1st Sunday of Advent

December 3, 2006
See Also: 

John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on Incarnation

Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Reading 2: 
Psalm 25:1-10
Reading 3: 
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Reading 4: 
Luke 21:25-36
By Russell Pregeant

Apocalyptic texts always present a challenge to process interpreters. Both their assumption regarding a final end to the world process and their presentation of God’s action as supernatural, unilateral, and interventionist run counter to the process vision of God’s endless persuasive interaction with creation. Precisely for this reason, however, these texts also present a golden opportunity for reflection on the polyvalence and open-endedness of biblical language. There are many different ways in which the process interpreter can value the witnesses of these texts.

Interestingly, the structure of the lectionary itself encourages the process of re-valuation in various ways. In particular, the use of texts referring to the parousia—Jesus’ return at the end of history as we know it—in the Advent season already suggests a degree of both demythologizing and the recognition of polyvalence. For example, the use of Luke 21:25-36 in this context tends to give it a double reference. On one level, it clearly looks beyond the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus to his return in glory. On another level, however, aspects of it tend to get drawn into the more immediate expectation of the birth of the Messiah. And the cyclical character of the Christian year brings all texts into the present, since every year each moment in the entire story is re-enacted. Thus, although on one level we look both to the distant past and the distant future, on another level we draw both past and future in to the present and more immediate future as we await both the birth of Christ and the parousia in our own personal and collective experience.

This process of drawing past and future into the present is particularly valuable for the way in which it helps us focus on the existential and social meaning of the expectations that are celebrated in Advent. Jeremiah’s vision of the “righteous Branch” expected from the house of David is not narrowly confined to a “religious” sphere disconnected from the world of politics and economics, for the role of the Branch is precisely to execute “justice and righteousness in the land.” And the salvation he brings is not that of individuals who are spirited away to Heaven but of the concrete people of Judah: “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” Themes such as this are not explicit in the passage from Luke, but the issue of justice lies at the very heart of apocalyptic thinking. The reason for God’s eschatological intervention is precisely to turn the tables on the unjust and oppressive structure of human society. And we do get a glimpse of this presupposition in vs. 31: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you now that the kingdom of God is near.” For God’s kingdom or rule is, by definition, a reign of peace and justice.

Process-oriented preachers will not want to focus on the expectation of a literal end to history, but they can certainly embrace the theme of hope for the future. Luke’s emphasis upon discerning the signs of the time in Luke 21:29-32 can encourage contemporary Christians to pay attention to what is happening in our world today in light of the biblical vision of shalom. One may think that it a hard sell to convince anyone with an interest in peace and justice that the signs of our own time are favorable, but it is the genius of apocalyptic thinking (for all its problematic aspects!) that it envisions the renewal of the world precisely at the moment that all seems lost. Thus the signs in vv. 25-28, although foreboding, are in fact evidence that “your redemption is drawing near.”

From a process perspective, of course, a good outcome is not guaranteed. What are guaranteed, however, are God’s everlasting care, presence with us in our sufferings, and self-giving efforts to bring about a state of blessedness. And if the vision of an entire world marked by God’s shalom, we can at least catch glimpses of such a world to the extent that we open ourselves to God’s renewing power within our faith communities. Thus in the Thessalonians text Paul can invoke God’s direction so that those who receive his letter might “abound in love for one another.”

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).