November 23, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
For Luke “as it was in the beginning” might be a good slogan to encapsulate his Gospel’s conclusion. Because when Luke began, we heard a lot of very dramatic rhetoric as to what the coming of the Messiah would entail. Even the Virgin Mary’s song in Luke 1—the Magnificat—is filled with violent imagery. We read about the rich being sent away empty, about the proud being overthrown, and just generally about the great reversal of fortune that would come as a result of the child Mary was carrying.
Then when John the Baptist appears in Luke 3, he also makes claims that are on the grand side. He predicts great upheavals and then claims that ALL of humanity would see these things. His words to even the religious leaders of the day were laced with bracing imagery of axes being laid to roots and such. Both Mary and John the Baptist speak (and sing) in ways that let you know something BIG is on its way!
But then Jesus of Nazareth appears and for the longest time things get kind of quiet. Jesus is doing many good things, saying memorable phrases, healing people. But no valleys were getting exulted. No mountains were falling into the heart of the sea. The haughty rich were snug and secure in their mansions, and the poor were not being filled with good things. It got to the point (as you can read in Luke 7) where even John the Baptist thought he had made a mistake in identifying his cousin Jesus as the great Coming One and so dispatched a cadre of followers to ask a heartbreaking question of Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come or should we wait for someone else?” Loosely paraphrased, John wonders if they should wait for someone better!
But Jesus kept making clear that his kingdom, though real and powerful, was of a different nature than the kingdoms of this world. Finally, however, by the time we get to Luke 21, some of this gospel’s rhetoric appears to have swung around full circle as even Jesus starts to talk about public events that all humanity will see. What’s more, those public events will be dramatic and will send people skittering and scattering. You can almost hear John the Baptist crowing, “Now that’s more like it!” Mother Mary may be smiling approvingly in the background, too.
It’s easy to latch onto this kind of dramatic stuff from either end of Luke’s gospel and make it the whole story. We end up treating the shank of Jesus’ quieter gospel ministry as a kind of gospel footnote, an asterisk, the exception that proves the rule. Hence some make “the norm” of the church’s ministry the loud and noisy and public stuff. But that is, of course, a mistake. We cannot ignore the example of Jesus all through the gospel nor may we forget that even after his resurrection, we find Jesus not engaged in violent actions against the rich and powerful but trudging along beside two clueless travelers en route to Emmaus or appearing in locked rooms or on a quiet and remote mountaintop just before disappearing into the clouds.
Jesus says that when all these big things happen, the end is near, the kingdom is near. But the implication is that until this happens—and it all looks to be a rather unmistakable set of circumstances when the end finally comes—things will probably continue on along the kingdom trajectory suggested by the bulk of Jesus’ ministry. We are to continue to witness to Christ and to his kingdom in Christ-like ways, which is to say in ways that keep an eye out for the downtrodden, the poor, the marginalized. As we do so, we may well continue to work largely in obscurity, even as Jesus did.
Over the long haul, that can get a little discouraging. Jesus knows this. Why else did he conclude with that stern warning not to give ourselves over to dissipation and the like? Jesus knew we’d be tempted in that direction in case we peg our identity—or try to define our successes—solely along the terms and definitions proffered by the world (which tends to define success as anything that is loud, garish, glitzy, headline-grabbing, etc.).
Mary and John the Baptist at the beginning of Luke—and Jesus himself here in Luke 21 near the end of Luke—were not wrong. The kingdom is going to make all the difference in the world. It will be God’s grand reversal of fortunes, God’s glorious return of this creation to what he intended in the beginning. But it may be a while. Meanwhile faithfulness is called for and gospel “success” is defined by all those times we notice the little people, the down-and-outers, the sick and marginalized and proclaim to them Good News. It may not grab headlines—and in a world beset by so many problems it may look like the equivalent of trying to empty the ocean one thimble-full at a time—but kingdom vision sees things differently!
I suppose it’s this way every year but at this moment late in the year 2015, it certainly looks as though we will be celebrating Advent and Christmas this year under the shadow of ISIS and all the mayhem it is unleashing on the innocent (and all the bombing campaigns and police raids the rest of the world is carrying out in response). As I write these words a few days before this sermon starter will go live on the CEP website, I have no idea what other terrible things might transpire between now and whenever you are reading this.
