Rev. Sarah Buteux                          

November 28, 2021

Advent 1, Year C

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21: 25-36

And so it begins – Advent – the first and strangest season in the church year. Or maybe I should say, and so it ends, given that Advent always begins with the “Day of the Lord” fast approaching. 

Outside of these doors people are rushing; rushing because there are only 26 shopping days left between now and Christmas.

But in here we’re not rushing. We are waiting; waiting for the birth of a savior that has already come and the return of a savior who is also, somehow, already here. 

Out there they speak of want: What do you want for Christmas?

But in here we sing of longing, our longing for peace, our longing for healing, our longing for light and love and the grace to be set free.

Friends, Advent is a strange season, a strange season, indeed. It is a season full of convergence and contradiction, time slips and dislocation, anticipation for what is coming and nostalgia for what has been. 

It is the scent of clove in the wine that recalls the tabac in your grandpa’s pipe that rockets you back to the Christmas when you were 8, running trains around the tree. 

It is shopping for your grandkids with your mother’s voice in your ear. 

Cutting down a tree with your child and hearing your Dad’s words come straight out of your mouth. 

Setting the table with your grandma’s china, as aware of who will be there this year as who will not. 

Which is to say that Advent is joy and grief… stress and peace, hope and dread, Kairos and Chronos, the past and the future all wrapped up in an eternal present, decked with evergreens and shot through with light. 

But perhaps strangest of all, it is the time of year when we are most likely to feel the warmth of God’s presence and lament the cold of God’s absence at one and the same time. 

For Advent means, “coming.” Christ is coming. But if Christ is coming then Christ is not yet here.

And so we hope, we wait, and we watch for signs.

We look out at the world and our hearts are touched by stories of unexpected generosity and grace. We feel the light breaking through when we hear of people going the extra mile, making room for another chair at the table, allowing the spirit of Christmas to open their hearts and their hands to bring a little hope and cheer into the lives of others. 

And likewise, we look out at the world and our hearts are broken by stories of unexpected violence and tragedy. We yearn for the world to be a kinder, gentler place especially at this time of year. We know that bad things are always happening, but we also know that hard things are that much harder during the holidays. 

This should be a time of peace and joy, family and celebration, warmth and yuletide, but it isn’t always, not for everyone, and that dissonance makes the hurt, hurt that much more. 

 I think of the people of Wakashau whose peace has been shattered; a community that will never experience Christmas the same way again. I think of those who have recently broken up or broken down, the ones who have been laid off or have just laid someone to rest, the soldier called to arms, the family left behind. 

I think of all those wondering where God is in this season when we celebrate our Emmanuel, God with us. All those wondering where God is when they need God the most.

It is the oldest question. It is the hardest question.

And I guess, what I appreciate about this strange season – the words, the music, the prayers and the scriptures – is their refusal to look away from the hurt in spite of the fact that we have no clear answer. 

So friends, if you are feeling like there may not be room for you and your pain around the tree this Christmas, or room in you for the joy that Christmas is supposed to bring, take heart. You are not alone. 

Here in the church you don’t have to hide the hurt. In fact, it is deep in the hurt where Advent begins, offering us readings that our apocalyptic to their core, readings that give us a window into the suffering God’s people have endured throughout the ages. 

As I said a few weeks ago, apocalyptic writings are not so much about the destruction of the whole earth as they are about the destruction of your whole world, the upending of your life, the loss of who and what you loved the most. Apocalypse, in its own strange way, can scale up or down. 

When the end comes it can be as a big as a war or as small as a midwestern holiday parade, as loud as a bomb or as quiet as a parent slipping away. How your world ends is irrelevant. That your world has ended is all that matters. But friends, it is in that place, that place of deepest suffering, where Advent begins and against all odds, lights a candle of hope.

Our reading from Jeremiah is a word of hope offered to the Israelites in exile after the destruction of their temple, their city, their homes. And our reading from Luke is Jesus’ offering a word of hope to his followers even as he prophesies the destruction of the second temple, their city, and their homes. 

