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. - Jeremiah 33
Ah, Advent... Seems as if we have three - maybe more - choices, as this time of new beginnings makes itself known. We can succumb; we can grumble; or we can look for new ways to love and to hope.
If we succumb, we plunge headlong into the madness of the holiday season, maybe run up the credit card bill, and, when it's all over, wonder what the heck just happened.
We might even, in succumbing, take time to post one of those nasty signs in our place of business that says something like, "I'M GOING TO SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS, NOT HAPPY HOLIDAYS! IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, YOU'RE WELCOME TO LEAVE!" There actually are such signs; I have no doubt that the innocent baby Jesus deeply appreciates seeing us spewing venom and indignation in His Name.
Maybe such a sign is a combination of succumbing and grumbling. Real, pure grumbling is... well... think of Scrooge reading "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to his grandchildren, and shouting them off to bed before the story ends.
Or we can find new ways to hope. "The days are surely coming," says the Lord, "when I will fulfill the promise I made to the House of Israel..." That house, by the way, is us. All of us. No exceptions - not even the ones who try so hard and so hatefully to steal our hope, to crush the loving gentleness out of our hearts. Everyone from that unidentifiable creature that steals all the Christmas trees in Whoville to the murderers in Beirut, Mali, Paris, and our own meanest streets. They, perhaps, need hope more than any of us. Offering hope to them is hard, and dangerous.
And will we bring a gift of hope to our enemies this season - even the enemy in our own hearts that tries to steal our hopefulness? Will we, at the very least, begin to think clearly about who our enemies really are and who are the victims of those enemies? Seems to me that, if we aren't asking ourselves these kinds of questions in this season of expectant hope and joy, we're missing its central teaching. And missing this point sets us forth on a straight path to either succumbing or grumbling.
The Christian year, which begins this Sunday, offers us a host of long journeys. The Advent journey is the long walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a tumbling, donkey-footed trip down a rocky, dangerous road, filled with officious, surly soldiers of the Roman Empire, all eager to herd the crowd along to be registered. This is a perilous trek, taken while the priceless gift of an unborn child kicks and sways in Mary's womb.
A child who comes to "execute justice and righteousness," a child-branch of Jesse and David, come to fulfill God's ancient promise to us. A great-great-great-etc. grandchild of Ruth, the woman of Moab, whom today, we would know as an Arab.
Today, soldiers patrol the streets of the locked-down city of Brussels, Belgium. They pass by a lighted Christmas tree. Fear of a replay of Paris occupies the same space as a tree lit up to challenge the darkness of this time of year. Do we need a more graphic snapshot of the danger of this hopeful journey, or of the hope that lies within plain sight of that grave danger?
Yes; Sunday is New Years Day in Christian churches the world over. Not the glittery, pumped-up New Year of the Julian calendar, named after the Roman emperor, but the New Year of God's time; the New Year of a humble family of mixed ethnic origin plodding down the road toward Bethlehem. Kind of like the refugees plodding across the choppy seas and back woods of the Middle East and central Europe, looking for a stable in which to start a new life.
Can we offer them - and yes, even their tormentors - the kind of hope that refuses to fall to the ground?
Oh, Sunday; such a day. Such a Sabbath. Such a holy beginning to this New Year. We will pledge our gifts of treasure for the coming year. We will bring a surprising light to our sanctuary to light the first Advent candle - the candle of Hope. We will sing and pray, and listen for God's holy Word.
It will be an especially holy day. It starts us on the journey to the time when all days are holy. It's a pretty dangerous journey, but together, we shall make it. "The days are surely coming."