It will be an Advent to test what we really believe, in short. The nations of this world are in tumult and respond the only way they mostly know how: meeting fire with fire. Yet we in the church believe that the kingdom of God is the greater reality, even right this very moment. We believe that the kingdom is spreading like yeast in dough, like a seed germinating and sending down roots silently in the soil. We believe Jesus HAS come once and WILL come again and all that we do—how we pray, how we worship, how we preach in especially times of fear and tumult—has to witness to our ardent belief in the power of Jesus to heal.
In some ways, given the news of the day, it may not feel like a very “Merry Christmas” this year, and that traditional greeting may even stick in our throats a bit, feeling more like an effort to cover over the world’s mayhem than a genuine expression of heartfelt merriment from our hearts. But then, “Merry Christmas” has never been a Christian, biblical saying anyway. We seek the deeper things of joy, not mere happiness. We seek to celebration the coming of shalom and the incarnation of a grace that alone can save us from our sins and this world from its addiction to evil and violence.
We seek something more profound than that which is merely “merry.” And thankfully through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have that something, too.
Paul Scott Wilson, in The Lectionary Commentary, notes that when Jesus uses the word ethnos to describe the “nations” that will be in anguish and perplexity, he’s using the same word he uses for “Gentiles” in verse 24. The sense is that upheaval at the “signs,” as well as their implications, will be universal. By implication, however, Wilson suggests, the Gentiles may not recognize those signs. Fred Craddock, in his commentary, Luke, points out that the word Jesus uses for “this generation” in verse 32, while apparently very specific, is actually quite vague. The word can refer, as we’d expect, to a period of about thirty years. But it can also refer to a period of an indefinite number of years that’s marked by a kind of quality such as suffering, waiting or witnessing.
From Neal Plantinga’ sermon: “In the Interim”:
Be on guard, says Jesus, that you don’t get weighed down with parochial anxieties and parochial amusements to relieve them. Be on guard against that fatal absorption with yourself! Take care! Stay alert! “Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”
Jesus’ words are an antidote to our sloth, an antidote to our worldly cynicism, an antidote even to our scorn of prophecy buffs. Jesus’ words are meant to raise our heads and raise our hopes. Could justice really come to the earth? Could husbands quit beating up their wives, and could wives quit blaming themselves? Could Arabs and Israelis look into each other’s eyes and see a brother or a sister? Could some of us who struggle with addictions, or with diseases that trap us-could we be liberated by God, and start to walk tall in the Kingdom of God? Could Jesus Christ appear among us in some way that our poverty-stricken minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?
If we believe in the Kingdom of God we will pray, and we will hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We will work in the same direction as we hope.
In a wonderful book entitled Standing on the Promises, my teacher Lewis Smedes says that hoping for others is hard, but not the hardest. Praying for others is hard, but not the hardest. The hardest part for people who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”
The hardest part is simple faithfulness in our work and in our attitudes-the kind of faithfulness that shows we are being drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God.
According to a story that Os Guinness tells, two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and good faith. We are all upset by the darkness, he said, and some of us are afraid. But, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty.
“I therefore ask that candles be brought.”
And men who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Acoustics are so key. How does a text sound? Usually you need to pay attention to the context to figure that out. But when you dive into the middle of a text like this lection, you can so easily miss or forget that wider context. But remembering it can change the acoustics pretty significantly. After all, taken by themselves, these three verses are lyric, hope-laden, redolent of promise. In other words, they can be quite well savored on their own level.
But it helps to go back to the beginning of Jeremiah 32 to set the stage: Jeremiah is incarcerated in the courtyard of King Zedekiah. He was placed there at the beginning of chapter 32, and the opening verse of this 33rd chapter assures us that he is still there. The reason he had been placed under this kind of house arrest was because Zedekiah could not stand what Jeremiah had to say. It was all doom and gloom, all defeat and destitution. Zedekiah had had about all the bad news he could stand and so locked Jeremiah up in the hopes of also shutting him up.
Ironically it was only then that Jeremiah’s tone did pick up a bit. In chapter 32 he was instructed to buy a field as a symbol of future hope. At a time when all the real estate in Israel was at rock-bottom prices due to the fact that soon the whole land would be over-run by Babylonians anyway, Jeremiah bought a field as a way of saying that he believed—at the Lord’s behest—that they’d be back some day. A day would return for God’s people when holding property in the Promised Land would make sense again.
