Sunday, December 2, 2018
First Sunday in Advent Year C
O God of all the prophets, you herald the coming of the Son of Man by wondrous signs in the heavens and on the earth. Guard our hearts from despair so that we, in the company of the faithful and by the power of your Holy Spirit, may be found ready to raise our heads at the coming near of our redemption, the day of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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. 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."
All readings for this Sunday:
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
1. Where have you found hidden signs of new life this week?
2. Have you ever considered "courage" as the best antidote to "dis-couragement"?
3. What "near and close at hand" things are signs of God's coming changes?
4. What is your greatest longing this Advent season?
5. What are the voices crying out for justice today, at the dawn of Advent 2018?
by Kate Matthews
Whether we saw them with our own eyes or only on our television screens, those images are hard to forget: the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center, a jagged scar on the earth in Eastern Pennsylvania, a gaping hole in the side of a burning Pentagon. Few of us had ever seen a great city in ruin, set afire by those who wanted to obliterate it. Indeed, this was the first time most of us in the United States experienced our homeland under attack, with staggering destruction and loss of life; we have felt less safe since September 11, 2001.
Our nation sustained a spiritual wound just as much as a physical one on that day, and yet, we have long watched other nations suffer devastation even more widespread and deeper than ours, if we can imagine such a thing: Europe after both world wars, including the widespread bombing of civilians; cities in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq over the past decades, and now Yemen experiencing war and famine, reported as the world's worst humanitarian crisis at this moment....horror and its aftermath afflicting them both physically and spiritually as well.
Cut down like a tree
Perhaps we can begin to imagine, then, how the people of Israel felt so long ago, when their city, their nation, was conquered, and their rulers and religious leaders carried off to a distant land. Our lectionary reading for this first Sunday of a new church year, this First Sunday of Advent Year C, is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah.
Six hundred years before Jesus was born, the people of Israel were carried off to exile in Babylon, after many warnings by the prophets, including Jeremiah, that their failure to live faithfully, to live in justice and righteousness, would bring their downfall. They must have felt that they had been cut down, like a tree felled by the ax of a brutal and heartless oppressor.
Once, under the great King David, Israel had been a formidable political and military power, and its people still remembered those glory days and longed for their return. Now, their king was no more, that glory was only a dim memory, and their hopes were dashed upon the rocks of the brutal history of empire.
And then, the prophet arises
It's at that moment, right there in the midst of despair, that the prophet arises, the prophet who is also a poet with an imagination and a deep sense of call to proclaim, even in desolation, destruction and loss, the promise of God's future taking shape beneath and behind it all. What is happening underneath, what we cannot see, is nevertheless real.
Now, in the midst of the terrible suffering of the people, with Jerusalem destroyed and the temple in ruins, Jeremiah doesn't heap more misery on the people; instead, he offers them something to grasp, a hope to which they can cling. In fact, the prophet's voice takes such a dramatic turn that these chapters of Jeremiah are called the Book of Consolation, or the Book of Comfort.
A people depressed
The people need this consolation: if they had had mental health professionals in those days, they would have been inundated by people suffering from depression and perhaps even post-traumatic stress disorder. In any age and any situation of great suffering, depression is a hazard for those whose pain and loss are so great that they cannot imagine a future. Why look to the future, they might ask, if life holds the potential for so much pain?
And yet, in the midst of communal sorrow and despair, this prophet speaks a word of hope, a promise of what is yet to be. Jeremiah doesn't say that things might get better, or could be better, or that we should be "optimistic about future possibilities." The prophet says that a better day is surely coming--and you can count on it because God is the one making this promise.
On that great day
What will this great day look like? It will not be a day of revenge so those who are suffering can turn around and do damage to their own victims. There is a powerful video clip (easily found on YouTube) of Senator Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis the night that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. He had to share this terrible news with the stunned and anguished crowd, and it is believed that his words helped to keep a level of calm in that city while others went up in flames.
That painful night, Bobby Kennedy spoke against the division, the hatred, the violence and lawlessness that had the power to tear our nation apart in those turbulent times, recalling that he had lost a member of his own family to such violence and hatred (as we know, he himself would be shot, and would die, a few weeks later).
And then he lifted up, instead of revenge, a commitment to "love and wisdom and compassion toward one another. A feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country." (He also recited the verses by Aeschylus, provided at the end of this reflection.)
Looking around at heartbreak
We've witnessed those affected by terrorist attacks, both foreign and domestic, struggle with their response. We remember the extraordinary forgiveness of the people of Mother Emmanuel after the horrific shootings there, three years ago. A few weeks ago, after the tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue, members there recalled that response by the people of Mother Emmanuel, and gave voice to the challenge before them in their own hour of loss.
