the first sunday of advent

Jeremiah 33. 14-16
Faith begins deep in the valley of the shadow …

“How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.

“She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies ….”

And that’s just the beginning. The first two of a hundred fifty-four verses. Mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon nearly twenty-five – twenty-six – hundred years ago. Recorded in the book of Lamentations. Attributed to the prophet himself. This was Jeremiah’s world. The gloom. The despair. The agony. It’s impossible to overestimate the suffering. Foes becoming masters. Enemies prospering. And god … god nowhere to be found. Oh, and by the way, Happy New Year!

Truth is, this is the context, the circumstances, for the passage we read from Jeremiah. It’s not holiday decorations and good cheer! Fireworks and midnight toasts! It’s darkness covering the deep. Wind raging over the waters. Earth a formless void. Israel had lived in the Promised Land for generations. And in a heartbeat, a breath, it was all taken away. It was no more. A happily-ever-after replaced by sadness. A dream exchanged for a nightmare. And in the midst of it all, Jeremiah spoke for god … God hears! Hears your groaning! God sees! Sees your tears! And god remembers! Remembers god’s promises!

We, usually, read Jeremiah’s words as if they were shouted out! Announced! Full of faith! Brimming with hope! More likely, it was a whisper. Choked. Strangled. Overcome with emotion. Not a shout of victory. Not the cry of a champion. But a wail of the vanquished, welling from deep down inside. That’s why Christmas is when it is! Not because Jesus was a Capricorn. Not because that’s the date on his birth certificate. It’s there – on December 25th – because, here in the North, that’s the darkest day, the longest night, of the entire year!

For six months, the earth has been hurtling through space to reach this place. Days shortening. Nights lengthening. And then, when it seems as if the future of creation hangs in the balance, it all changes! The sun returns. Days get longer while the nights become shorter! And the world, as the story goes, lives on for another year! Rescued! Saved! Delivered!

And at that moment, just before the world turns, Jeremiah speaks! Speaks at Israel’s solstice! Through his tears, he whispers, “God hears and sees and god remembers!” The angels sing! The star appears! The magi begin their journey! And a child is born! Don’t be afraid! Not now! Not ever! To you is born a Savior! This day! This very day! This day of all days! And you don’t have to do anything! But sit! And watch! And wait! As that new world dawns before your very eyes! As the night, slowly, surely, becomes day!

But it all begins here in the valley; not on a mountaintop. The valley deep. Long. It starts among the shadows; not in the sunlight. We have to begin right here … in the emptiness … the futility … of Advent! We have to start with the tears, with the heartache. Or we’ll never understand. Before the carols, we have to endure the storm! We have to withstand the hunger! We have to suffer the loss! We have to mourn! We have to grieve! Advent can’t be avoided. It must be experienced! And without it … without it … the “true meaning” of Christmas disappears!

Christmas – faith – is a cross traced on our forehead. Not a smiley face hung on the tree. We don’t like it. We don’t want it. But it’s here. Kinda like trying to move on … To live happily ever … Without ever setting a single, solitary foot in the wilderness! Jerusalem in ashes. The temple in ruins. And Jeremiah whispers, Jeremiah sighs, the hopes and the fears of all the years! God sees! And god hears! And god remembers! God remembers!

Today, the countdown begins, one more time. From this moment, the night grows longer. From this moment, the shadows shine darker. And the valley? The valley deepens. So, we watch. And we wait. For god to hear, to see, to remember … and act! Without our invitation! Without our permission! Without our cooperation! God is coming! Even here! Even now! And when god does, the world turns! And we turn with it!

No guilt! No shame! No pointing fingers! No making accusations! God will, simply, do what needs doing! God, simply, does what needs done! From making bricks without straw … From building cities we’ll never live in … god sets us free! No commandments to obey! No statutes to observe! Just god being god! And so, the prophet stares into the night and with tears streaming down his grief-worn face, and he whispers the promise. He sighs. He moans …

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfil the promise I made … In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up … And Juda will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this will be their name … The-LORD-Is-Our-Righteousness.

My friends, in those days, at that time … god will hear and god will see and god will remember. And in remembering, you, too, will be saved! You, too, will live in safety.
And your name will, also, be ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’
Your name will be ‘The LORD is our righteousness,’ as well!