All these promises – the hopeful legacies of the prophets; the residue of Mosaic Law; the covenant that led Abraham from his home to meet this singular God under the desert stars – every single promise that comes to us through our heritage in Jesus presents a challenge.  The promise was peace and prosperity to those wearied by war in the time if Isaiah, but history tells us that peace, when it came, was fleeting.  That promise is repeated – through various degrees of exile and outrage.  God’s people are led forward and backward across the fertile crescent of the middle east; they gather in faith, they rebuild in triumph; they resist the lure foreign gods and pagan societies until, you guessed it – someone stronger comes along.  Egypt – Babylon – Persia – Rome; a seeming endless parade of near victories that result in a sub-culture within the Jewish nation of Jesus’ time of those who have learned to ‘go along to get along’; and so it is within any conquered culture.

The faithful cling to the promises, of course – that’s what it means to be faithful.  The rituals and the forms of religious life need to be obeyed if there is any hope of seeing the hope of God delivered, and so religion flourishes under oppressive regimes – for modern equivalents, think of south and central America, Communist China – countless places in Africa – so it was in Jesus day.  The promises of God become a powerful force in the hands and minds of those who believe.  Some are militant; some are gently persuasive – all are convinced that the misery of the people is a sign that there will soon be a change in the order of things; that God will come to the rescue.

Under Roman occupation – held as a strategic outpost on the edge of a vast empire – Palestine was not worthy of the best Roman culture had to offer.  The oppression of the most hopeful strains of the Jewish religion – the branch of thinking that longed for a renewed, restored kingdom under God – caused a renaissance of it.  Strong voices; charismatic personalities; with messages that ranged from invitation to openly hostile to the ruling Romans and their local helpers.  There were others, of that we can be sure, but the two most significant examples were John the baptizer, and Jesus of Nazareth.   John the Baptist paid for his ‘radical preaching’ – repent and prepare always sounds like an accusation to those exploiting a nation – with his head.  Jesus had taken up where John left off.

Jesus spoke like a revivalist; he hinted at a ‘new Kingdom”; he described this kingdom as clearly opposed to the rule of Rome – a kingdom of justice and peace.  He urges his followers to live differently – to behave differently – and differences get noticed in situation like this.  Oppressive governments prefer compliance and uniformity.  Questions are discouraged; options are limited; and people who talk like Jesus talked are considered dangerous.

In Matthew’s gospel – chapter 24 – it’s already too late for Jesus.  He’s been noticed.  The plan to have him arrested is taking shape; the powers that be cannot ignore the crowds who gather, nor the kinds of questions they ask.  “Tell us when this will be?  What will be the sign that this new age is about to begin?”

The listening crowds, and even some of Jesus’ closest friends, are eager for a change – rebellion is what they imagine, and the language of chapter 24 confirms it, but Jesus is not counselling rebellion, nor does he consider the overthrow of a sitting government to be a desirable thing.

The Son of Man is coming, he says – at an unknown time, without any real warning – coming when you least expect.  The Son of Man will make sisters and brothers of all of us – he will be the singular point of all our relations, and under his dominion, God will recognize all of us as children – but the timing is not to be known.  This is the one promise that holds all other divine promises in reserve – the universal mystery that has baffled every generation of those who would call on God in their distress.  “But about that day and hour, no one knows…”

We don’t like the unknown.  We prefer solid information and rational explanations.  We tie things to the clock and calendar so that we can be prepared – so our ‘ducks are all in a row’…yet even today, as the calendar of the church tells us we are in a brand new season – and the calendar of the culture reminds us that the year is drawing to a close, there is plenty of mystery left for us.  Advent it our opportunity to explore that mystery – to get acquainted with the art of ‘not knowing’.  For the promises of God – the promise of peace; of a new and glorious age of justice and mercy; the promise of the end of suffering and the triumph of God’s grace – all these still wait to be fulfilled for us.

They are coming, that is certain; and the birth of Jesus is to us the signal that the reign of God has already begun to touch the earth with beauty and glory…but there is so much yet to be revealed.  And that is what Advent is for.

During these seasons of preparation, we are drawn deeper into the search for the signs of God at work.  We are urged to look through the fog of war for any glimmer of hope.  We are reminded that the best God has to offer was placed in the midst of the poverty, oppression, violence and cruelty of Roman occupied Palestine.  We are promised that the work of God is a continuous, creative mystery which will catch us unaware and draw us closer to grace, if we are ready – if we will let it.  And being ready doesn’t mean knowing everything; being ready means being aware that God works in mysterious ways – that God comes in the fragile form of an infant boy; that God comes close in quiet comfort when things are at their most chaotic and confusing.

True, the calendar can tell us that Advent has begun, and that Christmas is coming – but only our hearts, open to wonder and ready for anything, will recognize the nearness of God – the advent of the kingdom of peace – the promise of God made good in our lives.

Be ready – the promise is coming.  The time is near.


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