How do people who fall in love sustain their hopeful expectation of one another throughout their lives? Some relationships begin to crumble after the infatuation wears off, the delight in mutual commitment fades and routine life settles in. Others weather the passage of time with moments of renewed celebration of promises made and kept and of crises faced together, strengthening the lifelong bond. Such experiences in human relationships reveal something of how God interacts with us.
As Advent begins, people in the Northern Hemisphere may be inclined to snuggle into the shortened, dark days of approaching winter to calmly contemplate the coming of Christ. But the readings put us in a crisis mode that is anything but restful. Jeremiah addresses the exiles, who are undergoing great distress. He had earlier prophesied that the Davidic dynasty would be restored soon after the fall of Jerusalem. Instead, the weary exiles have experienced disaster after disaster, and they are grasping for some sign of hope. “The days are coming” is an expression that in the Bible ordinarily introduces a pronouncement of judgment, instilling fear in the hearers. Instead, Jeremiah uses the phrase to startle the care-worn exiles with an assurance that God will fulfill the promises made to Israel and Judah.
As partners whose relationship has hit the rocks may be able to recapture the initial fervor of their love when reminded of the joy and delight with which their promises of commitment were made, so God’s beloved are wooed away from their woes to focus on the sure promise of redemption at hand. There is a word play: Israel’s last king was Zedekiah, whose name derives from the Hebrew word for “justice.” While the people look for a new “just shoot” from David’s branch, Jeremiah proclaims that it is God’s own self who is “our justice.”
While Jeremiah’s hearers were waiting for fulfillment of God’s promises in an existing crisis, Luke’s and Paul’s hearers are waiting for an apocalyptic end time that seems long in coming. Luke’s warning is not to let one’s heart grow drowsy during the long wait. Like lovers whose passion fades and whose lives are lulled into routine, the people’s ardor may dim, and they may be found unprepared for the coming crisis. Luke advises not letting our hearts go after things that satisfy only for a time and not becoming weighed down with anxiety. Be always watchful, he says, so as not to be taken by surprise. Pray for strength and do not be at all afraid. Stand tall, he says, raise your heads and be ready for the embrace of the one who is love.
Paul tells the Thessalonians to strengthen their hearts. He prays, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” reminding us that it is God who initiates and sustains us in love, and that it is a love meant to be shared with all. Daily prayer and practices of loving outreach prepare us well for the crisis times when disaster strikes, when jobs are lost, when illness or death turns our world awry, when violence rips at the fabric of our world. With hearts already strengthened by God’s love, we are able to withstand any assault.
The expectation of the birth of a child often can reignite the ardor of a flagging love relationship. So, too, in Advent, if our hearts are weary or drowsy, our preparation for the celebration of the Christ, who has already been born as one of us, can spark our love once again, not only toward the one who came as a child in our midst, but to all God’s beloved children.