A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 2, 2012.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when 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: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 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. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.”
Advent season can be troublesome. All around us there are holiday signs pointing to Christmas. Christmas decorations are being set up in homes. Holiday music can be heard in stores, shopping centers, and on commercials. Christmas greeting cards are being sent and received. There is a festive aspect to all of these things.
But Advent season doesn’t deal with festive things. The passages selected for the first Sunday of Advent aren’t part of any carols we sing at Christmas. They aren’t part of Handel’s Messiah. They aren’t about shepherds watching sheep by night, or the little town of Bethlehem, or about Silent Night. During Advent, we aren’t talking about a babe in a manger, swaddling clothes, or even about angels heralding glad tidings of great joy.
No, Advent is about waiting and hoping for something and someone. The passage from Jeremiah mentions an ancient promise about a righteous ruler who will establish righteousness and justice in the land. That’s good news for people with firsthand knowledge about what unrighteousness and injustice looks, feels, sounds, and tastes like.
People who have seen unrighteousness and injustice yearn and wait for it to end. They hope for the day when someone will end the age of deals that make crookedly people rich and powerful but leave others poor and suffering. They hope that someday someone will break up syndicates and empires that cause wickedness.
Advent season is about hoping and waiting for someone who will end the age of injustice and make things right in our lives. So despite the fact that Advent season contains none of the festive atmosphere of Christmastime, there is good news in it.
God will send a Righteous Ruler. The message from the passage from Jeremiah is that God has promised to ” cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” God knows about and sees the unrighteousness and injustice suffered by God’s people. God knows about and sees how much we need to be delivered from it.
It seems that people are constantly being cheated and robbed. The cheats and robbers sometimes show up wearing fashionable clothes. Sometimes they are our kinfolk. Sometimes they are strangers. Sometimes we manage to catch them. Then sometimes they seem to get away. God knows how much we yearn for an end to crooks and crookedness.
There always seems to be a war going on someplace where children, women, and poor people are caught in the middle. There is violence and viciousness in Sudan and Syria, in Gaza and Israel. There is violence and viciousness on our streets, in our schools and neighborhoods, on our jobs, and in our homes. God knows how much we yearn for an end to violence and vicious people.
We’ve seen too much oppression and it doesn’t seem to be ending. Who would have thought that leaders in a nation willing go into debt to wage a ten-year old war in Afghanistan would threaten to cut social services to children, the elderly, and the disabled? God knows how much we yearn for justice.
At Advent, Christians see oppression and injustice, suffering and pain, crooks and crookedness, and all the other things that go with them. Yet, we remember that a promise has been made. God has promised us to send a Righteous Ruler. God has promised to usher in an era of righteousness and justice. God, who does not lie and who cannot be overruled, has promised righteousness and justice for the land.
That promise is what Advent season is about. During Advent season, followers of Jesus affirm a promise that will not be broken and cannot be frustrated. We affirm and prayerfully celebrate a divine promise to faithful people who yearn for righteousness and justice even while living in a wicked and unjust world. God will send a Righteous Ruler!
God’s Righteous Ruler will execute righteousness and justice. God’s Righteous Ruler will set things right. The Righteous Ruler will govern with justice and mercy. The Righteous Ruler will set the captives free. The Righteous Ruler will bring the proud and haughty among us down and will elevate the meek and humble. God’s Righteous Ruler will care for the vulnerable.
This is what we affirm during Advent Season. We aren’t yearning and waiting for the coming of Baby Jesus. We aren’t yearning and waiting for a babe born in a manger. We aren’t yearning and waiting for Santa Claus, Father Christmas, or Jolly St. Nicholas. We’re yearning and waiting for God’s Righteous Ruler to come in power and glory to bring righteousness and justice.
And we yearn and wait with hopeful hearts because God has promised that Ruler. God has promised what no other power can provide. God has promised, and God’s promises are faithful and true. God has promised, and God cannot fail.
Advent is about Watchful Waiting. In the passage from Luke, Jesus cautions his followers to be watchful while we await God’s Righteous Ruler. He speaks about signs and wonders in nature and in human events that point to a new era. And from that time until now, people have tried to put a clock or calendar on when God’s Righteous Ruler will come.
As watchful waiters, we live preparing ourselves and the world for an end to injustice and wickedness. As watchful waiters, we remind the world, in the words of the spiritual, “that trouble don’t last always.” As watchful waiters, we remember that we’ve been given a mandate in the meantime to lift every valley, straighten every crooked place and way, and smooth out every rough place. We live to make justice and righteousness real as best we can, however we can, trusting that God’s Righteous Ruler will arrive suddenly and unpredictably, even while we’re doing this. This sense of watchful waiting runs through the teachings of Jesus concerning end times.
The theological term for end time talk and thinking is eschatology. At the heart of all that talk and thinking, within Jewish and Christian religion, is that history is headed toward some great cataclysmic transformation. The elders of my childhood used the expression “time is winding up.”
