Reading Ramblings – November 27, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday in Advent, November 27, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Context: Advent begins the liturgical Church year, and combines traditions from varying parts of the developing Church so that it has traditionally incorporated both penitential as well as celebratory aspects. By and large in Protestant circles, it has come to be more celebratory, anticipating the arrival of the Christ child as a means of focusing our waiting on our returning Lord.

Advent calls us to hope. Not in something arbitrary but in someone. To remember the promises our God has fulfilled time and time again as a means of hoping confidently that the promise of our Lord’s return will be fulfilled as well. Not necessarily on our timeline, but fulfilled all the same. It is a hope of joy and peace, of restoration and rightness predicated not on our efforts – which are feeble and sinful even at their best – but on the efforts of a perfect, holy, and righteous God.

Isaiah 2:1-5 – God will establish his kingdom, or more accurately, merge heaven and earth again so that his rule is clear throughout creation. His rule will be pre-eminent (v.2b) and without comfusion or competition. As such, creation will naturally be drawn to it as the proper source of information about how to live. Rather than finding ways to settle issues amongst ourselves, God will provide us with his wisdom. The result is inevitably peace. Without sin and selfishness, with God’s rule as the norm of life, conflict will subside and humanity will go back to the task proper to it from Genesis 1 – the rule and cultivation of the earth. What a beautiful day that will be, and how appropriate it is for we who look forward to it eagerly to begin living that way now!

Psalm 122 – This is the third Psalm of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), songs sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and the central theme is one of joy and rejoicing. This psalm appears to have been intended for their actual arrival in the city or in the temple itself (v.2). Jerusalem itself is described as a place where thanks to God should be central (v.4). Part of that thanks was for the right rule which was supposed to emanate from Jerusalem through the kings (v.5). As such, pilgrims pray for Jerusalem’s peace so that proper rule and law can continue to flow to God’s people, an echo of the image in Isaiah 2 where God’s perfect rule and law will flow from his holy mountain not just to his chosen people but all of creation. The pilgrim’s vision was focused on peace and his or her role in perpetuating that peace in and through themselves by the grace of God. If peace for God’s holy city is to be prayed for, it only makes sense for those journeying there to pray for and commit themselves to peace. All of this is to the glory of God (v.9), reflecting his good and perfect will that all should be at peace, and that He would be the God of peace. This will be fully achieved when Christ returns, but we are summoned to take our part in living lives of peace here and now in witness to that future reality.

Romans 13:11-14 – Christians have been waiting for 2000 years almost, expecting the return of Jesus. It might seem as though it will never happen. Yet we are drawing closer to that time, whenever it is. Close enough for us to take seriously the admonitions and exhortations of our Lord as well as the Law of God revealed in Scripture. As such we should adopt postures of self-control, reminding ourselves that his arrival is imminent, if unpredictable. Such a posture may seem silly to a world bent on self-gratification, but such a posture is consistent with who we will be revealed to be in Christ, as Paul has already discussed in Romans 8:18-25.

Matthew 24:36-44 – Waiting is hard work. In a culture of shrinking attention spans and demands for instant gratification, waiting seems pointless when you can have what you want – or something close to what you want – right now. Never mind what needs to be financed or what other problems such short-sighted thinking might cause. But Jesus doesn’t soften his words. We are to wait and while we have some idea of what we wait for, we don’t know when it will occur.

Those who wish to use verses 40-41 to conjecture some sort of rapture prior to Jesus’ return have to deal with the reality that Jesus here is speaking about his return (v.37). Verse 42 drives this home again – Jesus is looking ahead to his return in glory, not speaking about some get-out-of-suffering-free promise like a rapture. Context alone discards such strange theories, even if we have a hard time understanding what Jesus means. But if we use versese 38-39 as a guide, then Jesus is speaking about how his coming will be as unanticipated as the waters of the Flood, and just as disastrous for some. Unlike the Flood, however, far more than just eight people will be saved. Many, many more than this will be saved, even if some are lost because of their lack of discernment and faith.

The key to this passage is not that we should look forward to a miraculous rescue from suffering in this world, but rather that we should seriously wait for the coming of Jesus which will end all suffering, permanently – not simply provide an escape from it for a few. We are to stay awake, language which is similar to what Paul chooses in the Epistle reading from Romans 13.

If we are waiting, then we will be ready. Our faith in Jesus will be strengthened and matured through the act of waiting and the posture of obedience which we are to assume (again, Romans 13) rather than the posture of self-indulgence. It is not our waiting that saves us, but our faith which directs our hearts and minds and lives to waiting. For the Christian our actions – waiting intently for our Lord’s return and conforming our lives to his will – are not the things which save us, but flow from our saving faith in Jesus, as Paul argues powerfully in his letter to the Romans. Christian obedience in itself helps to focus our hearts and minds on our Lord’s return as we are constantly reminded that our choices and values do not synchronize with the world’s. Our lives of obedience make us into pointers for Christ, so that others might be prompted to wonder why we live the way we do, and who precisely it is that we are waiting for, and why. This should give us opportunity to share the good news of Jesus which is our hope and strength for our waiting and obedience!

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