Promise

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  November 29, 2015
Taken from Jeremiah 33:14-16 and  Luke 21:25-33

Advent-Thea-1color

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Advent, which marks the beginning of the church year for many Christian traditions and denominations. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus which means “coming.” In Advent, we focus on three “comings” of Jesus Christ. First, we remember the coming of Jesus in human history as a baby born of Mary in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. Second, we anticipate the coming of Christ in glory and in power at the end of time. Finally, we welcome the coming of Jesus Christ into our lives, here and now.

Advent is a season of waiting for the coming of God in Christ. We need Christ to come. Like writer Bobby Gross, we realize that “Our world is messed up and we are messed up. We lament our condition and long for God to set things right, to make us better. So we pray, we watch and we wait for signs of [God’s] presence.”[1] Wendy Wright suggests that of all types of waiting, the waiting of pregnancy is most like the waiting that we do during Advent. “The waiting of pregnancy is like the waiting we do for God,” Wright says. “We carry hidden within ourselves new life. . . . We wait with unimaginable longing to see the face of the one we know to be already with us. Like an unborn child, the life of God grows unseen yet profoundly felt. Insistently pushing and prodding us, enlarging the contours of our lives and our hearts, as intimate to us as our own breathing, yet utterly other, the divine presence waits to be born.”[2]

Beth and I struggled with infertility for about two years. That was a difficult time for us, in part because many of our friends were having babies. Of course, we were happy for our friends, but at the same time, we grieved over our inability to conceive. With every passing month, we longed and yearned for a sign that Beth was pregnant.  After a time, we saw a specialist and got the help we needed. I’ll never forget the day that Beth handed me a pregnancy test, and I saw those two, faint little lines that signaled a promise of something new, a new life that was coming into our lives. That was Thea! On the surface, nothing had changed. At first, there was no big outward sign, no billboard, no visible physical manifestation that announced the pregnancy. But something promising was definitely taking place inside Beth, and we eagerly and expectantly waited for the fulfillment of that promise.

In our Old Testament lesson this morning, the people of God were going through a very painful time. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were defeated by foreigners. Jerusalem was ransacked and laid in ruins. The people were yearning and longing for a better future. During those dark days, the prophet Jeremiah was called by God to speak a word of hope that was rooted in a promise: “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.”

Back when David was King of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah, God promised David in 2 Samuel 7 that God would establish the throne of David’s kingdom forever. But now, after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of King Jehoiachin, a direct descendant of David, the kingly line of David came to an end. In other words, the family tree of David was cut down, and all that was left was just a stump. How could God fulfill the promise made to David all those years ago? Yet, God said, “You may only see a stump, but a shoot, a branch from David’s family tree will spring forth, and he will do what is just and right in the land. The days are coming, when I will fulfill the good promise I made to my people.” The promise of a Messiah, a Savior of God’s people will come. You see just a stump – but I promise you, there’s life in that stump. Just you wait.

As Christians, we believe in Christmas as the fulfillment of God’s promise as pronounced by Jeremiah. In the birth of Jesus, a righteous Branch from David’s line, the waited-for Messiah, and the Savior of God’s people has come. We believe that the promises of God in the Old Testament were fulfilled in Jesus – and yet, we’re also aware that these promises are not fully fulfilled. For instance, Jesus announced a kingdom at hand and yet spoke of a kingdom to come. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many, and yet pointed to a day of salvation in the future. We who belong to Christ are a new creation, and yet we groan and yearn for the day when the whole cosmos will obtain with us the freedom of glory. So we find ourselves in this time of now and in the time of yet to come.[3]

Similarly, in our Gospel lesson from Luke, we get another revelation of dark and painful times that seem to come right out of a scene from the Hunger Games or the Left Behind books and movies. It was part of Jesus’ speech about the signs of the end of the age, and they resemble today’s headlines. The text refers to nations in anguish . . . perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea . . . people fainting and fearful from terror. As the text notes, many were apprehensive of what was coming on the world. We have that same sense of apprehension today.

