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|Jeremiah 33:14-16||Psalm 25:1-10||1 Thessalonians 3:9-13||Luke 21:25-26|
By David Grant Smith
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…” [NRSV] So begins the first reading of the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new church year. Advent has been, traditionally, a Season which points toward fulfillment in a way that is retroactive. Traditional theology and liturgical practice have often followed the lead of the early church theologians who practiced typology—reading the life and events of Jesus of Nazareth backwards into the words of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, as if those words were somehow predicting various things about Jesus and/or Jesus himself hundreds of years in advance of his birth, life, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection. Through intensive and careful biblical scholarship, we have come to see that these events weren’t “predicted” by the prophets, but that the events of Jesus’ life were interpreted and described using the vocabulary and imagery employed by the prophets of old.
Keeping this in mind is important when preparing for worship in the Christian tradition, especially in a season such as Advent when so much of the language of the prophets has been interpreted through the lens of typology—in liturgy, biblical teaching, preaching, hymnody, and even in the prayers and collects used in Sunday worship. The language of the prophets can be helpful in understanding Jesus as one who intentionally lived into the message of the prophets, but it should never be intimated that Jesus was a fulfillment of the prophets in the sense that he was predicted by them, or that he was somehow making their message more “complete” as has been the case in some settings and circumstances. Not making these careful (and sometimes subtle) distinctions can lead to church members coming to incorrect conclusions about the role of Scripture in life and worship, and can even lead toward nurturing undesirable understandings about our ancient Jewish forebears in faith that promote ugly biases in our own context.
Having said all that, this brief reading from Jeremiah provides a helpful and healthful way of engaging the season of Advent without turning it into a “prediction of Jesus” as we prepare to remember and celebrate his birth. Advent is a time of beginning—not in the sense of starting from scratch, but in terms of renewal or beginning anew. The prophet’s proclamation that a promise will be fulfilled isn’t necessarily about a singular event, but rather about a way of life. The prophet’s “good news” is that God is forever seeing us as we are, and is ever working with us so that our situation can become what it could be. The prophet is saying that, in God’s eyes, each individual life is a glass that is half full on the way to becoming a glass which is full. And the prophet is further inviting humanity to share in God’s perspective.
In process thought and theology, each moment is always a new beginning, and each moment provides us with an infinite number of possible ways to respond to that moment. We believe that God is working to lure us toward those possibilities, which are best for us and the common good at each moment. When we respond to God’s lure in such a way that is best for us and the common good—a good which is also best for God and for all creation as well as for us as individuals and for humanity in general—we have lived into a concrescence that leads toward creative transformation. Jeremiah’s vision of a day when this kind of fulfillment takes place need not be locked into a particular time or context: it is a vision for all places, all times, and all contexts. It is a vision of righteousness, justice, safety, and the common good, being more and more a part of each and every person’s life. It isn’t a vision of a particular person, but a vision of all people living into God’s lure toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love.
If today’s reading from Jeremiah is the prophet’s affirmation that we can respond to God’s lure toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love, Psalm 25 is a prayer of affirmation that we believe in God’s presence with us as we respond to that lure. Psalm 25 works well as a prayer for the season of Advent in that it is a prayer which frames the faithful soul in the context of a faithful, omnipresent God. This ancient hymn sings of the soul’s trust in God, that God will show, teach, lead, guide, and generally keep the soul. All these actions on the part of God can be related back to a process understanding of God’s lure toward God’s primordial nature. And all of the actions which the soul prays for God to undertake imply a certain level of human participation on the part of the soul that is praying. As God shows, the soul looks… as God teaches, the soul learns… as God leads, the soul follows… as God guides, the soul is guided… and so on. This psalm serves as a prayer for the human soul to become self-aware in one’s own role as co-creator with God, helping to bring about new and renewing realities.
At the same time that this psalm provides a prayerful response toward the initial aim of God, and is also a prayer about our participation with God in the ongoing work of creative transformation, it is also to some degree a prayer which affirms our own failings. “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions…” [NRSV] In process theology, there is a keen awareness that our past experiences are always present with us, and that they play a role in how we chart a pathway forward into our individual and/or collective future. From a process perspective, it can be helpful to remember those things and ask God to forget them—not that we believe for a minute that God will actually forget them, as we know that our past has already been received into God’s consequent nature, but so that we can ask God to help us not have our past mistakes and failures lead us to more mistakes and failures. Perhaps this psalm-prayer can be used to invite God to help us use those past failings to shape our path forward into the future in such a way as to not repeat those mistakes, and/or to help us creatively transform them into new possible ways of being faithful people in this and all future moments. This renewing and reorienting type of prayer reflects much of what the season of Advent is about. It may well be that this psalm may help to form an Advent confession or congregational prayer for use at this season which begins our venture into the new church year.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” [NRSV] This question provides a great leaping-off point for how we as process theologians feel about the place of interrelatedness. Another word for this interdependent web of life, coined by the great Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, is “interbeing.” Each individual is interrelated to all other individuals; each individual is interrelated to God; and in God we are all interrelated to one another again. The fact that Paul and his companions prayed “most earnestly” that they might see the Thessalonians “face to face” is stirring at a literal level; we are moved to know of such intimate relationships that are part of the fabric of the life of the church, especially in its earliest days. But, as Marcus Borg might say, at a “more-than-literal” level, we can see in such prayer an archetype for all prayer and for all interbeing. To pray that we might be connected with others in a face-to-face relationship could become, for a process person, a prayer to become more empathically in tune with those who “live and move and have their being” in other parts of the country, in other nations, in other cultures, in other contexts, in other faith traditions. To pray that God might “direct our way to” others is to pray that we might be connected in both literal and “more-than-literal” ways with all people—indeed, all life—whether we are already previously acquainted with them or not.
