Reflections on the readings for Sunday 28 November 2010
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44
“Even so, come Lord Jesus!” These are the concluding words of the New Testament, reflecting the longing with which we reconnect in the Advent season. We want the world to be different than it is, and we are sure that when God’s purposes have reached fulfilment, it will be. On this first Sunday of Advent, the Old Testament reading invites us to imagine the world for which we hope, the psalm encourages us to recognise glimpses of it now, the reading from the epistle reminds us how to live in expectation of it, and the Gospel warns of the unpredictable and often cataclysmic nature of its arrival.
The ‘days to come’ when the kingdom of God will be established on earth for all to see, according to Isaiah, will be a time when God ensures that justice is done and international peace reigns. Zion, geographic symbol of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people, becomes the mythical centre of the universe. People of all nations stream toward her in their quest for God, and God’s reconciling word radiates out from her. The glorious future, whatever it actually looks like, will have God at the heart of things and will be characterised by multicultural harmony. If that is the future toward which God is drawing us, then we know what to strive for now. ‘Let us walk in the light of the Lord.’
Psalm 122 celebrates Jerusalem, which in biblical poetry is synonymous with Zion. She was the goal for the people of God on pilgrimage, the place where they experienced something of the presence of God in the temple, the joys of community and also hopefully the just rule of their human leaders. Although far from perfect, to the extent that these were actualised she was a beacon of promise of the greater day predicted by the prophets. We should recognise and celebrate those times and spaces which reflect something of the kingdom of God. They are partial glimpses of the glory to come. But there is also a danger in linking God’s future too directly to places and institutions. That was the mistake that people made in Jesus’ day who were convinced that the messiah should liberate Jerusalem and defeat the Roman occupiers. Jesus’ first coming achieved more, not less, than a partisan victory so we’d be wrong to expect that of the consummation of all things.
Paul stresses that an expectation of Christ’s coming should affect the way we live now. It’s like we’re living in the dark, but we’re expecting the light to break through at any moment. And when the day of the Lord dawns our lives should already be characterised by moral purity. Paul’s emphasis here seems to be very much on individual and community holiness. With a glance back at the Isaiah reading and in light of our globalized existence, I’ll extend that to include a concern for systemic righteousness, and for community and international justice.
In the Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples that the possibility for something completely new is preceded by a cataclysmic ending. The new order can only arise out of the ashes of the old. And these endings arrive unexpectedly and unpredictably. Before the Deluge, people were just getting on with their lives. Now we can’t sit around all night every night waiting for the thief to arrive (a bit like the lazy Thessalonians in the reading of a few weeks back), but we do need to live consciously. The upheavals in the world will not paralyse us with fear if we are praying ‘thy kingdom come’, and working and watching for it.