A sermon offered by David Wantland, Postulant for Holy Orders, at the Advocate on Advent I, November 30, 2015.
Joan Chittister says that Advent is about learning to wait, learning to look for God in the places that we have ignored, learning to attune our eyes away from business toward holiness. It is an appropriate injunction when our default is to let Christmas, well, whisk us straight through Advent into Epiphany. The shopping, the holiday gatherings, the end of year donations, blah, blah blah, you’ve heard it all before. I do not want to discount the value of slowing down, taking time to practice waiting, to pause and to look. It’s important. It’s also terribly insincere. It’s insincere because this kind of waiting only captures one aspect of advent: waiting for a sweet baby to be born. But what of the other part, the waiting for Christ to return?
Acknowledging that we will be looking, watching, waiting, our gospel today names some potential objects of our gaze: signs in the sun, moon, and the stars, distress among nations, the roaring of the sea and the waves. In the two millennia since Jesus’ ascension, haven’t we had enough of signs in the sky, of distress among nations, of fear and foreboding? Whether today’s gospel text was foreboding the Second Coming or simply the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD (a point, apparently well-contested by New Testament scholars), the fact is that we are still waiting. And the signs and signals just keep coming. New murders, newly released video reminding us that lynching remains a practice of white supremacy in this country; people frantically gobbling up information, craning to make sense of large-scale violence in nations around the world; the literal roaring of the seas in places that have not previously known it– I think we get it. We’ve had the signs and, as Jesus in Luke’s gospel impels us to, we have stood up with raised heads, awaiting our redemption to draw near.
And yet here we are, another advent, a new church year. We are still waiting.
Advent is exhausting, exhausting because we are at once called into a season of joyful anticipation of Jesus’ first coming and a season to mourn that he has not come again. Frankly, I don’t know how to do both at once. Give me Easter, give me Lent, but not at the same time.
It is no coincidence, then, that our lectionary gives us the account of a prophet who found himself tugged between joyful anticipation and mourning. Our text from Jeremiah drops us in the middle of a fraught situation. Moved by God to announce the coming destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s been working hard to get people’s attention: He’s been walking around the city with an ox yolk on his neck to foretell their impending slavery. Most recently, he’s gone into Solomon’s Temple, which the Israelites believed God would never abandon, promising that God would make it like the temple at Shiloh-i.e. destroy it. Unsurprisingly, King Zedekiah gets angry and imprisons him in the palace. Not to be pacified, Jeremiah then tells King Zedekiah that the LORD is going to allow Babylon to come into Judah, destroy the city, and lead the people of Judah, along with its king, back to Babylon in chains. The offence of this claim ignites a plot to kill Jeremiah. Without the king’s blessing, the plotters settle on throwing him in an empty water tank, where an Ethiopian eunuch– perhaps one who had equally known the poor treatment of the king’s people– retrieves him.
Just before he is thrown in the water tank, Jeremiah does something really obtuse: despite all that he has said concerning God’s plans for Judah, despite the fact that the Babylonian army has encircled the city in which he lives, he goes out and buys a plot of land, proclaiming the word of the LORD that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Jeremiah finds himself, I think, in an adventine disposition. On the one hand, he has the relative confidence of hearing the word of the LORD. Analogous to our trust in the first coming of Christ, Jeremiah at least has something in the past to justify his behavior. On the other hand, he lives at the brink of dissolution. He has committed years of his life living an alternative narrative in the face of religious and political leaders proclaiming their own invincibility. All that labor has been relatively fruitless. He has seen the gathering storm, the soldiers approaching, knowing that Judah has much to endure before “Jerusalem will live in safety.” Even though his own mouth foretold this coming doom, I wonder if Jeremiah didn’t still doubt God. “Is this the only way to redress Judah?”
Amidst the existential anxiety and fear, God still gives Judah a word of hope, a word of anticipation: In this place of which you say, “it is a waste”…there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing… “Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his fidelity endures forever!”
What an absurd hope: to stand at the door of destruction and still imagine the voice of mirth and gladness in that place. And yet hope he does.
If for no other reason, Jeremiah gives us hope because we live on the other side of his vision. We know of the story of God’s people in captivity, of their return to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the Temple. We know that God remained and remains faithful to Israel, accompanying them through many subsequent captivities. And we know God’s provision for Israel primarily because we have come to receive it through one Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.
Of course, this knowledge does not somehow mitigate the current state of waiting. But it does allow an unlikely adventine virtue: outrage.
Yes, outrage. The virtue of saying to the One who can do something about the coming of that long-expected Kingdom, “where the hell are you?” The practice of shedding the pious posture of middle class religiosity and adding our voices to the lives of those who are dying, who are finding their worlds completely destroyed by violence, their livelihoods by changing climate, so as to say, “we actually believe you can and will do something about this mess. Yes, we believe we’re a part of it, but you’re the one bringing the Kingdom. So get on with it!”
Amidst our incomprehensible hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, amidst the cultivation of patience, there is definitely a place to speak to God in outrage. It is a statement of belief as ardent as the Creed we proclaim each Sunday. Outrage is expectation, not hopelessness. As such, it is a fitting advent hope.
To that end, I invite you into two liturgical practices this season. They’re easy and they require no more out of you than showing up like you have done today.
First, while we learn from practices of patience, I invite you to sing “O Come O Come Immanuel” as a hymn of impatience and urgency, in which we affirm that it would not simply be convenient for Christ to come, but that we need him to. Allow that hymn, which we will sing as a gradual each Sunday, to be for you a cry of outrage, remembering that there are literal captives in need of ransom, refugees for whom exile is not metaphor, and those who desperately want closed the paths of misery, because they and their families currently walk it.
Perhaps, I have done nothing more than draw you into my own exhaustion with advent–and it’s only day one. But just as outrage is possible because it affirms the belief in God’s willingness and ability to come at last, so our exhaustion is only tenable because we come together, here in this place, to find sustenance together at the table of our Lord. So my second invitation to liturgical practice is this: dwell on the “sustainer.” In various seasons here at the Advocate, the liturgy calls God “sustainer.” Yet, Advent is a particularly good season to call God “sustainer” if we consider “sustainer” from the perspective of those just struggling to avoid getting shot at, struggling to keep their family together on the boat, struggling to dig through the rubble, those who understand that to be sustained is to be kept alive. As you are able, let that word shout out to you and let it draw you to the table, for your own sake, and for the chance to encounter the One to whom your outrage is directed. May we come not for solace only but for strength, not for pardon only, but for renewal. May this Advent, as we hang in the exhausting balance between joyful hope and desperate hope, draw us to the Table, not because we are there obliged, because we there glimpse the Coming of the Lord whom we await. Amen