1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
This passage from 1 Thessalonians, the oldest book in the New Testament, was written by Paul to the people of Thessalonica after he had left that little community and moved on. Paul emphasizes his strong ties with these new believers in many ways. He repeats the word “you” over and over again in chapter 3. He has reminded them of his tender care for them, his will to spare them any hardship on his account (2:7-9).
In our passage Paul begins with high intensity, signaled by the language in vss. 9-10. He speaks of overwhelming gratitude and great joy. He emphasizes the constancy of prayer (night and day) along with his earnestness to see them. In the next verses (11-13) he uses a number of words infrequent in his other work. And it is only here in all his extant work that he writes a prayer after a thanksgiving. Paul is reaching for language to express the depth, power, and longing of his relationship with these believers, even at a distance.
A preacher could connect this passage with the others for this day, though it would require great skill lest it be a distraction. The connections I see are these:
Paul longs to help strengthen this church, to supply whatever attention is needed. As Luke’s gospel suggests, it is easy to lose one’s way, easy to forget what the future holds, easy to get caught in the demands, challenges, and griefs of the here and now, to lose our ability to observe and assess the goings-on in the world apart from God. It certainly seems that the Thessalonians may be caught up in such grief and uncertainty (see chapter 4). Paul lives out what Luke calls for.
There is nothing simple-minded about Advent. We wait for what we hardly dare to continue to rely upon.
Moreover, Paul understands that God’s promise to call us all to himself will not be hampered by death. His conviction about the day of the Lord still to come undergirds the prayer of 11-13. As Jeremiah relied on God’s promise of restoration, so Paul also does. Luke puts that same promise in Jesus’ words. There is nothing simple about preaching this promise when for so long it has not come to pass. There is nothing simple-minded about Advent. We wait for what we hardly dare to continue to rely upon. The preacher will have to speak of glimpses along the way, first fruits in Christ, the sacraments, and for some of us at least, the gifts of daily life. But the preacher dares not ignore our many human failures, as well as the blows of nature, which have created devastations not unlike those pictured by Jeremiah and Jesus. At the beginning of the church year, the church is called to speak the truth about who we are so that hope in God is a profound confession of things unseen, shaping the lives we live in the midst of what we can see.
Like Luke’s gospel, a reading of which begins on this Sunday and continues throughout Year C, Jeremiah is concerned with the life of the people of God and the life of one of their great prophets around the time of the destruction of the temple. In the case of Jeremiah, it is the first temple that is at stake and the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. Jeremiah, like Luke, speaks to people who ponder the message of God and the possibility of God’s future in the midst of destruction, both threatened and actual.
Our brief passage comes a little past the middle of the book. It is a word of hope, but let us be very clear that it is a word of hope for people in a dire situation. Jeremiah had been given the unenviable task of preaching reform to his own people by preaching against their failure to serve God. Jeremiah laments the lives of his people and their estrangement from God, knowing and declaring that consequences will be experienced for that self-chosen alienation. Although the painful consequences of that alienation from God will be experienced, God does not give up on the people, but holds out hope for their return and for a deeper level of commitment from them.
As the prophet insists upon the role of the people in their own struggles, there is hope that they will see their part in their sad debacle, turn back to God, and live from the hope that God does not abandon them, even if they have abandoned God.
That is, as the prophet insists upon the role of the people in their own struggles, there is hope that they will see their part in their sad debacle, turn back to God, and live from the hope that God does not abandon them, even if they have abandoned God.
The safety and security of Israel will be destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who is marching on their beloved capital, Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar will destroy much of the city and kill many of the inhabitants. But he will not have the last word. Jeremiah, prophesying from prison himself (33:1) — it was not a very acceptable message that he tried to bring! — speaks for the Lord (“Thus says the Lord…” v. 2, 10, 12, 14) promising that the land will again be filled with gladness. The signs of a living people, a bride and bridegroom, of worshippers singing, will return. Verses 14-16 (which do not appear in the Septuagint) extend the promise to a return of a righteous branch of David on the throne. There will be safety and security and God’s reign will be reestablished through God’s chosen king. What a far cry from Nebuchadnezzar!
Meanwhile, Jeremiah has purchased a piece of land (32:9-15), a sign of his conviction that God will restore. So, what about it? It did not happen as hoped and the promise became one relegated to the day of the Lord when the Messiah, the righteous one, the one in undeniable right relationship with God, would bring these prophecies to fruition. Like Jesus’ predictions in the gospel lesson below, time loses its meaning in any big sense. No single event or year clarifies for us when God will act as God has promised, the Mayan calendar notwithstanding. But the hope, the promise, the longing picked up by Mary and Zechariah in Luke’s gospel, is it not shared all too realistically by most attentive human beings in 2012? We confess to holding that hope, all the more so after Jesus has been raised from the dead.
