Be Born in Us Today (Jeremiah 31:1-6; Luke 1:26-38)
Our Advent candle-lighting is almost complete. We have now lit the four candles in the ring of the Advent wreath; three purple, one pink. As we lit the first candle, we thought about how badly God’s people have always needed to have the assurance of hope in a world that denied justice and goodness – and how we still need hope in our sad and misshapen world. We need to live in hope in the direction of peace, to loosen the tight grip of the knots in which we’re tied – that was actually the second purple candle. Last week, we lit the pink candle of joy, which is the fruit of peace, wholeness, wellbeing. This peace brings us to the very presence of the love of God. And today, as you have seen and heard, we lit the last purple candle to think of God’s love. Of this love, the Apostle Paul wrote:
Love never ends…as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will end as well…when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
Paul was speaking of love as the primary characteristic of God, the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of our lives and the life of the whole world. Indeed the writer who gave us the 1st Epistle of John said that “God is love.” And such love endures, it does not fail, it is the one thing upon which we can count. In the Bible love is active, self-forgetting good-will. We await but one more candle, and it is the white candle that stands in the middle of the ring – the Christ Candle – that meets the hopes and fears of all the years in the birth of the Christ child. We will light that candle tonight. The love that grows out of hope, peace, and joy and points to Christ’s birth at Christmas began long before the first Christmas.
The Old Testament Lesson from Jeremiah, much like the other Lessons we have read this Advent season grew out of a time when God’s people had little hope, little peace, and little joy. It came out of a time when all the “thinking politicians” considered that it was the end and there was no tomorrow. Jeremiah the prophet had been overwhelmingly plain that Judah’s relationship with God had been broken, and this was God’s doing. God had allowed disaster upon the people. Indeed, many said, God had caused it. It’s hard for us to think that God would simply allow anyone in any society to suffer the consequences of selfish, wanton behaviour. Much as God had allowed the Northern Kingdom of Israel to go out of existence, so now the Southern Kingdom of Judah was gone. In fact, many scholars think that these words from Jeremiah 31 originally were spoken and written about that old Northern Kingdom, but that here in the final book of Jeremiah, they were reused and reapplied to the current crisis when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and carried off all but the poorest into exile. And, if this guess is right, then Jeremiah was saying, God did this again, and so, once again, especially some Christians, who have a bit of a mushy view of what God is like, say, how could God allow the poor and innocent to suffer? I understand the tendency, but what if God loves people enough to allow them to act in foolish ways, and then loves them enough to allow the consequences of those foolish ways to unfold? It is hard to understand, but that’s what Jeremiah and many other of the prophets said was happening. Relationships between persons depend upon mutuality. A relationship, whether between people and God or between and among people cannot survive if we each simply act unilaterally. God’s people had insisted on playing by cultural power rules. God, though warning them of consequences through Jeremiah and some of his colleagues, allowed them to do so, and to find out what happened. Mature relationships also depend upon accountability. Jeremiah said that his people were accountable. And they suffered terribly by playing a game they could not possibly win. When people insist that the one with the biggest gun wins, then there’s always someone with a bigger gun, no matter what. And people are accountable for these kinds of decisions. But Jeremiah was also insistent, in the face of the brokenness of the relationship between God and others, that God had founded the covenant relationship and, so, was also accountable. And Jeremiah has some devastatingly clear passages in which he holds God accountable.
In our passage from chapter 31, in contrast to what Jeremiah has said in most of the chapters before this (and will say again after), there is another focus altogether. God says two things. The first points back to Israel’s tradition. “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness, when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared from far away” (Jer. 31:2). This reminded God’s people of the old story of how it was once, when they had come out of Egypt, at least those that Pharaoh hadn’t killed in bondage, and found God’s favour (or grace) in a place of emptiness and loneliness – the wilderness. Yes, that was an old story of long, long ago. They had been survivors, then. But God’s people have never read their tradition as just something that happened long ago, but something that happens again and again. As it was, so it is. As those ancient survivors found grace in the wilderness, so, the survivors of the exile that the Jeremiah text addressed found grace in their difficult and lonely places. And, so do we in ours. And thus the hope, peace, and joy of Advent. In spite of the seemingly contradictory message that God allows our behaviour to take its course, is the fact that this isn’t all there is. There is God’s grace for survivors in the wilderness.