Preacher David Davis reflects on what it means that churches around the world are reading this passage today. He says the text – part of the lectionary, selected years ago – speaks not only to the tumult of world events, but it also points to the larger significance of Advent. Yes, Advent is a time of waiting for Christmas—the celebration of Jesus’ birth in history. But ultimately we are not waiting for Christmas; we are waiting for Christ’s promise of His return.[4] For even after the first coming of the promised Messiah, people are still longing for a better future, waiting for the time when God’s justice will roll like a river, and yearning for righteousness like a mighty stream. We’re waiting for the reordering of this world – for the time when the barren, gray branches of our world sprout with spring leaves. These days are coming, promises the Lord. Just you wait.

Therefore, while Advent looks back to the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah, Advent also looks to the future, counting on God’s promise of the reconciliation of all creation. In the meantime, Advent begins by acknowledging our current reality. We live in a time that is marked by disorientation, loss, pain, and longing. According to writer Bobby Gross, Advent gives us permission to groan, whether about world events or about our own lives. He writes: “Some of us readily feel the weight of these holidays.” [For some of us, it can mean a] “drift into depression, … the anxiety of difficult family relationships, the resurfacing grief over those we have lost, or the discouragement from daily headlines. We feel cynical in the midst of all the holiday hoopla and superficiality. It makes us want to groan.”[5]

While Advent acknowledges our present reality, it also invites us to see a deeper reality, if only we have the eyes to see. Advent is a time that is pregnant with promise if we know where to look. Advent draws our attention to the branch that dares to sprout forth from a seemingly dead stump. Advent draws our attention to a new leaf on the verge of peeking out on a limb that seems barren. Advent draws our attention to see the second faint line that indicates a pregnancy on a pregnancy test, way before more visible signs of a pregnancy are evident.

In this age of “instant messaging” and “next day delivery,” it is hard for us to comprehend the value of waiting. We just celebrated Thanksgiving and on that day, we gather for a meal that can’t be rushed. The turkey roasts slowly and the stuffing or the pies or the potatoes slowly warm – yet as the food is slowly prepared, it fills our house with its aroma and a sense of anticipation. As a church we’ve also just had the pleasure of welcoming Seth Brown (ROSE) – and we all know, we cannot rush a pregnancy. Yet during those months, we are filled with interest and concern and anticipation. Advent, too, is a reminder that God’s promises cannot be rushed either, and we wait prayerfully and with anticipation for signs of growth and healing and the unfolding majesty of God’s work in our lives, in our church, in our community, and in our world.

In our Devotions for Advent booklet, Ray Gaines wrote a beautiful reflection on this morning’s passage from Jeremiah. He recalled the time when driving a van full of Jubilate members back from a late fall concert in Roanoke. Ray writes: “As we passed the star on Mill Mountain, someone started singing Mendelssohn’s “There Shall a Star” and the rest of the group joined with him in perfect harmony. The text of this anthem mirrors this passage from Jeremiah and eventually evolves into the hymn “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star.” Ray continues: “This is particularly meaningful as we approach the dark days of midwinter. We yearn for the Morning Star; the Branch of David; the Light of the World. We long for the bright future that He intends for us and the joy that comes with it.” When we can see through the dark days of midwinter to the promise of the morning light, to the Branch of David, Advent also gives us permission, not just to groan, but to sing.

That’s Advent in a nutshell for you. Advent acknowledges the dark days of midwinter and gives us permission to groan and to grieve. Advent also expresses the longing that we have for a brighter future and invites us to sing. Advent finally reminds us that we have been promised Jesus Christ, the Branch of David, the Light of the World. During this Advent, may we hold fast to this Christ, who came as promised by God, who promises to come again, and who is coming into our lives here and now, mysteriously growing and unfolding in God’s own timing and speed. May we trust in God’s promise, and may we pray and proclaim, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Amen

 

 

[1] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, p. 37.

[2] Wendy M Wright, in Prayers for Expectant Parents, ed. Mary Caswell Walsh, p. 22.

[3] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, p. 43-44.

[4] David A. Davis, “Be Vigilant at all Times,” Hungry, and You Fed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C, p. 9.

[5] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, p.44.