Nov. 29, 2009
Jer 33: 14-16
Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah” (Jer 33: 14).
We begin a new church year, a new year of grace, on this 1st Sunday of Advent, returning to the front of our missals, turning in our lectionaries to a new cycle of Scripture readings, the so-called C cycle, which features the Gospel of St. Luke.
We just heard from Luke, his account of the words of Jesus foretelling the end of the world: “nations in dismay,” nature in turmoil, people dying of fright (21:25-26). It’s not a pretty picture. And then the Son of Man—Jesus—will come on the clouds of heaven (21:27), his 2d coming, which we profess every Sunday in our Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
The last couple of Sundays the readings turned our attention to that 2d coming, and our attention remains there as we begin Advent, this season of expectation of the Lord’s coming. Next week our attention will start to shift to the coming of the Messiah in history, the coming that has already taken place to start our redemption. But for now our attention remains on his future coming at history’s end.
Luke’s description of that coming, as I noted, strikes a note of fear. “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the Letter to the Hebrews cautions us (10:31). Yet Jesus, speaking thru Luke, also says to us, “When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (21:28). If we believe that Jesus is our Savior, should we not be happy to see his coming? Should we not stand erect, jump to our feet like sports fans as an exciting play unfolds? Should we not raise our heads and look our Redeemer in the face and exclaim, as the Book of Revelation does, “Come, Lord Jesus!”? In the opening prayer moments ago we asked that Christ might “find an eager welcome at his coming.” Don’t we want to be among the welcome party? When he comes in his glory, we don’t want to be like cockroaches running to hide under the cabinets, do we?
Advent reminds us that the Lord has promised us redemption, salvation. So our 1st reading begins with the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” The Lord’s promised to save us, and he’s going to do what he’s promised.
Jeremiah, the prophet of doom to an unrepentant kingdom of Judah, also promises that after the Lord has punished Judah for her sins, he will deliver her. “In those days I will raise up for David a just shoot [these words resemble Isaiah’s prophecy (11:1) of a sprout from the stump of Jesse, from the family tree of King David]; he shall do what is right and just in the land” (33:15). David’s descendants have made royal mess out of their kingdom thru their idolatry, their injustice, their infidelity; that’s why Jeremiah rails so angrily against the leaders of his time. But God will redeem their kingdom thru one of David’s descendants.
Jeremiah couldn’t have imagined how the Lord would do that, thru Jesus of Nazareth, a son of David, the Son of David, who truly did “what is right and just in the land” and fulfilled the promise that the Lord would be our justice (Jer 33:16), that is, the Lord would make us all just by destroying our sins.
One of the big, big issues of the Protestant Reformation was the question of justice. How does God justify us, make us holy in his sight in spite of our sins? I read somewhere, a long time ago, that Martin Luther used an image something like this: Imagine a big pile of manure (Luther liked to use stronger words than that) in a barn yard or a field. It snows, and the pile of manure is covered over and looks gloriously clean and fresh. But underneath, it’s still a pile of manure. When the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us, it covers over our sins, our guilt, and makes us look clean and fresh before God, who accepts us again as his children. But under Christ’s grace, we’re still dirty sinners, only “pretend” saints, which however is good enuf for us to be saved.
Catholic theology, tho, says that the grace of Jesus Christ transforms us entirely. Our sins aren’t covered over but wiped out, destroyed, zapped! The pile of manure becomes a pile of gold, something pure and lovely in itself, just as if King Midas had touched it. There’s no make-believe necessary. By God’s grace, we’re no longer sinners but saints.
Transformed by Christ’s grace, by the forgiveness that he offers us, we really do become saints, “God’s holy ones,” as St. Paul calls Christians over and over again—for instance in today’s 2d reading, where he prays that “the Lord make you…blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones” (1 Thess 3:12-13).
Until the moment of death, of course, we remain all too susceptible to sin. We need God’s healing grace, God’s transforming forgiveness, over and over. So Paul does urge us, “Conduct yourselves to please God” and follow the instructions he gives us in Jesus’ name (4:1-2). Jesus warns us against carelessness: “Beware that your hearts don’t become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of life…. Be vigilant at all times…that you may have the strength…to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34,36). Be on your toes to live out your belief in our Lord Jesus day by day, so that when he comes for you you’ll be ready and waiting and glad to see him. If you haven’t done your best at that up till now, now is a new day, and Christ comes to you today with his forgiveness, his grace, so you can start afresh on his path.