Now in this 33rd chapter we get these promising words of prophecy about the Lord our Righteousness restoring the fortunes of God’s people in fulfillment of every promise God ever made. But how different they sound in our ears when we hear them delivered by Jeremiah out of a context of suffering, of arrest, and delivered also at a time when Israel was teetering on the brink of national disaster and of a period of tremendous suffering and shame and tragedy. Yet it is precisely out of this context that this message of restoration and salvation—and through that of hope—comes.
The Lectionary assigns this text for the First Sunday in Advent in Year C and pairs it with the gospel reading from Luke 21 and Jesus’ words of apocalypse that anticipate the end of history. In a way, Jeremiah 33 finds Israel in a time of real apocalypse and not merely of a future occurrence. And yet both passages look at such cataclysms and, without pulling any punches as to the severity of such things, nevertheless proclaim words of hope. But then, aren’t those precisely the situations where one needs to find hope?
As we begin to celebrate Advent and then Christmas once again, we know full well that not all the forced Christmas “cheer” in the world can cover up or finally compensate for the gloominess and the raw tragedies of the surrounding world. As noted in also the Gospel sermon starter for this first Advent Sunday in 2015, this year we celebrate “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” under the shadow of ISIS and all the mayhem it is unleashing on the world (and all the counter-mayhem this is calling forth from the nations of the earth). One needs to be cautious in terms of over-extending imagery or over-inflating things, but no doubt many of the people to whom we will preach across Advent and Christmas 2015 feel like they are enduring their own little apocalyptic period, their own personal and familial cataclysm. They can identify with Jeremiah locked up in a courtyard from which he cannot get out. They feel trapped, too, and all locked up inside a spiral of events that has devastated their ability to feel secure or to provide the basics for their own children.
It’s not easy to speak words of hope from such situations. And it’s no mean trick to have the pluck to speak words of hope into such situations, either. Coming from the outside with words of hope, we always risk triteness and a too-quick, too-facile attempt to make everything better in ways that end up making them actually worse. Or we become guilty of appearing to wave away the real sorrows people endure with a Pollyannaish and pie-in-the-sky wishfulness that, again, may serve only to anger or alienate those who are hurting.
These risks are real. Still . . . Jesus in Luke 21 tells us that the ultimate future really does contain a world of hope. And Jeremiah in this 33rd chapter reminds us that even in the midst of life’s worst woes, even in a time of collapsing securities and the disorientation that always results, God has a word. God has a plan. God has a gracious set of promises that he will fulfill. Destitution does not have the last word. The tragedies that come do not define us ultimately. God’s ways will not be thwarted by a bad economy, by unemployment, by disease, by outright poverty, or even by death itself.
No one in the church should ever want his or her pastor in Advent or at Christmas to come across as some trite purveyor of faux holiday cheer. No pastor should try to be some Andy Williams or Donny Osmond type who flashes smiles and croons pretty melodies on some ecclesiastical equivalent of a Holiday Special as a way to paper over—or at least to distract us from—life’s sharp edges.
But what people should expect is a pastor who can lead the way in helping everyone look reality full in the face—not despite the fact that it’s “that holiday time of the year” but precisely because it is that time of the year—and even so speak God’s promises firmly, confidently, and in full assurance of God’s faithfulness—the divine faithfulness to his own promises that alone anchors our hope. Maybe the example of Jeremiah can help. These words in Jeremiah 33:14-16 are not meant to be isolated and emblazoned on some counted-cross stitch wall hanging with which to pretty up the den. No, these words have a context, and in many ways that context is also our context now.
The acoustics of this passage change when you see that context. The words deepen in meaning. The same may happen for our own people today if only we, by God’s grace, can speak them aright.
Three years ago people on the East Coast celebrated Christmas in the midst of Superstorm Sandy’s recent devastation. That year, in serious remarks he made at the otherwise silly national ritual of pardoning a turkey, President Obama mentioned a man he had met in a devastated area of New York. Houses everywhere around this man’s house had been smashed by water, trees, or both. This man’s own house had been riven by a falling 30-foot pine tree. But as clean-up crews broke down that tree to remove it, the man saved the top 7 feet of the tree and planted it upright in his front yard as a kind of pre-Christmas Christmas Tree—as a symbol of hope. He dug out a few surviving ornaments from his house. Soon neighbors added symbols of the storm itself—surgical masks, battered coffee cups, and the like. It was a sign of resilience, a sign of hope and of a desire to re-build in the midst of devastation.
