Jesus is coming: look busy.
At this time of year, we don’t have to look busy, because we are busy. We are in full-on preparation for Christmas mode. Black Friday kicked things off this week, although many of us began shopping before then. The pressure is on to write those cards, do all that baking, give gifts to everyone in your life, go to lots of get-togethers (maybe less of that during a pandemic), go to or even perform in Christmas concerts, give to charities such as Mary’s Place, prepare to travel to see family or to host them in your home, get along with all the relatives, and so on. Jesus is coming, and we are frantically busy. It’s exhausting.
So here we are, beginning Advent, preparing to welcome the Christ Child into our hearts. And on this first Sunday in Advent we don’t get any readings about Mary and Joseph or Bethlehem or a star. We get these two prophetic readings that sound apocalyptic. Here’s Jeremiah, writing centuries before Jesus, talking about God fulfilling a promise to restore Jerusalem, to bring justice and righteousness. And here’s Jesus, but not the sweet-baby-born-in-a-stable Jesus. This is the adult Jesus at the end of Luke warning of some kind of apocalyptic second coming. We are to be alert and on guard, toeing the line, preparing for the Son of Humanity to reappear and bring redemption. It is a prophetic passage: Jesus as prophet in the tradition of Jeremiah.
Both of these passages look forward to a day when God will fulfill a promise, when God will answer our longings for a world put right.
In Jeremiah’s time, the city of Jerusalem was being destroyed, and people were being hauled off into exile in Babylon. It was a time of hopelessness and heartbreak, when the people were longing for the old ways to be restored, longing for a better day. Into that setting, Jeremiah offers his message of comfort and hope, a vision of justice, righteousness, and Jerusalem restored.
That message carries through the generations. In his commentary on this passage, Gary W. Charles talks about the sense of longing that Jeremiah is addressing. Charles talks about his own longings in this age:
I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future will be a reality beyond the violent boastings of the ruling Babylon of the day.
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 on the streets.
I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no space for violence, when we will stop producing body bags—because there are no dead soldiers to fill them.
I long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future affords no room for rancor, a day when our world is no longer torn asunder by racism and sexism and homophobia….
I long for people to know the God whom Jeremiah heralds and whom Jesus will incarnate, not a hidden God who refuses to traffic in the human enterprise, but a God who hears God’s people when they cry anhelo [or longing].
I long for people to know, not the God of religious fanatics or bigots, not a God who enjoys seeing Jerusalem set afire, but the God who, in God’s own time, will bring more mercy and justice than we will ever grasp. [Gary W. Charles, Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009), Year C, 1:5, 7.]
In Jeremiah’s time, the people long for the day of restoration, redemption, and justice. What day do you long for? [Input: No one has to worry about where their next meal will come from; other ideas.]
I long for the day when, as a planet, we get off fossil fuels and put the oil, gas, and coal companies out of business. When there is no air pollution in our cities because our vehicles all run on clean energy. Can you imagine such a city? It is within our technological ability to make it so. I love that vision.
I long for the day when everyone has access to fresh food. Nobody goes hungry.
That means the people living on the streets in Seattle.
That means the people of Afghanistan, where the economy is imploding and children are starting to die from starvation as their parents look on helplessly.
That means Ethiopia, where part of the country has been cut off from food because of political conflict.
That means the cattle of Western Washington: cattle farmers are scrambling to find feed after the floods last week knocked out a feed production company.
That means monarch butterflies, who feed on milkweed, which farmers have gotten very good at eradicating from their fields.
So I long for the day when everyone eats.
Advent is a time when we look forward to the day that is coming, when we dream of what is possible with God. We sing “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” which of course means “God with us.” We celebrate the birth of the Christ Child as an assurance that we are not abandoned, not alone. God sees us, knows us, loves us, forgives us, and calls us. We celebrate that God became incarnate in Christ, but that means nothing unless God is also incarnate in each of us. God calls us to help make God’s realm on earth. But we need a vision of what we’re even trying to build.
The Advent candles represent our yearnings and our vision: for hope, peace, joy, and love. Not just for ourselves but for everyone.
The good news about this yearning, this longing for God’s realm on earth, is that it’s not a spectator sport. We don’t just sit back and say, “Bring it, God!” God-with-us calls us to live into the vision, to bring whatever time, resources, and energy we have to help make it so. We get to live into the longing for the day as if that day of justice were already here.
