(A sermon for the First Sunday in Advent)
It has been unseasonably warm here this week, but I know
that winter is coming, because on Tuesday I caught a whiff of something like
snow on the air. On a walk earlier this week, my husband saw an inflatable
Abominable Snow Monster in a front yard. On TV the other night, they showed A
Charlie Brown Christmas. In the news and on the Internet, some people say
having Santa at a school fair makes it a religious event and others say Santa
isn’t religious at all, and perhaps both sides of the argument are true. These
are signs of Christmas, an American Christmas in the early part of the 21st
After church, we’re going to get our tree. We’ll bring it
home and struggle to get it in to the stand–if we can find the stand. It
always turns up eventually. We’ll bring the boxes of ornaments down from the
attic, untangle the strings of lights, ooh and aah over the favorite emblems of
Christmas past. This one hung on the tree when I was a little girl, I will say,
and my children will nod and smile because they know it already. We will admire
the tree skirt my mother made many years ago, with its felt cut-outs of my
childhood home and church, and the cat I loved when I was young. When we place
my grandmother’s nativity set on the mantle, after finding a safe place to tuck
Baby Jesus away until Christmas Eve, it is the sign to us that Christmas is
In church we also have practices that are familiar to
the season. If the Advent wreath is being lit, Christmas is only a few weeks
away. If we are hearing the words of the prophets who spoke of a savior, then
the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth will soon follow.
Today we heard from Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke to a community
in turmoil. He was a prophet at a difficult time, living in Jerusalem while the
Babylonians were taking over, taking a whole civilization hostage. Over a
period of years, many of the Israelites were taken captive and forced to go to
Babylon, forced to live in a foreign land. Those who stayed behind lived under
foreign rule in their own land. They saw the Temple destroyed. They wondered
where YHWH was when they needed him?
The prophecies of Jeremiah were not comforting. He seemed to
enjoy pointing out the things his people had done wrong, to assure them that if
they felt separated from God, it was their own doing. But after many chapters
of scolding, Jeremiah also brings the people a promise:
33:14 The days are surely coming,
says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
33:15 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.
33:16 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."
Jeremiah shares God’s promise of a savior, a “righteous
branch” to spring up for all the house of David. Jeremiah’s words were a sign
that there was still something to hope for, that all was not lost. Someday,
somehow, there would be help. There would be justice. It’s a powerful image,
literally an image full of power.
But the sign people found in Jeremiah’s prophecy did not
turn out to look like what most people expected. The righteous branch executing
justice did not turn out to be a champion on horseback, leading troops into
battle against the Babylonians or the Romans. The righteous branch turned out
to be an itinerant preacher, a wandering storyteller who used to be a
If we listen to the gospel lesson today the way people heard
Jeremiah, we might simply envision the scene Jesus describes. We might focus
ourselves on a sudden ending of the world, a shocking apocalyptic scene,
something out of the Left Behind books and movies. It’s a scary scenario, isn’t
it? Signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, great storms, and fear and
foreboding all around us—it sounds like something we would rather avoid than
In speaking of the fig tree, Jesus takes his listeners out
of the world of unusual sights and back into the realm of the ordinary. Even in
the everyday things we see, there are signs of what is to come. The fig tree
was one of the last to get its leaves each spring, and Jesus reminds us that
some signs point us to what ought to be obvious, even when it isn’t! The fig
leaves point to summer. When our children grow up, their new maturity points to
their eventual leaving. When the path we are taking leads to one closed door
after another, it may be a sign to try another path.
Advent is the season that asks us to hold back our Christmas
celebration for a few more weeks, to prepare for the incarnation, the
in-breaking of the divine into human life. At my house, I hope we’re preparing
for something more than a gift exchange. I hope we’re preparing for a
transmission of values and beliefs, for an opportunity to talk about why we
celebrate and what it means to us to be part of Christ’s family. I hope we’re preparing to be awake for the signs that are to come. I
hope we’re preparing for God to break into our lives.
Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with
dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch
you unexpectedly, like a trap.” Don’t let the expectations of our secular
society, the demands for gifts and cards and attendance at parties, prevent you
from preparing for Christmas, prevent you from reading the signs of hope.
The Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew tell us of signs
in the sky. The angels the shepherds saw, the star the magi followed, brought
them not to an armed camp or a palace but to a manger, to a baby wrapped in
whatever his mother could find to keep him warm. Our hope is in the
helplessness of a baby, in the power of God to allow God’s self to be helpless
and to teach us to be helpless, too.
That’s not what the faithful readers of Jeremiah living some
600 years later expected. They expected a winner! They expected a Righteous
Branch prepared to
knock heads together and prove the rightness of their way of living and
believing. They got something completely different. They got a man who upended
their accustomed way of doing things, who ate with the wrong men and talked to
the wrong women and aggravated the authorities and lost his life because of it.
And only after that did they discover he was the Righteous Branch
after all, the one who is the ultimate sign of hope, the proof that God loves
us in all our sin and frailty and stubbornness and humanity, the witness that
love is more powerful than death.
And so we must continue to look for the signs,
remembering that they may point to the things we least expect. The end of the
story is not yet written, and there are still signs of hope.