The same year as Mother Emmanuel, the people of Paris also showed surprising grace after they experienced devastating losses. We are mindful that recently another mass shooting at an African American church was narrowly averted, though two people of color who were shopping nearby lost their lives; days later, these tragedies were followed by the massacre in Thousand Oaks. Every day, people in neighborhoods experience tragic loss in "smaller," less publicized acts of violence as well.
It's hard to remember a time when we didn't feel uneasy turning on the news or checking social media, isn't it? How do we experience loss and tragedy, especially communally, and not seek revenge? How do we respond with "a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer" (or may suffer in the future) and not inflict harm ourselves on innocent people? Most of all, how do we live in hope, not fear?
Cities restored and the land unscarred
In the midst of such anguished questions, the prophet Jeremiah speaks a word of hope, a word of promise. He speaks of a day of justice that is surely coming, when the cities--the cities of ancient Israel and of modern Israel as well, the cities of our own nation, not just New York City and Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, but Cleveland and Detroit and St. Louis, too--will not be ruined, and "the land" will not be scarred by poverty and violence and greed.
He's not talking about glittery nightlife, tall skyscrapers and new sports venues. No, what the people need is neighborhoods, restored and healed and safe for people to live in, and homes for people to inhabit and call their own. A day is surely coming, the prophet says, when all of God's children will live in peace and safety.
Everyone will have enough to eat, shelter and safety, the goods of life provided so generously by a loving God. The one who is yet to come, the one we await, will bring this justice and righteousness, and we order our lives differently today as we wait and hope.
Suffering that has gone on too long
Forty years after the Civil War ended, African Americans were still being mistreated and marginalized, and the Broadway musical "Ragtime" tells some of that story. At one point in the play, after a terrible tragedy has occurred, in the midst of injustice and outrage, the entire cast sings a hauntingly beautiful song, "Till We Reach that Day." Lynn Ahrens' lyrics sound like the words of an Old Testament prophet, magnificent and yet utterly simple and clear as they express the soul-deep longing of those who have suffered too much, for far too long.
I think there is that kind of longing in the people of Israel long ago, a people, as Leonard Beechy puts it, "run over by ancient history." We sense that same longing today, in people who feel pushed down and pushed out and even crushed beneath the heel of modern "empires" of greed, materialism, militarism, and nationalism.
This world counts, too
We enter the beautiful season of Advent with this reading from a time long ago, when a king in the line of the great King David was the hope of the people of Israel. It seems that the promises God is going to fulfill are as this-worldly as next-worldly, and the promise of a "Branch" that will "spring up for David" indicates that leadership is very important if human beings are going to participate in this great day.
Gene M. Tucker notes that this promised one, like God, will focus on the justice of our "governmental, political concerns, both domestic and foreign," and he calls this "not just an ancient Israelite hope, but the Christian expectation at Advent as well."
Ironically, their rulers had mostly let the people down in the past (even David wasn't perfect, no matter how much he was seen as the ideal king): William R. Herzog II observes that those rulers will still be included in this great "promised transformation" even though it was their fault that Judah had been carried off to exile. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that rulers should "do what kings are supposed to do, namely, practice justice and righteousness." Do what is right this time, kings and rulers: that's your job.
Jerusalem as a joy
Just as David symbolizes the good king, so Jerusalem holds so much power in our imaginations as the City of God: in verse nine of this same chapter of Jeremiah, God promises that "this city shall be to me a name of joy…." How will Jerusalem bring God joy? According to Dianne Bergant, we hear in our text this week that Jerusalem, "the city whose name means 'foundation of peace,' is here given a new name, 'the Lord our justice.'"
Justice and joy are inextricably linked. We're not just talking about bricks and mortar here: Richard Ascough reminds us that "God does not dwell in buildings but is with God's people." And this is true in every age and every condition: suffering can be a learning experience, instructive for the people of God, even when it feels like God is absent. With the exile, Ascough writes, "A new understanding of covenant with God was forged from the experience and a new relationship developed. For Christians, this has happened once again through the person and work of Jesus."
Longing for our righteous Branch
Christians read of these promises as people longing for the return of Jesus, our righteous Branch, the one who preached justice and embodied righteousness. One of the liturgical touches of great beauty during this season is the lighting of candles, usually associated with a different theme each week. These themes may put us even more deeply in the "mood" of Christmas, that is, if we miss the thread of judgment that runs through these prophetic readings as well.