Friends, I know that when we talk about things that happened a long, long time ago, things like the destruction of Jerusalem, it can be hard to fully understand or relate to the magnitude of such a loss, but listen to these verses from earlier in the chapter.

God says to Jeremiah, in “the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate … there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness … the voice of those who sing” (Jer 33:10-11). 

Now imagine God saying, in “the streets of Wakashau that are desolate … there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness … the voice of those who sing” (Jer 33:10-11).

Friends, the hope of Advent is that hard to believe and that necessary to hear. It is hope for the hopeless, hope when all hope seems lost. It is hope for you even and especially when your world lies in ruins. Hope when to hope makes no sense at all.

Do we have any stargazers in the congregation? Amateur astronomers? Magi in training? If you are someone who takes an interest in such things, you know that the best way to view a comet or a star or a planet is not to look straight at it, but to look just to the side and gaze at it with your peripheral vision. I think hope is kind of like that. 

It is not easy to see or understand or hold on to. It’s not straight forward or logical. It is caught more than taught, something glimpsed on the periphery, passed like an ember from one bruised wick to another. 

Miroslav Wolf, (in his reflections on the work of Jurgen Moltmann,) says that hope, “comes not from the realm of what is or what was, but from the realm of what is not yet, ‘from outside,’ from God. It is not based in the possibilities of (one’s situation, but)…grounded in the faithfulness of God…in something radically new that cannot be generated out of the conditions of th(is) world. (Hope) does not emerge (from one’s efforts or circumstances). It comes” (”https://www.christiancentury.org/article/not-optimistic?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=102a3e26df-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_09_11_08_32_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-102a3e26df-82656707). 

Hope is a gift. 

Which is, perhaps, why Jesus counsels us to stay awake and be alert. 

When it all falls apart, says Jesus – and God knows that it will – that’s precisely when you need to “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing nigh. …“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Near. 

I think it’s so interesting that Jesus doesn’t say “here.” He says “near.” There is huge difference.  I think what he means is that when your world falls apart, you won’t be the one with means to put it all back together. You will need help. God’s help. And God will be near. 

The kingdom of God will be close at hand. It will be accessible. So close, that if you would but stand up, raise your head, and reach out for it, you will find it. The power of its peace, the wisdom of its love, the strength of its hope, can all be yours.  

But the huge differences between near and here means that until Christ comes once and for all, no amount of peace or love will ever make it all better. Some better, yes. But all better? No. There is a part of me that wants to believe that if we all just tried a little harder, than we could heal the world and make things merry and bright for everyone. 

But that’s not true. All the good intentions and concerted effort in the world cannot change the fact that we are all flawed, fragile, and mortal. Our worlds will end no matter what we do and bring pain into the lives of those we love. Grief is the price of love and there will always be plenty to go around. We can’t fix that. Only God can and so far God hasn’t.

So I wonder: what if advent isn’t the answer to our pain, so much as the promise that in spite of it all, God is still with us? What if advent is simply about the love God still has for this big, beautiful, broken world, the love that still manages to pour forth from our broken hearts, the light you can still see in the darkness if you squint and look at it sideways?

Matthew Meyer Boulton, one of the theologians behind Salt Project, says that:

Advent begins in the shadows of hopelessness and there it lights a candle of hope for God is on the way. It begins in the rubble of desperation and there it picks up a stone to rebuild because God is on the way. It begins in the life of a lowly peasant girl in the middle of nowhere under oppression who raises her voice to sing that God is on the way” (Strange New World Podcast, Understanding Christmas episode 1) 

None of that makes any sense. It is so very strange. And yet because of that light, that stone, her song, many of us still believe that God is on the way. 

And so we wait and we watch and we stand at the ready in case it is our hands, our hearts, or our song by which God breaks through next. 

We wait, we long, and we hope for that better world, trusting that God is coming, because deep down  we believe that God hopes for it too. 

Amen