Well guys, here we are! One big holiday meal down; one to go.
The race to Christmas is on! Black Friday has come and gone;
Cyber Monday is tomorrow. The deals are probably filling your inboxes and mailboxes. Santa Claus – I mean Jesus – is on his way. And to issue in this mysterious figure, there will be a flurry of activity squeezed into the next month: caroling, Christmas pageants, shopping, baking and whatever else your family tradition calls for.
And in the church’s life? Today begins our season of Advent -
a time set apart to recognize that God’s reign is coming into being. That’s the definition of advent, by the way – a coming into being.
God’s reign is not fully realized, yet neither is it out of reach.
It is actively “coming into being.” Like an unborn child in the womb. Or like a caterpillar that has entered the chrysalis stage on its way to becoming a butterfly.
The season of Advent is all about the already, but not-yet-ness of God’s kingdom.
And in the midst of Black Friday ads and Christmas lights going up, it’s kind of strange, jolting, out of sync with the rest of culture, even to many Christians.
The Bible stories read during this season are, by and large, not childhood favorites. They have no star in the east guiding devout magi, no soliloquy of angels stirring shepherds to go and see the babe, no anxious innkeeper refusing to take in the foreigners, no touching moment when Mary ponders these things in her heart.
Those are the stories we are preparing ourselves to hear, but the stories of Advent… Well, as you have heard this morning, our Advent stories are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista where the bad guys keep winning, and hope has gone on vacation.
Many prefer the major notes of joy and gladness in the Christmas stories to the minor keys of Advent. Advent also leaves us dizzy over time. Advent is not a steady, constant, “time marches on” kind of time, a persistent drumbeat of day after day, year after year. I guess if it had a certain genre of music associated with Advent, it should be jazz. Advent is unpredictable time, unsteady time, strange time.
In this season, we look for a baby to be born while we know that the baby has already been born, and still is being born in us— this Emmanuel who came and is coming and is among us right now. That’s strange, right?
Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor who writes about this holy season amid her ministry in the roughest part of the Bronx: “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 it is 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!”
As the first, lone candle of Advent wreath burns, Jeremiah recalls his own city burning, and yet he speaks not of destruction but of God’s future as he offers his cry of longing, of anhelo.
Jeremiah speaks to hostages being seduced to start a new life in balmy Babylon. He tells a tough audience that, despite every sign to the contrary, “days are coming,” days when God’s promises will be fulfilled. Jeremiah tells his kin that God’s future will come not by giving up on God’s promises and making the best of a bad situation— after all, “when in Babylon”— NO!, says Jeremiah. We don’t live by the world’s rules; we are not governed by common sense or conventional wisdom. God’s kingdom will come by trusting in the creative and redemptive and sure purposes of God: “The Days are coming!”
With the world that he has known crumbling around him, Jeremiah pushes his people to see a future, God’s future, which seems laughable given the current circumstances.
And it seems laughable to us too, doesn’t it? It seems laughable that we would still hold out hope for God’s kingdom to come –for “thy will to be done” – the day after an ill-adjusted loner walks into Planned Parenthood health clinic in Colorado and kills three people, wounds nine.
Jeremiah’s proclamation that “the days are coming” seems laughable in the face of Isis and Boko Haram terrorists.
Indeed, it seems laughable that “the days that are coming” will indeed come before we destroy the earth ourselves.
As I listen to the cries of Jeremiah throughout the scope of his prophecy, I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future will be a reality beyond the violent boastings of the ruling Babylon of the day – Isis or Boko Haram - or whomever it may be.
I long for the day that is surely coming when in God’s future the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to sleep on the streets. I long for the day when our soup kitchen is no longer needed because everyone has a home.
I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no space for violence, when we will stop producing body bags— because there are no dead gang members to fill them.
I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future affords no room for hatred or hostility, a day when our world is no longer torn apart by racism and sexism and homophobia.
Preaching Advent from the perspective of Jeremiah, I long for the confidence of the prophet’s words about the righteous future of our God. I long for people to know the God whom Jeremiah heralds and whom Jesus will incarnate, not a hidden God who refuses to get involve in the human enterprise, but a God who hears God’s people when they cry anhelo.
I long for people to know, not the God of religious fanatics or bigots, not a God who enjoys seeing Jerusalem set afire, but the God who, in God’s own time, will bring more mercy and justice than we will ever grasp.
We’re not crazy, you know.
This kingdom of God we are longing for actually exists.
And it breaks in.
Just this week in Queens, New York, Jose Moran spent Tuesday morning setting up the Nativity scene at the Holy Child Jesus Church, where he is a custodian. He put up the manger, and went to lunch. And when he came back, he heard the cry of a baby.
The baby was in the manger, swaddled in blue towels. He was so young his umbilical cord still sprouted from his belly.
Jose Moran ran to tell the new Friar, Father Heanue, “There's a live baby in our manger!”
The Friar called 911. The baby boy was brought to the Hospital, where he was weighed—just over five pounds—and found to be healthy.
The mom came back to check on the baby, and was relieved to find that her baby was safe. Father Heanue says he feels only love for the mother.
"A church is a home for those in need," he told the New York Times, "and she felt, in this stable—a place where Jesus will find his home—a home for her child."
He says families in the parish have already asked to adopt the baby.
"They feel that he was left in the parish and should stay in the parish."
So this week, the love of a mother who felt she couldn't care for her child led her to bring him some place safe and warm. And he was found by people who will—who already do—love him.
"Surely the days are coming...", says the Lord.
And so with Jeremiah leading the way, we watch for signs of love in the midst of the darkness. And we hope.
Maybe Jeremiah is the best biblical voice to lead us into Advent, the season that brings anhelo – of deep longing – to expression.
Advent is a strange season.
But it is a hopeful season.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, we pray.