Sometimes I wonder about the folks who put our lectionary (the 3-year series of appointed readings that we use in worship) together, and what they were thinking when they decided what to include and what to cut, where to start and where to end our readings from week to week. It must have been a Herculean task to undertake, and, for the most part, I’m not very critical of their decisions. Certainly not as critical as some have been of late. Still, sometimes, like last week, I just make my own adjustments. You may or may not have noticed that I extended the end of last week’s Gospel reading by one verse, adding the line: Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” Not a big deal, but I thought it was helpful to include that line, rather than stopping with Jesus saying he had “come to testify to the truth.”
Today I find myself wishing that the lectionary committee had extended our first reading by several verses. There’s this beautiful word of promise that follows, in verses 20 and 21 of Jeremiah 33, as the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah saying: “If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken…” This is a powerful word of promise and of assurance in the covenant-keeping nature of God. And, for me, I struggle to think of a better word with which to start Advent. It’s like God’s saying:
“Did the sun rise this morning? Did the night come to an end? Alright then, so my covenant
promise is still in effect. The days are still surely coming, and I’m still going to fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The righteous branch is still to come. Look,
I know, it looks like the tree has been cut off and that all that’s there is this little stump, but let
me ask again: Did the sun come up this morning? Did the night come to an end at its appointed
time? Alright then, my covenant promise is still in effect!”
Now, the people of God in Jeremiah’s time, were facing a time of deep crisis. The Assyrians had conquered 10 of the 12 tribes – The Kingdom of Israel in the north – and the Babylonians were about to take the remaining 2 tribes – The Kingdom of Judah in the south – into exile, including the capital city, Jerusalem, where God’s Temple stood in which God was thought to live. There wasn’t much left of God’s chosen people but a seemingly lifeless stump, and yet, God speaks words of life and promise, saying:
“I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David who will set things right again.
Righteousness, and justice, and safety will all be accomplished by the Lord who is our Righteousness.”
And this is all promised by the One who is as faithful, and who can be as trusted in, and who is as dependable as the rising of the sun each morning…
That’s a pretty amazing word of promise made by the One who created all that is and who gives order to all things in heaven and on earth by and through the creative power of his word. But, at the same time, we must never forget that there’s a harsh and stark reality behind the making and the hearing of these promises. And that’s not just the reality for those living in Jeremiah’s day, but for all people in every place and time.
Look, human life is frail and fraught with difficulties and hardships – imagined, threatened and realized.
Just this week, even as we as a nation observed a national Day of Thanksgiving, there were threats of terror that had people on edge. Security measures have been increased, and our government has issued warnings to our own citizens, at home and abroad, to avoid large crowds in public places – so-called “soft targets” where terrorists might strike. And a national debate is raging over what we ought to do, or not do, in response to the desperate need being experienced by millions of Syrian refugees who are fleeing the very same terrorists of whom we’re living in fear. And people are speaking their fears out loud about the possibility of terrorists sneaking in, posing as refugees, and once they’re here, executing terroristic acts here in our homeland, which, by the way, is nothing new. This was the very same thing people were saying as we turned away ships full of Jewish refugees from Germany as the Nazis came to power in the time before World War II. “What if Nazi spies sneak in with these Jewish refugees?”
One cruise liner full of German refugees, The Saint Louis, was turned away from Cuba, and then the US, before having to return to Europe. Hundreds of these Jewish refugees were eventually taken prisoner and ended up in Nazi concentration and death camps. And, while I’m not naive enough to suggest that there’s no threat, that bad guys couldn’t possibly sneak in with the refugees, we’ve all got to know that there are far easier ways to get into our country than by posing as refugees.
And the deeper questions, for me, as a person of faith, are
- Whether or not we learn from our history, and
- What we value more, safety, or doing righteousness and justice
I mean, do we really want to register, and mark with some outward sign (say, like, with a golden star), or maybe capture and lock away in camps a whole segment of our society, like we did to the Japanese during World War II? Or do we want to formulate some sort of loyalty test along the lines of those German Lutherans faced in those years?
The Scriptures we have before us today, especially Jeremiah and Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching in Luke, are honest about the reality that life spins out of control sometimes in ways that are threatening and frightening. But they also speak words of life.
Yes, Assyria and Babylon are real threats, and you’re powerless to stop their advancing armies, and God’s not going to magically make them disappear. But, even so, a Branch will spring up for David, even though all you can probably see at this point is the conquering armies destroying your homeland and taking your people captive. And yes, the cosmos, the sun, and moon, and stars, and all the earth for that matter will face heretofore unheard of disasters that will cause people to faint with fear and foreboding, but, even so, look! The fig trees, and all the trees, they still bloom as summer approaches, reminding those who are paying attention that, even when things look dead and dormant, the creative power of God’s word of life is still more powerful, indeed! The night may be dark, and silent, and long, but the night does, in due time, come to an end as the sun rises bringing with it, light and life, and all the promise and possibility inherent in the coming of a new day. The whole of heaven and earth will pass away, and there’s nothing we can do to stop that from happening when God says it’s time for it to happen, but God’s promise, which is as sure as the rising of the sun with each new day will never pass away!
Welcome to Advent!