FROM A READING FOR NOV. 29, FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
'Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man...' -- Luke 21:36

One of the most interesting things about the prophet Jeremiah is that, in the course of his ministry, he changed his message.

In the beginning, toward the end of the 600s BC, he called for a reform of Judaism -- a return to the covenant on which that faith was based. But by the start of the 500s, he was calling for the destruction of both the formal institution of Judaism and the city of Jerusalem which fostered and represented it.

The constant rejection of his original message led him into making this drastic change. He concluded that the only hope for true reform revolved around destroying the main impediments to such change and starting from scratch.

He regarded the invading Babylonians as Yahweh's agents in accomplishing his dream. Their capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and the ensuing exile of its people, would hopefully force the Chosen People to renew their relationship with Yahweh, this time avoiding the pitfalls which led them to renege on their covenant responsibilities.

Of course, the Jewish authorities labeled him a traitor ("He weakens the arms of our soldiers!"), and the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar regarded him a friend. The prophet thought of himself simply as Yahweh's mouthpiece, conveying the message the situation demanded.

New king coming
That's why, in Sunday's first reading (Jer 33:14-16), Jeremiah insists that, when all this uprooting is over, a new king will appear -- one who returns the people to the roots of their faith. That faith will be so much a part of their daily experiences that the city of Jerusalem will be nicknamed, "Yahweh, our justice." In other words, they'll relate to one another as Yahweh relates to them. No religious institution will ever again stop them from carrying through on this.

Sadly, this never happened. Five centuries after the Babylonian Exile ended, Jesus of Nazareth was also forced to deliver a message of reform, which seems to have been as generally rejected as that of Jeremiah's. But, counter to the prophet's expectations, the Gospel Jesus doesn't seem to have regarded the future Roman destruction of Jerusalem (in 70 AD) as a means to that reform, but as a punishment for not reforming (Luke 21:25-28,34-36).

Good guidelines
No matter the Jerusalem consequences, Jewish rejection certainly opened the door of faith to Gentiles by the time Luke writes in the mid-80s. Yet, even he believes that "things" still aren't perfect even among followers of Jesus -- else he wouldn't have written his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

He's convinced perfection will only arrive when the risen Jesus returns. Though the evangelist doesn't expect that to happen in his or his community's lifetime, he doesn't want anyone in the meantime to be caught watching paint dry: "Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy...and that day catch you like a trap."

In the earliest Christian writing we possess, Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle sets out some essential guidelines for a return to the basics of our faith -- whether we're expecting His return in the future or bringing it about right here and now (I Thes 3:12-4:2).

Writing almost 40 years before Luke composed his Gospel, Paul zeros in on the basics: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you, so as to strengthen your hearts."

No matter what's happening in the religious institutions to which we belong, if we're serious about loving one another, we're doing what God demands we do.