Advent 1C – Jeremiah 33/Luke 21
Duke Memorial UMC
On Monday I was reading the oracles of Jeremiah 33, today’s Old Testament reading, when Ann called to tell me the church was on lock down. I wasn’t at the church at the time. I knew there was a threat down the street. Besides that there wasn’t a lot of information. White man. Gray hoodie. No one knew much.
For the next half hour I kept eyeing the door of the coffee shop nervously. I checked possible exits. I wondered if I should say something to the woman sitting across from me as she got up to leave. At the top of the window I could see helicopters circling.
“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.”
Those were the word on the page. Live in safety. They pounded in my ears as I got back into my car after being told it was all right to return to the church.
I turned the keys in the ignition, and that’s when I heard it. “We Need a Little Christmas” pouring out of my speakers, on the 24/7 Christmas music station that as been in playing since Thanksgiving.
Do you know this song?
Haul out the holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now
I sat in the car and listened for a while before driving off. There was something so jarring about it. The lyrics continue:
For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
I need a little Christmas now
I’d never really listened to the words but here it was so clear. Christmas is the great diversion, the sentimental distraction from the leaner, colder, sadder, older world, the world in which things are falling apart around us. A lot of us are good at pulling it together for the holidays. We put on a good face, we pretend like everything is fine. It’s easy to find distractions to keep us from looking around. When the distraction is gone – that’s when things start to slip. That’s when we realize this just isn’t enough—this life I have, day in day out, the same old thing. This is world is too much.
“Be alert at all times,” Jesus tells us. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.” Jesus says this after describing a chaotic scene. Signs of distress in the sky. Nations perplexed by the roaring of the ocean. The kingdom of God is near. This is our world. This world around us, the world on the nightly news, the news that is recorded from helicopters buzzing above our own heads.
The Gospel lesson is a reminder that this is a season of waiting and expectation, a season when we are anticipating God’s coming among us. If there’s anyone who knows about anticipating God in the midst of destruction it is the prophet Jeremiah. His words echo back the groaning of our world.
Jeremiah writes to us from the heart of a city gripped by fear. Homes will be destroyed by an invading army, families ripped apart. Destruction is at hand, and the future grows more and more dim. There is violence, poverty, and trembling everywhere. This is a city where birds will not land, where even animals flee.
Kathleen Norris wrote a chapter about her experience reading Jeremiah at daily prayer. Each morning Norris gathered with the brothers of the Benedictine monastery where she was writer in residence. I’ve been to this monastery, too. I’ve walked the mile down the street to St John’s Abbey, and I’ve sat in those same raised seats behind the altar. Each day a lesson is read, a full book parceled out a little at a time.
I can imagine Norris waking early, and, still groggy with sleep, sitting in those hard chairs. There she is exposed to the grief of Jeremiah, immersing herself in the terror of a world in shambles. At one point Norris writes how, after some particularly grim passages she felt like shouting, “have a nice day” to the entire assembly. “Easier to mock a prophet than to listen to him,” she tells us.
“Taking Jeremiah to heart, day in day out,” writes Norris, “I got much more than I bargained for. I found it brave of these Benedictines, in late twentieth-century America, in a culture of denial, to try to listen to the prophet at all.”
Today we are stumbling into the latter sections of Jeremiah. From the words we heard Kathy read today it might be hard to imagine that Jeremiah writes these oracles imprisoned in the king’s palace courtyard. Those in power, and those against whom these prophecies of destruction are aimed, they cannot stand his words. They burn, like fire.
But Jeremiah doesn’t shy away from the world as it is. He can’t. He can’t help but name the horror and tragedy around him, the way things are falling apart.
“We have heard a cry of panic, of terror, of no peace.”
“See, disaster spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.”
“All of them turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”
Jesus warns us to be mindful of ourselves, that paying attention to this kind of terror can weigh down our hearts, can become its own distraction. Don’t let the day catch you unexpectedly, he tells us. Redemption requires us to have ready hearts, lives ready to receive it in unexpected ways. We have to pay attention.
And it is Jeremiah who reminds us we have to give our attention not only above but also below.
“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,” writes Jeremiah.
Here, imprisoned for his words, among a people who would rather murder him than hear his prophecies, Jeremiah puts his ear to the ground. And he can hear something stirring, deep in the earth, deep in the dark.
There’s something there, almost imperceptible. He tells us to listen, to listen for the earth’s slight movements, to listen for what is being made, the possibilities for a new life created beneath the surface. I imagine that root, the one Jeremiah waits to see erupt into a branch, I imagine it working through the soil, working it’s way, unseen, hidden below our feet.
Looking up, looking at our lives and our world, we see that life is for more than this. There has to be more. Below, below the surface, God is stirring. Underground, winding below the surface, whispers of life you can’t yet see. A shoot. A bud. A branch.
I wonder what it has been like for you, what you see when you look around. Maybe this is the first time you are spending Christmas separated from your mother, separated from your child. Maybe you’re grappling with being rejected by your family, or by your church. Maybe you’re realizing that you were numb after the 355th mass shooting this year. Maybe you are confused and frightened that Islamophobia and racism are trending well among American voters. Maybe this year contained the worst day of your life.
I confess that I need the hope of Jeremiah this week, a complicated hope that nestles in between dark days, the kind of hope that is silent and hidden, an expectant hope, a hope waiting in the dark. I need Jeremiah’s hope, something more than a distraction from pain and sorrow. I need something more.
Friends, beneath us something is stirring. God’s life, so near to ours that longing for us drew God into human life, into an infant child, this life is stirring. A child, born for us, born in the cold and the dark. This root, ready to erupt. God’s longing for you, for me, for us.
Raise your heads, look up. See the signs in the sun, and the moon and the stars. See the destruction. And once you look around, once you take it all in, put your head on the ground next to mine. I’ll listen with you. We’ll listen for movement, listening for what is happening deep in the warm earth, where we cannot see, where, in spite of it all God is moving and making, putting out roots. I’ll listen with you. I’ll tell you what I hear if you’ll tell me when you can hear that first sounds of God working and making a way. I’ll stay with you. I’ll stay with you and wait.