Light the Candle

Light the Candle

“Look, the days are coming, said the Lord, when I will fulfill the good word that I spoke concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous shoot flourish for David, and he shall do justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah shall be rescued and Jerusalem shall dwell secure, and this is what he shall be called: The-Lord-Is-Our-Righteousness.”

Jeremiah 33:14-18

Yesterday my daughter Emma and I made our trek back from Grandma’s house and our Thanksgiving visit with family. When the time came for us to start the drive back home, I said, “It’s nearly pitch-black dark. I wish we weren’t leaving so late.” When she replied, “It’s just 5:00 in the evening,” all I could respond with was a glum, “It feels like the middle of the night.”

Did you ever think it odd that the most hopeful season of the Christian year begins in the middle of darkness? We’ve just lit the first candle on the Advent wreath, and it isn’t moment too soon.

This Advent I feel a need for the light that comes from God more than usual, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Voices of division and clouds of anxiety are hovering so close and low that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Actually, it’s a situation somewhat akin to our prophet for today, Jeremiah.

Of all the prophets, Jeremiah presents the most vivid portrait his day, his time, and things to come. It is not pretty, but it is hopeful (which is an odd, but very real combination.) A priest from the town of Anathoth near Jerusalem, Jeremiah was active from the 620s B.C. until the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586.

This was a difficult moment for anyone trying to bring God’s word to the people. A hundred years before Jeremiah arrived on the scene, the northern kingdom had been overtaken by the Assyrians.

A large part of the population was deported to other lands (this was when the so-called ‘lost tribes’ of Israel were “lost”.)

The other major event that stamped a mark on Jeremiah’s prophecies were  reforms begun by King Josiah (last week’s sermon!). The playbook for these reforms was the text discovered during Josiah’s renovation of the Temple, which is to say, the Book of Deuteronomy.

Jeremiah’s most urgent concern was the people’s chasing (‘whoring’) after false gods (the sexual metaphor most often used) and the devastation that it inevitably brought about. The English language aptly coined the noun “jeremiad” — a “complaining tirade,”— because so often Jeremiah’s prophecies are bitter critiques of the people’s behavior, with dire predictions of a scorched earth and exile for the kingdom of Judah. This sort of message, delivered at a time when Babylonian forces were besieging Jerusalem, did not make Jeremiah a very popular figure. People from his hometown, according to his own account, threatened to kill him. The reigning King, Zedekiah, had the scroll of his prophecies burned. (Jeremiah promptly directed Baruch, his scribe, to make another copy.) Jeremiah was imprisoned more than once; in Jerusalem, he was tossed him into a deep cistern with muck at the bottom in the clear intention of leaving him there to die. (He was pulled out by his few friends.)

By and large, one comes away from Jeremiah’s prophecies not so much with a sense of deft verbal barbs but rather with the real, desperate urgency of pleas and passion. Dark clouds of disaster hover over the land. The crisis cannot be averted; it is the inevitable consequence of the violation of the covenant with God, a rampant infatuation with the gods and goddesses of pagan cults and acts of idolatry and even human sacrifice required by that cult.

There is also an interesting geopolitical dimension in Jeremiah’s prophesies. Some proposed that a treaty of convenience be drawn up with Egypt to deter the threat by Babylon. In Jeremiah’s eyes, this was a hopeless delusion. (This also proved to be an accurate political judgment.) The devastation and exile of its inhabitants—the message that Jeremiah’s people did not want to hear—would surely come, and very soon.

As a counterpoint, Jeremiah was also able to see a time when Babylonia itself would be destroyed and his people live once more in peace and prosperity. God would establish, in Jeremiah’s famous phrase, a “new covenant” with the people. This future promise came from Jeremiah’s conviction that although hardship befalls the people, the Lord’s commitment to this covenant is for all time. With God, a promise made is a promise kept.

For now it is the time to wait, with a just foretaste of relief to come… and so it is we enter the season of Advent in this 2019th year of our Lord.

 For us, the day of salvation is coming but is not yet in view. The message reminds me of a friend’s recent cataract surgery. Some of you know how this goes, personally. A few days before the procedure he was given several kinds of drops to put into his eye daily. The drops came with complex instructions and very dire warnings. After the procedure, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was not to sleep on his back or pick up a bag of groceries or ever touch his eye. He was convinced that if he did not do exactly as he was told, he would never see again. Yet at the same time, he could sense the deep care and compassion of his doctor and the medical staff. Every day for a week after the surgery, someone in the clinic called to inquire about his well-being and vision.

Apparently the point of the stern warnings and the compassionate concern, coming together as they did, was to help him see better. And it worked.

Jeremiah’s imagery is stark but also hopeful, of a kind we can all relate to, in our own ways. He refers to the ‘righteous shoot’, or ‘the stump of Jesse’ and I’ve indicated an image of something of what it means on the cover our bulletin today.

Just as his land was to be overcome by invaders and a remnant would survive, so it happens in our lives individually and our lives together. Losses happen, disappointments occur, life takes unexpected twists and turns, and sometimes we feel cut off, like a tree severed and bare. But somehow, a shoot emerges and new growth begins. Most often, and most importantly, it is not from our doing that this happens… it just begins. (It is a “God thing.”) And we are the hosts of a new, unexpected, undeserved beginning.

Somehow, after a loss; a shocking death, a divorce, the loss of a job…. in the midst of the tears, somehow something new begins. It may take some time, more time than we’d like, and it’s usually not of our doing.

I’m sure you can remember what happened in your life, and how, gradually, over time- longer than you would have liked, but shorter than it could have been, something new began to happen.

God is in the stillness; God is in the waiting.  Waiting for a promise to be fulfilled is not an easy task. And yet there is a reason for the waiting; the stillness serves a purpose. It serves to focus our hopes on the heart of our faith—that God is in the process of creating among us a hope, a presence, and a new creation. And the stillness of Advent serves to prepare us for the real celebration of Christmas—not packages and parties, but the good news that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call Christ, Savior and Lord, God began the process of fulfilling that promise.

So, observing the season of Advent—before we “celebrate Christmas”—is important, in and of itself. I think it is more important than ever, in the midst of all that we do to “celebrate Christmas,” that we observe Advent in a way that is consistent with the hope that God is in the process of creating a future for us all, filled with hope, joy, faith and love.

So, bring on the Advent candles, one at a time, and let’s live in love and act in hope until the day our Lord comes again. Amen.