Reading the passage from Jeremiah,
I couldn’t help but think of the recent television images of Gaza City
with smoke rising from fires set off by Israeli missile attacks.
The spring before I had come to Old First,
I had stood on a ridge with a group of UCC pastors looking into Gaza City — there had been violence on both sides then too.
Or the smoke rising into the night sky
from where the World Trade Center had stood,
as I stood on the F train platform
having finally made it back to my Brooklyn neighborhood
about 1 a.m. in the morning of Sept. 12, 2001.
Perhaps we can imagine how the people of Israel felt
when their capitol city was
just a memory of the smoke rising from its destruction,
their rulers and religious leaders carted off to exile in Babylon,
their nation could hardly be remembered for the glory it had once been.
Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus,
after many prophets’ warnings that their failure to live faithfully
— to do justice, show mercy and live humbly, even righteously —
would have dire consequences.
…That their own failures could even be their downfall:
I wonder if, how hard it is for North Americans to hear, much less believe that?
Still when the ax finally fell,
they must have felt like a great tree felled.
Under King David, Israel had been a formidable political and military power.
Much preferred were those glory days to this time of their national humiliation. Now, any return to the privileges and perogatives of a self-determining nation have been eclipsed.
And so our new church year’s readings begin with echos of warning, struggles with loss and resounding waves of hope…
Jeremiah proclaiming that,
amidst and despite all the desolation, destruction, loss and despair,
God’s future is already taking shape
behind and beneath all the current suffering and mess.
How it’s going to all work out,
the steps by which a bleak present is reversed for a Divine future…
it’s hard to believe, mostly beyond our power, not ours to see.
But, church, none of that makes God’s will any less real.
It’s nonetheless our promise to hear and hold on to.
In the midst of all the suffering of violence and destruction,
interpersonal or communal or global,
with Jerusalem destroyed and the Temple in ruins,
with the Middle East still engulfed in endless struggle,
our own shores no longer so sacrosanct and safe,
some of our own most intimate relations in tatters,
Jeremiah speaks a hope to which people can cling,
prophecy by which we can live to get through an impossible present.
“It gets better” — I think that’s the version
in which we’ve heard this prophetic message paraphrased recently
for any kid facing bullying…
Every gay little boy who’s picked on for being a sissy.
Every little girl who is taunted for not being feminine enough.
(Notice how the offenses always revolve around gender–
boys aren’t girls and girls sure ought to be girls!)
For any kid who doesn’t quite fit into the Lord of the Flies world of growing up… those of us who made it need to tell our stories.
It’s never figured all figured out, but the adult world is bigger,
with more room to find your own place
and a the possibility of a better, fuller sense of self.
It gets better. A message for anyone feeling a bit misfit.
A message, if we have the faith, we could also be sharing with
violent place in our city and in our world.
But can we share the message, if we’re not also willing to roll up our sleeves and get busy too?
To be sure, there’s little reason to look to the future,
if we can’t hope for some cessation to our present suffering.
People need consolation and the promise of a different tomorrow.
A morning after.
Somewhere over the rainbow that turns out to be real —
somehow a future they can look forward to.
What is clearly not right now, but will nonetheless yet be.
But that it’s ultimately in God’s hands,
doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do…
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 the days are surely coming -–
and you can count on it because God is the one making this promise.
But, still, none of this let’s the people off the hook.
Part of God’s plan is surely the people’s response.
What we do as God’s disciples and instruments and ambassadors.
In Jewish tradition, the prophet’s voice in these chapters
takes such a dramatic turn from earlier warnings
and from the contemporary situation the people were facing
that this part of Jeremiah is know as the Book of Comfort.
This is how the church year begins.
What more could we hope for?
My answer is: that people receive God’s peace as a great gift,
that occasions transformative gratitude,
and compels us, as we’ll affirm our faith in a few minutes,
“not so much ( to) seek to be consoled, as to console.”
Lord, please send us your promised peace.
Let it wash over our troubled hearts and through our divided society and around your war-torn globe such that none of us can resist.
That all our hardening of our hearts against one another,
that all of our lifting hands towards someone else,
that nation turing against nation,
that religion pitted against religion,
that class warfare —
that all division that turns into in harm and violence and hurt might be ended.
Families hurt one another.
Neighbors shoot one another.
Cities suffer and burn.
And God’s world bleeds somehow as if crucified on a cross.
As I think about Advent this year,
I’m all for our confessing our need for God’s help.
Asking for something from beyond us,
that we can’t to find within ourselves,
at least in measure enough,
that’s scarce too often in our world,
and therefore haven’t been able to accomplish on our own.
But the cities of ancient Israel were destroyed
just as the cities of modern Israel and Palestine.
Gaza is burning. Jerusalem divided.
But there’s Syria. and Somalia.
Not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq.
And the cities of our own nation…
So many lands are scarred with violence,
often that is empowered by poverty
and the greed the engenders it.
A day is surely coming, the prophet says,
when all of God’s children will have enough to eat.
When safety, shelter, the goods of life and respect
will be the way of our world.
As Christians, this is what we mean by the Kingdom of God.
And still we wait for one who is to come???
Then we will order our lives and our world differently.
But church, Philly still bleeds.
Our schools fail too many students.