The second thing that God says goes behind the first to its motive: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my steadfast covenant loyalty and faithfulness to you” (Jer. 31:3b). God continues divine love to the farthest horizon, it is enduring and unfailing. It isn’t that God used to love the people, then got mad at them and didn’t, and now does again. Through all the difficult consequences of counter-productive human behaviour that bring their own difficulties, God continues to love people. This love issues in engagement, relationship, and watch-care. As it had been in the days of the exodus and before, so it was then, and is today. God’s love is everlasting, so God continues, literally, “drags out,” covenant loyalty and grace.
This Old Testament Lesson points us both forward and back. It helps us to see that Advent and Christmas have their roots in the everlasting love and amazing covenant loyalty of God to people, even people who were in the wilderness, desperate and in the midst of death. Then, God promises, on the basis of the divine nature of everlasting love and steadfast loyalty, to rebuild life and love, and plant fruitfulness, so that life can be what God intended. As I say, this is nothing new for God. The same steadfast love and covenant loyalty called Abraham and Sarah from a far country and blessed the people they would become to be a blessing to every family of the earth. Steadfast love and loyalty called Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua and Caleb and Rahab and Deborah and Barak and Samuel and David and…well, the list continued. And the list continues still. What I want you to notice here is that the way in which God’s steadfast, everlasting love and loyalty is shown is by God’s own activity in relationship with people such as those I’ve named and many others. A relationship with God changes people at their core values. No longer are the values about self and power, but about love, grace, mercy, and care of others. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s everlasting love embraced and blessed those in wilderness places, until, in the fullness of time, God appeared to a young teenager who had been named Miriam, after Moses’ sister. We call her by the Anglicised name Mary. It was Gabriel, an angel or messenger of God, that appeared to Mary. Gabriel first appeared in Hebrew Bible in the Book of Daniel, probably the latest book in the Old Testament. There Gabriel informed Daniel of what was to happen on the day of judgment (Dan. 8:16-26). Even later Gabriel became known as one of the chief angels who served God and revealed God’s will to human beings. He was a heavenly big-shot.
If you can imagine this big, important angel, who represented the even bigger, more important God, appeared to this young peasant woman (about 13 years old we’d guess) of no standing in the community, in a community of no standing in the world. Nazareth was a no-place. Mary was a no-body. And, yet the call of God was to make a place in her body for Jesus who would be Immanuel, God with us. Here, dare I say, in a most intimate way, God was extending everlasting love and steadfast loyalty to the world through the very body of this young woman. The way the story is told here, Mary’s womb will form the home for the Son of God. Before her, her cousin Elizabeth was already in the sixth month of her making a home for John, the one who would prepare the way for the Son of God, and about whom we have read for the past two Sundays. God could not work in the world in and through people any more personally than in Elizabeth, Mary, John, and Jesus, but it was simply the most visible, physical, and intimate example of the old story of God’s everlasting love appearing in and for humans that we can read through the pages of the Bible.
Can it be that this story of God’s all-encompassing love and steadfast loyalty for people can show us what God intends for both Christians and congregations today? We share a common lot with people now who live in wilderness places, who suffer violence, partly because of silly things they or we do and partly because the world is a violent place. Is not the call for us, each one, and us, as a congregation, to follow the example of Mary, and find a personal space within our deepest selves for God in Jesus to “be born in us today,” as the carol says? Every time we offer kindness to someone, every time we bless a person who is struggling to find a place among us through Centro Latino, every time we ladle up food at Monday’s Meal, or deliver a hot meal to one who cannot get out, or volunteer to contribute food to WAFER food bank, or contribute to the education of seminarians, or give to America for Christ, World Mission Offering, the Retired Missionaries and Ministers Offering, One Great Hour of Sharing, United in Mission, all of which we do in this congregation, or any one of the countless other God-like acts we can do, we say with Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me just as you have said.” Does our heart not sing, once again, with the words of Phillips Brooks, “O Come to Us, Abide With Us, Our Lord Immanuel.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.