This sermon was shared at Dunbar Presbyterian and Auburn Presbyterian churches in Dunbar and Auburn, Nebraska on Sunday, November 29, 2015 for the First Sunday of Advent.
A recording of the sermon is available here.
The sun was shining almost directly on me as I lay in the hammock that afternoon. I drifted slowly from side to side as I flipped the pages as quickly as my eyes could scan the pages. Every once in a while I’d move my legs to another position, stopping my reading only long enough to notice the newly created rope lines indented on my skin from my previous laying position. Mama would poke her head out the sunroom door occasionally to check on me, and when dinner came that night I protested. She insisted, but I persisted in my protest. I only had one more chapter left in the book I’d started that morning. Mama, please don’t make me quit reading it now. Supper can wait just a few minutes, right? Mama won, and the last chapter of The Face on the Milk Carton would have to wait until after supper and chores.
Our local library held a reading contest each summer, so my younger brother and I always entered. We challenged each other to the number of books we’d complete by summer’s end, and I’d usually win. I’d spend my spare time lying on the hammock reading, so I’d always rack up a victory. That is, until I began reading “real” chapter books and my brother was still reading the “early reader” chapter books. Summer days in the rope hammock were the best. Summer days in the rope hammock while reading a book were even better!
Our Advent story of expectation begins with words fit for the opening of a novel: “The days are surely coming…when I will fulfill the promise.” It’s almost as if the author has written them to pique our interest and draw us in; to create the impression of a story-not-to-be-missed. We, the readers, can hardly make it to the checkout line in the library or bookstore before flipping from page one to page two and so on through the first chapter. Our Advent story is one of great anticipation, great expectation, promises made and soon to be fulfilled, and it’s also a story that warns the reader to be prepared: righteousness is on its way.
During this season we eagerly await the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, but to understand the need for the birth, we must start at the very beginning. Rev. Jennifer Ryan Ayres describes the story behind our scripture today accordingly: “Much of the story told in Jeremiah has to do with the threat and fulfillment of the destruction of Judah and, in particular, Jerusalem. The people have been violating their covenantal relationship with God, and the subsequent Babylonian control would serve as punishment for their infidelity. The complete sacking of Jerusalem, however, is more horrific and absolute than the people might have imagined. The destruction is so severe that God’s voice, through the prophet, also wails in lamentation.” Our story of hope begins in the midst of despair. God’s people are walking in exile. They have experience threat to the Holy City and of their own deportation, and they have already seen such things happen among their royal court and upper classes. In one commentary, Kathleen O’Connor describes the scene this way: “The people…are taken captive, dragged from their land, and deprived of their Temple. They are beaten, imprisoned, and face death as a people, and, like Jeremiah, they cry out to God in anger and despair.” Our story begins like a scene straight out of a war film, the Holocaust, or even modern-day Syria. Our story begins in despair…and offers us hope.
When humans reach a point of despair, they reside in a place where they cannot imagine God’s promised alternative future. Despair is the absence of theological hope. Today’s verses are a small selection of verses from what is called the “Little Book of Comfort” in Jeremiah chapters 30-33. These words proclaim salvation through restoration of the line of David’s monarchy and also pronounce a new name for Jerusalem:
14The 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. 15In 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. 16In 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.’
These words are promises are based in a historic reality and are of a future hope based in God’s promises. When speaking them, Jeremiah gives hope to a crushed people and inspires faithful endurance of their current circumstances. The writer recounts promises made that God would provide the people a safe, just, and peaceful future under a justly appointed and righteous ruler. In these words, here, in the Book of Comfort, we meet the God who promises to protect and restore the people. It is here, that God inspires hope.
I assume from my place in the church building this morning – behind the pulpit, near the Table of the Lord and in worship with all of you – that we are not a people living an exilic life at present. However, we all know what happens when one assumes something, so I’ll instead say that we are not today a people who have been driven out of our homes, who are living in fear that our lives will soon be taken from us by another’s hands, or a people who have had our house of worship and our religious beliefs threatened to be destroyed. So, while in one sense we might be living a life of pain, we are not a people in exile. We are, however, a people in waiting and anticipation. We are a people “trusting in a promised future that seems very removed from our current circumstance.” We are waiting for our Messiah’s birth so that we may live a renewed sense of joy. We anticipate the season giving us a glimmer of light and life and hope and peace, even Christmas is historically a time of heartache. We hope that maybe this year things will be different, so we enter into Advent with trepidation, but also anticipation, hope and mostly, trust. We trust in the promise God has made, and we hope for a future in freedom.
