The Second Sunday in Advent


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Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures… read, mark, learn and inwardly digest…
Romans 15:4-13
Luke 21:25-33

At first glance, the story of salvation is straightforward. Jesus, according to Paul, confirmed the promises of God to the Old Testament leaders, or “fathers”, which were also clearly anticipated by the Prophets, particularly Isaiah in such images as the “Rod of Jesse” which is a particularly potent Advent icon. Jesus, as the “Minister of the circumcision of the truth of God”, is both the inheritor of the Jewish tradition and the spearhead of the mission to the Gentiles foretold by Isaiah. That message, Luke agrees with Paul (one wonders how often they discussed such matters on their journeys), is extremely urgent because we are about to witness “The second coming”, the realisation of The Kingdom, the end of the world as we know it, the “Last Judgment”. And all of this, says the Collect, echoing Paul, can be discerned through the diligent study (or, in those famous words “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”) of the Scriptures.

Would that it were so simple. The crucial problem in this understanding of the sequence is that we are still here. The letters of Paul and the Synoptic Gospels foretell the passing of our known world within a generation. The signs will be catastrophic but the actual process will be as simple to discern as the growth cycle of the fig tree: when you see its leaves you know that summer is coming; equally, when you see these signs and portents you know that the Kingdom is coming. Luke rather spoils this tidiness by ending with the words: “... earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.” One wonders what use words are outside the context of earth.

The second complication lies in the very core of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans which is deeply concerned with the connection between Jewish tradition and the new cult of Christianity, with the terrible friction between modernisers like Paul, who wished to free Gentile Christians from Jewish traditional practices and conservatives in the Pharisaic tradition who could accept the Resurrection of Jesus but saw it as a manifestation within Judaism. This explains Paul’s rather tortuous and often ugly use of the reality and metaphor of circumcision as a typology of righteousness; Paul wanted to transfer the tradition of physical circumcision to one of inner dedication. A subsidiary problem here, of which Luke would certainly have been conscious, was the way this metaphor might have struck female Christians who, until the end of the First Century, were much more equal with men than they were thereafter.

Just as Paul was dealing with a situation of deep division within the nascent Roman Church, so the Book of Common Prayer was forged at a time of serious post Reformation dislocation which presents us with our third problem. The Collect implies that there is a simple way of reaching agreement on what Scripture means, a point echoed in the Epistle and implicitly confirmed in the Gospel. The problem then and now is that this is manifestly not the case, the most egregious example being this very Epistle which was central to Luther’s Reformation challenge and has been an exegetical and Christological battleground ever since.

This grand narrative, then, presents many problems but the central message of the readings is simple. Our purpose in study and witness is to enliven our hope in eternal life. The collect, drawing on the Epistle, prays that the “Comfort of the Holy Word” might give us hope; and the Epistle goes on to refer to the “God of hope” and wishes that all, filled with joy and peace in believing, should “abound in hope”. The Gospel is more concrete, describing “The Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” for, it says, “Your redemption draweth nigh.”

The Gospel is peculiarly difficult for us looking from such a distance at what was to be a broken hope: the “Second coming” was pushed ever further into the future; a structured Church became necessary; and hope was re-directed away from Jesus on earth to God in heaven which, in turn, has led to a dialogue, often of mutual incomprehension, between those who are waiting for The Kingdom and those who believe that “The Kingdom is now”. Are we, in other words, living on earth in a kind of celestial ante-room, getting ready to share in the divine presence; or does the idea of “God with us” mean that salvation is with us, is immanent as opposed to anticipated? Whatever the difficulties of this discussion in the Middle Ages, they were greatly complicated by an understanding of Romans which seemed to separate salvation from earthly conduct; if righteousness was somehow pre-determined, what was the point of hope?

One of the issues we mentioned last week was how the image of light and dark was much more powerful before gas and electricity. A similar point could be made about the portents in Luke. Most Christians before 1700 were never entirely free of astrology and there was an intense intellectual interest in comets and other heavenly bodies. As children of the “Enlightenment” we were, until recently, much more sanguine but we seem to be moving into a meteorologically more turbulent age and global news coverage means that we are made immediately aware of storms and volcanic eruptions so that although Tsunami is now part of our vocabulary we are divided over the causes of climate change.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How does New Testament concern with an imminent ‘Second Coming’ affect the meaning of the texts for us?
  2. Should the Church accommodate a variety of ways of understanding Scripture and, if so, how?
  3. What is our understanding of hope?
  4. Is Paul’s use of the circumcision metaphor useful or confusing today?
  5. Is astrology dangerous or just harmless fun?

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