Hope in the Midst of Havoc (Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Luke 21:29-33)
Advent begins the new Church Year by preparing for the Messiah to come to us as,long ago, people prepared for the Messiah to come to them. It seems that by the time we reach the end of each Church Year, we are ready to prepare afresh. And, today, we begin our preparation with “hope.” This hope of which I speak is not wish-fulfillment,but is a hard-fought optimism that God can be trusted to come through in the crunch, so to speak. Christian hope is the life-betting assurance that God in Christ is good, and so is the future. None of us know how the future will go for us, but we do know, again, that God in Christ is good.
The Epistle Lesson from 1 Peter 1 began by blessing God and saying that Christian hope is something like a new birth or beginning, and it’s a living experience – it’s about our real life. It’s not just an escape hatch to heaven when life is over. Hope is grounded, most often, in what seem the most hopeless,God-forsaken places. Hope suddenly comes to us when we don’t see deliverance in the realm of normal circumstances, and at some point, fixes our attention on something or someone helpful and life-giving “out there.” Hope is not found in the happy, rollicking, platitudes of the commercial Christmas season. In such flimsily constructed platitudes it’s very hard to build hope, which has to take the messiness of real life in the world seriously. I think that’s what 1 Peter means by a “new birth to a living hope,” a surprising emergence into a new assurance that’s sufficient to meet the difficulties of life as it is.
I frequently tell you that this is my favourite time of year. It’s because I,for one, find the expectation of that which is better most encouraging, and I figure that, here more than anywhere, the tidings really are good. The news that God comes to be together with us (not just with me as an individual, but with us in families, and communities), in the midst of our, often times, mean,pushy, and hurtful world is truly a good thing. If news is ever good news of great joy, it’s now, at this time. It also lifts my spirits immensely to think that Advent and Christmas weren’t invented at Bethlehem (even though that was two millennia ago), but go back to the desire of the Creator of the Universe, from the beginning, to be with us, in and through the creation. All this gives me great hope in the midst of this messy world.
The stories of God’s continually renewed presence with people in the Old and New Testaments are “dots” in the bigger story that are connected with other “dot’s”: stories about us that speak of disagreement, discord, harsh words, harsher actions, havoc, ruin and alienation. These stories, too, keep being written in our contemporary lives, as well. The stories say that God is not one that gives up, but is remarkably persistent, and keeps on coming to us to abide with us. And the promise of God’s refusing to give up, that is hope. The promise that something helpful and life-giving is out there is filled in and personalized by Christian hope as the coming of God in Jesus, who, of course, came long ago,but who also comes to us again and again, as a new thing in our new stories of disagreement,discord, harsh words, harsher actions, havoc, ruin and alienation. “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin. Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
Our Old Testament Lesson for today come from a little section of the Prophet Jeremiah (chapters 30-33) that is replete with hope, in the midst of the rest of the Book of Jeremiah which is pretty bleak in its outlook. I come back to this little section to mine it as precious ore for hope in my own life. But we really need to read it as it is, embedded in the rest of the bleakness of Jeremiah. As we read these two very different messages of the book together, what we find is that Jeremiah dared to hope in a hard place. If we look at where that little section of hopefulness began, we find it was in a particularly discouraging time, just as the Babylonian armies were besieging Jerusalem. It was not only discouraging for the nation, but for Jeremiah, for he had been thrown in prison by the King of his own country for going public with his conviction that these dreaded foreigners would, in fact, win, and that his homeland would be swept away. It was God’s will and purpose that this people be defeated and carried away and their government destroyed. People who tell inconvenient truth,especially to those in high places, are not encouraged to hope, then or now. Their loyalty, their patriotism, their priorities are routinely called something very different. Such was Jeremiah’s lot throughout his long ministry. We might think that he simply saw the inevitable in a nation many times stronger and richer bringing his nation down, but that’s not normally the nations (then or now) do things. Our nation is the greatest, no matte rwhat. So Jeremiah was rejected and incarcerated. Within this context, the reading from chapter 32 tells an unlikely story. In the midst of all the national and personal turmoil of that moment, Jeremiah bought a field outside Jerusalem because, in spite of everything he was saying, his sure hope was that, beyond the disaster of that hour, God still had a place for Jerusalem. When we get to our reading in chapter 33, we find a message that God was not finished with the divine promises to David either. Elsewhere in this book Jeremiah has very little time for the house of David and the monarchy in general, and says there’s no future in it. It’s hard to hold that together with the words we find here (and the probability is that the words of chapters 30-33 do come from at least 100 years after Jeremiah’s time). As we read the angular message of doom and Jeremiah’s actions and words of hope together in the biblical book of Jeremiah we have to say that even the political end of Judah as an independent state was not the end of God’s love and concern for the people of God. Jeremiah committed an act of outrageous hope by buying property on the flood plain after the flood had already come, so to speak. Foolish? Perhaps, but that’s often how hope looks from the point of view of the havoc. The people who treasured and stored up memories of Jeremiah said,“Although the havoc is a reality, the hope beyond it is even more of a reality because God is good.” People need to hear of the outrageous gift of hope in the midst of the havoc. This is also the kind of hope that makes people in small churches do things that reach out into their communities rather than just worry about survival. It’s the kind of thing that make them plan to spend money rebuilding their pipe organ that will sing for many years rather than just looking at what’s in front of them as inevitable. The season of Advent charges us to look for this kind of outrageous hope instead of the“inevitable,” whatever that may mean.
As the poets, prophets, apostles, and sages who hoped in God gave various literary shapes to their hope, sometime sit appears that they actually knew exactly what was going to happen from a Christian standpoint. For example, when Christians point to Isaiah 7’s words concerning a Young Woman who shall conceive, or Micah 5’s words about a ruler coming from Bethlehem, some apparently think that these passages have no meaning apart from their Christian fulfillment in Jesus. As pious as that sounds, it isn’t really the case. People in Isaiah’s or Micah’s time understood these words, first of all, to refer to their own world or they’d have never remembered or transmitted these words long enough for them to be re-interpreted and understood as referring to something Christians see as far wider, deeper,and richer than before. What I’m saying to you is that each generation reads the Bible as scripture in its own way in order to meet the needs of today’s situation. It’s always been that way. Quite often the expectation of God’s coming in the Old Testament is quite vague, and was filled in by later generations,sometimes in the days of the Old Testament, and sometimes beyond those days.The folk that gave us the Bible had the sense that something needed to happen to make their lives (not lives centuries later) turn out better than they were. And that something was in the hands of God. And God is good. So we, today, in the midst of our own stories, look for hope, not in the past, but in our day and in our immediate future. That the end of the world is also in the hands of the God that loves us is a further step toward hope, but it is the same God in Christ who meets us not only at the end, but here and outside the door to walk with us.
In our little Gospel Lesson, Jesus used the indirect language of parable, hint and picture, to declare the sure hope that God is involved with the world for its good. The little parable teaches that the signs of God’s involvement in the world are as clear for those with eyes to see as crocuses poking through the snow or buds on trees are signs of spring and summer coming to warm winter’s chill. Hang on. Wait for it, stretched taut as a wire,. Tremble with Excitement, Hope. The Old Testament vocabulary of hope has words that mean all of these things. Hope! God will, once again, come to us and abide with us. And it will probably won’t be in the midst of heavenly bliss, but will occur right in the midst of our inconvenient and unruly world. God’s been up to that for millennia And still is. And I’m thankful it’s so. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Immanuel.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.