Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on November 29 2009.
Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
We Baptists are latecomers when it comes to celebrating Advent, aren’t we? For many years, and in the lifetimes of most of us, anything that had to do with Latin was avoided like the plague; and we all know why without my having to explain it. If you don’t know why, see me after worship and I’ll be more than happy to tell you. It was only when we started getting over our reticence about such things that churches began opening up more to some liturgical practices, such as celebrating Advent… and even Lent.
You started seeing more and more Advent wreaths being used in Baptist worship, and in the last forty years or so the idea of Advent has been gradually warming our blood. Now, there are few congregations in the Free Church tradition that do not celebrate this season that includes the four Sundays before Christmas.
But do we know what Advent really is? If you look at the lectionary gospel readings, you will find that it isn’t until the fourth and final Sunday of Advent that we get even close to the Christmas story. And then, this year at least, it is Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth to announce the impending birth of a child. If Advent creeps up on Christmas, it is a slow process indeed. In fact, if you look at the Advent readings, you will find that we spend more time in exile and in the wilderness than we do in a Bethlehem manger.
The first gospel reading for Advent isn’t about Jesus’ first coming but his second. The next Sunday in the season has to do with the birth of John the Baptist, not the baby Jesus. The third Sunday in Advent has John the Baptist, all grown up,
preaching – as Grady Nutt used to say – blisters on his throat calling the people to repent and come into the muddy waters of the Jordan for baptism.
Not exactly Christmasy, is it?
There is no star in the east guiding the devout and curious magi. We have seen yet nary an angel or lowly shepherd. We have not encountered the innkeeper, nor have we had the opportunity to ponder Mary pondering all these wonderful and strange things in her heart. Instead, we’ve got Jeremiah in jail and, if you just read it casually, a seemingly egotistical Paul suggesting to the folk in Thessalonica that their faith is incomplete without his presence there to show them how to behave. We didn’t read the gospel selection for today, but you can look at it whenever you like. It’s a scene from Luke’s twenty-first chapter that is more appropriate for the movie 2012 than it is for church worship… or so it seems.
This may not be what you wanted to hear this morning when you came to church, but it is the truth: we’ve got our work cut out for us this Advent season. At least we do if we want to figure out what scripture has to say to us on this first Sunday in Advent, not to mention the second, third, and fourth.
Let’s start with Jeremiah.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” It makes me wonder just how Jeremiah heard the word of the Lord. By the time we get to verse 14, which is where we picked up the reading this morning, the Lord has already had quite a bit to say to Jeremiah. But my first inclination is not to question what the Lord said to Jeremiah. After all, that’s recorded for us. All we have to do is read it. No, my curiosity causes me to wonder how God spoke to the prophet.
Oh, and as I briefly mentioned before, Jeremiah was in jail. “Confined in the court of the guard,” is what we are told. Maybe they had the same problem we have here in PulaskiCounty, what with our jail overcrowding, so that he wasn’t literally behind bars. Maybe the court of the guard was the best they could do… kind of like a house arrest. Or maybe it was like our sending PulaskiCounty prisoners over to Conway and paying their rent because we don’t have enough jail space here.
Regardless of where Jeremiah was, or the circumstances of his incarceration, God has managed to find the prophet. “I will tell you great and hidden things,” the Lord says to Jeremiah, “concerning the houses of this city and the houses of the kings of Judah…” God then commences to tell Jeremiah that the Chaldeans are coming and it’s not for dinner. They’re coming to plunder the city, and to take the brightest and the best, the youngest and the strongest of their people into exile. And to make it worse, God will be on the side of the enemy… which, of course, does not put the odds in the Israelites’ favor.
You see, the Lord is not happy with his Hebrew children, and according to the way the story is told in the prophet’s writings, the God of Israel will use the Chaldeans to punish his children, and this punishment will continue for several generations.
