THE SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT – Populus Sion
Introit: O people of Sion, behold, the Lord is nigh at hand to redeem the nations: and in the gladness of your heart the Lord shall cause his glorious voice to be heard. Ps (80). Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel: thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep. Glory be … O people of Sion …
Collect: Stir up, O Lord, our hearts to make ready the way of thine only-begotten Son: that through his advent we may with purified minds be worthy to serve thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
OT Lesson: Behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgements. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse: saith the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 4.1-6)
Gradual: (Ps 50) Out of Sion hath God appeared: in perfect beauty. V. Gather my saints together unto me: those that have made a covenant with me with sacrifice.
Epistle: Brethren: Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God. Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust. Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. (Romans 15.4-13)
Alleluia. The powers of heaven shall be shaken: and then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto his disciples: There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable: Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. (St Luke 21.25-33)
In our Anglican tradition, the Second Sunday in Advent is sometimes known as “Word of God Sunday,” in view of the Collect and the Epistle, from which we learn that God gave the Scriptures for our instruction and formation in patience and courage. For this reason, and to this end, we should “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” If there is anything the modern church lacks, besides a relationship with Jesus Christ, it is a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. But the two go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated. One cannot have a relationship with Christ without wanting to be immersed in Scripture, and one cannot have an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures without developing a deeper relationship with Christ, for He is the very Word of God Incarnate. Thus He can say with confidence, in today’s Gospel, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Jesus is the very foundation of Creation itself—it was by His power as the Word, that God spoke everything into existence—and so when Jesus gives His word, we can surely trust His promises.
Advent calls us to be prepared. Being prepared requires that we have a clear goal before us and that we be focussed and intent upon it. Jesus has ushered in His Kingdom, He has established it in our hearts and made us a new temple of His Presence, and He has promised that He will return to make His spiritual Kingdom a physical reality—but in the meantime He made it very clear that we have work to do. That is how the Kingdom grows. But instead of committing themselves to the pure and unadulterated Gospel of the Scriptures, instead of holding fast to the Faith once delivered to the Saints, many churches wander from this fad to that, trying to be “relevant,” conforming to the culture, or looking to the latest ecclesiastical craze (“signs and wonders”) or man-centred teaching to draw people to the Kingdom, rather than simply preaching and faithfully living the Cross of Christ. “The peril is that the worldly Church becomes irrelevant to heaven.” (R. Crouse)
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience [endurance] and comfort [encouragement] of the Scriptures might have hope.” From Adam and Eve though the Jews returning to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile, the Scriptures are full of God’s precepts and promises. It is a book, inspired and given by God, to a people who had fallen into sin, and whom God was leading back to Himself. God had given the Scriptures to His people so that they could know Him, but sin had clouded their vision and cut them off from Him. On their own, they stumbled around in the dark without hope, but the Scriptures instructed the people in the knowledge of God, and shone light into the darkness. Even so are the Old Testament Scriptures a source of hope for Christians. They show us God’s love for His people, and point to the fulfilment of His love in the Person of Jesus Christ. As Christians we have experienced the reality of that fulfilment. And when we see how Jesus has fulfilled the Old Testament promises, it should give us profound and life-changing hope, because we can trust that, just as He fulfilled those Old Testament promises, He will also fulfil the promises He has made to us. And this hope changes our lives.
St Paul gives us a picture of what the Church is supposed to look like—of what it means to be prepared for the Second Advent. The Church brings together people from every culture and every walk of life. Jews and Romans were being brought together in the Church at Rome. Historically the Jews hated the Romans, because the Romans had conquered them, and the Romans thought the Jews were just a bunch of religious zealots and malcontents. Paul reminds them they were brought together by the Word: by a common life in the Word Incarnate, by a common grounding and hope in the Word Written. We share that same common life in the Word.
Jesus came in fulfilment of all those scriptural promises to the Jews, but St Paul insists that God’s true purpose was not to save only the Jewish people. God’s Kingdom was never only about a particular people or a particular place. Rather, God used a particular people and place so that when the fulfilment of His promises came, the whole world—all nations—would be drawn to His Kingdom. And to prove this point, Paul quotes all three of the historic divisions of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, and Writings): “As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name’ [II Sam. 22.50]. And again it is said, ‘Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people’ [Deut. 32.43]. And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles, and laud him, all ye peoples’ [Psalm 117]. And again Isaiah saith, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, even he who shall arise to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope’ [Is 11.1, 10].” The Holy Scriptures prepare us for the coming of Christ in humility and in judgement. We await the fulness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, who comes in the fulness of time. He is the hope of our salvation, for in Him all things are fulfilled. His coming in time means also His coming at the end of time, of which the Gospel speaks. The fulfilment of all things in Christ means the destruction of all our worldly aims, ambitions and hopes: “men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.” His coming pronounces judgement, ever-present and ultimate, upon those who cling to the passing things of this world rather than to the Lord whose “words shall not pass away.”
