This sermon was delivered at Leichhardt Uniting Church on the first Sunday in Advent. The readings were: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, Luke 21:25-36.
“O my God, in you I trust” (Psalm 25:10)
I do not trust in the ability of Sydney infrastructure and public transportation to withstand more than a light shower, I do not trust that the guy I just let merge in front of me will give me that well-earned courtesy wave, I do not trust that I can stay dry when bathing a toddler. I do not trust the market to achieve justice or equality, I do not trust that pollsters predicting elections – especially when they are in my favour, I do not trust in political promises to remove children from detention, I do not trust that hard won civil-rights victories cannot be undone, I do not trust the governing bodies of colonial Australia to ever properly recognise the sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples of the land. I do not trust that society is on some inevitable march of progress. I might have hopes for these things, but they are not something I feel comfortable placing any ultimate hope or trust in, for “Advent begins with the recognition that human progress is a deception” (Rutledge, Advent, 256). Merry Christmas.
O my God, in you I trust. This is the posture of the Christian at Advent placing our hope in the future of God, trusting God to keep promises and make right!
It is important to make clear at the outset, Advent is not solely the season of looking forward to Christmas. Many of you may already know this, but it is not surprising if some of you don’t. All around us Christmas creeps ever further back into the year – with Woolworths playing carols in November, and rehearsals for wonderful Christmas pageants already underway, how can it not be conflated with the entire season?
The season exists between two Advents – the coming of Jesus Christ in humility, born in a manger in Bethlehem; and Jesus’ coming again in glory, at the end of the age, to judge the living and the dead. And it is arguably the latter that Advent is more concerned with. Certainly if you stay with the lectionary readings this season the anticipated and longed for second coming of Jesus will continue to pop up.
Perhaps, at the start of the church year, in December, you might expect the gospel readings to be drawn from the birth narratives of Matthew or Luke… but no – we get a passage from what is known as the synoptic apocalypse. Jesus is telling us that “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” – at the sound of that we might be of a like mind with the legendary Ricky Bobby who always preferred to pray to the sweet baby Jesus.
Why all this looking forward? What’s that all about?
Earlier this week I read a blog by Robert Williamson Jr that was so good it should have been my sermon. Advent will upend the world! He writes:
… an Advent that looks only backwards [to the birth of Jesus] is an Advent of the establishment. It is an Advent that insists things are already the way they should be, that all is right with the world.
But a future-focused Advent recognizes the deep injustices in the world that remain to be rectified. Indeed, according to the text, the arrival of the Son of Man will be a wrenching experience for those deeply invested in the status quo. It will make the earth tremble. It will shake the heavens. It will fill the Empire with fear and foreboding—for the times are about to change.
This text insists that Advent, properly celebrated, ought not be a time of nostalgic recollection of the past, nor a confirmation of the world as it is. Rather, Advent should be a time to examine the injustices of the world, to recognize the places where the earth needs to tremble and the heavens need to shake.
I titled this sermon “the hope in judgment” – and as we’ve been progressing there may be some growing nervousness in the room. He’s already used words like second coming, judgment, evil, glory – are these not words and concepts that our theologies have rightly moved on from? Why is he crashing our Christmas celebrations with all this darkness – well for one, Advent begins in the dark, that’s why we start by lighting candles, and two, I’m a guest so I can just drive back over the bridge once this is done.
But more and more I am finding hope in the judgment of God because hope in anything else has proven so fickle or anxiety inducing. Perhaps it is a sign of my privilege that I am coming so late to the party. I have lived a sheltered life, unexposed to so many evils. The dignity of my body and personhood has never been subjected to systemised brutality, inhumanity, or postal surveys. Marginalised Christian communities from the beginning through to today have consistently placed their hope, ultimately, in a God who will come to judge the world, rectifying wrongs and establishing a new reign: one where freedom abounds and every tear is wiped away. As Jeremiah prophesied, the hoped for branch that will come to exercise justice and righteousness shall be known as: “The Lord is our righteousness.” That is the name of their hope. That is the nature of our God – to judge and make right.
It is important to hold these two together. Judgment is such a loaded term these days. In part due to the development of the negative ascription: ‘judgmental’ (a 20th century phenomenon – Rutledge, Advent, 179). But I think mostly it is because the focus has been on judgment and not on the nature of the one who judges. Let us return to the psalmist – O my God, in you I trust. The reason for the trust is there in the song: saviour, steadfast love, and goodness. Saint Paul illuminates this further – in the one letter to the church in Rome he writes both that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” and that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus”. How does this work?