Today’s scripture points us to the table: in the Lord’s Supper we “are nourished by the hope of God’s coming and we participate in God’s future.” In our study of Jeremiah, in our time at the table, in our words of prayer, we acknowledge that God is the One who lives and moves and comes to us in time and who works for justice and righteousness in all times. We trust in God’s provision for us in the past while simultaneously imagining the shape of God’s fulfillment of promises for the future. We have seen promises presented in bread and wine, and we imagine with creativity and excitement and anticipation of the coming consummation. The baptismal font and the communion table remind us that we do not bring about God’s intended future through our own sheer force of will, but in our waiting we attempt to place ourselves in a posture so that we might become partners with God’s advent of a new reality. Our Advent wreath that we lit today, points to Christ at the center of our coming reality, but also reminds us that we are only one portion of the way there. We must wait, as patiently as we can, for God’s righteousness.
My Nana used to cheat. When we would take trips to the library she’d bring a bag and fill it with books to take home and savor. In what seemed like no time at all, her piles shifted in height as the to-be-read pile shrinking while the to-be-returned pile would grow. I marveled at how quickly she could read a book, particularly when she’d nearly always fall asleep in her chair with the book on her lap. I wanted to be able to inhale books the way that she seemed to. And then she told me the truth. Nana would read the last chapter of the book first to see if she liked the way it ended. If she did, she’d start at the beginning. If she didn’t the book would go in the to-be-returned pile. I almost felt betrayed. Then, I thought briefly about doing the same thing myself. To this day, no matter how much I adore my Nana, I can’t cheat and read the ending first. I have to start at the first chapter and move forward from there.
We are kind of cheating, though, aren’t we? We know how this story ends. We know that in the last chapter of Advent we will come to the manger and meet Christ at his birth. We will experience the teenage parents and the angels announcing the Messiah’s arrival. We will encounter our own inn-keeper-ness when we realize that we don’t make much room for Christ in our homes or lives. We will sing Silent Night and rejoice with the stars that our Savior is born. We know how this all ends. But, we must not be tempted to put the story aside. We must live in advent. Live in anticipation of righteousness’ arrival.
Abiding in Advent means that we see the world as God did: in need of justice and salvation. We step outside ourselves and begin to notice those we’d never really pay attention to in the past – and then we do something about them. We invite their stories to invade our lives and pervade our thoughts. We empathize with them. We hear their pleas and cries and we ask God to grant us the courage to soften our hearts and minds toward those who need justice. Abiding in Advent means that we can begin to see why God would need to bring his son into our world and offer us salvation. We are broken. We are unjust. We are unrighteous. And we need the light of the world to shed light on us so that we can read, hear, and live The Story that was written for all of God’s children – for you, for him, for her, for me, for us…for them out there…for everyone.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
Poet and playwright TS Eliot shared those words in “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets. This poem is most concerned with the place of humanity in natural order, and also with the idea of renewal. This quartet explicitly displays his Christian faith, and also addresses the visions and destructions of war. While Advent is not a time of war, it is a time of transition, change, and an expectation and hope for renewal. We must shift our minds away from that which we already know, the ending of the story, and focus on re-reading, re-hearing, re-learning, and re-living the story as it unfolds before us in this season. We are now boldly entering into the way of ignorance, the way of dispossession, in hopes of gaining new knowledge and possessing new life. The last section of “East Coker” ends with a reference to Good Friday as a reminder that anything worthy must come through suffering, forbearance, and deferral to a higher authority.
The prophet Jeremiah opens our Advent story with a call for us to imagine a new social context in which we live together in safety, peace, and righteousness. Righteousness, friends, is conduct in accord with God’s purposes; doing the good thing and the God thing: right doing instead of wrongdoing, and doing as opposed to being. Are we ready, are we willing, to welcome the day when God’s justice and righteousness will be fulfilled? We are getting closer, but we still have much more of the story to uncover. As we enter the world this week: we must confess our preoccupation with the immediate and our fear of the future, we must ask for confidence in God’s tomorrow and pray for those who yearn for justice and righteousness and peace and security that they will not know in their days on earth, we must do hope rather than live hopefully – meaning that we must be hope-bearers to those in our lives, in our country, and throughout the world who are living without hope, and most importantly, we must express our gratitude to God for this time as a good gift to prepare our hearts for what we’re being called into in the next chapters. This Advent, my hope is that God might move us all into dispossession so that we may experience the words that brought hope and life to those living in despair and exile.
Lord, make us ready and willing to welcome your children, your justice and your day of righteousness. In hope of the promise of your Son, we pray, Amen.
 Jennifer Ryan Ayers, “Theological Perspective on Jeremiah 33:14-16” in Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship, ed. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 6.
 Kathleen O’Connor, “Jeremiah” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 174.
 Ayers, pg. 8.
 Ibid, 8.
 TS Eliot, “East Coker” as quoted in The Murmuring Deep by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (New York, NY: Shocken Books, 2009), 270.