Advent Week #1 – Read Luke 21:25-36, Jeremiah 33:14-16 here.
Hope is a thing with feathers. That’s the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem.
Hope is like a bird. I’m not a bird watcher, but I’m in awe of those who are. I see a beautiful bird and all I can tell you is what colors I see, but a bird watcher knows what kind of bird they’re seeing. Even more impressive, though, is the patience with which they wait and watch. If they don’t take the time to wait and watch, they’re likely to miss seeing the bird because birds don’t stay in one place long. If you’re not quiet, they’ll just fly away.
It does seem like hope is as flighty as a bird, giving us only brief glimpses of it before it flies away. If our hope is based on circumstances and current events, all of which can change in an instant, then hope is indeed a hard bird to see. But if our hope is based on Jesus, then we see the wisdom in Emily Dickinson’s poem:
In our reading from Luke 21 for today, Jesus tells us to be like wise bird watchers who wait and watch and know what we’re seeing when we look at the events of our lives and the things happening in our world, and who can see all these things through the lens of the Bible which tells us that God will ultimately reign and that God’s love will prevail.
What do “rain” and “reign” have in common? Before they end, both fall and cause a huge mess. Reigns do fall, but Jesus reigns forever!
The scripture we read today is part of a longer teaching in which Jesus is responding to someone’s admiration of the temple in Jerusalem. This temple they were admiring had been recently renovated by King Herod, a project that took 50 years to complete. This picture is of a model in the Jerusalem Museum that’s been created from the descriptions of ancient historians. It’s called the second temple, because the first temple, the one built by King Solomon, was destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Israel in 586 BCE.
It was grand and probably seemed like it was built to last forever. Herod poured money into the project because he intended it to be his legacy. But it didn’t last. In 70 CE the Romans destroyed the temple in their attempts to quash a Jewish rebellion. Over the ensuing millennia this site has been conquered by many different people – Byzantines, early Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans and the British empire.
We know from visiting historical sites around the world, that buildings don’t last forever, even if they’re made of stone. Wind and water gradually wear the stone away over time.
We used to make cemetery monuments out of marble because it’s so beautiful, but also because it’s soft enough to carve. It’s also porous enough that it will absorb stains, which you already know if you have marble countertops in your kitchen. But in geology class when we dropped slightly acidic water, like rainwater, on pieces of marble, it would fizz a tiny bit because the marble starts to dissolve. That’s why when you walk through a cemetery and look at the grave markers, you can tell which ones have been there the longest. Newer ones are made of granite which takes much longer to wear away because it’s harder and less porous.
Granite lasts longer than other rock, but it doesn’t last forever. No building material lasts forever, not even stone. Jesus told the people who were admiring the temple that day:
“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:6)
Jesus was saying these words about the year 30. They seem to be a prophecy about what would happen forty years later when the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Jesus was also trying to prepare them for what would happen to him. Those listening to him that day didn’t understand that Jesus himself would be crucified and die, and that all their hopes for Jesus to be the next earthly king of Israel would be dashed. It would take some time after that happened for the disciples to look back and remember all that Jesus had said, and remember what the scriptures said, to begin to see what God was really doing, and to understand that Jesus had accomplished something far greater than the restoration of an earthly kingdom. Jesus did not conquer the Romans like they’d hoped; instead he conquered sin and death. The Roman Empire lasted for hundreds of years, but it eventually came to an end. The Kingdom of God never ends.
Jesus’ words also look even further into the future, to the end of time, and they remind us that circumstances will change, nations will rise and fall, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Luke 21:33)
Jesus is timeless, eternal, he was at the beginning and he’ll be at the end, but he stepped into our time as the messiah about whom Jeremiah prophesied in our reading for today from chapter 33:
15In 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. (Jeremiah 33:15)
This first Sunday in Advent has become one of my favorites because it’s a day on which we prepare to remember Jesus’ birth by remembering that he died and rose again, and that he will come again. There’s something grand and cosmic about preparing to celebrate the birth in the light of eternity. We do this to help us remember that we hold on to hope that is much deeper and stronger than a hope based on what we can see today.
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25)
So Jesus tells us to wait and watch and renew our hope. He says, “Be on guard” so that you do not lose hope, and “be alert” so that you won’t miss his coming, for all will see him come. (Luke 21:34-36)
We need to keep reading the Bible to help us see today from God’s perspective, to help us read the signs.
- The gospel of Luke has 24 chapters – just like advent calendar. Why not read one chapter a day this month?
We need to keep remembering what God has done in the past
- We see in the Bible that Israel repeatedly reflected on the events of their history and in doing so discovered God’s guiding hand in many of the painful events that had led them to Jerusalem.
- Similarly, the disciples didn’t understand what was happening with Jesus until afterwards when they took time to remember and pray about what had happened.
- We too need to remember and pray about what’s happened in our own lives so we can see God’s hand at work, and so we can learn and grow from what we see.
- Forgetting allows painful memories to surprise us, and deprives us of the opportunity to grow and to celebrate God’s work in our lives.
Expect God to work in the future – keep watching and waiting expectantly to see Jesus
- Look for opportunities to be a part of God’s work
- Advent devotionals have action
- Kindness calendar
There’s another reason I like this first Sunday in Advent so much.
- It is an unusual Sunday
- The scripture texts are always apocalyptic about the end times.
- The focus is the second coming more than the first coming.
At Christmas time, I am sometimes prone to Scroogeyness. The Bah Humbug sometimes takes over in me. I think I’m not alone in this, and that is one of the reasons why the characters of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and the Grinch in the Dr. Seuss story are so popular. We all have our Bah Humbug moments. Maybe one reason is that Christmas TV shows and movies, and Christmas cards are full of images of the perfect Christmas in the perfect family in the perfect house in the perfect town. All of those can remind us of all the ways that we’re not perfect, and the world isn’t perfect either.
But that’s exactly the point. Though on the outside we are not perfect, on the inside, through our faith in Jesus we are being made perfect and completely free of the darkness that still hangs around in our lives and in our world.
Jesus did come on that starry night so long ago, and it’s a beautiful story that we will enjoy telling over the next four weeks, but that was just the beginning. That was year zero, the year everything changed. But the story isn’t over yet. What we see today is a world in transition, and we are people in transition. We see that transformation in Scrooge and the Grinch – they both have a change of heart, and we can expect that from Jesus, too.
God is still working in us, renewing us, restoring us, making us new, changing our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, and preparing us for eternity with Jesus. Jesus will come again someday, but Jesus comes now in our remembering, and in our acts of kindness and love and generosity and grace, in our gathering at the table to celebrate communion, and in our willingness to surrender all our doubts and fears as we hope and trust in him.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
 Henry Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, pg 84.
 We read in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra that the Israelites who had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years were then allowed to return to Israel and rebuild the city walls and the temple.
 Nouwen, Discernment, pg 85