A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness. Jeremiah 33:14-16
The promise of a better future has been around for a very long time. In this country. We were told that if we worked hard enough, lived “right” enough, our dreams were within our grasp. In the past, this has manifested in the American Dream – that idealistic vision of 2 children, 2 cars in a garage attached to a 3 bedroom house which we owned, one spouse going off to work (usually the daddy) while the other stayed home to ensure the children got off on the right foot toward the fulfillment of their own American dream. All of this happened in the context of a neighborhood where all the neighbors were living a similar version of a similar dream.
Living the dream!
And it worked. For some people. That is, unless your family is black
or if there weren’t two parents in the house
or if you were a grandparent raising a grandchild
or if one of your family members was “down-sized”
or if one of your family members had a chronic or catastrophic disease
or if one of your family members was queer
or served in the military
or was wounded in service of this country
or has been incarcerated
or didn’t have the proper visa
or you came from Syria
or just about any country in Africa
or south of this border.
For people in any one of those categories, the American Dream with its “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” ideology has not fulfilled the promise of better days. When Jeremiah calls: Behold! The days are surely coming! so many people simply respond: “How long, O Lord!” It seems that the days have surely been coming for over 2,700 years since Jeremiah sat in prison where he landed because he talked too MUCH about God’s judgement – talked too MUCH about changes people needed to make to get back into the kind of relationship God wanted with them.
But Jeremiah couldn’t keep quiet. God’s people had broken the covenant when they chose not to live into their side of the agreement. They wanted the benefits of God’s eternal presence and support, God’s mercy, God’s never-ending grace but didn’t want anything to do with the responsibilities of living the kind of lives God expected them to live – lives oriented around care of the poor, lives dedicated to the welcome of strangers, lives focused on living as people specially appointed to be in partnership with God to carry out God’s twin purposes of justice and peace.
Whenever Jeremiah tried to get the people back on track there was resistance. When he tried to counteract message of the false prophets who told the people that God’s peace and prosperity was already among them and easily within their grasp, when he tried to show them the truth that they were not “living the dream” – he was arrested and imprisoned by the same king who had appointed him to tell him the truth.
Powerless, he watched the destruction of his world and the slaughter of his people. He watched as Nebuchadnezzar entered and laid waste to Jerusalem. And from that deep darkness, Jeremiah cried out in hope!
Behold! The days are surely coming!
In his darkest moment, Jeremiah poured out his own yearning for God’s mercy into a hopeful promise for his people who found themselves likewise imprisoned and exiled.
Behold! The days are surely coming!
It is this vision of hope that sustained Jeremiah and encouraged God’s people for 70 years. 70 years! Two generations of people survived the profound grief of displacement and disorientation and at the same time engaged the searching introspection required for repentance by clinging to these words: Behold! The days are surely coming!
2,700 years later we are still waiting. Still hoping. Still clinging. Still searching. But what are we waiting FOR? What are we hoping God is going to do? This is the question we must ask ourselves: Because if Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel are to be trusted, the days are already here. They’ve been here for quite a while now.
The days that were to come are already upon us. Like the disciples, we sense it – maybe we’ve even been sitting with worry and fear over it.
“Listen,” Jesus said: “There will be signs in the cosmos…” All we have to do is look around us and see the truth in these words – the truth that even now we see cosmic signs in the form of historic droughts – not just here – but in the tropical rain forests of Honduras and Brazil and Nigeria; “storms of the century” which seem to intensify over the past few decades; melting glaciers; vanishing species; and God knows how much “space junk” orbiting around this planet
Behold! The days have surely come.
“Look,”Jesus said: “There will be distress among nations…”
And immediately our hearts beat a little faster as the names of nations and cities come to mind: Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, The Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Paris, Minneapolis, Colorado Springs, Charleston, Baltimore, Houston, Roseburg, Oregon, Oakland.
Jesus said there would be confusion – that people would be worn out by their fear and worry about what’s going on in the world.
Behold. The days have surely come.
Jesus doesn’t abandon us to our own devices. He has some good advice to offer.
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory,” he said. “And when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
And suddenly it’s apparent that the question isn’t: “How long O Lord?” but “What shall we do while we wait?”
Jesus has an answer for that, too: Pay attention, be alert, be ready. Don’t drown your sorrows in drunkenness. Don’t allow the precious time and energy you have to be wasted by worrying and fretting.
Jesus isn’t offering us a way for us to end our waiting, he is talking about what our waiting should be like. The truth is: we have a role to play in helping Jeremiah’s righteous branch to grow and bear the fruit of justice and it won’t happen if we spend all our time wondering when Jesus is coming to fix it all.
We live IN BETWEEN two things – the creation of the universe and the end of it. And while this time is… and has always been… full of tension and worry, it is a time that people of faith can also fill with hope-filled action because both the beginning and ending of the story are in God’s hands. We don’t have to worry about God’s love and mercy. It is there for us. We don’t have to worry about when Jesus will come again. We know he will and we know we will be part of that too. Hope in the in-between time assures us and frees us, offering us a glimpse of what the world CAN be. Because of the hope that is within us, we can g0 to the mountaintop and catch a glimpse of the glory of the coming of the Lord, knowing that even a glimpse can renew and strengthen us so we can continue the hard work of justice and peace.
Because we have hope, we don’t have to lament when we hear friends and family members talk about being afraid of terrorist attacks during the holidays. We can help each other stand up, raising our heads – trusting that redemption has already drawn near – that God has already redeemed the world and is even now moving it toward peace.
Because we walk in hope, we don’t have to wail about the state of our own country when we refuse to let families find a safe haven here because we’re afraid they might be terrorists, we can stand up together and raise our heads in protest. Our redemption has already come to us in a refugee baby raised by an immigrant family.
Because we live in hope, we don’t have to worry about preventing violence from breaking out in our neighborhoods and spend our energy on developing loving and caring relationships with our neighbors.
Because we are filled with hope, we don’t have fearfully abandon civil rights, common protections and basic decent treatment for all people regardless of their race, gender orientation, economic power or citizenship status.
And because of this hope that is in us, we cannot, we must not stop telling each other that unless we stand up and raise our heads, our hands, our whole lives, the redemption we already enjoy will be swallowed up by fear and destroyed by anxious worrying in the same way Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and swallowed up the people of God.
Frederich Buechner said: “To wait for Christ means that as best we can we have to be Christ to those who need us to be Christ to them most. We have to bring them the most we have of Christ’s healing and hope because unless we bring it, it may never be brought at all.”
God’s redemption has come near. And it is our challenge and call to stand up and raise our heads so that God’s justice and peace and be fulfilled.
Behold! The days are Here!