My words shall not pass away.
A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2022 at Holy Communion
Romans 15:4–13, Luke 21:25–33
Jesus says, “Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Advent is a time to reflect on the coming of Christ. This idea is familiar. We are preparing for the coming of Christ at Christ. But when we take a close look at the readings for Advent, the picture get confused. Why, for example, are we talking about the Bible in our Epistle reading, and about the end of the world in our Gospel reading?
Isaiah is the “Advent Prophet,“ the one who predicts the coming of Christ. In his commentary on Isaiah, St Thomas Aquinas says that Isaiah talks about three comings of Christ: first, his coming “in the flesh” at Christmas and his historical life, second his coming “into our minds” as we live in faith, and third his final coming “for judgement” at the end of times.
Advent is about all three of these comings. It is a preparation for Christmas, certainly, but it is much more than that. Advent is a penitential time, a somber time, when we dress the church in the dark purple of mourning. Traditionally it is a time of fasting. Why? Because we are reflecting on how much we need God to come to us. We need God to come in the flesh to die for our sins and rise again to make us right with God: that’s Christmas. But we also need God to come into our minds and hearts to give us repentance and joy and hope. And we need God to come as a judge to right all wrongs in a world full of so much struggle and pain.
Our Gospel is about that final Advent, when Jesus will return to reconcile all things. But what problem will Jesus’ second coming solve? He says it himself: before the end, there will be “distress of nations”; “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;” there will be “great earthquakes, and famines in various places;” and people will “faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world.” A world at war; a world of poverty; a world of fear.
Do you recognize this world? You should. This Advent, there is war in Europe and starvation in the Middle East, not to mention the countless tragedies both close to home and in far-flung places which we will never hear about.
Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The point is not to see the tragedies in the world around us and to start believing that the end of the world will be the day after tomorrow. The point is that, when we encounter the brokenness of the world, we should “straighten up and raise our heads” and starting looking urgently for our redemption.
So often we respond to the woes of the world by looking downward, either out of discouragement, or because we think that we can just put our noses to the grindstone, work harder for peace and justice, and fix this whole thing. I’m sorry everyone, but we can’t! The Christian Gospel is not that, motivated by faith, we can work for peace until the earth becomes a utopia. The Christian Gospel is about redemption: we, who have made a rotten mess of human life and society, will be saved when God wipes the slate clean.
So where does that leave us? What are we supposed to do between now and the end? Jesus says, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
“Lifting up our heads” isn’t about turning our back on this passing world, as if we were saying a big “no” to life, but about shifting our gaze from impermanent things to permanent things, from fantasies to reality. It is a fantasy to think that we can build a perfect society; it is also a fantasy to think that we can build lives with our families and friends which will satisfy our deepest spiritual longings. The reality is that true, deep, and abiding life is found in Jesus’ words, which will never pass away.
Jesus speaks words of comfort and encouragement. Jesus speaks words of challenge and judgement, inviting us to leave behind everything that take away our wholeness and joy. Jesus speaks to us about the coming redemption. There is hope in Jesus’ words—more hope than we could ever find anywhere else.
So on this Sunday, our Collect prayer is about the Bible. God has inspired the holy scriptures so that we could have hope, trusting God’s word to endure, to give life, and to guide in a world that is passing away, and full of death, and deeply confused.
In the church, God has richly blessed us with things that do not pass away: his word and his sacraments. May we approach this altar rejoicing in hope because of the gift of God’s eternal word, and gratefully receiving the body and blood of Christ, the sacraments of God’s eternal covenant of mercy toward us. And may we know how badly we need them.