Lectionary Text: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36
33:14 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. 33:15 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. 33:16 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.”
Beginning today, we enter a season of waiting. While shoppers and retail outlets count down the days to December 25, when all their searching for the perfect gift and the long holiday hours will soon pay off, we, in the church are counting down not to the end, but to the beginning. You see, the church calendar starts not on January 1 as the calendars we are used to do, but it follows the life of Christ. Advent, meaning to come toward, to draw near, to approach, places us in this season remembering and celebrating God’s drawing near to us in Jesus Christ. Our text this morning from Jeremiah calls us to anticipate with the house of Israel and Judah, the time when God’s promise of justice and righteousness will be fulfilled and the fullness of Shalom experienced. It is fitting, then, that this same weekend that we start Advent, we also remember on World AIDS Day, the millions worldwide affected by the AIDS epidemic and the movement towards healing and wholeness.
For those not familiar with the book of Jeremiah, I’ll be honest: it’s long and pretty depressing. Like other prophets, Jeremiah’s task was to be the mouthpiece of God. Not such an easy task when during the years of Jeremiah’s prophecy, Jerusalem and Judah were destroyed, its leaders and citizens were exiled, and geopolitical upheaval in the ancient Near East was the norm. Much of the story told in Jeremiah has to do with the threat and fulfillment of the destruction of Judah and, in particular, Jerusalem. The people had been violating their covenantal relationship with God, and the subsequent Babylonian control would serve as punishment for their infidelity. Destruction, terror and hopelessness permeated the country. With damage this severe, it becomes difficult as hearers of Jeremiah’s words, to distinguish between his own lamentation of the people and God’s.
And so this is where we find ourselves in the text up until this morning. Chapter after chapter we hear nothing but wailing and suffering and despair and it may have been easy to convince ourselves that even hope was nowhere to be found.
Sometimes it’s hard to relate to these Old Testament texts. They speak of lands and customs unfamiliar to us, in parts of the world that many of us have never visited and life circumstances in which we may never find ourselves. But today’s text is strangely familiar to me, and perhaps to you. We don’t have to look far to see that we live in a world experiencing disruption not unlike that of Jeremiah’s day. Conflict in the Middle East has persisted longer than I’ve lived. War ravaged nations are left with orphans and widows and children who are forced to grow up too fast. The struggling economy has left generations wondering what future they have. The national debt per person living in the United States is over $50,000. Over 17% of Americans don’t have health insurance and 15% live in poverty. Last year, it was estimated that 34 million people globally were living with HIV. As American citizens we may feel more detached than others in the world when it comes to issues of poverty and war, but even here in Nashville, we see the need to speak hope. There are currently 5,200 living with HIV/AIDS, a single-parent would have to work 95 hours per week at minimum wage in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, and over 25% of the state’s children don’t have regular access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle.
We are living in a world so desperate for the fulfillment of God’s promise to execute justice and righteousness, as Jeremiah prophesies. In these circumstances it is easy to despair. But not when we have the hope of God’s promised alternative future. And it’s not the kind of hope that says just wait it out–hang in there and things will get better, as we like to say when attempting to comfort someone. This is the kind of hope that says things will be restored to their rightful place. That says that the dysfunctional social, political and economic relationships that we are experiencing will be restored. That people will be healed, children fed and the immigrant cared for.
And so on this weekend when we remember the millions who have been living with and affected by the AIDS epidemic, when I think of this future where relationships are restored and our conduct and our ways of life are in alignment with God’s purposes, I think about this disease that continues to claim the lives of God’s children and the ways that we are called to speak hope into a situation where from any angle you look at it, is a situation void of hope. Not quite the Christmas message you were expecting now, is it?
Why, in this first week of Advent that moves us toward celebrating the birth of Christ, are we talking about despair? Jeremiah speaks from a place where people have been exiled and all they know has been taken away. The author of Luke cautions his readers to “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.” These texts feel more like preparation for the apocalypse than they do the beginning. And in a sense we are preparing for both the coming of God in the form of the infant Christ that marks this Advent season, as well as the return of Christ to make all things new, in a time we do not yet know. As Christians, this is the tension we hold: we live in the already but not yet.
And so what kind of hope do we have to speak? To the mother whose child has been born with HIV? To the young adult who is haunted by the stigma that those living with HIV and AIDS experiences? To the person who cannot find a church that welcomes her because of her disease?
What is the good news of Advent? It’s this: the expectation and hope for something new. It’s not just the hope, but the promise that a better world will break forth at any moment, so we must be alert at all times.
In this season leading up to the birth of Christ, we find ourselves at an interesting cultural crossroads. While ads on TV and online invite us to take advantage of the best shopping deals while favorite Christmas carols play in the background, we, as a church are looking forward to something much bigger than opening what we hope will be the present under the tree that we’ve asked for. We are marking our time differently and we are hoping for something much more lasting.
As we listen to the cries of Jeremiah throughout his prophecy, we cannot help but long for the day that is promised when God’s future will be a reality. Beyond the violence we hear on the news and the injustices that plague the poor and the marginalized, the elderly and the vulnerable, this promised future cannot come soon enough. A future where all God’s children would have a warm bed to sleep and food to eat. Where swords have turned to plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Where nation will not take up sword against nation, nor train for war anymore. A future when our world is no longer divided by racism and sexism and homophobia.
Christmas does not mark the end of our celebration, but the beginning. God’s breaking forth into the word in the form of an infant is a reminder that hope enters into our lives in such unexpected ways. In ways that force us to find new ways of being and of thinking and of treating one another. In ways that leave us with no other response than to ask, how might I bring about God’s Shalom–God’s completeness to my neighbor? To my workplace? To my community and this world?
We celebrate communion this morning remembering that we are living in the already, for Christ has come. And we live in the not yet–the anticipation of God’s future when justice and peace abounds.
The first Sunday of Advent brings us to this holy Table. In many ways, Jeremiah’s promise that “days are coming” finds its place at this table of hope. Soon, a simple meal will be set before us. This meal does not point to magi or a star in the sky, or pretty houses decorated with Christmas lights, but to a world so crazy that it had to cost a life. It is a table that invites the Jeremiah’s and Luke’s of our day–those carrying lament for a better time to come and those who wait and watch expectantly for hope to break forth. This is where we find ourselves this morning, and where we continue to gather to be reminded that God is doing new things. That God continues to work through the ages and even to this day to bring reconciliation to those places and spaces in our lives that long for wholeness and invite us to be participants in this alternative future.
As we enter this time of active waiting, I invite you to draw near. Sit up and listen. Lean forward. Be alert. Allow yourselves to be filled with child-like wonder as we anticipate together the promise that awaits us this season. Look for signs of God breaking forth in the every day, in unexpected places and people. And don’t be surprised if you–yes, even you, are invited to be a partner with God in bringing about this new reality. Together, with the prophet, let us lean into God’s promised future.
Go, then, brothers and sisters with this blessing, by the Reverend Jan Richardson, as we journey forward:
A Blessing to Begin Advent
It is difficult to see it from here,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see.
Is etched into
whose contours you cannot know
All you know
is that it calls you,
pulls you toward
what you have perceived
only in pieces,
in fragments that came to you
or in prayer.
I cannot account for how,
as you draw near,
the blessing embedded in the horizon
begins to blossom
upon the soles of your feet,
shimmers in your two hands.
It is one of the mysteries
of the road,
how the blessing
you have traveled toward,
as if it had been with you
all this time,
as if it simply
needed to know
how far you were willing
to find the lines
that were traced upon you
before the day
that you were born.