Penitential or Celebratory – What is Advent?
“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.” (Jeremiah 23:5).
This is one of the few Sundays when our lesson for the Epistle is taken from the Old Testament. Today’s lesson is from the Book of Jeremiah and that begs the question ‘Who was Jeremiah?’
Jeremiah was a member of the priestly household of Hilkiah. He may have been a descendant of a priest during the days of King Solomon. The Lord commanded Jeremiah not to marry and raise children because the impending divine judgment on Judah would sweep away the next generation. Primarily a prophet of doom, he attracted only a few friends, among whom was his closest companion and faithful secretary, Baruch, who wrote down Jeremiah’s words as the prophet dictated them (36:4-32). Baruch was advised by Jeremiah not to succumb to the temptations of ambition but to be content with his lot (ch. 45). He also received from Jeremiah and deposited for safekeeping a deed of purchase for a field Jeremiah had purchased from his cousin (32:11-16), and accompanied the prophet on the long road to exile in Egypt (43:6-7). It is possible that Baruch was also responsible for the final compilation of the book of Jeremiah since no event recorded in chapters 1 through 51 occurred after 580 BC. Chapter 52 is an appendix added by a later hand.
Jeremiah began prophesying in Judah halfway through the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC) and continued through the reign of Zedekiah (597-586). It was a period of storm and stress when the doom of entire nations — including Judah itself — was being sealed. The smaller states of western Asia were often pawns in the power plays of such imperial giants as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, and the time of Jeremiah’s ministry was no exception. The descendants of the ancient Assyrians are today the Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians, an ethnic minority in northern Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, and northwest Iran. The remains of the city-state of Babylon are in present-day Hillah Iraq, about 53 miles south of Baghdad. Both areas are as unfriendly to Jews today as they were in 580 BC.
Referred to frequently as “Jeremiah the prophet” in the book that bears his name and elsewhere, Jeremiah was always conscious of his call from the Lord to be a prophet. As such, he proclaimed words given to him by God himself, words certain of fulfillment. Judgment is one of the all-pervasive themes in Jeremiah’s writings, though he was careful to point out that repentance, if sincere, would postpone one’s otherwise inevitable fate. For Jeremiah, God was the ultimate. The prophet’s theology conceived of the Lord as the Creator of all that exists, as all-powerful, as everywhere present. Jeremiah ascribed the most elevated attributes to the God whom he served, viewing him as the Lord not only of Judah but also of all nations.
In our reading today Jeremiah is explaining his vision of the restoration of Israel. This restoration would be a time when all Israel’s scattered children shall return to the Holy Land under an ideal king born of David’s line. David, you may recall, was a descendant of Jacob’s son Judah. And Jacob, was a simple man who became the father to all the Jews, the twelve tribes of Israel. David began his life as a simple shepherd boy and later became the king of Israel. To prophesy that a new king is coming in the likeness of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David was at a minimum a very bold prophesy. Jeremiah is suggesting that all the scattered children of Israel shall return to the Holy Land under this ideal king of David’s line. This King will really rule with righteousness, unlike the puppet Zedekiah, whose name means; ‘The Lord our righteousness’, that sorry monarch whom Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, set over Judah in 597 BC.
This prophecy was not to be fulfilled in Jeremiah’s lifetime and the rebellion against the overlord finally brought an end to the kingdom of Judah in 586 BC and the land became a Babylonian province. But the Jewish people through faith continued to wait and pray for the coming of this king. To paraphrase Paul Harvey ‘you know the rest of the story’.
On this the Sunday next before Advent we say goodbye to the Trinity season and get ourselves ready for the Advent season and the coming of real “The Lord Our Righteousness”, the king Jeremiah prophesied would come to “execute judgment and justice in the earth”. The word Advent means ‘Coming’ and was first inaugurated in the Gallican churches of France and Spain, probably in the 4th century, before Christmas Day had spread to these regions. In the 6th century Advent was commonly called St. Martin’s Lent. Many of the Gallican churches had adopted Christmas, and the Advent fast was generally counted as a forty-day period (Sundays excepted) between St. Martin’s Day on November 11th and Christmas. Advent was seen as a penitential season much like Lent. The Roman Church adopted Advent in the 6th century as a liturgical preparation for Christmas. The Roman advent rites have always included the singing of Alleluia during the season. We saw evidence of this in this morning’s sermon hymn. Not until the 8th century was the Advent season commonly considered the beginning of the Christian year.
In its developed form the Advent season has two themes; preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s first coming and preparation for the Second Coming of our Lord at the end of time. The double emphasis, therefore, on both the first and the second advents of Christ gives to the season its unique mixture of devotional color: joy in the redemption that has come to us in the Incarnation, and awe before the Judgment that yet awaits us. To the spiritually discerning believer both of these tremendous and signal events of past and future are experienced as eternally present realities.
The Advent season is unlike any of the other seasons of the Church, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent or Trinity in that it is a season when we anticipate with joy the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy and soberly anticipate the second coming of our Lord which will bring with it judgment day. It is the only season when our focus is not on a singular theme or event.
The Collect for today gives us a guide to starting the Advent season; “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;”. Today, we ask the Lord to direct his power to stir up or jump-start our human will. With this inspiration from God to do divine work we pray that His faithful people will be “plenteously rewarded”. And that reward is not, as some may think, material things of this world, rather it is that come judgment day as one of God’s faithful people we will receive the gift of everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven. And that gift can only be received, as Jesus told us in the 14th chapter of St. John’s gospel by accepting that He is the King from the house of David that Jeremiah prophesied would come. Jesus told us “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6). This Advent season opens your hearts to the love of God and “plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works” so that you may “be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all evermore. Amen