I always wonder what people who come into a liturgical church for the first time on Advent 1 think? Since about Halloween our secular world culture has been preparing for Christmas trees and sleighs and fat jolly old elves as well as manger scenes and angels and stars in the East with those wonderful Magi, virgins and births with hurrying shepherds and all sorts of nice images. I’ve noticed these types of items up in some stores since before Halloween, in some places. Then, enter Advent, and whammo...it isn’t about City Sidewalks and Silver Bells or Mangers & Little Towns or even rhino-plastically challenged Reindeer. Our Advent stories are as Gary Charles says, “dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation.” No sweet baby Jesus but a stern adult Jesus with an image of the whole universe being shaken around.
Advent is an eclectic season, a harsh season, an unsteady season whose time wrenching images threaten to disorient and unnerve those who look for comfort in predictability. In Advent we wait and ready ourselves for the coming of a child whom we know is already born while knowing that he is constantly being reborn within us. We wait for His return certain in that return but not knowing when. We endeavour to be faithful to the future kingdom, while struggling against conformity to the kingdom that we are held captive by. We are waiting, watching, wondering and reflecting on the past while anticipating and hoping for the future. The texts of Advent set the stage for a different kind of preparation than shopping malls, black Friday, Cyber Monday and slick marketing. It is a different season than what appears to be unfolding outside the walls of this church, but perhaps not really that different from what lies beneath the slick veneer of advertising.
It is to this that the prophet Jeremiah cries forth to the people held captive. The once proud chosen people who now are facing enslavement and domination, asked to bow down to foreign gods, suffering the destruction of their people, their city and their values. Thrust into poverty, their freedom is gone. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, are advancing on Jerusalem. The streets of Jerusalem will soon be filled with the corpses of her people (33:4-5), and the prophet Jeremiah himself is imprisoned by King Zedekiah (33:1). The worst hasn’t occurred yet, but it is inevitable. Anyone can see that the people are doomed. The prophecies of doom of which Jeremiah continually spoke are coming to pass. Yet in the midst of all this the prophet now speaks of the days that are surely coming. In the midst of the total despair of the present the hope of the future is pronounced.
Although we in North America aren’t facing any physical invading armies today, many of us are experiencing a loss of job, or of security, of home, of health, of community, of pandemic or ravages of flooding. Many of us are close to or know those who have lost their comfort and much of what they had from one of the above. Our economy is retooling, our demographics are changing, our once familiar and comforting structures are collapsing around us, even how we are community is changing. In the midst of this, the voice of the prophet calls out telling of the hope of the inevitable future of God. The descendant of David who will "execute justice and righteousness in the land,” the one for whom we wait in this Advent season whose salvation encompasses the whole world.
The news of the promised future comes when it appears far from certain that it can ever be actualized. At a time when one might say, sounds great but from where I’m sitting things look pretty bleak, the armies of Babylon are almost here. But the prophet is adamant, “A righteous branch WILL spring up.” His words of hope, this solid, enduring promise is spoken to counter all of the life-sapping, despair-inducing evidence to the contrary and in that lies its power.
The cry of Jeremiah is the cry of longing, the yearning for God’s future. It calls for the anticipation of that which will come. Jeremiah voices the longing of his people, the longing that you and I have for the coming for God’s promised future.
Recently I was confronted again with the reality of the harshness that can be found in the present world. I met with a family where the parents are out on disability and unemployed. A family who have struggled to just try and make ends meet. A family who can’t survive without the support of various aid organizations of the community and the social services network. The army of Babylon is marching. They are at risk for losing their apartment because of not being able to make rent. They are at risk of hunger from lack of food. They are at risk of being cold this winter as utility prices have forced them behind in payments. They are at risk for losing their children if they end up in the streets again. I called around trying to find some help for them. They were not short term, or recently injured on the job. They were long-term, a chronic situation. “Where can they go then” I asked. The only hope she said is with places like you, the churches and church groups. What if...then they go on the streets. In the midst of this harsh reality, I need, I long for the hope of the prophet’s message. I long for the day, that is surely coming when God’s future will be a reality. I long for the day that is surely coming when the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to live on the streets. I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no place for violence, when the industry making body bags closes because there are no more dead soldiers coming home in bags because war is no more. I long for the day that is surely coming when we are no longer ripped apart by racism, sexism, homophobia and all kinds of discrimination. I long for people to have the confidence in the words of the prophet, I long for the day when we will all know the God whom Jeremiah speaks of. I long for us all to have a relationship with that God through Jesus and to know that he is a God of his people who hears them when they cry and meets them where they are. I long for the day when all people realize that he is a God of love and relationship and not the God of bigots and religious fanatics. I long for the day when God’s fulfillment will bring more mercy and justice to the world than we can ask or imagine. Until that day, I wait, in my longing for the coming again of that child who did/is/will bring forth the fulness of God’s future. I wait for the Christ.
As inheritors of Jeremiah's task. We are called to speak the word of hope and promise in a world often filled with fear and uncertainty, even despair. Especially in this season of Advent, we speak words of hope. In the midst of darkness, light is about to break in. In the midst of despair, hope erupts. After long waiting, a branch will sprout. The complete fulfillment of God's promises has not yet happened, but it is coming. Such is Advent faith, and Advent hope.
Thanks be to God.