The following is a sermon I delivered at Kilmarnock Baptist Church on November 29, 2009. It was just before Advent, and I was looking ahead to hope and joy. Today, as we enter a beautiful late-winter day on the Northern Neck, I was reminded of this message of hope. The text is Jeremiah 33:14-16. I hope it speaks to you.
On the sidewalk leading to our church, just outside the window, there are two trees. Both have lost their leaves for the winter. As summer turned to fall, the leaves followed the changing seasons and fell from their branches. In each of these two trees, there is a bird’s nest. Twigs, leaves, string and other materials are tightly bound together into two little bundles, hanging on the thin branches, one nest in each tree. When I walk past the nests, I think about the birds that have come from that home. I imagine a female finch, frantically gathering things together to form her nest. Then, after finding a male finch, she lays her eggs and waits. She keeps them warm, tries to protect them from invaders, and then, when they hatch and the chicks cry for food, she goes hunting and returns to give them nourishment. The days slide by and the chicks grow. She gathers food and returns. The chicks get bigger and stronger, and then, one day she nudges them out of the nest and they take flight. They, the mother and her offspring, all move on, and the nest is empty. My life is not connected to theirs. My life is not part of their life-cycle. I walk by their nest and am merely an observer, but I know spring will come again. Birds will return to their nests and there will be beauty all around us. But, not now. Now, it is time to wait. Spring will come again, but first we have to wait. Advent begins our season of waiting, and one of the biblical passages often associated with Advent is Jeremiah 33, where we read:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israeland 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. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ [Jer. 33:14-16, NRSV]
Jeremiah chapters 32 and 33 present a social vision encompassing restoration. It is like seeing a bird’s nest in late autumn. Right now, the nest is devoid of the life it will contain in the future, just as our lives are nothing, no matter how good things can get, compared with what they could be. But, the prophet writes, “The days are surely coming… and [the Lord] shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” There is a promise, and as we enter Advent and begin looking toward Christmas, we hear this promise, “The Lord is our righteousness,” our justice, our virtue, our morality, our integrity.
We will celebrate Jesus’ birth in a few weeks. The springtime in our spiritual lives began on that blessed day, so many years ago in Bethlehem, in relative obscurity. We picture the baby Jesus being born in a stable or manger, and from such an extremely humble beginning, the light of the world entered into the world. However, we are not ready for shepherds and sheep, magi and wise men, a star, King Herod–the crazed-psychopathic king who commits infanticide. We are not quite ready for the unwed couple, including a virgin mother, traveling for Herod’s census. The angels who sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven” will be silent for another few weeks. All of the lovely Christmas traditions will have to wait a bit longer. The poinsettias and other greenery will arrive shortly. We will light three more Advent candles, but not yet. Eventually, we will sing Christmas carols, but the first Sunday in Advent is a time to begin waiting, yet we do not wait in vain; we wait having been given God’s promise of delivering the world. “The days are surely coming…and [the Lord] shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
Spring will surely come again. There is a promise of God’s righteousness, and as we enter this season of waiting-for-the-arrival-of-the-Messiah, we are reminded of this promise. It is a vision of a bright future, pulsating with life all around, like birds singing in vibrant green trees, but we do not receive a promise of immediate gratification. In this passage,
We are reminded once again that the vision of the future and of God’s blessing that permeates the Scriptures is not simply spiritual, interior, and personal. It is richly material, life-enhancing, socially sustaining, and enjoyable.[i]
As we enter Advent, today we stand in tension between our celebration of Thanksgiving this past Thursday and the beginning of our journey to Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Most people are aware that Thanksgiving began with the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors in 1621, but prior to Abraham Lincoln declaring it a national holiday in 1863, Thanksgiving was mostly a regional holiday. As a holiday, its popularity grew slowly until the twentieth century. Now, it is a national holiday, emphasizing family and giving thanks for the things we have.[ii] Christians often extend the notion of giving thanks to mean giving thanks for God’s blessing, and the tension between Thanksgiving and Christmas exists because of the “ambiguous relationship between blessing and possessions.” We give thanks to God for the blessings we have received, but too often we include possessions in our understanding of the way God blesses us.
It would seem, then, that [we] have little hope of understanding what to think about and expect from God’s blessing apart from a prior proper understanding of the God who does the blessing. Only in the light of this understanding could we then hope to understand the ways in which the blessing…will help us order all of our lives–including our possessions–so that we live and work to God’s praise and glory.[iii]
We are still looking ahead, looking ahead toward Christmas, and as many of us enter a season that includes indulgent shopping, the reminder of waiting for the Messiah and a proper understanding of God’s blessing in Jesus might serve to offset an over-emphasis on materialism. In other words, with God’s blessing in Jesus, we can see stuff in a new perspective. Thanksgiving is designed to be nostalgic and make us feel good, both as Americans and people who are in a relationship with God. It is a wonderful time to reflect on our Christian lives. Christmas is also a feel-good holiday. We have songs, stories, and presents, and it is a celebration of Jesus’ birth and life. However, we do not have the sense of waiting for God’s movement in Thanksgiving or Christmas, like we find in Jeremiah. Sure, we have to wait for Christmas morning and that waiting is difficult for little ones, but when the sun rises and Ebenezer Scrooge shouts out his window, “What day is it?” and the little boy answers, “It’s Christmas, Sir”, we find gratification. The wait is over. And if we believe that, according to the divine promise in Jeremiah that “The days are surely coming,” we are deceived because the wait continues. With Christmas morning and our excitement of Jesus’ birth, we have his life, death, and resurrection to celebrate, but the wait is not just about waiting for Christmas. It is about waiting for God.