We do prefer to hear of grace and peace rather than judgment, of course, but if there is never judgment, why would anything we do, matter? The rightness and wrongness, the good and the evil content, of our choices give them moral weight, and cause our lives to matter even more. And our accumulated choices, the little ones as well as the big ones, shape our communities into centers of greed and self-interest, or into radiant centers of hope and love and peace.
Hope in the smallest and brightest places
Today, even the smallest of churches gives us glimpses of that hope. A church doesn't have to be a great big impressive mega-church to be a place of hope, of new life even in the face of what looks like death. There are some experts, of course, who have announced the "death" of mainline Protestantism, but there are others, like Diana Butler Bass, who are quietly taking a second look.
It often takes experts a while to catch up with what's happening, to read the signs of the time, as we hear in today's reading from Luke, and what they're noticing is that here and there, little branches are springing up from what looked like a dead stump, little communities of faith rooted in justice and striving for righteousness, listening always for a word from God, little churches growing into great churches, vibrant and full of heart.
From "gray" to "wick"
There's a wonderful scene in the story of "The Secret Garden," by Frances Hodgson Burnett, when a boy named Dickon and his friend Mary explore a most wonderful hidden garden. It appears that many branches of the trees and the rose bushes are dead--the word "gray" is repeated again and again.
But Dickon takes out a knife and cuts into a branch, where he finds "a shoot which looked brownish green instead of hard, dry gray," and he assures Mary that, deep inside, the tree is as "wick," as full of life and promise and hope as these two young people themselves.
A church that "does what it's supposed to do," like a good king, a church that lives and breathes God's justice and God's righteousness--not self-righteousness, but God's righteousness--is a "wick" shoot, green and new on the inside, holding life, hope and promise no matter what things may look like on the outside.
Throwing open our doors
In the midst of loneliness and despair, poverty and war, in the face of communal depression and personal heartache, these churches throw open their doors and their hearts to all of God's precious children and offer them a place, a community, where the quiet little flames of hope can be fanned into the fires of justice and peace, into the warmth of spiritual homes for those who had lost hope that they would ever find a place of such beauty and kindness, such tenderness and fierce hope, a welcome home in which to grow their faith by participating in the dream of God.
These are churches that love worship and learning, churches that are open and generous, full of feeling, beautiful and just, churches that long for, and draw their strength from, the dream of God.
Can things ever be made right?
In so many ways, the world around us may appear, well, broken, with terrorist threats, environmental damage, bitter partisanship in our public life: relationships within families and communities, political parties and governmental processes, nations and economies and social systems have been damaged almost beyond repair.
Even the earth itself protests with weather systems that bring destruction more sudden than the mightiest conquering army, from hurricanes to tornadoes to wildfires, from droughts to tsunamis. We wonder, too, if we'll ever be able to clean up the mess we've made in our rivers and oceans, the air and the ground itself.
Life and death and life again
These days, we are so mindful, so horrified, by the destruction of forests, homes, and wildlife--and, most importantly, the tragic loss of human life--caused by the wildfires in California. While we lament and worry and even feel angry about the ways we humans have contributed to the conditions that have caused them, we hold on to the knowledge that deep inside, beneath the horror and death, below the charred and ashen remains of trees and plants, there is new life buried, new life that will find its way next spring to the air and light and a new beginning.
The wonderful writer, Anne Lamott, has a new and timely book, "Almost Everything: Notes on Hope." I think of Advent when she writes, "Light, candles, full moons magnify spirit that is in the wings. That is a neat trick, to magnify the invisible, and it raises the question: Is there another room, stage left, one we cannot see? Doesn't something happening in the wings argue a wider net of reality?"
Doesn't Anne Lamott sound something like the prophet Jeremiah here, speaking of the promise of what we cannot see right at this moment, the promise of something better that is surely coming?
Where is justice, where is order?
If we look around us, justice and righteousness do not appear to be the order of the day. Too many people, especially children, do not awaken each day in safety and security but in fear for their lives. Too many awaken to another day of hunger and anxiety, of suffering and pain, perhaps having had to leave home to escape violence and yet longing to return even while they live as strangers in a strange land, dependent on the kindness of those who may actually fear them.
While we may be annoyed at having to take our shoes off to get through airport security, low-wage workers struggle just to provide shelter for their children, and mothers in Africa watch their children starve while our leaders discuss whether or not to allow more people to find refuge on our shores and at our southern border.
Stories of struggle and fear
When we read these words from the prophet, and listen to the story of the suffering of the people he addresses, we look up and around us then to see the suffering of the world in this Advent season. Gary W. Charles writes evocatively that "[t]he stories of Advent are 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."