Pick up reading anywhere in the Bible we will soon come upon the theme of the righteousness of God and God’s judgment on evil. God judges. But, to quote Fleming Rutledge, “the overall testimony of the Old and New Testaments is that God will save us from the judgment, but he will not save us without judgment” (Advent, 182).
Our Advent posture of looking squarely at evil and taking inventory of the darkness should assure us of three things: 1) There is too much wrong and broken and wicked in our world and in our own hearts to go on forever, what a torment that would be! 2) We are complicit in at least some of that brokenness and wickedness. 3) We cannot solve it ourselves.
War and abuse, cancer and chaos these wrongs in our world must be set to right, and it will not be by our hands. Jealousy and spitefulness, apathy and selfishness must be set right, and it will not be by our efforts. For as Saint Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Who does not know that feeling – usually only a moment after we have done what we wish we hadn’t (or, you know, inexplicable 10 years later while driving - the memory of doing what we wish we hadn’t floods back). And what would be tragic is that we, like the great apostle, would continue to do these things that we do not wish to do (and feel the sting), were it not for God who intercedes out of love, steadfast, unending love for us – all of us. God is not against us, but for us – and so we will be saved from the judgment, which would rightly come for our own parts in the evil and brokenness of the world. But because God is for us, we will still be saved through judgment – for our judge not here to condemn us but “is turned against everything that reduces us, that imprisons us, that distorts us, that annihilates us.” Through this we shall be redeemed, made whole, and made ready for the new heaven and the new earth.
“To each and all we bring this announcement: God will come, and his justice will prevail, and he will destroy evil and pain in all its forms, once and forever. To be a Christian is to live in expectation of that fulfillment” (Rutledge, Advent, 262).
How different this is from the judgment of our world. Which judges people lesser in order to oppress. Which judges by race, gender, sexuality, and ability in order to establish hierarchies and limits to freedom. All this the Son of Man shall judge – all this shall face the righteousness of God and be swept away by his fiery justice. And we know that God will judge on the side of the oppressed and the humiliated because the first Advent, the birth of our Lord into an oppressed people, has demonstrated already that he will be found on the side of the lowly. Indeed Christ continues to come to us incognito – as it happened at his birth – coming to us as the stranger in need of welcome, as the hungry in need of food, the naked in need of clothing, the prisoner in need of friendship. The continued coming of Jesus to us in this way, means we cannot passively wait for the coming of Jesus in glory.
Be on your guard, be alert, ready yourself – says Jesus in our gospel reading – this judgment will come - “hasten and wait” as the author of 2 Peter wrote. The Psalmist who trusts in God, asks to be taught God’s ways, to be shown God’s path. To wait is not to abdicate ethical responsibility. We are called and commissioned to become God’s righteousness in the world, to participate in the work of God, to judge that which is counter to God’s goodness. We do this not to bring on the final judgment, not to speed up the second coming – but we do it in light of that event which will upend the world and set all wrongs to right. And because of that, whatever work we do is part of God’s work – and so is given significance because the future is assured.
The hope in judgment, in God’s righteous, final judgement transforms our work for justice and light here and now. At the beginning of this sermon I ran through a litany of things that I do not put my hope or trust in – but that doesn’t mean I won’t work for them. I am committed to God’s mission in the world to liberate captives, to let the oppressed go free, to heal and restore, to reconcile and redeem, to bring joy and affirm human flourishing. I will work everyday for that – in mostly small ways – and the impact of my work, of our work, will be varied. There will be victories, there will be defeats, there will be well earned achievements, there will be heart-breaking and incomprehensible defeats and setbacks. We will get tired, and our minds, our bodies, and our world will impose increasing limitations upon us. But we can always have hope – because it is not up to us, or our church, or our generation. Ultimately, the making right of all things is up to God, which means, to quote Rutledge:
“And so, our great and unconquerable hope is this: sin and the demons will be judged and consumed by the Lord himself. That will happen in his time, which is not ours to know. But in the meantime, the powers of death will be judged a little bit at a time as God works through the deeds of love and mercy done by his people, not only by doctors and nurses but also by all who stand alongside others in suffering and who work for justice and righteousness.” (Advent, 163, 164)
All the good we do in our hearts and in the world is not for nought – whatever present appearances may suggest. It is swept up as participatory anticipation of the ultimate work of God to bring justice and righteousness to a world at sea. That sounds like something worthy of a joyful celebration – perhaps it will be a merry Christmas after all.
“O my God, in you I trust”