Jeremiah 33:14-16The 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.”
I have a problem.
I do not want to preach the sermon that I’m fairly certain the Holy Spirit is asking me to preach.
This particular day of the Christian liturgical year is traditionally associated with prophecies pointing to the coming of the Messiah – but not just his idyllic birth in the Bethlehem stable. The “official” readings for the first Sunday of Advent - the ones listed in what is called the “lectionary” - point much further along in the story, to a biblical prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled: the Second Coming of Christ. After all, the Christian story that follows the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus has not ended. There are countless arrows in the Bible pointing to a future in which God returns and finishes what he started.
The season of Advent invites Christians to live into this mystery. We are challenged to enter into a complicated spiritual arena in which we prepare for the birth of an infant savior that already happened some 2,000 years ago – even as we ready ourselves for this same savior to come again. To complicate matters even further, no one really has time for this religious mumbo jumbo when there are teacher gifts to buy and Christmas parties to attend and cookies to bake and cookies to eat and cookies to try not to eat.
I’ve had a handful of fairly awkward experiences on the First Sunday of Advent, thanks to the weird scriptures the lectionary suggests for this day. In my first year of ministry I did not know that the church I served preferred to skip Advent and celebrate, instead, a month of Christmas. Let’s just say that my first Advent sermon was woefully out of place in the otherwise full-throttle merry worship service. And last year! Last year I decided to preach on two lectionary texts, and one of my esteemed colleagues sabotaged me. Inadvertently, of course. One of the texts was woven into the Advent wreath liturgy we were using – but when the reader opened his bible, he began reading a completely different text. As it turns out, since Rich didn’t know I was planning to preach on the admittedly weird and difficult passage, he thought it would be best to swap it out for something a little less, well, weird and difficult. But don’t think I’m throwing him under the bus; I’m pretty sure I would have made the same exact decision. There are more than a few scriptures that really don’t work so well in public worship without a word of explanation, and that was definitely one of them.
This is all to say that this year I wasn’t going to lean too heavily into the apocalyptic strangeness of the first Sunday of Advent. I was going to keep it light. Relevant. Maybe even a little merry.
Months ago I selected this text from Jeremiah – yes, from the lectionary, but seemingly without the minor tone of the day’s gospel reading. You’ll note that I did not read the passage from Luke that is the gospel lection for the day; it begins with Jesus saying, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Oh, drats. I just read it after all.
I just don’t think I can do it. The first Sunday of Advent without a weird and difficult scripture is like Christmas Eve without a crèche. But even without the fear and foreboding of Jesus’ words, the hope-filled passage from Jeremiah cannot be fully appreciated without considering its utterly hopeless context.
Jeremiah was speaking prophetic words to a people who were devastated. You might call them God-forsaken, except for one small detail: they were the ones who had, in fact, first forsaken God. They had turned their backs from the One who had made his face to shine upon them. They had ignored the One who had delivered them from slavery. They had disconnected themselves from the One who had knit them together in their mother’s womb. And the consequences of their faithlessness were dire. The city of Jerusalem would be ransacked. The Israelites would be exiled. They had no justice. They witnessed no righteousness. They were filled with despair. The hardest thing is that the Israelites had not yet seen their darkest days. Still, Jeremiah trusts the word of the Lord: the days are surely coming when promises will be fulfilled, promises of salvation and safety and justice and righteousness.
The Israelites may have still been in the midst of collective crisis, but they had been given a reason to believe something better was on the way.
And we may still be in the midst of crisis, collective or otherwise. But we have been given a reason to believe that something better is on the way.
C.S. Lewis wrote that “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
The world around us seems to be saying, “Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend that there is nothing to cause us despair. Let’s pretend that everything will be okay if we get just get some new stuff, sing a few happy songs, and make appearances at the holiday parties.” I’ve heard the December frenzy called “Eggnogging our way to bliss.” (William Willimon)
Only there is no bliss at the bottom of the mug of eggnog. False cheer is a poor substitute for genuine joy. False cheer cannot grapple with truth, cannot face reality. False cheer simply hopes that despair will disintegrate without ever acknowledging that it exists.
But the alternative to false cheer is not sorrow, but hope. The prophet moves through his people’s despair – not around it, but through it. He preaches a curious hope—the hope that recognizes we have run out of hope. The hope that only sprouts when we finally recognize that we cannot save ourselves: not with a credit card, not with a drink, not with a memory of a happier day. The only hope worth its weight in tears. The branch of righteousness that symbolizes the joyful days ahead springs up from a stump. A dead tree.
That is our story again and again – life emerging where it looks like death has won.
I am beginning to think that the first Sunday of Advent is ultimately all about a familiar question: “What do you want for Christmas?” For the season of Advent is a time of profound longing. I read striking words this week, as I wrestled with these texts. The author wrote,
“As the first lone candle of [the] Advent wreath burns, Jeremiah recalls his own city burning, and yet he speaks not of destruction but of God’s future as he offers his cry of longing… Like Jeremiah, most [of us are people with our own lists of longings for which we cry out]… as I listen to the cries of Jeremiah throughout the scope of his prophecy, I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future will be a reality beyond the violent boastings of the ruling Babylon of the day. I long for the day that is surely coming when in God’s future the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to sleep on the streets. I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no space for violence, when we will stop producing body bags – because there are no dead soldiers to fill them. I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future affords no room for rancor, a day when our world is no longer torn asunder by racism and sexism and homophobia… I long for the confidence of the prophet’s words about the righteous future of our God. I long for people to know the God whom Jeremiah heralds and whom Jesus will incarnate, not a hidden God who refuses to traffic in the human enterprise, but a God who hears God’s people when they [cry out]. I long for people to know, not the God of religious fanatics or bigots, not a God who enjoys seeing Jerusalem set afire, but the God who, in God’s own time, will bring more mercy and justice than we will ever grasp.” (Gary W. Charles, Feasting on the Word, Year C vol. 1)These longings may not be merry and light. But they are certainly relevant and hopeful and honest and true. By naming our deepest longings – by daring to move through moments of despair – we prepare ourselves to receive the gifts of the season that never tarnish or expire. We prepare ourselves to join in the merriment of angels, to see by the light of Christ.
“Stand up and raise your heads,” our savior responds. “Your redemption is drawing near.”
May it be so.