First Sunday in Advent, 2013, Year A

Day of Judgment Les Tres Riches Heures detail

Judgment Day, Les Tres Riches Heures, The Limbourg Brothers
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The Revised Common Lectionary texts on the First Sunday of Advent in every cycle are intentionally apocalyptic, anticipating Christ’s return in glory.

Isaiah 2:1–5
1 “Saw.” The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures based their message upon visions and auditions: they both saw and heard their message. “Son of Amoz.” As with many traditional societies (including early Western society), one is largely defined by one’s genealogy, both past and present.
2 “Mountain of the Lord’s house.” The Temple mount in Jerusalem.  “Highest . . . raised.” The Temple mount will become the highest and most preeminent mountain in the world.

Psalm 122
1 (Hebrew) The Hebrew superscription states: “A Song of Ascents. Of David.” Scholars are in almost total agreement that Pss. 120–34, all labelled “A Song of Ascents,” were hymns sung by pilgrims going to the Temple for one of the three major festivals: Passover/Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Booths. “Of David” attributes this psalm to David’s authorship but evidence from within the Psalms themselves suggests that such titles are purely honorary; many were written centuries after David existed.
1 “Let us go.” Using a lunar calendar, the Jerusalem priests set the date for the major festivals, and then sent word to the scattered Jews communities.
3 “Bound firmly together.” Jerusalem was the House of David’s capital and the unifying center for the early tribes. The poet imagines Jerusalem as the center for Jewish unity.
4 “The tribes go up.” A reference to and expansion of Exod. 23:17; 34:23.
6­–9 A prayer for all forms of good for Jerusalem.
6–8 “Peace.” The Hebrew word shalōm means more than the absence of conflict; it also implies economic prosperity and justice, good health, etc.
8 The typical ancient emphasis upon one’s extended family and one’s immediate circle.

Note that throughout the psalm, the psalmist has sociopolitical concerns directly in mind.
Romans 13:11–14

13 This verse compares two sets of behavior: it first provides an admonition for behavior proper to expecting Christ’s return and then contrasts that with three sets of synonyms referring to improper behavior. “Honorably.” To behave properly. “Reveling and drunkenness.” The two words are synonyms, both referring to wild partying and intoxication. “Debauchery and licentiousness.” Synonyms: sexual promiscuity and excess, lewdness. “Quarreling and jealousy.” Near synonyms: “quarreling” is to engage in rivalry, while “jealousy” is harsh feelings towards someone else’s achievements. The Greco-Roman world was notable for its spirit of strife and competition. Political differences were not only ideological but an effort to make oneself appear as the most honorable or greatest citizen.
14 “Flesh.” Paul seems to make a distinction between two kinds of flesh: the human body and the human being/body as it is engaged in daily life. The latter is corrupted by sin, the idea expressed here. “Desires.” The sinful wants of the human body/being engaged in daily life.

Romans is the only extant letter of Paul addressed to a Christian community that he has never visited or founded, so his comments are more general and theological than usual. There does seem to be some division between Jewish and Gentile Christians and concerns about how to relate to the greater Roman world. The text here is part of a larger unit that focuses upon Christian behavior.

Paul here seems to assume that Christ’s return is at hand (an idea that he updates in 1 Thessalonians) and that the early Christian community needs to be prepared. Therefore our behavior should reflect Christ’s behavior in anticipation of that day.

Matthew 24:36–44
36 “No one knows.” Despite the efforts of many through the ages, this text insists that God alone when the end of history occurs.
37 “As the days of Noah were.” A reference to Noah and the sudden appearance of the catastrophic flood that God sends to wipe out the earth (Gen. 6:5–19, esp. 6:5). The Son of Man, the ruler who returns to restore and rule God’s kingdom on earth, will appear just as suddenly as the as cataclysmic flood that wiped out the earth when Noah was alive. This idea is further explained in vs. 38–39.
38 “For as in those days . . . giving in marriage.” People were engaging in everyday activities when the flood occurred; they were not expecting anything out of the ordinary.
40–41 People will be engaging in everyday activities when the Son of Man appears, thus they are not expecting his appearance.

It’s absolutely necessary to remember that this passage, and all this Sunday’s texts, are not addressed to individuals but to a community whether in ancient Jerusalem, ancient Rome, or to an unidentified early Jewish-Christian group. Therefore we as a Christian community must be watchful and behave in such a way as to meet Christ’s approval when he returns at the end of history: individually, within in our families, within our churches, within our wider communities, and within our nation and our world.

Because I write from a Lutheran perspective, this text emphasizes our responsibility and is not intended to make us endlessly worry whether we have ever done enough to meet God’s approval. Instead we remember that we rely upon God’s unconditional love for and grace towards us.

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