Advent 1 27 November 1994 | Comments &Questions | Return to Templestowe Uniting Church|

Looking Forward in Hope

We hope for renewal in church and society. As we look forward to the celebration of Christmas in this new season of advent we naturally adopt a hopeful attitude. It has even became a part of the common culture of our society: people expect to be happy. Though they might fear that the reality could be different they make a special effort at cheerfulness. That is interesting because traditionally advent was like lent, a time of prayer and fasting to prepare for the great festival when there would there would indeed be good cheer as the restrictions were lifted in the celebrations of the feast day.

The lessons today are about that understanding of God which developed first in ancient Israel, that God is one who comes to meet his people. You do not have to climb up to heaven by your own efforts. Towers of Babel don't work. But he will gladly come to meet you as the Jesus taught in the parable of the Prodigal Son whose father ran down the road to meet him when he came trudging home in fear and shame. Jesus taught that he comes in love and power, and being the Word made flesh, he showed in his own life how he reached out to people. But the lessons today from Jesus teaching and from Paul are mainly about what is sometimes called the second coming; about how in the end God will come in power and judgement in the person of Jesus who is then revealed as the Lord who will be our judge. Because he must by his own nature come in love as well as power he is both our judge and our redeemer.

Luke 21:26

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

Luke 21:28

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

So if we are to understand God as one who comes to us we need to have in mind both his coming at Bethlehem and at the end (ours or the worlds).

When Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God he was bringing a message of hope. The Gospel is indeed good news. We can look forward to better things. But that is very different from secular ideas of progress which are popular today, because with those ideas people put their trust in themselves or those they follow, in the capacity of humankind to achieve fulfilment by our own efforts.

The Christian hope is founded on faith in God. Knowing that he will be clearly seen in the end to be in charge, we can hold up our heads in confidence because we also know that he loves us and will bring to completion the purpose of his creation that we should all be in fellowship with him and with one another. But because of our sinfulness it can be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God.

Luke 21:31

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

Jesus taught that the coming of the Lord, the coming of the Kingdom, the reign of God, will be a time of fear and foreboding; but we should have confidence that our redemption in near.

Judgement and redemption come together.

Fear and hope in the present day

There is a struggle going on in popular culture between the prophets of doom and the believers in progress. Some point to an ecological crisis, to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, and of course to exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful; we might also see the effects of unemployment, the breakdown of families and the struggles of people living with a deep sense of alienation from society and perhaps from God. Others, indeed the majority of people most the time, really believe that things are getting better, that each successive generation must expect to enjoy of the world's riches and have greater control of their lives than others had before them, they see virtue in strength and despise those who stand in the way of progress.

Are these contemporary sentiments relevant? Was Jesus talking of something that was going to happen in ordinary human life, within human history, or was he speaking of another world altogether, and a different kind of time beyond history? Will the fulfilment of our hopes and fears be found in the world that we know or in the world beyond?

It is both our time and God's time, and the fulfilment of his purpose for creation will be found by us both in this earth and in heaven, because we are both creatures of the this earth and spiritual beings whose true citizenship is in heaven.

Spiritual confusion

People in our society today are very confused about these things, but they are aware of their spiritual nature. There has been an increasing awareness of there being more to life than physical satisfaction and material possessions. People are speaking of their own `spirituality', and there is much seeking of alternatives, sometimes sadly in old superstitions long since abandoned by Christians. The arts and sometimes politics or ideology, take on religious significance and the environmental movement has much of the character of an alternative religion. In this context, for the first time for a generation people are beginning in increasing numbers to ask what the Church has to offer, as if there might just possibly be something there although the popular places to seek spiritual enrichment are still quite different.

It is interesting that it is not only the culture of popular magazines and music that one sees this search, with both fear and hope. It is found also in contemporary serious Australian literature: eg. Helen Garner's recent book Cosmo Cosmolino is about an angel, while other recent works, set sometimes in the time of pioneers centre on religious characters and who do the strangest otherworldly things, eg., the novel with which Peter Carey won the Booker Prize, Oscar and Lucinda, and another novel published in the past year or so The Grisly Wife the recent work of Rodney Hall, who has just been awarded one the highly paid writers fellowships be the Federal Government. [David Malouf's latest book Emembering Babylon might be said also to be about angels. And the ABC even had a program about angles on Encounter this morning: ref tape.] Even writing of people who can fly has not destroyed the credibility of these highly regarded writers in secular society, which someone said recently is too religious for its own good.