We start the church year at the beginning of December, nearly at the end of the calendar year. We begin the lectionary for the year of St. Luke with a passage from chapter 21, nearly at the end of the gospel. What sense does this make? Why begin a new church year with the 21st chapter of a gospel that explains its very reason for being as setting things in a persuasive order (Luke 1:1-4)? Usually I am a very big fan of following the narrative as it comes to us from the gospel writers. In this case, however, it seems to me that 21:25-36, preferably with some lead in from 7-24, is a good reminder of what we hope for and how we wait for it. In other words, this passage draws together in a straightforward way the promise of redemption and the challenge of living into that promised future. That provides pretty good stuff to put in front of a congregation as we begin a new round of living together into, for, and as if we were already in God’s future.
This reading reminds us the what and why of our gathering together as millennia roll by, the raison d’être of the church. There is no doubt that by the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the new church year is not foremost in the minds of most folks, even of most churchfolk. To begin the season of Advent with this text is to invite hearers into the more complex realities that Christians face. We are not simply preparing to welcome the baby Jesus again, nor are we simply awaiting his arrival.
Instead we prepare to remember the event of this birth, a birth that launched a new future but did not bring it to completion. Luke 21:25-36 is the final part of a long speech (21:8-36) which answers the question raised in conversation near the Temple in Jerusalem. The disciples have admired the building only to hear Jesus dismiss their appreciation of its beauty. Jesus warns them that the whole thing will collapse, stone on stone (and we are talking about some very large stones). They ask, “Teacher, when will this be and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Not a bad question considering the enormity of what Jesus asks them to imagine, i.e. that the central institution of Jewish religious observance would be torn down. Keep in mind that this re-built temple was a gift of King Herod who had Roman power behind him.1
Luke’s Jesus uses this question and location to talk about the future. For Luke’s audience, some of the things mentioned would already have happened, increasing the sense of reliability of all that Jesus predicts.2 The predictions are terrifying and cosmic, but neither sequential nor specific. Such predictions in which God’s creation mirrors or reveals the turbulence of earth (and vice versa) go way back in Israel’s history, as well as in some branches of ancient pagan thinking. Our passage picks up with the signs in heaven and on earth among elements that are completely out of human control. It ought not surprise us that the sun, moon, waves, stars, and sea become harbingers of distressing change: these are God’s creatures as much as we are and they serve as messengers of God as well (See Psalm 104:3-4, for one example.) In 21:25-26, Jesus harks back to the deep conviction that the universe belongs to God and will be a sign — a readable sign as the fig-tree parable suggests in vss. 29-31 — that the “kingdom of God has come near.”
In spite of all the radical re-orientation of the world they know, let alone the fearsome destruction that threatens or occurs, the word to those who long for that kingdom is, “stand up and raise your heads.” This is an event not to fear, but to welcome. That kingdom described and promised throughout Luke’s gospel, promised long before throughout Hebrew scripture, that kingdom of that trustworthy God, is what is coming. Run out and meet it.
In vss. 34-36, we see the calling that this promise itself creates. The calling described is the calling of the church as well as of individual believers. We are called not to forget our future, but to remain on the lookout for it, to be able to evaluate what is happening soberly and without despair. The struggles of life — much detailed in the previous verses and clearly not eliminated for followers of Jesus — ought not blind the church or assembly to what is happening around us and what will happen. There is a call to see clearly, not to be surprised, and to understand whatever comes within the framework of travail and promise. Nor, as Luke 8:14 suggests, ought the good things of life distract us either.
How does the church “stay awake?” What are we watching for?
Caribou Coffee has a wonderful slogan: “Life is short. Stay awake for it.” At one time there was an opportunity to write down and post what it is you “stay awake for.” How does the church “stay awake?” What are we watching for? In Luke’s gospel paying attention is a high value, especially when it comes to the needs of those around you.3 Time to discern how to stay awake will be given to the church as this gospel is read throughout the year. This passage reminds us that we are promised — along with everyone else “on the face of the earth” — that God’s reign will come on earth itself and that we have each other to keep us alert for the journey.
Join the Conversation:
What messages of hope do these readings carry? Or, as Professor Henrich asks us: “How does the church ‘stay awake’? What are we watching for?”
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See this link for an excellent and evocative description of the temple: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/secondtempletimeofjesus.html. Accessed July 30, 2012.
See, for example, 21:9, 20 and the Roman War which ended in 70 CE with the destruction of the temple; 21:10 and the famine in Acts 11; 21:12 and Paul before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 25 and 26.
Think about Dives ignoring Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or those who walked by the victim on the Jericho road (Luke 10:25-37), as also in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-26).