“The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” Jeremiah speaks to an oppressed people in the midst of the Babylonian Exile and the conquest of Jerusalem. Their hope has been crushed and the prophet seeks to rekindle hope and inspire faithful endurance of their present circumstances. Jeremiah tells them to wait, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” Jeremiah’s words echo down to us through the ages and urge us to be hopeful and to endure our present circumstances. Even today we need to know that, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” But, waiting is not something we do well.
Today we begin the Season of Advent…A season of waiting, of anticipation. The real question is: “What are we waiting for?” Why do we have to spend four weeks pretending that Jesus hasn’t already been born, when we know that he was over two thousand years ago? Retailers want us to believe that the Christmas Season is already here…and has been for several weeks! Why are we preparing for something that already happened? Why are we waiting? What is Advent about?
I was reading a new Bible study on the Advent season and found this in the Introduction. “Maybe Advent is a lot like waiting for pictures to develop.” Raise your hand if you know what film is. “Back in the day”, before digital photography and cellphone selfies, we took pictures with cameras that had film in them. You didn’t get to see what the picture looked like until you finished the roll of film, dropped it off to be processed, and came back a week later to pick up the prints. Anticipation and excitement build as you wait to see the images that will preserve memories for generations to come. There is tension between the past and the future; between the event that already happened and a forthcoming re-living of that moment. Of all the seasons in the Christian Year, Advent best captures that tension between the past and the future that fills us with hopeful anticipation in the present.
We do not journey to Bethlehem thinking that Jesus has not yet been born. We do not wait for the coming Messiah in the same way that the ancients waited. Our Advent journey is like opening an envelope of newly developed pictures and allowing the past and the future to amaze us again in the present. Advent is not a time for us to pretend that Jesus hasn’t been born yet; it is a time to prepare for what His birth might mean for us today. Like the people to whom Jeremiah spoke, we may be losing hope; we may feel like giving in to the Christmas-culture and by-passing the prep time. To do that, however, means that we miss the chance to be faithful witnesses to what God has done, is doing, and will do.
This brings us to the theme of our Advent journey this year: “Witness Makes a Difference”. We have reached the fifth and final promise we made when we joined the church. We vowed to support this church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This season when the culture seeks to be the center of attention, witness really makes a difference. Part of the problem with the Season of Advent comes from the stories we tell on these four Sundays. Today, for example, we draw on the words of an ancient prophet talking to an oppressed people. This story has no star in the East, no angel choir, and no touching moment as Mary ponders these things in her heart. The stories of Advent are mined from the soil of human struggle and disappointment. This is a land we are familiar with, but we might rather set these stories aside as we busy ourselves getting in the Christmas spirit. Surrounded by the joy of the season, the realities of our human condition remain. “The days are surely coming…” offers hope that something greater is on the way, even as we struggle and wonder, “What are we waiting for?”
Jeremiah was speaking to hostages, living lives they did not choose. They were being asked to begin new lives in this strange land and give up their old ways. It was easy to give-in to the pressure, particularly as generations passed and their old lives seemed so far away. Jeremiah calls out to them and says, “Wait!” He encourages them not to give-in to their culture; hold on to what they have believed for generations; surely the day is coming when God will bring His kingdom to fullness. It’s a tough message to hear in the midst of the noise – “When in Babylon…” Jeremiah calls them to believe in and hope for God’s future; the people have a hard time grasping the concept as they do their best to get along in a bad situation.
I have to wonder how different things really are today. We have been taught to believe that this is only our temporary home; that there is something coming that is eternal and wonderful. Yet, the world around us urges, often in subtle ways, to abandon the traditions of our upbringing and embrace a new way of life. We are encouraged to stop listening to the words of love spoken by Jesus and embrace a language of hostility, meanness, and intolerance. We are asked to forget the lessons of service that Jesus demonstrated and seek instead to get all we can. We are tempted to ignore the cries of the needy in our midst and let someone else take care of them. We are surrounded by slippery slopes that look easy, even fun, to slide down; we fail to realize that climbing back up may be impossible. Jeremiah calls to us: “Wait! The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made.” God promised to cause a righteous branch to spring from the House of David to bring about God’s justice in the world. That righteous branch is Jesus Christ. It is His justice that we wait for as we journey through the Advent Season.
Advent is a time for longing. I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future will become a reality in spite of the arrogant ramblings of whatever Babylon is ruling at the time. 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 in the streets. I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no room for violence; when there are no more dead soldiers to bring home to grieving families. I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future makes no space for malice; a day when our world knows nothing of racism and sexism and homophobia. I long for the gracious and merciful justice born in the Christ Child.
Our witness makes a difference when we can stand in the middle of the joy and the gladness; surrounded by lights and tinsel, and boldly proclaim the tension. We look for a baby to be born while we know that the baby has already been born, and is still being born in us – this Emmanuel who came and is coming and is already among us right now. This is the tension of the season – the already, the not yet, and the now. Waiting within this tension allows us to hold tightly to God’s promise as we struggle, and to rejoice all the more when the past and the future are manifest together in the present of Christmas. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.