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Faith >

This Sunday's readings: 1st Sunday of Advent

by Martin Warner


Jeremiah 33.14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-end; Luke 21.25-36


YOU might have heard about the graffiti artist who wrote: “God is dead: signed, Nietszche.” Later, another graffiti artist came along, crossed that out and wrote: “Nietszche is dead: signed, God.” But, as one commentator noted from a publisher’s point of view, “The more God dies, the more he sells.”

The idea of the death of God has been regarded by some people as an inevitable 19th-century outcome to the philosophical explorations of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Reason was misused to evacuate faith of meaning; only what we understand scientifically could be accepted as reasonable.

In a lecture to the religious think tank Theos, however, the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, asserted that God is back, quoting the title of a recent book. He also also cited the example of the French diplomat, Alexis de Toqueville, who went to the United States in 1830 to see what it was like. He was astonished to find that it was riddled with Christianity, at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was being discredited and expelled in France. So, puzzlement over the survival of Christianity is nothing new.

The loss of the habit of belief, and the consequences that go with that loss, has been around for a long time. Sir Jonathan neatly identified the challenge to parenthood with its sacrificial demands on money, attention, time, and emotional energy as a symptom of this loss: “Where today, in European culture, with its consumerism and its instant gratification ‘because you’re worth it’, in that culture, where will you find space for the concept of sacrifice for the sake of generations not yet born?”

Today’s readings have at their heart the theme of a return to faith, prompting us this Advent to renew our confidence that faith in God is intrinsic to human nature. Perhaps this is less a case of the return of God and more about the return of a people, our own people, to the God who abides, unchanging and invisible, holding all time and the fashions of human opinion in his hand.

Today’s herald of the culture of return is Jeremiah. His message is set in a wider context that speaks of the return of exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem: “I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 33.11). The strange names that we hear Jeremiah use would convey more obvious meaning to a Hebrew-speaking congregation. The name “The Lord is our righteousness” is a pun on the name of Zedekiah, the untrustworthy King of Judah with whom Jeremiah had a number of run-ins.

Zedekiah does not live up to his name or his vocation. By contrast, someone with a similar name, curious to our ears, “righteous Branch”, will “execute justice in the land”. Like the first rays of the rising sun on a dark horizon, this name should alert us to the dawn of our salvation. Isaiah will speak of this branch in terms the Church will interpret as constituting the priestly, prophetic, and royal character of Jesus. On this branch will rest the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11.1-3).

Significantly for our understanding of why there might be a return in our own time to interest in God, the manifestation of the presence of this branch is described by Isaiah in environmental and social terms. The eradication of poverty and oppression, the restoration of a right relationship between the human race and the animal kingdom, and the safeguarding of a proper life for children — these are all symptoms of the recovery that return to a relationship with God might bring.

Similarly, today’s Gospel reading accurately identifies the trauma for the human race of the discovery that our ecosystem is suffering: global warming poses new threats, water levels rise, and we are making the planet a more hostile place to live (Luke 21.25). The conclusion of this message is the final challenge to fickle human fashion: “My words will not pass away,” says Jesus.

The truth is not that God is back, but that we lost sight of God, and in so doing have wandered into an era of unprecedented alienation and anxiety. The great human experiments of social advancement, whether in communist totalitarianism or free-market capitalism, have been shown to fail. We fear that we have damaged our home, the earth, and committed more than two-thirds of her children to unbelievable poverty.

We have the capacity to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons, and are no longer so confident that they offer a deterrent in the international balance of power. “Fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21.25) is indeed a realistic assessment.

So it is perhaps not surprising that people should seek to return to the unchanging God, from whom we come, to whom we go, and whose words will not fail or pass away. Advent again calls us back to God, and we, God’s heralds and agents, are entrusted with the task of articulating the message of hope: God will not abandon us; his Kingdom is near. Details available this Christmas from a church near you.


Jeremiah 33.14-16

14The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In 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. 16In 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.’

1 Thessalonians 3.9-13

9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21.25-36

Jesus said to his disciples: 25‘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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, 35and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.’


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