The passage from Jeremiah under our consideration this morning has often been interpreted as relating to God’s messianic promise fulfilled in Jesus. This is why the lectionary includes it as one of the passages for the first Sunday in Advent. I can see how people might draw the connection between this passage and Jesus, and I am not trying to wrench these verses away from waiting for the fulfillment of prophecy. I would simply like to suggest that there is another way of reading this passage. God’s promise to Israel relates back to Genesis 15, with descendents as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5) and a promise of a specific piece of land (Gen. 15:7). Waiting is an integral part of the Jewish tradition: i.e. waiting to be delivered from Egypt, waiting for the Messiah, waiting to be liberated from oppression, and so on.
In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, toward the end of the show, during the song “Sunrise, Sunset,” conditions have been deteriorating, and one character asks, “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the return of the Messiah for long time. Wouldn’t now be a good time?” The Rabbi replies thoughtfully, “Perhaps we are meant to wait someplace else.” Waiting and patience are good lessons for us to learn. Waiting can help us to refocus on the things that truly matter. In Christian theology, waiting teaches us about relating to and trusting in God’s promises. As an example, consider Joanna Adams. She is the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Georgia, and recalls her cataract surgery. She writes:
Days before the procedure, I was given several kinds of drops to put into my eyes daily. The drops came with complex instructions and warnings. After the procedure, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to sleep on my back or pick up a sack of groceries or even touch my eye. I became convinced that if I did not do exactly as I was told, I would never see again. Yet I could sense the deep care and compassion of my doctor and others on the medical staff. Every day for a week after the surgery, someone in the clinic called to inquire about my well-being and vision. Apparently the point of the warnings and the compassionate concern, coming together as they did, was to help me see better.[iv]
She had to wait. She had to wait before the surgery and make specific preparations to get ready, and then she had to wait after the surgery, following specific instructions during the healing process. Following God’s promise, “The days are surely coming,” we might experience spiritual cataract surgery. That is, we can begin to see things for what they are and are less inclined to be fooled by the clatter of voices around us. Our worldview is then marked by “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”[v] Our Lord “wants us to be able to take the long view so that we can see the arrival of a world marked by God’s justice and righteousness.”[vi] This long view includes waiting in a spirit of “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” and as we wait, we are bound by faith not to be weighed down by the worries of life.
In Jeremiah, we find the prophet drawing out the idea that the God who saves is also the God who blesses. It is part of God’s promise and is as reliable as the changing of the seasons. Understanding this idea of blessing is part of deepening our faith and our relationship with God. Spring is surely coming. Birds will return to their nests. And, on this first Sunday of Advent, we begin waiting, not only for the arrival of baby Jesus on December 25th, but also entering a long view of life in which a spirit of “unarmed truth and unconditional love” dominate as we are confronted by a barrage of marketing during this holiday season. People will try to convince us that happiness and fulfillment are contained in buying more and more stuff. But, as we encounter advertisements this year, consider “the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them.” The long view infused with “unarmed truth and unconditional love” is the kind of life the one whom we celebrate on December 25th would have us live. Amen.
[i] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Miller2001939827-8289399395Miller, Patrick D.Keck, LeanderJeremiahNew Interpreter’s Bible2001NashvilleAbingdon<![endif]–>Patrick D. Miller, “Jeremiah,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 827-28.<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
[ii] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Pleck199994394394317Pleck, ElizabethThe Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United StatesJournal of Social HistoryJournal of Social History773-789324
1999Summer<![endif]–>Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal of Social History 32, no. 4 (1999).<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
[iii] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Fowl200694294294253Fowl, StephenHauerwas, StanleyWells, SamuelBeing Blessed: Wealth, Property, and TheftThe Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics2006OxfordBlackwell<![endif]–>Stephen Fowl, “Being Blessed: Wealth, Property, and Theft,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
[iv] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Adams20069401894094017Adams, Joanna M.Light the candlesChristian CenturyChristian Century1812324
2006November 28<![endif]–>Joanna M. Adams, “Light the candles,” Christian Century 123, no. 24 (2006): 18.<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
[v] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Adams200694094094017Adams, Joanna M.Light the candlesChristian CenturyChristian Century1812324
2006November 28<![endif]–>Adams, “Light the candles.”<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> Cf. <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE KingDecember 10, 196494194194117King, Martin Luther, Jr.Nobel Prize Acceptance SpeechDecember 10, 1964<![endif]–>Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,” (December 10, 1964).<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>
[vi] <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Adams200694094094017Adams, Joanna M.Light the candlesChristian CenturyChristian Century1812324
2006November 28<![endif]–>Adams, “Light the candles.”<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>