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Getting Ready for God

Jeremiah 33: 10-16 & Luke 21: 25-36

First Week of Advent/ 30th November 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Yesterday afternoon I had an advent moment.  The last couple of days have been very difficult for the Oberleitner family.  Vicki and Mike joined this church about three years ago.  Their daughter Ava was baptized here about two years ago.  As many of you now know, Vicki died yesterday afternoon after a brief battle with a yet-to-be determined blood infection.  She was 36.  Our deacons and members of the prayer chain were passionately praying for her, praying for a miracle, hoping that God would intervene and that her condition would reverse.  Not beyond the realm of the possible, to be sure – nothing is beyond the realm of the possible.  But it was not to be.  I left the Hopkins around 4:00 p.m. in a daze and drove west along Route 40, west on Edmondson Avenue.  It was that time of the day when the light is soft and everything takes on a warm hue.  The sky was dramatic, full of dark clouds and white clouds against a deep blue sky, blown about by cold November winds.  If you were outdoors yesterday around this time, you know what I’m talking about.  The sun was setting in the west.  I passed a bus, just west of Edmondson, and proceeded up the hill, and stopped at the next traffic light.  On the corner three people were lined up, standing close to the curb, making sure they had their bus passes ready.  They were focused, concentrating, looking east, and almost straining their necks to see the bus I knew was coming and which they knew was about to arrive.  They were actively waiting for the arrival of the bus and knew it was going to come any minute.  And I said to myself, “That’s what advent is like.”

That’s what it means to dwell in advent time.  That’s what it means to wait.  It’s that same feeling when you’re on the train platform at BWI waiting for the MARC train to Washington, DC.  You know the train is coming; it’s only a matter of time.  You look to the north, straining your neck to see the coming of the train.  As you catch the first glimpse of the engine light you instantly imagine the train moving closer toward you along the track.  You make sure you have your bags, your briefcase, and your ticket.  You’re actively waiting.  That’s an advent moment, too. 

Advent has to do with our relation to time; that is, the way we generally configure time.  Most of us think of time as moving along, from the past, through the present, into the future.  Tick-tock.  Tick, tock.  Tempus fugit.  Time flies.  It continually moves and is irreversible.  This is what the ancient Greeks understood as ordinary or common time, what they called chronos.  We live in the present, remember the past, and only guess about the future.  

But the Hebrew prophets and the early Christians viewed time differently.  Their orientation was not toward some static present or a glorification of the past.  Their focus was upon the future, the “new thing” God will bring about in the future.  This new thing occurs in moments of anticipation, pregnant time, what the New Testament calls kairos.  The past and even the present are never definitive for the Jew or for the Christian.  The past and even the present are never glorified, revered, or admired.  Because if your focus is upon the past and the present, then you will miss the new thing that God is bringing forth from God’s future.  We tend to think of the future as something that comes about from the past through the present. We tend to think of the future as something that is caused by the past or the present.  We also tend to think, therefore, that we have the ability to control the future by simply manipulating the present or the past.  Scripture tells us if we operate this way, then we’re wasting our time and energy.

Advent is about reorienting our understanding of time.  It’s about being open to the future.  Straining our necks forward toward God’s horizon, we wait with great expectation for God is about to act and we trust that what God is about to do is good.  God is about to do something new.  Yahweh is always up to something new.  This was the point Jeremiah was making.  Under the reign of King Zedekiah, people looked out on Jerusalem and said, “It is a waste without human beings or animals,” Judah and Jerusalem are “desolate, without inhabitants, human or animal.”  This is what everyone could see with the naked eye.  But Jeremiah saw something else, he had a different vision.  He can see into a future that was even then breaking into Jeremiah’s life.  He said, “there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD:  ‘Give thank to the Lord of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’”  If you just focus on the past and the present, none of this would be evident or obvious.  It requires something more.  The Bible is always pushing us to see what is not obviously visible.  To dream the impossible dream.  The Bible is always calling for what we might call sanctified imagination. It’s the call to imagine the world from God’s perspective and trusting in the future that God promised to God’s people.  “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.  In 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.”

