Hope Is a Verb: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week One
1) Happy New Year! The Christian year begins with the season of Advent, and this way of beginning is itself significant. You might think the year would begin with the trumpets of Easter, or the softness of Christmas Eve, or the fires of Pentecost – but on the contrary, we begin in the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, and hate. For it’s precisely there that the God of grace will arrive, and accordingly, it’s precisely there that God’s church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. It’s worth remembering this deep poetry: as the Christian new year begins, we join hands and enter the darkness, actively waiting, singing, and praying anew for God’s light to overwhelm the world.
2) This week is also the beginning of “Year C” in the Revised Common Lectionary, a year of walking together through the Gospel of Luke. Luke is a gracefully composed account of Jesus’ life and ministry, the first of a two-part series (the Book of Acts being the sequel). Luke likely wrote sometime in the late first century, using the Gospel of Mark as a source, among others. Distinctive themes in Luke include the development of the church’s diversity, embracing both Jews and Gentiles (in other words, openness to all!); the role of women in Jesus’ ministry; and the importance of the poor, and of economic issues more generally, in Jesus’ vision for Christian life.
3) This week’s Gospel reading is part of Luke’s version of Mark 13, which we explored a few weeks ago. When death-dealing forces seemed to have the upper hand, as they did when Roman troops destroyed the Jerusalem Temple shortly before Luke was written, one ancient literary response was to envision an imminent divine rescue and a new era of justice and redemption. This literature is often called “Apocalyptic” (from the Greek word apokalupsis, “uncovering” or “revealing”). God pulls aside the veil, revealing to God’s people the hidden, dramatic deliverance to come. Apocalyptic narratives and images can be found throughout the Bible (Daniel and Revelation are prime examples), typically including cryptic, poetic language; ominous signs in the heavens; anguish followed by victory; and so on. In essence, these are extravagant, evocative visions of hope when all hope seems lost (think: mothers, children, and other asylum seekers fleeing tear gas at the border).
4) The reading from Jeremiah is from a section of the book - Jeremiah 30-33 - full of words of consolation, oracles promising the fulfillment of God’s promises, the future salvation of Israel, Judah, and in this passage, Jerusalem in particular. These words of comfort are a reprise and expansion of an earlier prophecy of restoration in the context of Israel’s exile in Babylon in the late sixth century BCE (Jeremiah 23:5-6).
1) Luke 21 is Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples before the passion overtakes him, and in that sense is a kind of “farewell discourse.” The temple will be destroyed and desecrated, Jesus says, and all Jerusalem with it. A time of great suffering will follow, what Jesus calls “the times of the Gentiles” - probably a reference to Roman imperial occupation (Luke 21:24). But then new signs will appear (and here Jesus clearly, intentionally echoes the ancient voices of Daniel, Joel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel), and the Son of Humanity will arrive and make everything right. But since we don’t know exactly when the Son of Humanity will come, we have to stay vigilant. Be on guard! Jesus says. Be alert!
2) The fig tree is an ancient symbol of life emerging out of death, not least because in winter it looks so convincingly dead: gnarled, weathered, and barren.
3) Jesus’ language is peppered with strikingly active verbs: we are to “be on guard,” to “be alert at all times” - and when we see signs of new life and hope, to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
4) Jeremiah has prophesied that Jerusalem will be destroyed - and now declares that the city will be rebuilt and subsequently called, “The LORD Is Our Righteousness” (Jer 33:5; 33:16). A descendant of David - “branch” is ancient messianic title in Zechariah and Isaiah - will emerge as a just leader, ushering in a new era of righteousness and safety.
5) Reading these stunning, challenging passages during Advent, we may well think of Mary’s “Magnificat,” her song responding to Gabriel’s astonishing news (Luke 1:46-55). In its own way, that song is a hymn of praise for apocalypse, for revealing how God is turning everything upside down, lifting up the lowly and bringing the mighty down from their thrones. But make no mistake: God’s revolution runs deeper than military victory. This will be a revolution of love and justice, a revolution of Spirit and flesh, a revolution of “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). Or as Jeremiah puts it, in “the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate...there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness...the voice of those who sing” (Jer 33:10-11).
1) As we enter the season of Advent, this may be the perfect time to name what Advent is all about: entering the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, violence, captivity, and hate, actively waiting for Jesus to come, lighting candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.
2) Likewise, to really hear what Luke is saying, we first need to enter the shadows, those places where all hope seems lost. We have to listen alongside the traumatized soldier, the separated refugee family, the children still in detention centers, the heartbroken addict. Roman armies desecrate and destroy the temple, ruining the sacred heart of the world – not just in first-century Palestine, but also here and now. For you and your community, what contemporary desolations threaten to extinguish the light?
3) Once we have entered the shadows (both intellectually and emotionally), from there we can proclaim the good news, the hope that rings out in the midst of catastrophe. The essence of apocalypse, the point of what is “revealed,” is that God is on the way, turning the world around! And precisely because of this, all of us should be watchful and alert over the days and weeks ahead, cultivating a mindful attentiveness to signs of hope and wonder. Be alert!
4) Thus the Advent season’s “waiting” is decidedly dynamic, less “waiting around” and more keeping watch, always ready for action. Luke’s parable of the “watchful servants” is the perfect icon for this hopeful, active Advent posture: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” Jesus says. “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:35-36).
5) Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century abbot and theologian, wrote eloquently of “three Advents”: first of all, the Incarnation, the Advent at Christmas; and last of all, the Parousia, the Advent at the end of the age (Luke’s subject in this week’s passage). And the second or “middle” Advent, the one in between these other two, is the everyday arrival of Jesus: the knock at the door, the still small voice, the lonely prisoner, the hungry mother, the weary refugee, the migrant worker, the asylum seeker. In other words, Jesus is coming again and again, like a thousand spring buds on a fig tree long thought dead. So be alert - lamps lit and dressed for action. Hope is a verb!
p.s. For a single volume scholarly-and-accessible commentary on Luke, it’s still hard to beat Fred Craddock’s classic.