Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:20-33
1st Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 02.12.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Some of you may listen to the Radio 4 panel show “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue”. One of the many bizarre and ridiculous games they play is to try and say words one after the other that can be found to have nothing in common.
Sometimes this passage from the Gospel can feel like the same game is being played.
How do we make sense of a passage that involves armies around a city, the roaring of the sea, the coming of the son of man on a cloud, and the arrival of the kingdom of God? How do we make sense of the timing of these events, when Jesus says they were all going to happen within the lifetime of his follower’s generation?
It is perhaps important if we are to unpick the complexity of this passage to temporarily, at least, remove our filters of 21st century readers and read it again as Luke’s listeners would have heard it.
As they listened to the words Luke recorded Jesus as saying, they were already looking back maybe 50 years to the time when Jesus had said them. The generation Jesus talked of was already beginning to slip away. But they would have understood Jesus’ words in the light of immediate events that they had all been through.
For the words at the beginning of our gospel reading speak of Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, of it being crushed to the ground, of its population being carted off as prisoners to foreign lands. And that is exactly what did happen to Jerusalem a decade before Luke’s words are written. The Romans, fed up with the constant unrest and rebellion coming from the Jewish people, lost all patience and totally destroyed Jerusalem.
At the same time this was going on, the whole of the known world was thrown into turmoil by a sudden outburst of civil war at the heart of the Roman Empire. Within a year, four different generals, commanding legions, seized the throne. Rome’s peaceful empire was in tumultuous upheaval. It felt like the heavenly bodies themselves had been shaken.
It was the equivalent of the Bank of England’s direst scenario of the worst-case Brexit, plus plus plus, coming true.
So within a generation of Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jerusalem, the city of God, was destroyed, and the Temple with it. The old way of worship, the old way of Temple sacrifices, was gone forever. But it was not replaced by the triumph of another nation’s God. The Romans themselves were too much in turmoil themselves for that to happen.
No – the events show that the real King, the real saviour, is the Son of Man, coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And Luke’s readers would have needed little guidance to know that this was a reference to the book of Daniel, where God’s true people are vindicated, where after a time of oppression God’s people will be shown to be right and those who opposed them will fall. In other words, for Luke’s listeners, the Son of Man had indeed come. It was Jesus. And these events with the fall of Jerusalem simply show that the old ways are now defunct, that Jesus is the true way to God, that his teaching and life have indeed been vindicated.
The words of Jeremiah that we heard require a radical re-reading. Those words spoke of Judah being saved, of Jerusalem living in safety. Well, clearly, the advent of the Righteous Branch, the Messiah, has not accomplished this in a literal sense. Jerusalem lies in ruins, not in safety. But the Temple is no longer a building – it is the followers of Christ; God’s chosen people is no longer the nation of Israel, but a body of people scattered all over the world. And Christ’s coming for them does mean salvation.
So what does this all mean to us, two thousand years on?
It means for one thing that we are already on the side of truth and salvation. The victory over death and sin has already been won. It is Jesus, not any hope in Temple sacrifices or modern-day philosophies, that changes the world. We don’t have to wait to live in the light of that. The kingdom of God is here. The light already shines in the darkness. We can take heart and confidence in our faith. Whatever our fears over Brexit or the state of the world, many of which may be entirely legitimate, we can look to the light of Christ to give us hope.
But we also recognise that the kingdom is not fully here. That though the victory over sin and death has been won, the full consequences are yet to be fully worked out. That darkness and sin remain, just as they did for Luke’ readers reflecting on the rubble of Jerusalem.
That we live in a world where 800 million people (more than one in 10 people in the world) don’t have enough food to eat; where, due to climate change, the world is hotter and sea levels are higher than at any time in the last 2000 years; where wars and conflict proliferate, at appalling human cost; where politics appears increasingly polarised and extreme; where the consequences of Brexit do indeed seem worrying. And where our communities face real challenges, whether loneliness amongst the elderly (a survey last year found that three-quarters of elderly people feel lonely) or mental health amongst the young (one in 4 girls aged 17-19 suffer from mental health problems).
And so, as we saw last week, we are called to join in with God’s work in his kingdom now, working and praying for life and hope. It is part of our calling as people of light.
And we look forward to the day when Christ will come again to usher in the fulness of his kingdom where there will be no darkness, but everlasting light. Where there will be no more hunger, no more war, no more environmental destruction, no more loneliness or despair. But instead, only love, healing, restored relationships with creation, one another and God. A future of light. That’s a wonderful vision to take forward into this Advent season.