Righteousness and justice are words we hear a lot around the church, but often don’t know what they mean.  Yahweh’s justice and righteousness will not come from human hands or hearts or minds.  This new day will not come through any human effort.  It will come freely, gracefully from God, not by our might, but through the might of God.  Jeremiah tells us that Jerusalem will be known as a place where “Yahweh is our righteousness.”  This is an intentional attack upon King Zedekiah’s reign.  Zedekiah means “Righteous is Yahweh.” But, Yahweh will offer what Zedekiah couldn’t.   In other words, through Yahweh we will experience a right relationship with God and with humanity.  

That’s what righteousness means.  Being righteous does not mean being morally pure or perfect.  It’s a relational term; it means right living.  It means living in a deep and abiding relationship with God and with all of God’s people.  This new way of living is what is offered with justice.  This is another confusing word – justice.  Justice is often understood as a punishment that is equal to the crime.  Justice is served when a person is punished equal to the crime.  But this is not what God’s justice means in the Bible.   This is not the way God deals out justice.  If it were we would all be in trouble. 

God’s justice in scripture is the act by which God frees the one who is oppressed.  God’s justice is an act of liberation and release.  Those who have suffered innocently will be redeemed.   God’s justice is all about grace.  For those who have suffered during Zedekiah’s time, at the hands of an unjust political and economic system that does nothing to alleviate the plight of the poor, God will give them food and shelter.  God will  give protection, offer welfare, God will save them – that’s God’s justice.  This vision begins in the prophets (you can’t read the prophets without seeing this, it’s there in black and white) and culminates in the ministry of Jesus.  It is the glorious work of Yahweh!  This is what God seeks to accomplish in this world. Jesus calls it the kingdom of God.  That’s what we’re all waiting for.

But sometimes, we have to be honest, it’s difficult to believe that God really cares about the world and really cares about us.  It’s easy to become disillusioned, caught in a web of despair.  The vision of God’s justice and righteousness seems like a pipe dream, a child’s fantasy, and idealism.  For how do you say to a man who just lost his wife that God really cares?  Weren’t they actively waiting, hoping even against hope?  How long does one wait?  When does waiting turn from active faith to foolishness?  These are tough theological questions, but they have to be asked here in the sanctuary and we have to search for answers.  This is not easy.  For some, life is so unbearably cruel and unspeakably violent that they seek the complete destruction of themselves or the world.  For some, life has become cheap, very cheap, especially in a world of terrorism.  For others, the gruesome scenes playing out on the television in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel are signs that the world is coming to an end, that we are entering into the final battle between good and evil.  Such visions develop when life is tough, when people are persecuted, when people suffer from a depraved imagination.  For far too many Christians, especially of the Fundamentalist persuasion or all those who are obsessed with Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series (which our General Assembly came very close to denouncing several years ago), the world doesn’t count for much because they think it all has to end before Jesus returns.  Working for peace, working for human rights, working for social justice mean very little if you expect God is going to destroy everything any minute.   Tomorrow is World AIDS Day, and the heartache experienced by millions of people, especially children, casts a pall over the world.  Where is this kingdom of God?   Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) once wrote, “The world is deep, And deeper than the day remembers.  Deep is its suffering.”[1]  Shadow, as Tolkien (1892-1973) said it better in The Lord of the Rings, the entire world has turned to shadow.

Christians are realists.  We are not afraid to look at the world as it is.  But we will not let the world have the last word!  God has the last word – and only God!  God is always faithful to God’s promises.  God cannot be God without keeping God’s promises.  God is faithful.  Perhaps this is the only thing that we can really count on in this life.  God will redeem the earth, not destroy it.  God will not destroy us, but redeem us.  God is faithful.

A day is coming and is not far off when there shall be heard in our hearts and in our homes, in our streets and in our cities “the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness.”  

A day is coming and not far off when God’s justice and righteousness will break in upon us. 

A day is coming and not far off when the kingdom of God will appear in all its glory and our redemption made real in the face of the Son of Man. 

A day is coming and not far off when a new day will break forth and shine upon us with the glorious light that will swallow up Shadow. 

And until that day, we wait, we get ready with active faith and foolishness thrown in together, trusting the truth that God is always faithful to God’s promises.


[1] “Zarathustra’s Midnight Song,” in  Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) written between 1883 and 1891.