Advent I, December 2, 2018
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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."
My father didn’t mean to squelch hope. In fact, he was trying to instill hope in his children, and so he would say things like: “Next year, we’re going to buy a new house and everyone will have his or her own bedroom!” Or “Let’s all go to the movies tonight, and you can have any kind of candy you want.” Or “On your next birthday, I am going to buy you a new bicycle.” My dear dad meant what he said, but the limits of his Baptist preacher’s salary, with three kids to raise, meant that most of the time, despite his best intentions, he was not able to do what he had promised. For years, every time my dad would speak magnanimously about the future, my heart would fill with expectation. But after awhile, seeing the same pattern of disappointment repeated again and again, I eventually stopped believing the promises. Hope deferred is hope denied, and as a teenager I became silent and cynical when he would speak, mumbling under my breath: “Promises, promises…”
Inadvertently, my father prepared me on for a lifetime of the disappointments that come when promises are not kept. As adults we learn the hard way that employers and lovers and churches and governments often promise us the moon, only to keep us earthbound and disappointed by not acting on their word, by not fulfilling their promises.
And so here I am, distrustful of anyone who makes big promises. Here I am, adorned with my cynicism like a coat of armor. I tell myself that it’s better to expect nothing than to be disappointed. And at this time of year in particular, I give my cynical coat of armor an extra shine. I’m a bit of a Grinch. I cringe at the forced merriment. I bristle at the crass commercialization of this most holy time of year.
But then last Wednesday evening, I walked into this space and for the first time ever saw those stars that Alison made suspended above our heads. And something inside of me began to stir. My cynicism seemed to soften a little around the edges. And I let myself wonder if maybe, just maybe, I could afford a little hope. Maybe I could dare to let my spirit rise to meet the Advent promises of God, despite all evidence to the contrary?
Jeremiah the prophet lived through the reign of three, less-than-stellar Judean kings. And as a prophet he railed against the political intrigues of Jerusalem. He preached against the cynical use of religion for political gain. And all the while, he watched as these kings broke promises, made dirty political alliances, and always kept their own best interests at heart. And because Jeremiah called them out, he was not their favorite person. They had the power to simply dispatch him permanently. But there would be a heavy political price to pay. So instead, the king threw old Jeremiah into a cold, dark prison - his only crime being the courage to speak truth to power.
Eventually, the corruption rotted the foundation of the government and the Judean kingdom fell, hard. Great calamity followed. Babylon conquered them, destroyed their cities, desecrated their holy places, and forced the best and the brightest of them into exile in Babylon. The poor and vulnerable were simply left behind to live in the ruins of their former greatness. Think Damascus.
Such an incredible devastation seemed to leave little room for hope. But that’s always the moment that hope appears. And the word of hope was spoken by the same prophet who warned of calamity. In the nuclear winter of their discontent, Jeremiah told the Babylonian exiles the most incredulous thing. He said that the kingdom would be restored; that the ruined cities would be rebuilt; that the glory of the Lord would once again hover over the land. It seemed impossible to believe amidst the rubble of their dreams, so far from home. It seemed impossible to believe living, as they did, as desperate refugees. But Jeremiah proclaimed the word of the Lord, which often sounds like a little bit of nonsense. He said: “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.”
That righteous branch was a baby named Jesus. But here’s the thing: Jeremiah prophesied it. But he never saw it. It happened, but he was already dead. And therein lies the power and the challenge of hope. The word of the Lord shall surely come to pass, but it may be on some distant horizon. And there is no guarantee that our eyes will ever behold it.
Another year is coming to a close. And this year, like all the others past, has been filled with broken promises. This year, like all the others past, is full of dust and ashes; fear and loathing. Some of us are tired. Others are afraid. And yet here we are, under the stars, waiting, longing, dreaming, hoping, praying for the kingdom of God to come upon this earth just as it is in heaven.
And so it is, at this time of year, despite myself, that I feel the nudge of hope. Something in me stirs as we sing and listen and recite the old, old the story about a God who never gives up on the human race; a God who came to us as one of us, born into poverty and oppression to an unwed teenage mother and a terribly confused father.
Given that I’m a Grinch, I’ve often wondered why hope springs eternal despite all the messes I make. And this is the only conclusion I can draw: that hope is the gift of God. It is the image of God shining in each of us.
There are stars in the sky. There is music in the air. And there is that promise that simply will not let us go. So let’s begin our Advent journey. Let’s sing the songs. Let’s light the candles. Let’s sit in the silence. Let’s open ourselves to HOPE.