And you’re wondering what this has to do with this season of the year we call Advent. I told you we had our work cut out for us. So, let’s read on. The Lord then offers Jeremiah something of an olive branch. “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. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere! That sounds an awful lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? A Righteous Branch! A green twig growing out from a tree stump! Life emerging from that which was barren and empty! Yes, that sounds like Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed. Except that Jesus isn’t going to come for a very long time. So what does all this mean? It means that before the people of Jerusalem will see the light of day they will have to endure a great deal of darkness.
And, of course, those are big, big themes in the Advent – and yes, the Christmas – season. Darkness and light, hope that comes in the midst of hopelessness. The people of Israel are about to be taken into exile, and it doesn’t get any darker, nor more hopeless, than that. Advent teaches us that we have given ourselves to a God who weaves his will through all the despair that comes our way, and somehow manages to bring purpose and redemption in the midst of desperation.
It is not by accident that when the Advent season begins, and then as it continues, the days will become shorter and shorter. Darkness will come earlier and earlier, so that when we do – finally! – make our pilgrimage to that Bethlehem stable, it will be near the shortest and darkest day of the year. It is a stark reminder that when life finds us at our darkest that is when God does his best and most redemptive work.
I came across an insight this week that really spoke to me. My friend George Mason, who is a pastor in Dallas, was recalling a story told by Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara tells of the time when she was about seven and her family moved to a new town. They did that quite a bit when she was young. Not long after they arrived, the Methodist minister came to call. Before he had a chance to sit down with her parents in the living room, Barbara took him for a tour of the backyard, her new playground. She showed him the pond where she was keeping tadpoles. She rescued the tadpoles, as she explained it, from “the murderous neighbor boys.”
Seven year-old Barbara sat in church the next Sunday smiling at the preacher she was already in love with. He smiled back and then started preaching about how God’s care for the world is like unto a little girl’s care for a mess of tadpoles. Something in her clicked at that very moment, she explains, and because of it she has spent the rest of her life looking for signs of God everywhere. Everywhere.
She offers two examples of finding God. One was in the compost heap. To her it was more than just a rotting pile of refuse designed to be used as fertilizer. She saw it as a sacrament of death turning into life. The other example is a bottle of white-out (and for you young people who don’t know what that is, see me after worship and I’ll explain it). She says she remembers that when she used white-out it became a symbol to her, a reminder that her errors did not have to be permanent.
“Everywhere I turned,” she says, “the most insignificant things in the world were preaching little sermons to me. Everywhere I turned, the world was leaking light.”1
That is what Advent is. It is the season in which the world is leaking light. “The days are surely coming,” the Lord says to Jeremiah, “when I will fulfill the promise I made…” And ever since the Lord said these things to Jeremiah – however God got the message across to the man we call the weeping prophet – God’s world has been leaking light… here and there, in the oddest of places and the strangest of times and through the most peculiar people.
I am convinced that God still chooses to work this way, and God wants to do it here with you and with me. It is our responsibility to find those places where the light of God is leaking into the darkness of our world and show that light to others.
We have lit the first candle of Advent. Notice that the other candles, not only the three encircling the wreath but also that big white one in the middle – the Christ candle – remain unlit. It is because God does not bring his light all at once, but chooses to let it leak out slowly and intentionally.
In colonial New England, as the story goes, a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden and full eclipse. Many of those present panicked and others moved to hastily adjourn the session. But one of them stood and said, “Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.”2
This Advent season needs to find us doing our duty. And what is that? I’ll put it this way… If we do not use this season as an opportunity to be people of light who share the good news that God has come to our darkened world, then there is reason for us to question whether we are truly Christ followers.
So bring the candles! It’s dark outside! God has a job to do in dispelling the darkness and has made it clear that we, God’s children, are expected to be at our duty. The days that “are surely coming,” as the Lord said to Jeremiah, are here. God wants his light to shine, and I do believe he is looking to us for help.
Lord, may your light shine in us, and then may that light shine through us. Find us faithful, as your children, in being the people of your eternal light. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.