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Advent Values

Commentary
It is the end of the year meeting for a ladies church group, who faithfully congregates in the church basement every month. The elderly women’s group membership cherishes any “younger ladies” who are in their fifties of age who might be interested in participating in this longstanding fellowship. These fifty something aged women would be teased as “Spring Chickens” in this group, which was formed at the construction of the church building about seventy years ago back in the golden era. In those days, the huge ladies group was divided into several “circles” or sub groups. However, on this cold wintry day, as the heat continues to warm up the basement (kept off to save energy) as the coffee maker is brewing, this small gathering of ladies creates another budget. Is the declining membership, attendance, and participation a sign of the handwriting on the wall, that the days of such women’s groups are numbered?

With their large print, worn out, color highlighted Bibles at their sides, the ladies group has to decide which values they wish to pass onto future generations of the Kingdom of God. They do this through the allocation of the moneys; they have built up through bake sales, ethnic meatball dinner meals, and assorted rummage and garage sales. How long will such ladies’ church groups such as this one continue? The quilting group is down to four or five faithful retired women, and one has a walker. Creating quilts for the denomination’s sponsoring of people in certain third world countries is one value they wish to pass on into the future. Their nest egg of money to be allocated to causes which they cherish. This includes: the local food pantry, sponsoring a child whose family is unable to pay for school lunches, the social services organization in the state, as well as a Christian mental health treatment center. One of the ladies grandsons is in a hurricane devastated nation, and a generator is badly needed.

The high point of this gathering is discussing scripture, having coffee and desserts as the ladies share concerns of the various people in the community who have needs. They pass around greeting cards to sign, and then deliver these cards to selected people within the community who may or may not attend church. These ladies genuinely enjoy each other’s company, as they share person updates on health, family and maybe the crops and weather.

How long such church ministries will last remains a question. For now they are practicing their core values of relating to other people in the community through their witness as a ladies’ Bible study and fellowship ministry. Luke’s gospel particularly underscores that only God knows when the end of such ministries is beckoning on the horizon. Meanwhile, the call of the community of faith is to persist in witnessing the values of the Kingdom. Each of today’s three texts will touch on this theme.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
This particular text is part of a larger section of the Book of Jeremiah called the “Book of Comfort” (Stulman, 282-285). One overarching theme of the whole book is that of God’s justice or “Theodicy.” That is why do evil people, such as the Babylonian Empire, conquer, devastate and humiliate the people of faith (South Judah or Israel in 587 B.C)? The prophet’s response is the people ignored repeated warnings from God that they are being unfaithful in their fidelity of worshipping one true God according the Book of Deuteronomy (6:4-5). So they are reaping the natural consequences of a pattern of disobedience to God’s Deuteronomy rooted covenant.

True prophets bracket their messages with hope. Jeremiah is no exception. The Book of Comfort (Jeremiah 30-33) reminds the people of faith that God remains sovereign and is firmly in charge of the historical and cosmic events of the times. God continues to work in history to deliver his people. This is a similar theme to the books of Luke-Acts, where God is working to deliver promises despite the death of first generation Christians, and the delay of the parousia (second coming, arrival or presence of Jesus, Newman 136).

Specifically, Jeremiah 33:14-16 assumes that one reason Israel was destroyed is their political leaders or monarchs were unfaithful. This is an important point because in the New Testament, particularly in John 10, there is the suggestion that “Shepherds” were the successors of Jesus in guiding the flock. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the shepherds were the power people in charge of the finances, military and divisions of labor. Not many clergy in modern America have such power. A more accurate assumption would be that the power people led to the downfall of Israel. In Advent, rather than hoping for a benevolent monarch, the church finds its hope in a “righteous branch from David” (33:15). He will execute justice and righteousness throughout the land (33:15b). The nation will be saved and dwell securely.

The core values to this text include that this leader will not wield top down power to accomplish his vision for the nation. He will include or accommodate all people in the land. Finally, while recognizing the value of genealogy roots (branch of David), he will not in any way restrict the blessings and benefits of the blessings to any special familial names or dynasties.

