Welcome to the season of Advent.
It seems appropriate, in a way, that we have had a chance to celebrate a baptism on this particular Sunday. After all, the season that begins, today, will lead us into the celebrations of another birth, albeit one that happened a long time ago.
In a few weeks, after the nights are the longest and the days are the darkest, when the winter solstice is past, our Advent journey will lead us into the celebration of the the birth of the One who is the light of the world, the One whose light shone in the darkness and could not be overcome by it, the One whose presence sparks the flames of hope, of peace, of joy and of love within us.
But what is important for us to realize – in this time before Christmas – is that this envisioned, expected, anticipated, promise of hope long predated that birth in Bethlehem. For centuries, a spirit of hope had been an important theme in the faith and spirituality of those who awaited the anticipated the coming of the Messiah, articulated most powerfully in the visions of the prophets of old, including Jeremiah, from whom we are invited to read today.
But the kind of hope that Jeremiah conveyed was powerful, precisely because it was rooted in an honest assessment of the state of the world in his time.
And the most inspiring form of hope – even now — is that which is rooted in an honest awareness of how things actually are.
Jeremiah, as many of you know, was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah, who conveyed his messages shortly before the conquest of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah predicted this fate for the people, and lamented that the covenant between God and the people had been so badly abused and disregarded that the Babylonians would be used by God to exact punishment against those who thought that God was on their side.
He railed against the idolatrous practices that the people had embraced, the corruptions of the priests and kings, the injustices that had taken root in that society, the breaking of the people’s covenantal obligations to God.
He was neither a particularly joyful, nor a particularly popular character in his time. He was opposed by the priests, conspired against by the king’s officials, persecuted, derided, thrown into a deep well where he was forced to stay mired in the mud for a prolonged period of time.
But in the midst of Jeremiah’s laments, and his expressions of challenge and calamity, even as he warned of the seemingly inevitable destruction that awaited the people, Jeremiah was not, in fact, a person without hope.
To the contrary, he articulated a courageous and even daring hope – a hope that did not sugarcoat reality. Things were bad. He was not offering some sense of cheap grace or easy “out” to the predicament that they were in. No, in the visions of Jeremiah, things were going wrong, and they were going to go wrong.
But “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and house of Judah. In 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. In 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 – and the entire content of the 33rd chapter of Jeremiah from which they are drawn – are profoundly hopeful and inspiring. And I think what makes them more inspiring is that they come from Jeremiah while he was under arrest – that is, from a prophet for whom things were not going well, yet who still envisioned a bright and hopeful future, on the other side of the calamities that confronted him and his people.
And in its own way, I think that this makes Jeremiah’s hope all the more powerful and all the more inspiring. That is, when someone tells us that things are just great and that we have nothing to worry about – that the future is only going to get better and better and better, or that success is inevitable, or that our health will always be good, or that our lives will always go smoothly, or that all of the social and interpersonal problems between people and between groups in our communities and societies can easily be remedied – if we hear these things spoken by someone who is too timid to also acknowledge the reality of the challenges that lie before us, there is something that does not quite ring true in their words.
Sometimes, perhaps often, if not always, the most inspiring form of hope – even now — is that which is rooted in an honest awareness of how things actually are. Which is what Jeremiah did – he started with the world as it was before he spoke of the world as it could be.
I would invite us all to consider our common tendency to do this, even in the coming weeks. Every time that you sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come” – remember that the only way that the words of the song actually make sense is if we realize that this world, and the lives of those in it, is not always filled with joy. Or when we sing about angels heralding good tidings of peace on earth and good will towards all people, it can be good to realize that this is only a good and transforming proclamation in a world in which peace and good will do not already exist. Or, perhaps most pointedly, every time that you hear the good news that a Saviour has been born, perhaps ponder that such a proclamation is rooted in the honest but rather counter-cultural awareness that we need a Saviour precisely because we cannot save ourselves. We may indeed be powerful and marvellous creatures with potential that is always far more than we will ever achieve or accomplish – but we mess up our lives, we mess up our communities, we mess up our world.
But the hope and the vision that Jeremiah articulated went a step further. Jeremiah rooted his hope both in an honest assessment of how things were, but also in a faith in a God whose purposes would still be fulfilled. Consider, after all, that Jeremiah does not, in this passage, prescribe a set of action steps that the people could take to solve their problems. Rather, he pointed them towards the God whose promises would be fulfilled, and whose intentions and purposes for the world were good – to establish communities of safety, of stability, of justice, of righteousness. Yes, the people were called to obedience – but the fulfillment of those promises and visions was not dependent upon some perfected human ideology, or some powerful military victory, or some industrious social program, or some charismatic leader. The promises were made by God, and would be fulfilled, by God.
Which is something that I would invite us, this year, to keep at the heart of our Advent and Christmas celebrations – that the message at the heart of this season is not about us or what we have done or should do. Ultimately, it is not about the good that we can do, or the cheer that we can spread, or the joy that we can convey, or the hope that we can share. We should do all of those things, to be sure. But in doing these things, we should never forget that the real message at the heart of this season is the same message that inspired Jeremiah’s honest hope, so long ago.
That there was a God whose promises will be fulfilled, perhaps in unexpected and surprising ways. A God who will restore justice and righteousness.
There is hope for this beloved world.
Its Saviour has come, its Saviour is coming.
Thanks be to God.