Yesterday I turned the calendar over to December. We’ve survived Black Friday and Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. I have stopped shaking my head when the Starbucks barista hands me the red cup. Those blow-up Christmas decorations are to be found in people’s yards again: Snowmen and Snow Globes and even Abominable Snow Monsters. These are signs of our 21st Century American Christmas.
Things are in chaos at our house as we prepare to move. Lucy and I have made a tough, but smart, decision not to have a tree this year. But later today, we will arrange my grandmother’s nativity set on the mantle, finding a safe place to tuck Baby Jesus away until Christmas Eve. It is the sign to us that no matter how many other things we need to do in the next few weeks, how many boxes we need to pack or bags of old clothes need to make their way to Goodwill, Christmas is truly coming.
Here in church we also have practices that are familiar to the season. 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. We are preparing for more than a gift exchange. In our church and in our families, we’re preparing to celebrate what it means to us to be part of Christ’s family.
Today we hear from Jeremiah. He spoke to a community in turmoil, literally divided by the invading Babylonians. As if in slow motion, the attackers split the community, forcing a large portion of the population to captivity in Babylon at the same time they occupied Jerusalem. Those who stayed behind lived under foreign rule in their own land. They saw the Temple destroyed. The exiles struggled to worship God faithfully while living far from their holy place.
They wondered why God let this happen to them.
They listened to Jeremiah, because God spoke through him. But the words of Jeremiah were not comforting. He almost seemed to enjoy pointing out the things his people had done wrong, the ways they had separated themselves from God.
But after many chapters of hard words, Jeremiah offered 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 shared 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. There would be righteousness. There would be safety. The Righteous Branch would bring protection.
The Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew tell us of signs in the sky. The angels the shepherds saw, the star the magi followed, did not bring them 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. This was the Righteous Branch? Our hope is in the helplessness of a baby who grew up to be a wandering storyteller.
Maybe we can see why the people wanted a captain or a King instead. Where was Jeremiah’s winner? The faithful expected a Righteous Warrior prepared to swing his branch like a sword and defeat the foes. His victory over earthly powers would prove their God was the real one. His strength would put the oppressors in their place. His justice would be swift and righteous and sweet.
The itinerant preacher painted pictures of the future that were considerably less comforting. We come to these texts in Advent, too, and they feel out of tune with the season of insistent jollity. We are getting ready for the baby in the manger, or the presents under the tree, and here comes Jesus predicting the end of the world. It’s a scary scenario, isn’t it? He speaks of signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, great storms, and fear and foreboding all around us.
His speech doesn’t have the same special effects as the movie “2012,” with its visuals of Los Angeles falling into the ocean. (You’re not really expecting the end of the world when the Mayan calendar runs out on December 21st, are you?) But he points to the kinds of natural events and collective anxieties that people around him knew well. An eclipse of the sun or the moon created fear. An unusually powerful storm made people wonder if things would ever be normal again. War, disease, drought all counted as signs of God’s disfavor.
‘Tis the Season of the End of the World.
Or maybe just the end of the world as we know it.
I’m going away, he is saying, but I am coming back again. For the people listening, his going away would have seemed like the end of the world, surely, and his return, even in a cloud of glory, was not exactly a source of comfort and joy.
Perhaps the itinerant storyteller is reading his audience when he shifts gears. He gives them the big picture, but then he brings it back to his more accustomed mode of teaching, the parable. Maybe he can see they need a way back to the ordinary world. 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. You know what it looks like.
Change is coming, sisters and brothers, says Jesus. It won’t always be the way it is now. I’ll be arrested and things will look terrible, but just for a little while. Keep watching, I will be with you.
Change is coming, people of Israel, says Jeremiah. You won’t always be in exile, and the Babylonians will go home, and it will get better. Hold on, God is with you.
Change is coming, people of North Yarmouth Congregational Church. Listen up! Pay attention! Christmas is almost here.
What are we hoping for? We have seen signs: visions of Powerball winnings and credit card bills and trips to the Apple Store for an iPad Mini dance in our heads. But these are the signs of our 21st Century American Christmas. They weigh us down with the expectations of society, the demands for gifts and cards and attendance at parties.
What do we really hope for this Christmas, down underneath the wrapping paper and the gift cards and the eggnog lattes…and maybe the eggnog, too? We’re probably not focused too hard on end-of-the-world hopes, visions of being snatched to heavenly safety when everything implodes.
No, it’s more likely we’re focused on what’s right in front of us. We may hope for renewed health, or peace of mind. We may hope someone will see what’s best for him, or how much we really love her. We may hope God will point us – clearly – in the direction we are meant to go.
Those are individual hopes, but they are hopes for the world, too.
We hope God will point the world in a better direction.
But God did, already. We’re just taking our own sweet time reading the signs, as Jesus said we would. We fail to notice them because we get caught up in the things of this world.
So let’s try, for the little while of Advent, to see them.
Be alert for the signs:
- Doors opening to families with nowhere to spend the night;
- And shining lights that guide us in the darkness;
- And Good News shared by angels in ordinary clothing.
This Advent, look for the One who came, and is coming, to change the world.