We give tax breaks to stimulate job production,
but end up lining corporate pockets with money
and undercutting the revenues we have for education.
All the while, guns are not only too available on our streets,
they are too quick what deseperate people avail themselves of.
I confess I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.
And worried that we Christians are sitting in our sanctuaries
waiting on God while God is waiting on us.
Church, maybe we’re the righteous Branch to spring up for David?
Or one of the righteous branch and a great tree that has many branches.
My real question on this first Sunday of Advent is this:
Aren’t we the ones now called to execute justice and righteousness?
Don’t we have something to contribute to save our city, our nation, our world?
What I mean is:
We speak paradoxically in Advent of Christ who has come,
and is coming and will come again.
But, haven’t we already received God’s peace.
And isn’t it available to us now?
As it will still be in the future?
Isn’t recognizing the preciousness of what God offers us,
entrusts to us really,
isn’t it more about our actual response —
what we do with it,
rather than pretending we’re waiting on God’s giving —
or God doing something for us that we should do ourselves?
I mean, how long, Lord, are we going to wait in our sanctuaries
as if we don’t yet have what we need?
…All the while why your world wars and bleeds.
Last night as we prepared the Sanctuary for Advent and Christmas,
there was a discussion of where to put the Advent candles.
You see them upfront, before us.
May we keep focused on them, and how this year they will be our prayers
for Peace, Compassion, Justice and Joy.
But the discussion last night, was if they shouldn’t be
at the back of the Sanctuary,
in the new space created by the removal of the back pews.
Right as you come in the door.
I confess, I brought up the question.
Maybe one of those crazy pastor ideas.
…That we would ask the congregation to turn around and face the door
as we light the Advent candles each week.
Like Jewish families at Passover opening the door a crack
and pouring a cup of wine
because they really are expecting Elijah.
Maybe we should face the door because we’re really expecting someone, REALLY awaiting the Christ to show up.
But more than that,
I wanted everyone to pass the Advent wreath
as we come in and leave worship during Advent.
And even more so, have the light of those candles
burn in our eyes as we leave,
that they might remain bright in our memory as we go back into the world.
We decided there wasn’t quite enough room back there
to make it safe. (Unless, we took out another row of pews–
You’ll see at the end of worship,
I’ve come up with another way to remind you
of the candles we light,
of the abilities and calling God’s given us,
of the work we have to do.
I am asking you, as you leave church each Sunday of Advent,
the burning question of preparation–
it’s not about whether or not you expect God to do something for us.
The deepest preparation for Christmas is not even
preparing your heart to receive the Christ child,
or growing spiritually to expect God to deliver us
something we don’t have to work for ourselves.
Instead, the question,
the blessing of Advent,
isn’t it to recognize our opportunity to do our part
with what God has given us
to make the world ready for the birth of the Christ child?
To ask ourselves this Sunday as we leave church,
“Lord, what is it that I can do to make peace?
How can I further shalom in this holy, hurting world of yours?”
Church, isn’t that what this season of preparation is really about?
Doing our part to make the world a place that can welcome the Christ child,
where no baby or mother or family would hear
there’s not enough room for them.
Where no one is left out in the cold.
Or threatened with violence,
Or needs to flee their home for safety elsewhere…
And next week, as we leave church,
I hope your are reminded of, even troubled by God’s compassion towards us,
that the question on your heart might be:
“Lord, to whom am I to show compassion?”
And the following week, as we leave church,
remembering a God of justice as surely as mercy,
our blessing might be to ask,
“Lord, what justice are you waiting on from me?
What righting of wrong is it my work to do?”
And finally, the last week before Christmas, as we leave church,
walking past those 4 little lights
bravely standing up against
all the darkness of our world,
so much misery and brokenness
that will never overwhelm even the littlest candlelight…
may we bless God’s world by taking the question of faith to heart:
“Lord, how can I spread joy… where and to whom?”
Do you see my point?
Yes, we need God to give us what we often can not find in ourselves
and what’s sorely lacking in our world.
But, church, if we receive any such glorious gifts from our God,
they’re not given for our exclusive enjoyment.
Never granted us in order to make for ourselves some island of respite
amidst all the world’s suffering.
Instead, any gift God might give us,
isn’t it given that we might not only recognize it,
but honor it by making more of it– growing it, sharing it, giving it away.
Remember my offer, $100. for kids and $100. for adults —
whoever could come up with the best plan for taking that money
and making it grow and be used for helping others?
I’m still waiting on your plans,
the treasurer is still holding the $200…
Karen, I think my Advent 1 sermon is really about stewardship!
Beloved, God gives us such great things.
Peace. Compassion. Justice. Joy. To name just four.
That we might use them,
make more of them,
share what we come up with others.
And in so doing prepare our world to receive the Christ child.
As I said,
we decided that the Advent wreath was safer up front,
less in the way or less likely to be bumped into
…or worse, with candles and pine boughs, knocked over.
But today, you will pass it as you come forward for communion.
Before you come to the Table, there’s the light God’s peace
lighting your way and that we are to carry with us from here.
A peace that we begin working on as we share this meal together.
And as you leave the sanctuary for the next four weeks…
there will be a reminder of the candles that we’ve lit for Advent,
that you might ask yourselves as you go back out into the world,
What can I do…
what am I to do with what God has given me?