And Joanna M. Adams, writing in The Christian Century in 2006, sounds as if she is talking about the world in this December twelve years later: "This Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one….The clouds of anxiety about the future are hovering so low and close that you can barely see your hand in front of your face." She finds herself, like all of us in this Advent season, "holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again."
"This Advent...this Advent...": what is the urgent need for light that you are experiencing during this Advent season? Or better, how is your congregation responding to God's call to be light in a discouraged world desperately in need of hope, of compassion, of justice, of peace?
Living between the times
Advent is perhaps the most beautiful of all the church seasons (perhaps I say that because it's my favorite) and certainly brings out the poet in prophets and scholars alike. Leonard Beechy calls Advent "Twilight time," drawing on the beautiful Celtic tradition with its sense of "the time between the times," like the thin places where we feel even for a moment the presence of the holy.
I was taught that we live our lives in the "already-but-not-yet" of God's reign, and Beechy connects that beautifully to this season: "The church exists to remind us that we live in the time between the times, between what is dying and what is being born, between the 'already' of Christ's reign and the 'not yet' of Advent."
At the beginning of another church year, Beechy reminds us of the power of the story we hear again and again to draw us "more deeply" into our own lives. And then he expresses even more succinctly the promise of this short text: "After a long and terrible night, said Jeremiah, a brilliant morning would dawn and a generation of God's people would wake up in safety in a place renamed 'justice.'" What would it be like to live in a place called "Justice"?
The need for Christian imagination
What are those things we need to do, then, as we wait? We begin by exercising what Jennifer Ryan Ayres calls "the strenuous and crucial Christian task of imagination," and then we position ourselves to "become partners with God in the advent of a new reality." As God's partners in this great work, we will seek to repair this lovely but hurting world that God loves.
Perhaps we will feel overwhelmed at times; it wouldn't be unreasonable, in the face of so much brokenness and despair, for us to lose heart. And yet, just when the people give up, God sends that prophet, or even a church full of them, to speak a word of hope. Is it too much to dream that God is calling us today to speak a word of hope to the people? No, indeed, for we hear a call in this text to align the deepest longings of our hearts with the great and beautiful dream of the heart of God.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., must have felt overwhelmed many times in his struggle for justice. But he kept on keeping on, drawing strength from his sure conviction that "unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." Joanna Adams reminds us of the Greek word for what we are about: "prolepsis, which means acting as if what [we] expect to happen has already happened."
A different kind of time
Advent is a time of waiting, filled with hope, for the One who is to come. When we live in love and act in hope, when we gather again and again at the table to remember what Jesus did and to know that Jesus is with us once again, we are people of Advent hope.
We tend to think of the month of December as the Christmas season, and the secular world ironically reinforces that premature celebration, if only to entice us to early and excessive spending. But Advent is a different kind of time, just as we in the church are on a different calendar from the rest of the world.
Deborah Block claims that this "alternative New Year's Day affirms time as God's home and workplace, not as a calendar of accumulating years but as a movement toward fulfillment, not a day for self-improvement resolutions but for community reaffirmation of trust in God's promises, past, present, and future." Not focusing on ourselves but on trusting God in every new day: how beautiful!
Where do we see justice?
If we would stop during this Advent, not Christmas, season, and look around at our communities, where would we see justice and righteousness? This year, thanks to social media and 24/7 news coverage and a deep and abiding fear flowing out of recent events, it is hard to avoid thinking about our sisters and brothers who awaken each day in fear of their lives. We may even feel that we ourselves or our loved ones are living with a measure of fear for our lives in the face of ominous threats.
While we fear violence ourselves from terrorists, are we missing the "slow-motion violence" of economic injustice that visits injury, pain, loneliness and hunger upon those who suffer the effects of greed and negligence, day in and day out? What is the deepest longing of our hearts, and are those longings in line with the longings of the heart of God?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Edward Hays, A Pilgrim's Almanac, 20th century
"Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace."
Jürgen Moltmann, 20th century
"I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as such an 'opium of the beyond' but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in this world."
Augustine, 5th century
"God without us will not; we without God cannot."
Martin Buber, 20th century
"Everyone must come out of his Exile in his own way."
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"Only in the darkness can you see the stars."
Aeschylus, 5th century B.C.E.
"He who learns must suffer;
and even in our sleep
pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despair,
against our will,
by the awful grace of God."
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 20th century
"For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."
Frederick Buechner, 20th century
"Go where your best prayers take you."
David J. M. Coleman, 20th century
"Christian community is a 'thin place'. Time and space matter less than the solidarity of God with us, and between those who share God's calling."
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