As noted above, Advent is a time for renewing and reorienting. And as many have suggested (perhaps most notably St. Benedict), there is a direct connection between work and prayer. Perhaps this small passage of Paul’s earliest extant piece of correspondence can become a way for us to renew and reorient our lives in such a way that we are constantly praying (that is, working both inwardly/contemplatively and outwardly/actively) to become more attuned to the needs of our neighbors—near and far, locally and globally. Many of us live our lives completely clueless to the conditions and contexts of others. Advent, and the coming of the new church year, can provide a context in which we can do some self-examination in that area. It is also an opportunity/paradigm in which to challenge ourselves and each other to reorient our lives to be more in postures of solidarity with those whose needs and contexts are so vastly different than our own. For these “others” are no less important or relevant to the intricate web of “interbeing” that we share with all humanity, with all life, and with God. This level of solidarity, this level of awareness of the Other, will only work to “strengthen [our] hearts in holiness that [we] may be blameless before our God…” [NRSV]
These apocalyptic sayings of Jesus are placed in Luke’s gospel just before the events of Jesus’ final week. This passage is also the final content of Jesus’ teaching in the temple as recorded by the author of Luke. The images contained in these sayings are cosmic and global in their scope, yet these sayings seem to be directed specifically to the individual and communal follower(s) of Jesus, and are to be applied for the purposes of personal/communal interpretation of the cosmic/global symptoms in order to inform the discernment process of the personal/communal path forward. In other words: there are a LOT of layers—both stated and implied—in this text! But one of the primary overarching understanding of this text, which relates so well to process thinking, is the notion of what might be called “permanent impermanence”—the idea that change is the only constant in life.
As process people, we affirm that everyone and everything is in a constant state of flux—nothing, not even God, remains the same. Apocalyptic literature is jam-packed with a great deal of “more-than-literal” imagery and language. And many theologians, preachers, and scholars have tried to unpack what Jesus was “actually” saying/meaning by these words, by either literal or allegorical means of interpretation. As process people, though, we are more than likely to unpack the apocalyptic genre than we are the actual words of an apocalyptic passage. And this text lends itself to that end quite readily. Perhaps a personal narrative about another apocalyptic text would be in order…
I recently offered a sermon that was essentially on the apocalyptic genre (this was on 18 November 2012, Proper 28B, dealing with the readings from Daniel 12 & Mark 13). I had spent the better part of 10 or 12 minutes unfolding the idea that apocalyptic literature has less to do with the end of the world and the end of time than it has to do with being faithful people who remain intentional and attentive to their interrelatedness to one another and the world around them, even in the midst of dark times of great foreboding. I shared with them the idea that because everything is in a constant state of change, apocalyptic literature is a genre that points toward change through the hyperbole of calamity. And I encouraged all of us to see difficulties as a challenge to participate in creative transformation, helping to create new worlds of being out of the ashes of old paradigms and structures that have come apart.
I was just about to wrap up by sharing with them a poetic hymn text that summarizes all that I was saying about the apocalyptic genre (see Dean W. Nelson’s hymn text Signs of endings all around us) when a young mother raised her hand wanting to speak. She wanted to share with us a conversation, which she had with one of her children earlier that week about everything which had just been mentioned, so I encouraged her to do so. She said that her child had come to her and said, “Right now the world just ended, and right now the world just began.” At that moment, of course, I realized that my sermon had just ended, and this young mother’s sermon (and that of her child) had just begun!
The observation of this child is spot-on to the relevance of the apocalyptic genre. Everything is always coming to an end, and in each moment there is a newness and a renewing possibility yet to be discovered, coming into concrescence through creative transformation, as we respond to God’s lure moment-by-moment. We are forever in an ongoing cycle of creation/re-creation/co-creation—not that those things come in any particular order, as they are always at work in, and through, and around us, all at the same time.
Jesus’ admonition to be attentive to cosmic and global “signs” is just that—a call to be attentive, summarized in his last sentence of this passage: “Be alert at all times…” [v. 36]. The parable of the fig tree which comes in the middle of this passage [vs. 29-33] stands as an invitation for us to take note of those things, people, places, and conditions which lure our participation, that there might be an ongoing process of concrescences into God’s creative transformation. Remaining faithful participants in God and God’s purposes, even in the most difficult of times, is what apocalyptic literature is all about.
To be sure, apocalyptic literature also carries within it the language of salvation and/or redemption. And this passage is no exception. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” [v. 28]. But this redemption carries with it no paradigm of exclusion—something which is often part and parcel of apocalyptic interpretation. Rather, this is a universal redemption—a redemption which Jesus wants us all to notice by simply paying close attention to all that is going on around us. This is redemption from within and/or participatory redemption, as opposed to a redemption which is exclusive of some, or imposed upon us, or coerced out of us. To have the ability to be aware of one’s environment, the people in it, and the needs of that context could provide us with a level of solidarity and empathy for others such that we become participants in the ongoing process of redemption itself, by responding to the environment, people, and contexts in such a way that creative transformation of the given situation becomes redemptive—perhaps for others if not for ourselves. Jesus’ admonition that we “be on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with… the worries of this life” [v. 34] is an invitation for us to not lose the focus of our faith, but to constantly renew and reorient it in such a way as to be fully attentive to the moment, so that we might not miss any opportunity for participation in God’s ongoing work of creative transformation. This is the work to which Advent and the new church year calls us.