12.2.18 Jeremiah 33:14-16
The signs are all around us. When we arrived at our rental condo for our Thanksgiving family gathering last Wednesday, the entrance lobby was decorated with pumpkins and wreaths with orange ribbons. When we left on Sunday morning the pumpkins were gone and there were preparations for Christmas decor being made. Thanksgiving is behind us now. Emotionally,fall is over. It is time to get ready for Christmas. I often bemoan the early jump that the stores make toward Christmas, pushing us to think about gift giving and decorating even before Thanksgiving hits. But in a way, our commercialized society is doing just what the church is calling us to do—creating an extended time to get ready. Target or Amazon or Macy’s—just plug in your favorite store name– want you to get ready to spend money, to meet everyone else’s expectations, to find the newest style or device or toy, which often can stress you out. Advent is the time when the church is calling you to get ready for a birth into something new. Something new is about to happen,and we need to be ready to participate, to receive, to celebrate. Advent means coming. It begins today and marks the four Sundays prior to Christmas as days to get ready for the Coming One. We know that Jesus has already come. That we celebrate again and again. But Advent offers us a time to reflect, to pray, to give thanks, to give time to others. It is really more than getting ready to celebrate Christmas again. It is getting ready for a return of Christ, it is looking forward to a time when this world we inhabit will be a new place, a more just world that is safer,more accessible, fairer, and even a place that empowers those who have been left out in the cold, and I’m not just talking about the weather. We are anticipating the kin-dom of God, the place where our relationships with one another create a more just world for the children in our midst, children of God of all ages and stages of life.
Jeremiah wrote from a disadvantaged position. He was a captive in the king’s court AND his city was on the verge of being ransacked by the Babylonians. He has spent multiple years chastising the people of Judah and their leaders for their unfaithfulness to the covenant they had made with God and then warning them about their looming punishment. That got him imprisoned by the king. And now, when the end really is coming, this part of Jeremiah’s message from God is filled with words of comfort and hope! When everything around looks bleak and hopeless, the people get a message that promises will be fulfilled, that a new reality will be coming their way. God had long ago promised to King David that someone from his family line would continue as king forever. In Second Samuel we find recorded a message from God to King David through the prophet Nathan: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me, your throne will be established forever.” Jeremiah reminds the people that God is a keeper of promises. Although exile is imminent, and the king and the kingdom will be no more, there is the promise of renewal in the future and the hope for life to sprout again like a branch of righteousness. A righteous Branch will spring up. The power of this word of hope shouts in the face of the life-sapping, despair-inducing evidence to the contrary.
Imagine a day when Jerusalem will live in safety, when it will be called “The Lord is our righteousness”, meaning that it is only in God that they will find the kind of right relationships that will make the kindom of God. Jerusalem will be called “the Lord is our righteousness”, so that every time they say the name of their city, they will be making a proclamation of faith in the God who will not abandon them, in the God who makes good on God’s promises. Names are important. When people call our city Charm City that tells you one thing. When people call our city Bodymore that tells you something else. To change the name of their city was to be transformed into a new reality.
It had to be a stretch for the people of Jerusalem, who likely had a very hard time imagining a day when Jerusalem really would live in safety, when brides and grooms would laugh again, when animals and people would re-populate the city and surrounding farms. They were in a time of despair and fear and could not see anything but ruin and the end of life as they knew it. In chapter 32 we find the story of Jeremiah’s outlandish purchase of a piece of land at this time of despair. God told Jeremiah to buy a piece of property as a visible sign that things were going to be different in the future, that the people would return, that life would sprout up again. Jeremiah’s words and actions point toward a different future. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said: “Humans meet despair when they cannot imagine God’s promised alternative future.” We get filled with despair when all we can imagine is what we see in front of us—an empty house after the death of a loved one, a walker now needed for transportation, an expanding row of abandoned homes, a paycheck that does not cover expenses. It is easy to allow our current circumstances to determine our outlook on the future. Jeremiah’s neighbors were doing the same thing. They needed to hear words of hope for a different kind of future than they were seeing. So do we. We are driven to despair when all we can see around us is trouble, violence, the effects of global warming, grief and loss.
I think about the people in California who had to flee for their lives, for they were about to lose their homes to the flames. Or the people on the Atlantic coast who have lost their homes and their way of life to the rising waters. Or the Hondurans who have fled the violence in their communities, leaving their homes and their relatives hoping for a safe place to live in our country. Or the people right down the street who have long ago lost the sense of freedom to let their children play outside for fear of a stray bullet. So many forms of insecurity, so many causes for fear. So much despair.
Jeremiah speaks an Advent word—that is a word of hope in the midst of despair. Jeremiah speaks an Advent word of new birth into a different kind of kindom characterized by safety and security. Jeremiah speaks an Advent word to anyone who is longing for a world that is safe for everyone. Yes, God will make good on God’s promises. Yes, God will continue a branch from the line of David. Yes, there is hope for a new birth, a new kin-dom that will be based on righteousness, that is right relationships among those of us who live in it.
Perhaps we too can become speakers of Advent words of hope to a world in such +in working toward that day. It can happen in bits and pieces. Like hosting the fun intergenerational evening of fellowship, song and food to begin the Advent season on Thursday night, where at least 20% of the attendees were people from the community who joined with members of our church family. Like maintaining the ongoing connection with 40 West Assistance and Referral, with the Rosemont Community Interfaith Coalition and with Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle School. Yesterday I was invited to participate in a funeral of Dannie Stubbs, Sr., a man who lived on Harlem Avenue who had helped us many times with summer camp activities. Others certainly knew him better, and could talk more about his life, but my participation in the service showed our connection, our commitment to working together to make one neighborhood safer and stronger. By staying connected, by serving together, we are imagining Baltimore as a safe place, a different reality, God’s promised alternative future for us.