As we begin Advent again, it’s maybe not too much of a theological stretch to suggest that what God did by sending his own Son here in human flesh was rather like that and rather like the plot of ground God had Jeremiah purchase. In the midst of a devastated world, God carved out a piece of literal human real estate in the form of his own incarnate Son’s body. It stood then and stands for us in heaven now as a sign of hope, of resilience, of a divine intention to take this sin-battered world and rebuild.
Author: Doug Bratt
How in the world can we preach or teach a Psalm on a Sunday when most of our listeners are already thinking about and mostly interested in getting ready for Christmas? If they’re thinking about anything Scriptural, many Christians are thinking about Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 25 might begin a presentation on it by asking listeners about what makes it an appropriate psalm during the season of Advent. It, after all, doesn’t speak of or even allude to the Messiah whose first coming we celebrate and whose return we anticipate in this season. Nor does Psalm 25 explicitly speak of the waiting that is such a vital component of the Advent season.
Yet the Lectionary sees Psalm 25 as an appropriate prayer for Advent’s season of “waiting” for Jesus Christ’s return. There is a sense in which the psalmist is waiting out the contempt of his enemies. Christians too may endure the contempt or mockery of people who wonder just for whom we’ve been waiting so long.
We await Jesus’ return in “hope” (3). Yet while others and even some of God’s children question whether such hope is misplaced, we believe the hope of Jesus’ return isn’t just wishful thinking. The hope of which the psalmist speaks and to which God’s children cling is based on the reliability of God’s promises to send Jesus Christ back to earth. So we wait in the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ will return, perhaps very soon.
In Psalm 25 the poet begs God to keep her faithful as she places her hope in the Lord. That’s also an appropriate prayer for those who hopefully wait for Jesus’ return. After all, any long wait may lead to faithlessness. This offers this psalm’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the kinds of temptation that comes with lengthy waiting. Are there temptations that are unique to awaiting Jesus’ return?
As Jerome Creach points out, as Christians await Jesus’ return, we, like the psalmist, depend on God’s protection as well as guidance. Our long wait for that return may, after all, lead to indifference or, worse, disobedience. Only the Holy Spirit can keep us faithful to God’s ways, paths and truth as we wait through the long night.
Yet the psalmist suggests any kind of waiting is never passive. So those who wait for Christ to return don’t stand around figuratively with our hands in our pockets and eyes to the sky. We let the Spirit keep us attentive to God’s will for our lives. God’s adopted sons and daughters also actively pray for God’s leading and guiding. We also live penitential lives that confess our sometimes disobedient waiting.
For some waiting Christians, there’s an element of the kind of lament that Psalm 25:1-3 expresses. Some of us, like the psalmist, feel under duress from enemies or various circumstances that seem aligned against us. What’s more, as Howard Wallace notes, even if those who preach and teach Psalm 25 don’t feel that duress, we can certainly empathize with the misery other Christians must endure as they await Jesus’ return. One can scarcely engage with the popular media or track websites devoted to the persecution of Christians without seeing and hearing echoes of the pain the poet expresses especially at the beginning of this psalm.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the Lectionary links Psalm 25 to Jeremiah 33:14-16. There the prophet speaks of a “righteous Branch” (15) whose name will be “the Lord our righteousness” (16). This Branch, God promises through Jeremiah, will come to do what is “just and right” (15). This justice and righteousness is what the psalmist pleads with God to show her in verses 4 and following. On top of that, we believe that Christ’s return will bring with it that justice and righteousness.
The Lectionary also pairs Psalm 25 with I Thessalonians 3:9-13. There the apostle prays not just for God to make a way for him to visit the Thessalonians, but also for the Lord to strengthen the Thessalonians’ love as they await Jesus’ “visit.” The psalmist speaks of God’s ways and paths. In a similar way, Paul prays that God will keep the Thessalonians “holy and blameless … when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (13).
What’s more, the Lectionary links Psalm 25 to Luke 21:25-36. There Jesus describes the kind of trust with which God calls God’s people to await his return. However, he also alludes to the kind of threats to the kind of godliness for which the psalmist prays in our text. Jesus seems to think of “dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life” as particularly powerful temptations for those who await his return.
