This is a bad time of year to be a pastor. All around people are putting up pretty sparkling Christmas lights, the airwaves have been advocating having a holly, jolly Christmas since before Thanksgiving, and there are escapist feel-good movies on the TV—and I always feel like Scrooge. Because this is the first Sunday of Advent and the church just doesn’t have the holiday spirit.
You come to church and we’re not singing Christmas carols. You come to church and we’re not talking about a cute, quiet, little baby surrounded by lovely animals that don’t smell and wise people and shepherds (the ultra rich and the beyond poor) getting along nicey-nice. What is wrong with us? Why aren’t we propagating the beautiful story like everyone else?
Nooooo, we here at church on the first Sunday of Advent are always reading about the apocalypse, the end of the world, as if the church was the very first to come up with the “Nightmare before Christmas” mentality! Why can’t the church get with the program? It’s supposedly one of “our” biggest holidays! Why aren’t we advocating shopping ‘til you drop and partying away the rest of the dying year and cooing at a plastic manger like the rest of the mob outside? Why are we in the church stuck trying to make waiting and hoping (not the flashiest of acts in the human arsenal) exciting and the specter of the end of days seem like good news?
And then, every year, I remember. Oooooooooh. Christmas isn’t about getting the best present for everyone on your list, or being happier than anyone else, or even having the most ugly sweaters! Christmas—this thing we are waiting and hoping for during the LONG weeks of Advent—is about God. About God coming to be with us—Emmanuel. Not to be our shopping or partying buddy, but to sit at the bedside of a sick beloved, to walk with us who wander as we mourn, to be in solidarity with those who fight and die for justice, and to rejoice with those who rejoice as well. Where is that billboard?
And the image of the end of days, the end of the world, the apocalypse, IS good news. Because it means an end to a world where babies starve to death in refugee camps, and some are proud to decorate their borders with barbed wire and troops, and people who hate other people are way too vocal, way too numerous, way too close!
We want that world to disappear. We want that world to end. We want a different world. We are waiting and hoping for something else. That is what is happening at church during this crazy lead-up to a truly “holy” day, the extraordinary day—when we celebrate God being incarnate—the God of the universe, taking on flesh, and coming to be with us, coming to be us.
Advent is about remembering, and preparing for that night when angels sang, and shepherds ran, and wise ones from afar came seeking, and a star was in the sky. But Advent insists that we not ever forget that there are 364 other days in the year when it is just as true that God is with us, and that there is a message to hear, and that whether we are supposed to be running down from the hills or getting ourselves here by caravan, we are to be on the move. The star still shines in the sky. God’s promises will not fail. And we have work to do.
The focus reading for today is from Jeremiah and talks about a righteous branch to spring up for David. You remember David? The beloved of God who messed up so bad (google Bathsheba and the killing of her husband Uriah)—now God is a forgiving God, but God is also a God of justice, and so David, even though he was the beloved, didn’t get to build the beautiful temple for God, no that was given to his son. And David had to be satisfied with the promise from God that God would never forsake his line. That from him would eventually come someone who would be righteous—able to show God’s love for all to see.
Jeremiah is making this prophecy not in the time of David when everything was looking pretty good for Israel. No Jeremiah was talking when things were about as bad as they could be. Babylon had swept down on their way to fight with the Egyptians and conquered half of the kingdom some years ago, and were about to snatch the rest of Israel, and exile the leadership to beside the waters of Babylon. Jeremiah himself was under house arrest in the puppet king’s enclosure. It was a dark time. An end of days time. But God’s word provided light in the darkness, hope in the face of cruelty and meanness and terror.
That’s nice. But what does it have to do with us? What message are we supposed to hear today?
Here’s the bottom line. We are to act, to live, standing on the Promises of God. It has a familiar ring to it, right? (Standing …) And it doesn’t seem to be too difficult to remember. Standing on the promises, Living because of the promises, Acting on the promises of God. Now what does that look like?
Well, it probably looks like folly to a lot of the world. We take our name, Christians, from the One who was willing to stand and act and live and die on God’s promises. And people jeered at the foot of the cross. People poo-pooed then and now the resurrection. And people are going to think that acting, living, standing on God’s promises here and now is a joke too.
We have one story of what it looks like from Jeremiah himself. From his own life, right before he hears the “righteous branch” prophecy. There is Jeremiah, imprisoned in King Zedekiah’s place enclosure, and word comes that a family plot in Anathoth has come on the market. Banner day. Great news! You have the opportunity to get in on this biggest real estate STEAL of the decade. Property in a War-torn land. Buy it quick because the Babylonians are at the gate. And you want to take care of it before you leave on your all-expenses paid trip to the exciting capital of Babylon.
All of us would have said, “No thanks.” But Jeremiah spent his life listening to God. Jeremiah knew in his bones what God’s promises were to him and his people. And Jeremiah sent his aide, Baruch, to buy the field, and to take the deeds of purchase, and put them in an earthenware jar (in order, we are told, that they last a long time). And why did Jeremiah do this crazy thing? It was a sign from God. “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (By the way, it took a LONG time for that to be true).
Now that is understanding what waiting and hoping and acting on God’s promises is. To be willing to hold onto the dream even in the face of all the FACTS that tell you otherwise. To be willing to put your heart and your soul and your pocketbook in service of something that you may never get to see in your lifetime. To be a fool in the world’s eyes, but wise in God’s.
As I was envisioning this, I could hear echoes down the centuries.
Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.”
And another Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr, said on the last night of his life, “I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight…”
It seems right that we be given the image of a righteous branch as our totem for this week. A branch, a living thing, that doesn’t just spring from itself, it comes into being as a product of all that has gone before. Without the roots and the trunk and the rest of the tree, the righteous branch could not be. We are to be like that branch, standing on God’s promises as have our forefathers and foremothers of the faith. We do not look at our world and throw up our hands, “Oh well.” We do not look at the empty pews at 8am and 10:30am and all over our country and shrug “we were born at the wrong time.” We were born and we live in exactly such a time as this (I invite you to read the book of Esther).
We know that the branch looks pretty bare right now. We know that all we see are dried up leaves if any leaves at all. But Jesus also held before our eyes the image of trees. We know what happens. Bare branches don’t last forever, they only last for a season. But soon, fall turns into winter turns into spring. Soon, that branch, at least those connected to the sap of the tree, those fed by the roots that go deep into the ground, that branch will sprout, and will flower, and will bring forth leaves and fruit.
That is what we are called to this Advent. To act, like Jeremiah did, sure of God’s word, not confused by the dark season we may be in right now. God is faithful. God is good. God is with us, Emmanuel.
The good news is that this world doesn’t have the last word. Righteousness has the last word. Justice has the last word. Love has the last word. The God who is and who was and who is to come has the last word. No wonder creation itself is ready to burst into song. May our lives swell as we join in: “Glory to God in the highest! Alleluia, Amen.”