Advent values in this text remind people of faith of three points: 1) Despite any setbacks or failures, God is still working in people’s lives. 2) God raises voices and leaders from the past as well as from the present to point to an inclusive community of faith that seeks to do God’s will. Traditional teachings in church education such as the “Ten Commandments” still have a central place in the life of the community. 3) God’s covenant is secure and dwells with the people for eternity.

Some other sermon directions to explore include when technology, corporate restructuring and instability in national politics threaten the serenity of any people, Jeremiah’s Book of Comfort serves as a reminder that God remains sovereign. Advent season is a time to expect good news of comfort and security, despite any past misjudgments or poor choices made in life.

Also, the branch of David has many branches such as Joshua, Boaz, Noah, Methuselah or any names listed in Luke’s genealogy of Mary’s linage (Luke 3:37). Any one of these names could qualify as “branches” from the branch of David.

As this might apply to the ladies Bible study group, any of their daughters or granddaughters or nieces might one day either take interested or reorganize the ladies church ministry group. Advent is a time of waiting with hope and expectation, while not knowing the exact time and dates of either demise or new life for this people of faith in this church.

[(Sources: Brueggemann, Walter, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007; Newman, Barclay, Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, United Bible Societies, London, UK, 1971; Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2005)].

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
“And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). This verse ties the text into the Advent season and serves as one lens to interpret the entire passage (Furnish, 86). This is an uncontested letter by Paul written while in Corinth around 50-51 CE (AD). It may be one of the earliest surviving letters of the Apostle Paul (Furnish, 21). Generally the book is divided into two sections. Chapters 1-3 relate to Paul’s experiences in Thessalonica and the circumstance for his composition of the letter. Chapters 4-5 contain advice to the church (Juel, 216).

This passage indicates how a believer understands the character of faith as a servant of Christ until the (second) coming of the Lord Jesus. The love referenced is “agape,” or that which is unconditional. It does not seek reciprocity for good deeds done for neighbors. Growing in one’s faith is always a work in progress. It is evident in the missionary task of relating one’s reason for confidence and hope in this season of Advent. Such a faith acknowledges that afflictions and discomfort are also a part of the discipleship journey. Paul sees himself experiencing loneliness, anxiety, vulnerability and some joy. It is a sign of authenticity as he relates to these fellow Christians. So when he does call for joy and rejoicing, it is not superficial, but rather has a seasoned faith dimension to it. Paul reminds us that Theren is a time to share our ideas and feelings during Advent.

As this relates to the church ladies group, every one of these saints of the faith has experienced assorted dark valleys, plights of hurt, betrayal and disappointment. However, they have still kept the faith (like Paul!). The challenge this text brings to preaching is how does a seasoned Christian pass on the value of a tested and often wounded faith onto future generations when many people seek to avoid pain and discomfort? In Corinth, Paul will have more trials ahead while enduring the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). He still rejoices and does not take his faith and reasons for hope for granted.

Another direction might be to ask what sort of letter would one wish to write to a future generation of: worker, educator, family person or Christian if our days on this earth were numbered in less than 365 days.

[Sources: Furnish, Victor, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007); Krentz, Edgar, John Koenig and Donald H. Juel, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and 1 Thessalonians, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1985)].

Luke 21:25-36
Two points can be made to frame the entirety of Luke-Acts as one reads this passage on the end times. First, Luke writes to Theophilus and other readers such as in the present, that, “Nothing happens by chance. Everything has a purpose -- God’s purpose. Because God’s plan underlies all that happens, certain events occur by divine necessity.” (Matera, 57) Second, nobody knows when the second coming will occur, so the believer’s security is found in the teaching and confident hope of Jesus’ teachings. Generally, it is accepted that a second generation of Christians is Luke’s audience. The Parousia has yet to occur and the first generations of Christians have died. Luke-Acts messsage might be summarized in Acts 1:6-8, “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Such a passage would apply equally to Christians in the first century as well as to the ladies church group in the opening illustration.