But what about signs in the sky?

Luke 21:25

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

It was common in the ancient world to look to the sky, it was to heaven after all, for signs of things to come. Hence astrology. How many people today study the stars? a modern scientific person might look with disdain on this primitive striving after an understanding of the powers beyond our ordinary world which shape our lives. But it does at least signify an appreciation of mystery and of the fact that we are dependent beings. It is a very limited but nevertheless genuine striving after the things of God. It could lead on to a greater understanding, if the Gospel is heard, though it can become elaborated into a false religion.

When the Gospel writers expressed the Christian hope in these terms they were recalling what had been seen by the ancient prophets, and the same imagery is found in the book of the Revelation. It shows that something of cosmic significance was happening.

Revelation 6:12-13

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, {13} and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.

[Incidently it is thought that there was an eclipse of the moon, when the moon looks red, at the time of the crucifixion,]

Isaiah 13:10

For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.

Joel 2:10

The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

Zephaniah 1:15

That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,

The idea that `The Son of Man' (the title Jesus took for himself) would come in similar dramatic form was well known at the time from the prophecy of Daniel:

Daniel 7:13-14

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [lit. `son of man'] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. {14} To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

There was a sense of awe, even of dread at such prospect

The gospel in good news: Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. But he also gave warnings that people should be ready. {It was not all words of comfort, especially for those who were caught unawares with their mind on other things: worldly concerns that could blind them the things of God.

Luke 8:14

As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

Luke 12:22

He said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.

Luke 12:45

But if that slave says to himself, 'My master is delayed in coming,' and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk,

Mark 4:19

but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.

1 Thessalonians 5:6-7

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; {7} for those who sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.}

It can be a terrible thing to fall into the hands of God; he demands justice:

Amos 5:18-24

Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; {19} as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. {20} Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? {21} I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. {22} Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. {23} Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. {24} But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

{The time of Amos: A rich merchant class had developed, sharing the nations wealth with the nobility and building themselves elaborate homes. But the common people had no share in this new wealth. Earlier wars had weighed heavily upon them, and now they found themselves helpless before the rapacity of power- and land-hungry upper classes. Small farmers were dispossessed to make possible the development of large estates. Israel, whose strength had been in the mass of its solid independent citizens, was quickly becoming divided into two classes -- the dissolute rich and the embittered poor. [About 750 BC just before the Assyrian conquest of Israel after Israel had prospered form the earlier defeat of Damascus by Assyria. Interp. Dict. of the Bible]

Amos was a shepherd familiar with the sights of the city. He saw peasants sold into slavery for the price of a pair of shoes while the sanctuaries were crowded with confident worshippers exulting in their good fortune. With eyes sharpened by the frugal, austere life of his desert regions, by insights of faith that came to him from earlier prophets, by his own intense consciousness of God's justice, Amos examined the life of urban Israel and could form no other conclusion than that it was ripe for judgement. [Interp. Dict.]}

Remember how Jesus spoke of doing things for the least of his children in his parables of the end in Matthew 25 and how Paul prayed for holiness in the hearts of believers as they waited for the coming of the Lord.

{Later in the next century after Amos another prophet arose warned of judgement on the city of Jerusalem which was destroyed soon after, but Jeremiah also looked forward to hope of deliverance and the coming of a messiah, as in the lesson read today. When he did come people looked back to that promise and remembered, just as they also remembered the prophecy of comfort from the later Isaiah:

Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. {2} Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. {3} A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. {4} Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. {5} Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

We take up this them next week when we focus on John the Baptist, who used these same words to warn and encourage.}

Be alert then, be ready to greet the Lord, wherever and however he may come to you, and be sure that he will come. That for the people of God is cause for hope and of rejoicing.

Our principal cause to rejoice is that the cost of our disobedience has already been paid, by the judge himself: such was his love for the world that he sent his only son. We then have a sound basis for our hope, and can expect renewal, not from our own efforts but by the grace of God, from the one who comes.

Now to him who is able ....

[David Beswick, Templestowe Uniting Church]

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