Sunday, November 29, 2015
When I suggested “Love Came Down” as our Advent theme this year, Gregory raised a question as to whether or not this theme is too tied to the archaic notion of a three-storied universe. I don’t think I see the universe in those terms but his question did cause me to pause and ponder. Much of our literature and imagery reflects heaven above, hell below and earth caught somewhere in the middle. We don’t give so much attention any more to hell, that underworld burning with fire and brimstone, but heaven, as the place God dwells, is still generally aspired to, some place beautiful, above and beyond. I think we are still more drawn to images of the vast and unimaginable expanse of space than we are to think on the molten mass at the center of the earth.
However, I don’t believe we have to posit a literal three-storied universe to believe that there is life, that there are qualities, that there is spirit, beyond what we know well. There is mystery, maybe even a little magic, in creation that is beyond our grasp. It’s not that we have no access to the mystery, that we are never drawn to the magic, that we are never touched by the Holy, but there is a sense that some things, some One, some Presence, comes to us from beyond ourselves. We are challenged and, when open, changed in encounter with the sacred Other.
This conversation with Gregory led to a rather playful collection of themes or titles for the services and sermons of this Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season –“Hope Bubbles Up,” “Peace Blows In,” “Joy Bursts Forth,” etc. Check your Advent calendar for a complete listing. Hope, peace, joy, love, Christ, Word, light – each of these meaningful metaphors of the season in some sense comes to us from somewhere else – from above, below, afar, near at hand. They come to us in ways familiar and totally unexpected. Perhaps this is central to the wonder of the season.
The notion that hope bubbles up comes partly from wondering whether all the wonders of the season need to come from above. If not, what would be the opposite of above? Below? I began to imagine what grows and blossoms from the soil. Flora of every sort, even those that push their way through the frozen ground of a bleak midwinter or a shoot breaking forth from a stump thought long dead. Dust to dust, we are told, so the blinded hymn writer sings, “I lay in dust life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.” Then our Seasons of the Spirit material offered the powerful image of volcanic activity pictured on the back cover of your bulletin which made me think of Old Faithful and the geo-thermal power of geysers bubbling up from below.
There is a very real sense in which hope is born deep inside us and bubbles up to the surface. As does the psalmist, we live with a longing for something more in our lives. “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” Whatever we have acquired or become, it is never quite sufficient. Echoing the psalmist, Augustine also expressed this longing when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Something in the depths of our being remembers and longs for the fullness of the creation we were meant to be.
This longing is never more real than in the season of Advent when we wonder, we watch, we wait in anticipation again of the coming of the Christ, the Word made flesh, the Holy one in human form who comes to redeem the whole creation. “Oh holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin. and enter in; be born in us today.” We live with a longing that the Source of our being will come close to us from above or beyond or deep within and touch us in ways that will cleanse us, heal us and make us whole. There is hope that we may still be all that we were created to be by the Creator of stars of night, the Giver of life, the Lover of our souls. Is this not that very Holy One to whom the psalmist lifts his soul – the source of truth, of righteousness, of goodness, of mercy, of steadfast love, of salvation? Is this not the God in whom we, too, hold our hope?
“Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our sins and fears release us; Christ, in whom our rest shall be.” We live in a time of fear – fear that threatens to lead to despair – despair, the antithesis of hope. We talked about this Tuesday in Bible study, how fear can control our lives and cause us to turn from this God of justice and compassion to false gods of self-serving security. Let’s build our walls higher and thicker. Surely that will be our salvation. Keep the strangers away, arm the population, lay up for yourself all the earthly treasure you can get your hands on. Remember who’s number one. That will undoubtedly ensure our safety.
But Jeremiah, speaking for God, doesn’t see it that way. We find him under a kind of house arrest. The leaders of his people have been dragged off to exile in Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem looms large on the horizon. This troublesome prophet, who has been harsh in his judgment while weeping bitter tears for his people, suddenly proclaims a remarkable word of hope. From the bottom of the barrel and the depths of his being he asserts that the days are surely coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled and justice and righteousness will rule the land. Has the prophet lost his grip on reality? Has the strain of the work overcome him? Have his own words of gloom and doom done him in?
From somewhere else comes these eloquent, noble words, an amazing confession of trust in the God who holds both the future and the prophet. Jeremiah has been safely centered in God all along. In an even more remarkable witness, Jeremiah does not just proclaim words of hope; he applies them in direct action, he lives them. While his way of life is crumbling around him, his own prospects of exile growing daily, the Babylonians gobbling up the land and destroying its ancient. sacred structures, Jeremiah elects to buy a piece of property. Yes, you heard right. This gloomy, weeping prophet of destruction, in obedience to God’s instruction, chooses to invest in a future that he believes is inevitable. In the end, if this great prophet sees anything at all of the future, he sees Who holds that future and puts his faith in that very One. Just when you think he is going to give up in despair, he expresses his hope by putting his money where his mouth is.
Seeing that hope grows from the ground up, Bruce Epperly writes of our text, “Jeremiah speaks words of hope. A branch, full of blossoms and eventually fruit, is bursting forth from an arid and broken nation. Life abounds beneath the current uncertainties. Life is emerging quietly like the fig tree’s growth and we can open our eyes to the deep down hopefulness of life or live in despair. There is a future – God has a vision for you, for good not evil, for a future and hope. This future is not predestined or automatic, but the invitation to become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: The First Sunday of Advent,” November 27, 2012, patheos.com).
Is there anything we can learn from the psalmist’s affirmation and Jeremiah’s living into hope? Will we allow ourselves to become victims of the fear growing all around us or will we say “no” to terrorists and fear mongers of every stripe and “yes” to the hope that bubbles up within as God again comes to us to redeem us? Do we sense that life still abounds beneath our own current threats and uncertainties, that there is a future, that God has a vision for us? Can we yet become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us?
Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place or in the place of the psalmist. What fuels your fears? What feeds your anxiety? What might lead you to despair? Among friends and in a community that cares about you, let yourself consider these things in the safety of this place and time. These things help to make up what Carl Jung calls our “shadow,” those qualities that also linger deep inside and can be highly destructive if left unattended. We need to look closely and try to understand, but we are not to dwell there.
It is important to know what threatens us and frightens us, what stirs our anxieties and fuels our fears. As a paradoxical expression of grace, today’s Words of Preparation suggest that “The power of hope is made more palpable by the fragile circumstances of everyday life. A cancer diagnosis. The loss of job and home. A fight with friends or family. The rejection from a college. A divorce. The death of a loved one.” Is this not what happens to Jeremiah when finds hope bubbling up in the worst of circumstances? Even in the deepest darkness, the Light shines and cannot be overcome.
Finally, these Words of Preparation also remind us that “…often hope comes in small doses and flickering images. Signs that are fleeting and brief, and usually seem insignificant. Advent is a season in which we can cultivate a posture of waiting and watching with hope. It is hope that anchors us – it nourishes us, it sustains us, it keeps our eyes up” (Advent Meditation, d365.org). So, friends, where do you take heart? Where does hope bubble up in you? From the ground of your own being, what glimmers and glows even in the darkness that you might hang your future on? Perhaps you would be willing to share your own word of hope on this first Sunday in Advent.
It is my longing in this Advent season that we will find hope born deep inside each of us, hope that bubbles up to bring about the future that God imagined for us and all creation from the beginning of time. May hope anchor us, nourish us, sustain us and keep our eyes looking up or down or wherever it is we find hope bubbling. Amen.