The Old Testament readings for the beginning of Advent this week coincide with World AIDS Day. They are potent reminders of the promises of God to the house of Israel. “I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘Our God is justice.”’
The promise is directed to a community of God’s people. The words in the New Testament reading shift and imply that our intense earthly suffering is a prelude to the rescue that God will provide for the faithful. “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
As we reflect on the AIDS epidemic around the world, especially in Africa, where some of the poorest people are living in some of the worst and most violent conditions, we feel in our souls the pleas of these people who are suffering so intensely. In their extreme vulnerability we hear their combined voices echoing the cries for justice and wholeness we hear echoed in our Advent readings this year.
r their pleas,” I often thought. But I do not pretend to understand these things. I only know that in spite of the intensity of the pain and suffering, the people I met could only endure with a belief and hope in God.
As I continue to labor in this area, and see and hear these people who suffer from a dreadful disease while they wait for God to intervene, I wonder, perhaps God is waiting for us who believe in him to intervene on his behalf?
There is a song from West Side Story. “Could be, Who knows? There’s somethin’ due any day, I will know right away, soon as it shows!” The song is about being excited and filled with anticipation. The character, Tony, is convinced that something really big and important is about to happen in his life. He doesn’t know what he wants; he doesn’t know what to expect, yet he just can’t wait until it happens….whatever it is. Tony has been made lieutenant at the war council meeting that night, and his friend, Riff, casually says, “Who knows, maybe what you’re looking for will be at the dance tonight.” And Tony repeats, “Who knows?” And as the possibility of something big happening really hits him, he begins his song.
We live in a world of endless possibilities. Some experiences we seek out, others just sort of happen, sometimes as we expected, sometimes completely out of nowhere, much like the AIDS epidemic. Sometimes there are indications that something’s going to happen. Tony had his dreams each night; he didn’t know what they meant or what they indicated, but they were enough of a sign to let him know that something was coming. Luke’s Gospel uses trees as an example. As soon as they sprout leaves you know that summer is coming. Sometime in late August the Christmas decorations began going up at the Wal-Mart on this side of town, which was a clear sign that Christmas was coming. Whenever the UPS truck pulls up in front of the rectory, I’m excited because it’s a sign that I’m getting some kind of a package.
Advent is often seen only as a preparation for Christmas, and this is understandable. Christmas is HUGE! The stores have been preparing for months, members of my family have been spending money on early shopping, and I even managed to put up the two Christmas trees this past week in the rectory. Our lectionary readings speak about the coming of the Son of Man as our Savior and for the next two Sundays we will read about John the Baptist and how he prepares the way for Christ. The Sunday before Christmas we’ll meet the pregnant Mary as she visits Elizabeth, followed by the reading from Luke’s Gospel on Christmas Eve when we learn about the angels and the shepherds. So, in other words, it’s easy to associate Advent as a time dedicated solely to preparing for Christmas. The truth is that although Christmas does coincide with Advent, this is also a time when we are reminded that the living Christ is coming into the world again.
Most of us don’t dwell too much on the end of the world, but now, here we are entering a season dedicated to the excited anticipation of Christ’s return, and the fulfillment of the Reign of God. We just can’t avoid thinking about it.
Jesus said that when we see the signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, these things will tell us that the Reign of God is near, and people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. When I was a kid, it was easy to get caught up in the signs and wonders of the end of days. If winter was mild and abnormally warm, it was evidence of the approaching end. If winter was icy cold, with lots of snow and below normal temps, that too was evidence that world was going to end any day. If we’re looking for signs, we will see signs. If we want to be afraid, there’s a lot to be afraid about just by watching the evening news.
