Sermon for Sunday 28 November 2021
Advent 1 Professor John Behr
(Jeremiah 22.14–16; 1 Thess 3.9–end; Luke 21.25-36)
The readings we have just heard, from Jeremiah, Paul, and the Gospel of Luke,
all speak to us of the coming of the Lord,
in ways which are perhaps surprising, and also (as always) directly relevant to us today.
‘I will cause a righteous Branch to spring forth from the house of David,’ says God through Jeremiah.
The promise of a ‘Branch’ is also given in Isaiah:
‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a branch shall bear fruit’
And also in Zechariah, who clarifies for us what the messianic task of the Branch will be: to build the Temple: The word of the Lord that came to the prophet includes the instruction:
Take from them silver and gold, and make a crown and set it upon the head of Joshua [i.e. Jesus in LXX], the son of Jehozadak, the high priest; and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold the man whose name is Branch: for he shall grow up in his place and he shall build the Temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the Temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honour, and shall sit and rule upon his throne. And there shall be a priest by his throne and peaceful understanding shall be between them both”’. (Zech. 6:11–13, MT)
This is the image that we have in the Gospel of John, where the beloved disciple stands by the foot of the cross—and he was thought of by the early Christians as being the high priest:
Christ, who promised to destroy the temple and raise it up again in three days,
throughout the Gospel of John presents himself as being the true temple and the content of its feasts:
he is the light of the world and living water at the feast of Tabernacles;
he, not the temple made of stone, is the one consecrated by God and sent into the world,
at the feast of the dedication;
he is the living bread, the manna, descending from heaven;
and he is now lifted up upon the cross, at the moment the lambs are slain in the temple
as the true lamb of God, ascending to his throne,
with John the priest standing by,
and in this way, as Jeremiah told us, he executes justice and righteousness—in no other way:
justice and righteousness is not found in executing revenge or punishment,
but by Christ taking upon himself the sin of the world, the sin of each of us,
so that we can, together, worship at his footstool, the cross,
worship along with John, who, more than any other, reminds us that God is love.
This is, indeed, how the righteous Branch will spring forth, will come.
It is this love that we heard Paul pray that it may increase and abound in us,
showing it to one another and to all human beings.
And so be established, he says, in holiness before our Father God,
at the coming of our Lord with all the saints.
We tend to think of the coming of the Lord as being an event external to us, something that will happen at a later date, bringing about the end times.
There will indeed be an end to this world: whatever comes to be in time will also pass away in time.
But this is not the only way that Paul speaks about the coming of our Lord:
As Paul also reminds us, when writing to the Philippians:
our citizenship is already in the heavens,
and it is from there that we await the coming of our Savior,
the one who, as he comes, will change our lowly body to be even as his glorious body,
through the power by which he brings all into subjection to himself.
And this power is, again, nothing other than the cross,
for it is by willing going to death, even death on the cross, that he receives the name above every name, so that at his name all knees bow, whether in heaven or earth or under the earth,
all are brought into subjection to him.
And the transformation of our body into his glorious body is one which begins even now,
as we learn to put on Christ, growing in Christ,
he lives in us, and our body is transformed into his glorious body.
The coming of our Lord—although definitively at the end,
begins even now: as we act in a Christ-like manner,
we are not simply doing good, but manifesting the presence of Christ in this world.
Then, finally, we heard Christ, warning us to take heed of the signs,
knowing that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words remain.
The signs given by the sun and moon, the distress of the nations upon earth at the roaring of the seas,
all these bear witness to the fact that our redemption is drawing near,
and that we will see the Son of Man coming upon the cloud with power and glory.
Christ gives these warnings as he moves towards Jerusalem and his coming Passion,
but it is not quite clear to what he is referring:
we usually hear him as speaking about the end times.
In the Gospel of John, however, it is at the beginning of the Gospel that Christ promises a vision of the Son of Man:
You will see great things than these: you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
Although, again not specified, it is at the Cross that the heavens are opened,
and John sees the slain lamb ascending to the throne.
Once again, our attention is relentlessly drawn to Christ’s revelation through the cross,
and, as Christ directs us: ‘pray that you may have the strength to escape all the turmoil that this causes or provokes, and take our place, standing before the Son of Man.’
It is light shining that reveals the darkness to be dark, so provoking the chaos that ensues,
but also enlightening it.
It is the revelation of life, that shows us that we are in fact dead, and all the fear that that raises
that we cannot secure ourselves;
but at the same time shows us that our mortality—when used to take up the cross and live for others—becomes the very means of life.
And it is the revelation of God, in these ways, that is provokes fear and trembling,
but also comfort and relief:
we are in the hands of the one who turns death into life, suffering into joy.
If all this is so, then it should cause us to reflect on how we hear the words about the signs in the heavens and the distress for those upon earth.
Yes, we are undoubtedly living in uncertain times, in times of great upheaval, and cosmic—not only—climate change.
Yes, we should undoubtedly do all we can to convert our ways, to be the good stewards of creation that God has called us to be; and to minister to all those who suffer as a result of adversity.
But we also fool ourselves if we think that by so doing, we will create our own security:
heaven and earth will pass away, while the Word of God endures forever.
Yet it is, paradoxically, in this passing away, when offered through the cross,
that the grain and the grape become so much more than we might imagine.
We turn the grain and the grape into bread and wine, but in our offering them, they are given to us as the body and blood of our God, nourishing us in the life that comes through death.
Likewise, relinquishing our attempts to exploit the good things of the earth for our pleasure and our security, to receive them again as gifts of God, given for all,
we will find another modality of life that is not shaken by the signs of the times.
And we mistake the signs if we think of them as indicators of an impending event sometime in the future (and then try to delay it),
rather than realize that end times which they signal is already here, and always has been,
the invitation given by God from the beginning: to be conformed to his Son,
to receive him, share in him, become one body with him and with another.
May we always be given the strength, as Christ himself prays, that we may escape all the distractions,
and stand before the Son of Man.