Perhaps some of you are back to riding mass transit. You board a bus and the driver says hello or welcome aboard—that sets a tone. Other drivers look as though they’ve been harassed all day and just can’t wait for their shift to end. Years ago, I was riding on a bus when the driver pulled over and said “I’ll be right back.” He hopped off and ran across the street mid-block because he saw someone in a wheelchair trying to get up a curb without a curb cut. He helped out and then ran back to the bus. He was empowered by his vision of the world he wanted to see, and he knew he could do his part to make it so. I will ride on his bus any day. Tom and Rosemary drove Metro buses for years. No doubt they had countless opportunities to help people figure out where to get off the bus, what bus to catch next to get where they needed to go.
We are creating and living into the vision of heaven on earth. What does heaven on earth look like to you? This was my question to my companions one day as we were walking across the country in 2006. One person said, “Lots of great sex.” Another said, “As much pizza as you can eat, and you would never gain weight.” I thought about what I had seen the day before, which was what prompted the question. We had visited a church, and after worship this one woman was crying and having a tough time. Someone sat with her in the pew after the others had gone. Didn’t try to fix anything, just sat with her while she cried. Saw her and heard her. Later the woman came to fellowship hour. Three people surrounded her to find out what was going on in her life. Her brother was in the hospital, dying. They couldn’t fix that. They just held her and walked with her in that difficult time. That, to me, is an example of heaven on earth. We walk with each other. We all help each other. In our most difficult moments, we know that we are not alone.
I heard a story on the radio on Friday about two women in a small city in Louisiana that was pummeled with four major natural disasters in a year. Neither of these women had much money. They both had jobs and kids and their own damaged homes to see to. But they also saw how many people were still sleeping in their front yards months after their homes were made uninhabitable by these disasters. As the weather turned freezing and FEMA was not helping find housing for these people, the two women just started getting people into motel rooms. They did some fundraising, and sometimes they just reached into their own pockets. They brought their whole selves and all their resources to do what they could in the situation. They lived into the vision of a better world, and they helped to bring it about.
Jeremiah says, “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” We have to be able to imagine such a thing, to hold out that hopeful vision, in order to live into it. Or, to make it more current and local: “In those days Seattleites will be saved and Seattle will live in safety.” What would it take for our city to live in safety? Here are a few thoughts for that vision of a safe Seattle:
All those people living on the streets would need better alternatives: affordable housing, tiny homes, motel rooms, apartments. People might need access to counseling, mental health services, drug rehab programs, other medical care, employment opportunities, food, clothes.
We as a society would need to confront the racism baked into our history and our culture and work actively to become antiracist, so that people like Ahmaud Arbery no longer get gunned down for running while Black.
We would need to know our neighbors and practice helping each other out. Develop networks of support.
When instances of LGBTQ oppression occur, overwhelming numbers of people would turn out to say, “Not in our town. We can do better.”
We would all need to be vaccinated, to wear our masks and wash our hands.
Notice that a safe Seattle benefits not just the rich, not just those who can afford a decent place to live and good food. A safe Seattle benefits the poorest of the poor. It benefits the sick and the oppressed. And when they are fed and housed and cared for and loved, then we all are better off.
Notice as well that getting to a safe Seattle includes steps that we ourselves can be involved in. Outreach to the homeless and hungry. Confronting racism and oppression. Helping each other. Getting vaccinated. Again, this vision is not just for spectators. It’s a “y’all come.” Living with hope is an active state. God invites all of us to live into this promise of justice and righteousness.
Advent is a liminal time, even when we are not in a pandemic. We await the birth of the Christ Child in this nonlinear in-between space. The Christ Child was born 2,000 years ago. And the Christ Child is still to be born—we await that birth. And the Christ Child is being born in us right now, every day. Past, present, future: all three at once. Advent is a time to live into the possibility of God’s promise, to open ourselves to that possibility born in our own hearts and souls. So in this liminal Advent season, I invite all of us to consider what we long for and how that shapes our vision and our call to action. May that Christ Child be born in us, and may that Christ incarnate move through us to bring about God’s realm of justice so that when that longed-for day arrives, we will be on guard for it, we will be alert to it, we will be busy doing God’s work in the world, and we will stand up to welcome justice and redemption. Amen.