiful, but where the imperfect and ugly are tended to. So, what I hear in Jesus's word in Luke 21:31 is that when we see the stories of wars and the heavens shaking, we can know the Reign is at hand because there will be people tending to the the ugliness of the world, offering help and healing.
It's akin to the somewhat famous story from Mr. Rogers who, based on a teaching from his mother, said to look for the helpers, the ones offering relief in times of disaster. Jesus doesn't promise that in the coming Reign that all will be peaceful, but that there will be peacemakers in the chaos.
And those peacemakers are among/within us.
The 21st Century has not been anything like I'd hoped growing up. Besides the absence of rocket packs and hover cars, it seems we've learned nothing from the wars of the 20th Century and in fact we seem to be getting worse. Just this past week, I've seen people posting on Facebook about how current events in the middle east, the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish firepower, and scapegoating of refugees seems eerily familiar to those who have read histories of how the first two World Wars started (there are parallels in both wars).
So, we see these terrible things taking place and they are terrible and fearful and might cause us if the world is about to burn down, but even as we see them, we will also see the Reign of God breaking into this situation. Perhaps we who have heard the Reign is among us will be part of the Reign breaking into the desolation.
The days are surely coming . . . you know the Reign of God is near . . . the advent of our Lord is celebrated and we are reminded that we look not only to a future return of Christ or even the preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation that is Christmas, but also to the ways the Reign of God is always appearing, always tending to the ugliness and brokenness of this world that my faith says God loves so much.