How does a church leader engage in discussion about the “last day texts?” One example might be a pastor who visits an elderly church member who enjoys watching many television evangelists. The pastor is backed into a corner with a frequent question. “Why doesn’t our church preach about the last days and the texts about the end times such as; Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21 here and the Book of Revelation?” The pastor pauses, and reflects for a short time. Summarizing a commentary on Luke’s view of the second coming, or Parousia might be one place to start.

One reason some clergy are slow to respond to such inquires is that Luke believes vigilance, perseverance and fidelity toward one’s faith is a more realistic short term future. Expectations of escaping the difficult times as seen in both comas and political world events, are not strongly grounded in either biblical or historical evidence. The second coming will indeed occur. Christians will not be “raptured” out of tribulations, but are rather called to live through them, which results in a mature faith (Psalm 23:4). The good news remains that God remains with us and suffers alongside us as God points us to new life. This view of scripture does not sell books or movie plots.

Luke broadens the establishment of the kingdom from the birth of Jesus, and believes the final establishment will come with time. Luke wants readers to know that God is good for his promises. This two volume of Luke Acts is written in the background of a destroyed Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE (AD). The question often asked was, “Is God still good for God’s promises to Israel after the loss of the Temple?” Yes, says Luke. The delay in the second coming is delayed for all nations to be invited and be able to participate in the great feast.

While history has proven repeatedly that faithful saints have suffered for their faith and continue to do so in many nations around the world, Luke’s counsel is to be on guard and be alert. Also, always be in prayer. This is an Advent faith of waiting and expectation. A mature faith is not a result of being able to escape (raptured) out of difficult times, but growth through them (Psalm 23:4). For those who insist on being “spiritual rather than religious,” the path of spirituality is along the trail of difficult changes along life’s road, with signs such as the fig tree as warnings of seasons to come. Again, God remains with us and suffers alongside us as God points us to new life.

Luke is very purposeful to write his gospel in the large framework of secular history, as seen in the details of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:5-13). Luke is interested in specific historical references of the times as he narrates the life of Jesus from infancy to death.

As this applies to the ladies’ church group, they may or may not cease to exist within one generation. Meanwhile, they are practicing all of the above in the allocation of their resources while they have them. Possibly, the women’s group will find another life in new form such as a lunch gathering in a nearby restaurant with women of faith. Regardless, the mission of being witnesses with what God has provided does persist.

[Sources: Carroll, John T, New Testament Library: Luke, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012); Green, Joel, New Testament Theology: The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995) Matera, Frank J. New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007)].

Application
Some directions to explore with this text to emphasize how growth in discipleship is essential in any time of the church, be it joyous or trying chapters of the church’s history. Luke suggests people of faith can look at the signs of the seasons such as the fig trees, but seasons of both winters and summers will occur. Advent is the season for preparation of such seasons in life.

Another direction might be, “How do listeners respond to Christ’s teachings in both difficult and stable times?” 1) Align selves with the power brokers of any given community or nation? 2) Embrace the theology of Jesus’ kingdom, which may well result in forgiveness of sins; reversal of fortunes and stations in life? (Carroll, 421-422; Matera, 69) It is never too late or early to seek to do ministry to the poor, disadvantaged and those who are on the margins of a particular community (Green, 100-101).

Alternative Application
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” Luke 21:33. God’s word is faithful and endures through all ages of social media. Various forms of television entertainment such as cable, satellite dishes and streaming off of an internet connection may come and go, but God’s word remains. If or when the plug is pulled, God’s word in the Bible endures. David Williams has written a dystopian novel entitled, When the English Fall (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2017) about the electrical power grid wiping out modern living nationwide, but focused on the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area. One of Williams’ points is that the Amish communities were best able to sustain their standard of living amidst the disruption of the electrical power grids that undergirds otherwise modern societal stability.
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