When most of us think about the end of the world, we experience fear. Why is this?? The one thing Jesus tells us more than any other thing in the Gospels is that we need not fear: “Be not afraid” he says again and again. He tells us not to worry about this life’s concerns, that all will be well. St. Paul also gives us that same advice when he tells us to simply love each other so that we will be found blameless at the coming of Jesus. (See Thess.) The coming of Christ will mean freedom from all the things that weigh us down. It will mean the victory of life and love; it will mean that AIDS will no longer tear families apart. It will mean that God’s Reign of justice and compassion will triumph over every obstacle. So there’s no reason or place for fear!
Whenever we try to decode these apocalyptic texts and try to figure out what signs we should be looking for, we miss entirely the point! There are so many things in God’s universe that we simply don’t understand, that God hasn’t revealed to us, and our presuming to decipher the mind of God is the same sin that Adam and Eve committed when they ate the forbidden fruit, striving to be like God themselves. All we can really know about God is what he revealed about himself through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the birth of that Son into our world, the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who came to us as a poor, helpless newborn baby. But in the meantime, as it should be throughout the whole year, we need to remember that the world as it is right now is not all there is to hope for. We can wait with excited anticipation for the return of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, who will execute justice and righteousness throughout all the lands, and who will reign with mercy, and who will bring his peace. We don’t know when that day will be, nor can we, nor does it matter. As we wait for his coming with our excited anticipation, we can allow Christ to rule already in our hearts, putting his justice and his righteousness above all the other idols we face each day, and we can live as though that Reign of God were already here. And we can trust in God’s mercy through his Son Jesus Christ that when the end of the world that we know does come, it won’t be a matter of who correctly interpreted the signs, but a matter of having looked to God that we may abound in love for one another and for all.
Notes from NT Wright:
Cheery Gospel for the first Advent Sunday:
Jesus says the signs will come within that generation’s lifetime, so did He misunderstand? Or is there another way tos ee this reading? NT Wright says that this apocolyptic story isn’t about the end times, it’s about something political about to happen. Like Jeremiah predicted the Babylonian captivity. Destruction of Temple is what NT thinks it’s about—this happens when the Jews rise up in violence against the desecration of the Temple by the Romans. They couldn’t take it any more, so they rose up a second time, and this time the Romans made sure it would never happen again. Temple destroyed, sacred vessels and vestments destroyed, temple never rebuilt. Judaism had to reinvent itslef: no more animal sacrifice since there is no place to do it.
To use violence to defend what we hold as holy, or in defense of God, will lead to absolute destruction. Pray that you are not there that day! The signs apply to our day as well. We must take care not to make the same mistake and don’t try to save ourselves, or God’s honor through violence. “Holy violence” happens in every culture: eg, Afghanistan. Some Muslim extremists blow themselves up to bring God’s justice, killing innocents with them. They unleash a force they don’t understand, and can’t control. Violence begets violence. Power and violence cannot be used to bring God’s Reign.
Uganda, law says gays/lesbians must be turned in and put to death. Some churches support this legislation. Parents who don’t turn in their sons/daughters will be imprisoned for life. Secular power to enforce religious laws is never right. We woulnd’t do that?? Really??
“Inherit the Wind” movie. The scene where the lawyer sees himself outside his hotel window being burned in effagy. There are threats against those with whom we disagree. We must be careful not to fall into the trap. Jesus says turn the other cheek. Love is self-emptying,c aring even when we’re hated. It is the only way to save ourselves from our own worst impulses.
The gospel has Jesus warning about using violence on God’ behalf. Crusades poisoned relations between Xty and Islam. Jesus is God’s idea of what it means to be human. The blueprint. Jesus begins the Reign of God not rhtouh force, but by picking up his cross, loving those who hated him, and transformed history as a result. Our call is to follow so that we can transform the world and ending the reign of violence and power and assist in ushering in the reign of God.
Watch yourself! Be careful! Love everyeone, even your enemy. Preparing for the coming of Jesus in the backwater of the Empire which resulted in the Prince of Peace ushering in the fall of the most powerful empire in the history of the human race. Every kind act, every stand against violence, watch for the dawn, and like the dawn God’ reign of peace will come upon us. Suddenly all will be transformed. We mus be ready.