Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
**last sermon, though in Luke's gospel rather than Mark's.**
I faithfully attended lectures and took copious notes. I felt like I was doing pretty well, but when the first test came, I totally bombed it. Most of the stuff on the test I had never seen before because even though I had been to all the lectures, I had not cracked the text book. Oddly enough, Dr. Davico actually expected us to study the book for our tests, not just the lecture notes. I continued attending lectures, but I struggled with the reading; not because I couldn’t do it, but because I didn’t have the right habits in place. I wasn’t used to having to learn on my own outside of class. I eventually passed both semesters of OChem, but only by the skin of my teeth.
I never studied in high school. I never had to; I have a pretty good memory and I am a good note-taker, and I was able to coast through my classes with that. While all my teachers talked to my classmates and me about the importance of studying, I mostly tuned out because I didn’t think I needed to. It wasn’t until Dr. Davico’s class that I began to realize that “smart” is not about natural ability, but good preparation.
I find it oddly fitting that as we begin celebrating Advent, students are beginning to study for final exams. That first OChem final reminds me during Advent that good preparation is not just about knowing the material, it’s also about establishing good habits and putting in the work, because tests are never an end in themselves, but are themselves preparation for what comes next. The same could be said of the life of faith. The things Jesus taught us and the commandments he gave are not ends in and of themselves; following them doesn’t earn us a place in paradise. Jesus left us with what he did in order to prepare us for what’s next: the kingdom of God.
Over the course of the coming year, we will be reading through Luke’s gospel and learning just what Luke means by the “kingdom of God.” Some of us have read through the gospels many times and already have some idea what this “kingdom” looks like, some of us may not have ever heard these stories or given them much thought. Either way, all of us are bound to be surprised as we listen to Jesus describe God’s kingdom, hearing in his words things we did not hear before. For now, suffice it to say that (to borrow from Jeremiah’s words) when Christ returns to establish God’s reign, “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
This is good news for the just and the righteous, but not necessarily so for the unjust and the unrighteous. Since we live in a world dominated by human sinfulness, it makes sense that the coming of God’s reign—a system that is so contrary to the systems that now reign—would be accompanied by such violent struggles as Jesus describes in the gospel lesson. While others may be scared and “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming,” we know enough to see that these are the signs of the arrival of God’s reign, so we can stand up and greet its coming with heads held high.
But preparing for the reign of God is not just about knowing the material, it’s about establishing good habits and putting in the work. We know that God’s reign will be marked by justice and righteousness, but the question Advent asks us is whether we are prepared to live in a world where justice and righteousness to be the law of the land.
Elsewhere, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We tend to operate under the opposite assumption: where your heart is, there your treasure will be also. This is the principle behind the NPR pledge drive or the letters you might get from your alma mater asking for donations: “if you care about this institution,” they say, “you will support it.” In other words, if your heart is here, put some treasure here as well.
Jesus’ advice is to do it backwards: give our treasure—our time, our money, our attention, our passion—to whatever we want to value and let our hearts follow. Rather than spending our time or energy on the stuff the world says is important, he says that we ought to invest them into the stuff that God values. That way, when God’s reign begins, we will be satisfied when we receive the return on our investment, rather than disappointed when our capital loses all its value.
One way to interpret this is to give our lives to the causes and the issues that we feel God calling us to address, so that when God’s reign is established our work will see its fruition. Another way to understand it is to serve and care for the people whom God loves, not just the people whom we love; in that way, we will learn to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” It’s not unlike how we were taught by our parents to say “thank you.” Through the habit of expressing gratitude, we actually become grateful people, realizing all the thanks we owe to others.
When we practice for God’s reign by rehearsing how it will be, we prepare ourselves for its arrival. We believe that God’s reign is good news for those on the bottom—the hungry, the oppressed, the isolated—because they will be on the top; that means that those of us closer to the top will find ourselves nearer the bottom. This has the potential to be a painful adjustment—unless we start practicing for God’s reign now by living like the ones on the bottom: feeding the hungry, standing with the oppressed, comforting the isolated. By practicing this now, we are preparing ourselves for life under God’s reign.
We have many opportunities to practice welcoming strangers, caring for those in need, loving and living with those who disagree with us. We can advocate for change and speak for the voiceless and work to change the oppressive systems that dominate our world to make the coming of God’s reign that much easier for ourselves. Our practicing for God’s kingdom now is what prepares us for its coming.
My friend Erica also took Dr. Davico’s Organic Chem class, and she had the same problem I did. However, she was better at learning the lesson than I was. It’s a good thing, too, because she went on to med school. She once told me that Davico’s class saved her medical career. In med school, every professor taught like Dr. Davico did. His class prepared her for what was coming—not just the subject matter, but the way she would need to study to be successful. Had it not been for that lesson, she felt sure she would have washed out of med school because she wouldn’t have been prepared for the work.
You can think of what we are doing here as rehearsal for the reign of God. We gather here to listen and learn together and to focus on our end goal. As a community, we put into practice what we learn, helping each other along the way as we fail or look for understanding. And it’s not just us; we gather around the table with all the other saints who have been practicing that same life of faith and who will be until Christ comes again, and Jesus himself sustains us along the way, feeding us to keep up our strength and prepare us for the road ahead.
It is important for us to make ready because we live between the already and the not yet: Jesus has already come to establish God’s reign on earth, even though it is not yet here in its fullness. By preparing for God’s reign, we learn to see it peeking through everywhere, especially in the most unexpected places. Advent is meant to be a time to help us recognize and participate in all the ways God’s kingdom is already here, as well as a time to prepare ourselves for the kingdom that is not yet here. As we sing the songs and light the candles, that’s what we are doing: we are watching and waiting and hoping for what is to come. “Through that, God strengthens our hearts in holiness,” as Paul says, “so that we may be blameless before God at the coming of our Lord Jesus.”
Dorothy Day, Catholic social worker.