St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, Kansas
Madison Bishop, Guest Preacher
Good morning…and Merry Christmas…and happy New Year.
What I love about the church calendar and the liturgical seasons is that they all build upon each other and work together to reorient our relationship to time; to ground us in the life of Christ and the life of the Church. We don’t just “do Advent” for nothing. All the waiting, all the hoping, and all the anticipating culminates into something. Christmas. The birth of our savior, Jesus Christ. The God who has created all things and set all things into motion has taken on human flesh and has come to dwell among us. All our longing, and hoping and dreaming was not in vain.
But, now what? Yes, we move into Epiphany, the liturgical calendar catches us yet again and takes us to through Jesus’ baptism and his miracles. Gospel moments that surely strengthen and encourage our faith. But this year, for a lot of us, our Christmas celebrations were not as they usually are. Many of us were separated from our families and years long traditions went unfulfilled. This typically joyful and most favorite time of the year felt a bit more like wilderness than celebration. All the hype of Christmas has culminated and is leaving me thinking: now what?
I don’t think I have to tell you that our world is not right. That all things are not well. 2020 might finally be over, but the pandemic is not over. Police brutality is not over. Our unhoused siblings still sleep on the streets, many of us are still struggling to pay our bills each month, many folks haven’t seen their kids or grandkids in months due to the pandemic. There is so much grief and pain in our world, and not one of us has come out unscathed. We don’t have to pretend like everything is okay, because it isn’t. As people who follow the God made flesh, what are we to do with all the pain, death, and brokenness in this time between the two advents, while we wait for Christ to come again? How do we hope when for so many hope just doesn’t seem real.
The prophet Jeremiah proclaims this oracle of hope in the midst of the Israelites complete devastation. The Israelites are in exile, torn away from their promised land and taken off into captivity. They have been scattered throughout the Babylonian empire, separated from their families and friends with no hope of ever seeing them again. They have been forced to assimilate into a new culture and new religion completely different from their own.
They lost everything and know all too well what insurmountable grief feels like…all this and the exile is far from over. The end is not at all in sight. They still had to wait, and a long time they had to wait.
This reading is important. It was important for those who heard it while living in captivity and it is important for us today who are experiencing personal and national trauma. These verses reveal to us the heart of our God who does not give up on his people. In the midst of sin, death, and unfathomable grief, God’s grace and mercy abounds…even when we can’t bear to see it yet, the promise still stands true. We get a glimpse of the plans that God has in store for the nation of Israel. Plans of restoration, renewal, healing, and peace. I am going to read the reading again, and I encourage you to close your eyes and let the words wash over you.
Thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people,
the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a [parent] to Israel,
and Ephraim is my [child].
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord.
The ambiguity of these verses fill me with a strange kind of hope. God never promises to bring them back to the promised land, or to restore things to the way they were. Instead, God acknowledges that you can’t go through something so traumatic and not be wounded. God doesn’t want to pretend nothing happened, but instead to heal the pain and make something new. “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” Grace abounds. Love and mercy abound. God wants us, God wants to be with us. God wants to heal us. The Incarnation is further proof of this.
It’s Christmastide. Jesus Christ has come to dwell among us. But life still really sucks. We can know that Christ is with us and we can know that God loves us, wants to be with us, wants to heal us, but that doesn’t magically make everything okay. It’s okay to be honest about that.
Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar, says that the prophet Jeremiah’s ministry was one of articulating grief, to be a witness to the people and to name the unnamed. We experience a little bit of healing when we are able to name the hurt and the evil that acts against us. That is part of what Jesus did. He came as a human being, took on our human nature and suffered all the same worldly pain that we do, and redeemed it. Gregory of Nazianzus says that “what is not assumed cannot be healed.” God assumed our human nature, took on all sin and death, and redeemed it…and that gives me hope. I know that better days are coming, both on this side of heaven and the next. A day is coming when Christ will come again and bring in fullness the redemption of all that is broken and hurting. God will bring together all the peoples of the world in unity and peace.
We live between the two Advent’s as I said earlier, in the wake of Christ’s presence on earth and in hopeful anticipation of when he will come again. God’s promise to the Israelites that God will deliver them from exile, reminds us of Christ’s promise that he will come again in glory and set all things right.
But we too must wait. D.L. Mayfield, author of “The Myth of The American Dream” writes, “Instead of assimilating God into the Babylonian story, the Israelites did something different from their peers: they fiercely held on to their stories and their belief in God, even as they lost their land, homes and people.”
So in the meantime, as we wait, we must do like the ancient Israelites and hold onto our stories and belief in God. We must continue to reach out to each other, listening to our friend’s joys and struggles. We pray hard and we pray a lot! God hears every muttered plea for help, notices every tear we shed and knows our deepest longings. Our Holy scriptures are filled with story after story after story of God coming through on God’s promises. They are hard, old, and complicated stories…but just like our lives are hard and complicated. God is still speaking to us through the characters and the stories in scripture and we are invited to participate in them. Spend time with the scriptures, pray with them, wrestle with them, and over time, get to know more and more the God who delivered Israel, the God who came to us in Jesus Christ, and the God who will come again and turn our mourning into dancing. AMEN.