The Gospel for this Sunday is taken from what is called the Olivet Discourse. Its focus is upon the Second Advent, and includes one of the more difficult sayings attributed to our Lord, when He states: “Verily, I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” This passage is especially troublesome because it appears that Jesus actually made a big mistake. The generation He was addressing has long since passed away, but He has not returned. So what are we to make of this? Is it possible that Luke misquoted Jesus? That is most unlikely, since this statement is also found in Matthew and Mark. To understand what this passage means, we need an overview of the entire Discourse. The narrative context is His last week in Jerusalem after His triumphal entry (i.e., Holy Week). Jesus was with His disciples in the Temple where He had been healing the blind and the lame, when someone pointed out the majesty and beauty of the Temple. Jesus replied: “As for the things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left one stone upon another…” His hearers were understandably shaken, and asked when the “end of the world” would come. From there, Jesus began this long discourse about human history, the end of time, and the coming of the Son of Man. But He warned His disciples not to fall for lies and deceptions about the last days: there will be false christs, there will be those who say, “The day is here, the time is at hand,” but do not listen to them. There will be wars and rumours of wars, but do not be fearful. Kingdoms will rise and fall. There will be great earthquakes, famines, pestilences, terrors and persecutions. Then, the most dire prediction of all, He prophesied that not only would the Temple be destroyed, but all of Jerusalem razed to the ground. Only after this did our Lord describe His Second Advent, as the culmination of history, when the whole cosmic order of heaven and earth tremble and shatter.
And so it was, that within forty years the Roman army, under the future emperor Titus, laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple along with every other building, wall and tower, and even chopped down and uprooted the trees around the city. All of Jerusalem’s life and beauty was taken away. Temple worship came to an end; ritual sacrifice and burnt offering were no more. The desolation that Jesus had prophesied came to pass: “This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” What was fulfilled was the prediction that the Temple and Jerusalem would be completely destroyed. But Jerusalem’s desolation is but a foreshadowing of the Last Judgement when Christ will come with power and glory. The judgement of Jerusalem, for her sins and her rejection of the Messiah, was a microcosm of the Last Judgement in which Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. There is a strong sense in which “all is fulfilled” with the judgement of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, but Jesus discourages us from engaging in speculation about the end of the world, encouraging us rather to remain vigilant, and alert to opportunities to bear witness to Him, which between now and then is our whole purpose for being. In His first Advent, Jesus did not come in a cloud, but in the womb of a virgin. In His first Advent, He did not descend with power and great glory, but with humility and in great obscurity. In His first Advent, Jesus came not as Judge, but to be judged in our place. He did all this so that at His Second Advent we need not fear, but rejoice in it as a new beginning. But between His coming in Bethlehem and His coming on the Last Day, He bids us receive Him as He gives Himself now.
“There shall be signs.” These are not words of warning or threat. Our Lord does not say that these are the signs that the end of the world is upon us. Rather, He says that when we see the signs we are to stand up, raise our heads, and know that help is on the way: our redemption, our healing, our Saviour is drawing near. “When you see the trees sprouting leaves, you know that summer is near.” This is not exactly an image which strikes fear into the hearts of people after a long winter. It usually makes us excited and fills our hearts with dreams of balmy days and a fruitful harvest. So the signs are not a reason to hang our heads in despair or shrink from life. The signs are our hope and reassurance that God has not abandoned us, that God cares, that Christ comes to us in the midst of our life’s circumstances. The Advent signs are as ordinary and common as a fig tree sprouting leaves. We see the leaves and we know something is happening. Summer is coming. It’s a new season, with new life, new growth, new fruit. That is the promise and good news of the Advent Season. And yet that promise, that good news, is fulfilled not apart from but in and through the reality of our life’s circumstances and our world’s events, no matter how difficult or tragic they may be. So, what if we looked on the events of our lives and our world and began to understand them as sprouting leaves? We would see new life and new growth. We would produce new fruit. We would face life with new courage and confidence. We would look on the world with a new sense of compassion and hope. We would be strengthened to do the work God has given us to do. Yes, the seasons of our lives can be long, difficult, and painful. But we never face those seasons without the signs of hope and reassurance, signs that point to the One who is coming.
We pray: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.” But that is a dangerous prayer, for hearts are not stirred up with comfort foods, cushions and soft music. We do not pray: “Lord, give us warm, fuzzy feelings; make our lives comfortable and easy.” We pray that God would stir up our hearts, that He would disturb us, that He would goad us into action. Hearts are stirred up by an earnest call to repentance, with a hearty dose of reality. “Stir up our hearts” is a plea for God to end our complacency, to defeat our laziness, to overcome our apathy. We ask Him to intervene against our own human nature. “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of thine only-begotten Son.”
On the great and dreadful Day of the Lord, the Son of Man will indeed come in a cloud with power and great glory. But to you who fear His Name, who hope and trust in His mercy, the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings. Look up. Lift up your heads. Your redemption draws near. Christ died and rose again for us and for our salvation, and the Kingdom of heaven is open to all believers. Blessed are all who trust in Him, for they shall never be confounded. Our suffering, our trials, our troubles, our grief—all will end like a dream in the night.
Ours is an otherworldly and eternal hope, the contradiction of all worldly hopes and expectations. It is a sure confidence, and not merely a wish. Heaven and earth shall pass away—indeed, they are passing away at this very moment—but the Word of the Lord endures forever, and in that Word we have the blessed hope of everlasting life.
Collect: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth world without end. Amen.
May Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path, that you may be ready to meet him when he cometh again in glory: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.