Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-28
There is a lot going on at the moment, isn’t there!
We have friends sick and in care or in hospital. We have friends having treatment or nearing the end of treatment. We have friends and family who are grieving. There are also good and wonderful things happening in our own lives, or our children’s lives, or friends’ lives, but these too demand our energy and engagement. And we are part of a wider Baptist family experiencing great turmoil, as well as being aware of people in need, in our community, our state, and in other parts of the world – Indonesia, the Horn of Africa and the Ukraine.
This was my reflection in Sunday to Sunday this week. There I described overhearing two nurses in the hospital speaking about this together. There was a lot going on, they said. They had had an intense morning. And in a very natural way, they acknowledged the reality of that, its impact on them, and reached out to each other for support and care before going on with their work. It was just a tiny moment in two people’s days, I said in Sunday to Sunday, but it was stayed with me.
And I encouraged us to do the same in what we are experiencing; in the distress, the confusion, the fear and foreboding (our reading from Luke sounds very contemporary!); to take a moment to acknowledge the reality of our situation – and the situation of others around our world; to be honest about our yearning for something else – something better; to wait together; and to imagine together what God’s redemption will look like – what God’s righteousness will bring about in our lives and in our world.
We might take that moment in any number of ways, by gathering here for worship, by reading the Bible and praying – alone or with a small group, by coming over to sit with someone going through a hard time, as I mentioned last week – or going for a walk – or turning off our devices for a set period. There are any number of ways we can take a tiny moment – or a longer moment – to restore ourselves and re-connect with God.
And I realised this week that Advent itself is such a moment for people of faith. In contrast to our world which tells us that Christmas means more to do and more to buy and more to get organised, Advent calls us to slow down, to take stock, to wait, and to imagine.
Writer Debie Thomas describes Advent as offering us a series of invitations, not “the soothing, saccharine invitations we like to accept as we shop for gifts, decorate Christmas trees, and sing carols,” but invitations that are “hard-edged; [that] don’t look pretty on greeting cards. But…are essential and life-giving, nevertheless.”
Firstly, Advent is an invitation to tell the truth.
She writes, “Advent is a brutally candid season; it calls for honesty, even when honesty leads us straight to lamentation. In Advent, we are invited to describe life ‘on earth as it is’, and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. We are invited to shout forth our pain and bewilderment. To name the seeming absence of God.”
I had such a conversation this week. I had coffee with another pastor who said he didn’t think he was hearing much from God at the moment – hints, whispers here and there – but it felt like God was largely silent. He went on to describe a funeral he’d just done, for a couple whose adult son had suicided, how bleak and hopeless that situation had been, and how, at the funeral, he had read to them Isaiah 42:3, ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.’ “I don’t know anything,” he said to me, “about the state of anyone’s souls, where they’ve gone, whether they are here or there, but I know this about God, ‘A bruised reed he will not break… a dimply burning wick he will not quench.’”
“Eschewing all forms of denial, polite piety, and cheap cheer,” Thomas writes, “we are invited to allow the radical honesty of Scripture to make us honest, too.”
This is what the prophet Jeremiah does. If you read all of chapter 33, he describes in graphic terms what will happen in Jerusalem when it is captured by the Babylonians. God is angry, Jeremiah says, God can only be angry about the wickedness that Jerusalem has committed, but God’s righteousness does not stop with punishment. It will also restore and rise up. “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he will execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This is what Jeremiah knows about God.
“Advent reminds us that we are not called to an escapist, denial-based piety. We are called to dwell courageously in the truth.”
Secondly, Advent is an invitation to yearn.
“Advent”, according to Debie Thomas, “Is the season when longing makes sense. When it’s okay to say we are hungry, thirsty, lonely, empty, unfinished…”
Lutheran minister, Heidi Neumark, who serves in New York, in the most difficult areas of the Bronx writes, “Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though is it Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
“In Advent, we want, and we want fiercely.” Thomas writes, “We sit in darkness, longing for light. We sit in exile, longing for home. We sit with aching, empty arms, waiting to cradle a life that’s still unformed, still hidden, still in process. In Advent, our desire for God strains towards God’s desire for us. Between the clinging and the yearning, we are unmade, remade, and unmade again.”
What is it that you want and want fiercely for our world? Advent is the season for crying out our longings for a righteous God to restore our world.
Thirdly, Advent is an invitation to wait.
I will be honest. I don’t like waiting. Does anyone here like waiting? As Thomas says, we live in a world that does not like waiting; “which applauds arrivals, finish lines, shortcuts, and end products, far more than it does the meandering journey…”. Eugene Peterson called the Christian life, “A long obedience in the same direction,”. We cannot get more counter-cultural than that.
However, waiting for the Lord’s coming is not a passive, idle activity. It is a waiting that is shaped by our other invitations – by our naming the truth of what is happening in our world, by our yearning for light and life and wholeness. It is a waiting that is passionate and active; that calls for reform in the world, personal and social.
A waiting that begins to live into a new redeemed reality because our final invitation in Advent is to imagine.
During this season we share the task of the prophet. We engage in the strenuous and crucial Christian task of imagination – of not only naming suffering and injustice and leaning into God’s promised righteous future.
How do we do this?
We imagine God’s future by reminding ourselves of who God is.
This is what the prophet Jeremiah does. He can imagine, in verse 11, the empty desolate streets of Jerusalem filled again with the, “voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord.” He can do this – bridging this chasm between their present reality and this imagined future – because he trusts in the promise of God (Jermiah 30:18-22) that the city will be restored; because he trusts in the faithfulness of God (Jeremiah 31: verse 2, but really the whole chapter) God saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love…”; because he trusts in the certainty of God’s Word (Jeremiah 31:25-40); because he knows who God is – a God always renewing, always restoring, always with us.
This is our invitation during Advent to tell the truth, to yearn, to wait and to imagine. To stand up and raise our heads, as Jesus says, because our redemption is drawing near. To walk the difficult road ahead – with all its twists and turns – trusting in the one who is our righteousness – who is making all things right.
Can I invite you to take a few moments in silence and I will lead you through these four invitations of Advent; to tell the truth, to year, to wait and to imagine – and we will do that last by repeating some of the promises of God we responded with at the beginning of the service.
First, let us take a moment – in silence – to tell the truth to God about our world…
Let’s now name what we yearn for…
Let us wait – knowing that our waiting is not passive and idle, but passionate and active…
Let us imagine together by reminding ourselves of who God is in our lives…