In his compelling book, Hope: A Tragedy, Shalom Auslander’s main character Solomon seeks help dealing with the near-death experience of his young son.
Solomon writes the opinion of his counselor, Professor Jove, was “that the greatest source of misery in the world, the greatest cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death, was neither disease nor race nor religion. It was hope… ‘We are rational creatures,’ Professor Jove explained; ‘hope is irrational. We thus set ourselves up for one dispiriting fall after the next…
Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years … Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution — to anything, mind you, while we have yet to cure the common cold — but a final one, no less. Full of hope the Fuhrer was’.”
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Author: Stan Mast
We would never guess that this reading is an Advent text, until we come to the last words of verse 13, where the coming (Greek, parousia) of the Lord Jesus is mentioned. Before that word, everything is very commonplace. Paul is writing about everyday life, particularly about the love he has for the Thessalonians. What we have in our text is an exchange of affection between a pastor and his beloved church that is almost embarrassing. Whenever we study the New Testament epistles, we are reading someone else’s mail. But this feels a bit like voyeurism because Paul is so forthright in his expression of love for the Thessalonian Christians.
The mention of the Parousia puts all of that affection in a bright eschatological light. When we notice that Paul ends every chapter in I Thessalonians with mention of Christ’s second coming, it’s like he is saying that we must live every chapter of our lives in the light of that great and glorious day. And that reminds us that Advent is not just an early celebration of Christmas, as so many of my former parishioners thought. (“Why don’t we sing more Christmas carols in Advent?”) Rather, Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—yes, his first, but also, and perhaps even more, his second. So the season of Advent is not a time of high festivities; we’re not yet celebrating “The Holidays.” It is a time of sober reflection aimed at growing in holiness; we should treat the days of Advent as “holy days.” At least that seems to be the message of this very quotidian passage from I Thessalonians.
As I said a moment ago, our reading is almost embarrassingly personal. After a very brief ministry in Thessalonica, Paul was forced to leave. He’s been gone for several months now and he has been worried about his newly born church. Will they stray from the faith they have so recently embraced? Will they forget about Paul himself, “out of sight, out of mind?” So says Paul, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might be useless.” (Verse 5) To check up on them, Paul sends Timothy for a little informal church visiting. Timothy returns with the glad tidings that all is well in the little infant church. Not only is their faith intact, but they remember with Paul with genuine fondness. Paul is so excited that he feels as though he has been given a new lease on life. “”For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” (Verse 8) He doesn’t know how to express his thanks enough, as he prays fervently and constantly for them (verses 9 and 10).
All of this personal correspondence can serve as a reminder to our churches that Advent is about the ordinary affairs of our lives. In the midst of life’s loves and loses, Jesus comes to judge and to save. We seldom think of his coming as we live with family and friends, dealing with absence and heartache, reunion and joy in human relationships. This text gives us the opportunity to connect the tangled relationships of our lives to the coming of Christ, both his first and, especially, his second.
For many people, Advent is a time for special ceremonies or disciplines, like Advent wreaths or Advent devotionals. Here Paul gives us some very practical Advent projects in his three wishes or prayers in verses 11-13, each one initiated in the NIV by “may”– “may our God…, may the Lord…, may he….” It’s hard to be definite about whether these are merely wishes or actual prayers. It is definitely true that we cannot do these three things in our own strength, so there’s a sense in which these are prayers asking God to help us. But they aren’t exactly addressed to God. Maybe we can think of them as blessings. Here are three wishes or prayers or blessings that should shape our Advent observance.
“Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.” Clearly, this refers to Paul’s desire to rejoin his friends physically. “Satan stopped us” from coming to you, says 2:18, using a military word describing how one army would block the road to keep the other army from passing through. Paul and his colleagues couldn’t remove the obstacles, so he knows that their re-union will depend on the intervention of the Father and the Son.
Without bending the meaning of the text, we could apply this to the relationships in our congregation. The Holidays are often a time of great stress and disappointment as we are reminded of the blocked relationships in our lives. Satan has stopped us from getting past old memories and hurts and grudges and resentments. Our relationships have become rough and crooked. In the light of Christ’s coming, Advent should be a time to ask God to “clear the way” for us to come back together with those from whom we have become distanced. Before Christ comes in his Parousia, let us ask him to come into our relationships and “make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” Heaven knows that we can’t do that by ourselves, so “may our God….”
