THIS is the Good News? 12/02/18 (Advent 1C)

THIS IS GOOD NEWS?
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
TEXTS: JEREMIAH 33:14-16; LUKE 21:25-36
DECEMBER 2, 2018
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT (YEAR C)

Christmas: the promise of hope, the birth of joy, the coming of the light of God into the world. Christmas is good news! So why are we hearing about signs, and distress among nations, and the roaring of the sea? Why the descriptions of people fainting from fear and foreboding, the prophecies of the heavens being shaken? Why the command to keep awake, be always ready, stay on guard? If this is supposed to be the season of good news, why all the gloom and doom?

I remark on it every year, because every year it is the same: whether we’re reading from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, Advent always begins with Jesus giving an apocalyptic sermon warning his followers that the Day of the Lord will come upon them suddenly. Be alert! Be on guard!

It doesn’t sound like good news. It sounds exhausting.

So why do we start here, year after year?

Rev. Scott Hoezee answers that question this way: We begin Advent with passages like these because

…ours is a world of upheaval, of genocide, of pride, selfishness, greed, and violent acts perpetrated on the innocent and the unsuspecting. Soon our neighborhoods will look so pretty as they get decked out with lots of Christmas lights. And if the world looked just that pretty and serene most of the time, then this world would need no Savior. Soon we will start to hear secular holiday songs that convey trite sentiments along the lines of, “Well by golly, have a holly, jolly Christmas this year.” If ditties like that could cure what truly ails us in this life, then there never would have been any need for God’s Son to go through the bloody trouble of coming here in person.

Advent begins [Hoezee continues] with a frank, honest assessment of history’s perils, of the present moment’s terrors, and of the future’s all-but certain calamities because looking all of that square in the face is the only way to frame Advent and Christmas correctly. We would not even need Advent if the apocalyptic features to life mentioned in Luke 21 were not our reality. [1]

Those apocalyptic features are the reality we live with – not the whole reality, but a big part of it. Some days it seems as though pretty much everything is broken, from the global to the deeply personal.

So we begin here: In the fear, in the pain, in the sorrow, in the brokenness. In descriptions of cosmic signs, the shaking of all that we know, distress among nations, fainting from fear and foreboding. We begin Advent in the dark.

The prophet Jeremiah was intimately familiar with the darkness and perils of life. He lived and prophesied during the last years of the existence of Judah as an independent nation. The Babylonian Empire was growing stronger, and the people of Judah were living under ever-worsening threat. Babylon’s power grew until finally in the late 590s BCE Babylon lay siege to Jerusalem. The ensuing decade saw increasingly desperate attempts on the part of Judah to free itself from the Babylonian domination. A final revolt led by Zedekiah brought about the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the city and the Temple in 586 BCE. [2]

Lest we think that the fall of Jerusalem was a sharp, fast pain – like ripping off a Band-Aid, over and done with – it’s good to remember that the invasion by the Babylonians and the destruction of Jerusalem weren’t quick. This was a long, protracted, agonizing siege – it took a couple of years. Trapped inside the city, the people were desperate for food and hope. They were a people who knew distress among the nations and the upheaval of the world. It’s probably safe to say that as a whole they were a people living in a near-constant state of fear and foreboding.

This was Jeremiah’s world, Jeremiah’s reality. This was the context in which Jeremiah called the people to repentance: the way out of the darkness begins, for Jeremiah and the other prophets, with an admission of their own role in their desperate situation. This is why we read words of the prophets during Advent: we must face the reality of our present situation, including all of its pain and ugliness and sorrow.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor and theologian, said, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Which is to say, Advent is about penitence and expectation; it’s about repentance and it’s about hope. We are troubled in soul, we know ourselves and our world to be poor and imperfect, and we look forward to something greater to come. Advent is when we acknowledge the brokenness in ourselves and in the world, and Advent is also when we are reminded of God’s promises of wholeness, renewal, and redemption.

We hear some of God’s promises of renewal and redemption in this morning’s passage from Jeremiah. He was not all fire and fury. Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet” for a reason. Yes, he railed against God’s people for forsaking their God and the covenant between them, but he also wept and cried out in pain. In his vivid poetic oracles Jeremiah dramatizes the grief experienced by God, prophet, and people. Interspersed with the words of judgment and anguish, however, are a number of references to the renewal of the covenant relationship. [3]

This morning we heard one of Jeremiah’s promises of renewal:

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. 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…”

During Advent we are reminded of these promises to us from God: promises that righteousness and justice will prevail; promises of salvation and safety. These are the promises that make us a people of hope even in the darkness.

Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen draws a distinction we do well to observe. He says: “Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things – the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on – will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom.”

We begin Advent with apocalyptic visions of fear and foreboding because that is, precisely, where we live much of our lives. But Advent doesn’t allow us to stay there. The apocalypse isn’t just about endings. It’s also about new beginnings. It’s about the old order being shaken up so the new world can begin. It’s about the world we know being turned upside down, it’s about the new shoots bursting forth and the new light dawning. Advent begins in the dark of fear and foreboding, but then it moves.

Aristotle said, “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” And since darkness still swirls all around us, we recall that a light shines in the darkness – a light which, as Scott Hoezee says, “no darkness, no apocalypse, no warfare, no falling of meteors, no holocaust can prevent from shining.” We light the first candle of Advent – the candle of hope – and remind ourselves that Jesus never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, but he did promise that he wouldn’t abandon us, that he would strengthen us and encourage us, and equip us not only to survive but to thrive.

Week by week, more light, more joy, more hope, more love will enter this sanctuary, our lives, the world. We begin with darkness and apocalyptic imagery; we gradually move to songs of joy and acts of faith until eventually we arrive at the birth of the Christ Child, our Savior.

I’m currently watching my friend Mark do this hard work of focusing on the light in the middle of deep darkness. His husband Gregor was just recently diagnosed with a very aggressive and painful cancer. The doctors are not optimistic about his prognosis; the treatments are brutal; the future is very shaky.

I asked Mark if I could share some of his and Gregor’s story with you today. In an email to me he wrote, “Please do use my testimony from my [blog] posts or this missive and don’t hesitate to use my/our name(s). This shit is hard work and I am owning it with all my imperfections as well as my sometimes blind and dumb faith. Jesus carries me most days, along with many words, acts, and prayers of compassion and healing [from those who love us].”

At Thanksgiving, Mark posted an update on Gregor’s “Care Page” – a blog that allows patients and families keep in touch with their loved ones online. He wrote:

We are trying to live a life of acceptance and not “fight” the disease, but rather treat it with medicine and prayer. This is hard work because our initial feelings are sadness, anxiety, and fear…

The reality is that the doctors are using educated guesses as to how to treat the cancer. We understand because we are making all this up as it unfolds as well. We are leaning into the uncertainty and, as hard as it is, trusting that God will not forsake us.

Note that Mark doesn’t say, “God will make Gregor’s cancer go away.” That is, of course, the desperate desire of all of us who love them and the possibility we cling to, but Mark recognizes that it isn’t the promise. The promise is that God will not forsake us – whether the cancer causes Gregor’s early death or not.

And in the meantime, Mark and Gregor aren’t waging war on the cancer. They’re treating it and they’re praying, but they’re not fighting against the reality: Gregor has cancer. They are looking that darkness, that fear, that end-of-the-world, right in the face. And then they’re lighting a candle.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Rev. Scott Hoezee, “Luke 21:28-38: At that Time.”

[2] Introduction to “The Book of Jeremiah,” The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV).

[3] Introduction to “The Book of Jeremiah,” The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV).

 

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