But without exception, every prognosticator and preacher who has predicted when the end will happen has been wrong! We should have learned by now that Jesus was right when he said that even he didn’t know when God would send the Righteous Ruler. If the Ruler doesn’t know the date of his arrival, the rest of us should dismiss predictions and so-called prophecies by other folks as just a bunch of talk.
Watchful waiting doesn’t mean that we’re clock or calendar watchers. It means that we live in constant preparedness. We live as people with a certain hope in a coming era of righteousness and justice. We live by faith, not by sight.
Watchful waiting means living by faith. Living by faith is hopeful living. Hopeful living means living for a just future even while being confronted with unjust realities. Hopeful living means living for a righteous future while being surrounded by wickedness. This isn’t pie in the sky kind of living. It’s living with so much confidence in God’s promised reality that we live every moment as if that reality is here already.
At the same time, watchful waiting recognizes the signs of the times. We don’t know when God’s Righteous Ruler will come, but when we see unrighteousness around the world, we remember God’s promise and work for righteousness.
We don’t know when God will usher in a new era of justice, but whenever injustice appears to be the order of the day, we remember God’s promise and work for justice.
We don’t know when God will usher in the era of peace and fellowship around the world, but whenever we see wars and hear rumors of wars, we remember God’s promise and work for peace.
We don’t know when God will usher in a new era of goodness and mercy, but whenever we see hatefulness and cruelty, we remember God’s promise and work for righteousness and justice.
In a sense, we are moral weather watchers. Not forecasters, mind you, because we aren’t predicting when God will usher in the age of the Righteous Ruler. We’re simply mindful of the seasons. As Jesus mentioned in the passage from Luke, just as we know that sprouting leaves on fruit trees point to the warm weather of summer, the circumstances and conditions of our time point to another season. As watchful waiters, we recognize the signs and seasons, even if we can’t predict when the fruit will appear.
Advent is about hopeful living. Jesus said that humanity will experience unrighteousness and injustice. He predicted that humanity will experience wars and international tensions. Jesus warned that people who live by faith will be mocked as dreamers, persecuted, and even killed. We are living in that age.
We live in an age when peacemakers such as Martin King and Shimon Peres are murdered by people who believe they are acting for righteousness.
We live in an age when people who run businesses that contaminate the air, water, and ground claim they are making life better, and public officials believe them.
We live in an age when people who deny fair wages and benefits to workers are heralded as models of good business and welcomed into communities. Meanwhile, the people living in those communities often resist and resent efforts to organize workers trying to obtain receive justice.
We live in an age when wrong-headed senators who voted to start the unjustified war against Iraq are now taken seriously when they challenge the diplomatic judgment of the president who ended that war.
We live in an age when icebergs are melting, seas are rising, oceans are warming, and super storms are happening. Meanwhile, some people, including some religious people, have the idea that climate change and global warming is a hoax.
We live in an age when people who believe that strangers should be welcomed and treated like neighbors are condemned by some religious people.
We live in an age when people who want to provide services to hungry children, struggling families, wounded people, and feeble seniors are called wasteful.
Jesus tells us that when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. [Luke 21:31-32].
But notice what else Jesus said. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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. [Luke 21:34-36]. This is a call to hopeful faith.
Hopeful faith doesn’t ignore the real and painful signs of wickedness and injustice that surround us. But people who live with hopeful faith refuse to throw up our hands and act as if all is lost. We refuse to deaden ourselves to the painful realities by trying to drown our pain with mind-numbing agents, comfort food, shopping excursions, and other escapist exercises. Instead, Jesus instructs people who live with hopeful faith to be people of prayer.
We pray for strength as we live through these turbulent times and circumstances. We pray for strength to not become cynical or carefree. We pray for strength to remain conscientious agents of righteousness and justice in the world while we await the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Righteous Ruler.
And we pray for redemption, but we aren’t only talking about deliverance from personal sin. We pray for the world to be redeemed from the oppressive forces of wickedness and injustice.
So Advent is a time for remembering God’s promise of a Righteous Ruler. Advent is the season when we remember that we’ve been called to lives of Watchful Waiting. Advent is the season when we remember that we’re called to be people of Hopeful Faith.
During this season, we faithfully pray, watch, wait, and hope in God’s promise of a new age under a Righteous Ruler. We pray, watch, wait, and hope for an age of goodness, mercy, and justice. We pray, watch, wait and hope, and work for an age when people from every land and tongue and ancestry and religion will live together in peace and fellowship. We pray, watch, wait, hope and work for an age when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God and His Christ.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in her ways to go.
O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Come Lord Jesus! Come. And until you come, we will be waiting, watching, praying, hoping, and working to prepare the world for your righteousness and justice. Come, Lord Jesus! Come! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.