In the NIV translation verses 12 and 13 seem to contain two separate wishes/prayers, but they are in reality one long sentence. Verse 12 expresses Paul’s wish/prayer that “the Lord [will] make your love increase and overflow, for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” We live in an age when Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24:12 seems to have been fulfilled. In the last days, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” Think of the cold blooded murders perpetrated by ISIS and the cold hearted response of some Eastern European countries to the flood of refugees from ISIS. We can multiply examples from our own country and our own lives.
In a loveless world, how can we grow in love? Paul knows. In the light of Christ’s return, ask Jesus to make our love increase. Rather than focusing on presents and parties, let us focus on the fact that we will appear “in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes….” Ken Follett has written a trilogy that covers the history of the 20th Century. The second volume focuses on events around and in the Second World War. It is entitled Winter of the World. Before Jesus comes in winter (Mark 13:18), let us use this season of Advent to focus on loving each other and everyone else, even as God loved us in Christ’s first coming.
As I said above, verse 13 is a continuation of verse 12, not a separate wish/prayer. The sense is, may Jesus increase our love in order that he may strengthen our hearts, so that we may be holy and blameless in the presence of God at the Parousia. The point of that long wish/prayer is that Jesus will make us completely holy, so that we can stand in God’s presence when Jesus comes back.
There is much in that sentence that calls for comment. First, the word “strengthen” was used in classical Greek to refer to putting a buttress on an existing building to strengthen it. As our hearts are attacked by “the world, the flesh and the Devil,” we need to be buttressed so we will not fall.
Second, notice that holiness is the focus of this wish/prayer. It is very important that we be holy, because we will one day be “in the presence of our God and Father.” This reminds us of those sobering words of Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” While we should be careful not to turn such admonitions into a kind of legalistic works righteousness, they remind us that holiness matters to God. Jesus died to save us from sin, so that we would not only be declared righteous (justification), but also become holy (sanctification).
Third, Paul asks that our love will increase so that we will be holy. What is the connection between love and holiness? Could it be that love is the essence of holiness? In my tradition, holiness was often interpreted as being separate from the world, which made sense given that God’s holiness is first of all his “otherness.” He is the “Wholly Other.” But in my tradition, that often meant nothing more than not participating in worldly amusements, such as drinking, dancing, card playing and theater attendance. While there was some good wisdom in the call to be careful about getting entangled in sinful pursuits, holiness in the Bible doesn’t seem to be described primarily in those terms. Rather, holiness is loving the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. So, of course, Paul prays that we should increase in love so that we might be holy, because the essence of holiness is precisely love.
In the light of Christ’s coming, let us turn the days of Advent into holy days, days in which we focus not only on enjoying the worldly holidays, but also and primarily on growing in love and holiness. Our Lord Jesus is coming with all his holy ones, says verse 13. That might mean his holy angels, but it certainly means the saints who have died and gone to be with Jesus (cf. I Thess. 4:13-18). When Jesus returns he “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in him.” During this holiday season, we feel more keenly the loss of loved ones, lamenting “that empty place at the table,” and looking forward to that day when we are re-united with our dearly departed. Let’s use this season of Advent to focus on holy living, so that we won’t feel out of place when Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
We spend our lives living by faith, not by sight. But Paul’s reference to being “in the presence of God our Father at the Parousia of our Lord Jesus” reminds us that one day our faith will be rewarded with sight. That reminded me of a scene from a fantasy novel entitled Winter’s Tale by Mark Helperin. Set in a Manhattan that beggars the imagination, it features a cast of fascinating characters. Among them is a star struck couple who live in the same apartment building, but have never met. They learn of each other’s existence by tapping on the wall that separates their bedrooms. After a while they work out a code by which they can communicate with each other, sight unseen. However unlikely it may seem, they fall in love. He is convinced that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, even though he has never seen her.
Finally, they decide that it is time to meet face to face on the roof of their building. He arrives first and waits with trembling hands and bated breath. Then her hand appears on the iron ladder leading to the roof, followed by her other hand, then the top of her head. She swings the rest of her body up onto the roof, and he exclaims, “I knew it. I knew you would be beautiful. And my God, you are.” That will be our exclamation when at last Jesus appears. “I knew it. I knew you would be beautiful. And my Lord, and my God, you are.”