November 27, 2009 3 Comments
1 Advent Yr C, 29/11/2009
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Hope amidst hopelessness”
Do any of you know surely? I’m not talking about a person of the female gender named Shirley. No, rather, I’m speaking of that little English word. A word that refers to confidence and certainty. Surely you know it. In today’s first lesson the prophet Jeremiah speaks of it like this as he quotes what he heard from the LORD himself: “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.” Notice that Jeremiah does not say or quote the LORD as having said something like this: “The days are perhaps coming…” or “The days are maybe coming…” None of that kind of ambiguity here. “The days are surely coming…”
And sure enough, as day follows night, surely the season of Advent has arrived. Advent is too short, only four weeks. The season reminds us of Christ’s coming. We look at Christ’s coming from the perspective of the past as Jesus came to earth and live among us as a human being like us in every way, except without sin. And we celebrate Christ’s presence among us today in the present; as he reveals himself to us through Word and sacrament, and the communion of us sinner-saints. We also look forward into the future when he shall come again and usher in completely his eternal kingdom. Advent marks the beginning of a new church year, which usually gives us cause to look forward into the future.
However, there is much irony as we celebrate Advent for the last time here at Grace Lutheran Church. The irony bespeaks hope and sadness, loss and grief. I believe that’s why our passage from Jeremiah is tailor-made for us today. The predicament that we find ourselves in as a congregation moving into the future with sorrow and grief has similarities with the predicament of Jeremiah and the people of Judah. We, like Jeremiah, can say that “The days are surely coming…” Our predicament here at Grace Lutheran, like that of Jeremiah and his people, is one of hope amidst the hopelessness.
Jeremiah’s little oracle of hope is almost out of sync for the prophet, in that the circumstances were most likely anything but hopeful. Jeremiah was either serving time in jail or under house arrest, because he prophesied against the king, Zedekiah, and the people of Judah and Jerusalem, charging them with being unfaithful to the LORD and his covenant with them. Moreover, to add insult to injury, Jeremiah had said that the present siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian army was God’s instrument of punishment upon the people of Jerusalem and Judah, thus it was pointless to resist them. Such a prophetic message went over like a lead balloon, no wonder Jeremiah was in jail. In contemporary times, it might be compared with something like a pastor from Lethbridge standing on main street Medicine Hat and prophesying that our city is going to be invaded and taken over by the citizens of Lethbridge; and it’s pointless to resist them, for they are God’s instrument of wrath upon us. Such a pastor might also very well be arrested, perhaps even thrown into jail, and most Hatters would likely reject and condemn their message.
And yet, Jeremiah remains faithful to God and proclaims this oracle of hope in spite of the immediate situation of hopelessness. At times it is difficult for people to live with hope when all they can see in their situation is hopelessness. Yet, as people of faith, we like Jeremiah and the people of Judah are called to live with hope—even as we face the hopelessness of closing our church doors. Jeremiah’s oracle of hope communicates certainty and confidence that God shall, in the future, make good on his promises to the people of Israel and Judah. How can we, like Jeremiah be a people of hope amidst our hopelessness? Well, by trusting in God’s Messiah-King Jesus, like Jeremiah did; for he is our righteous Branch.
I like that image of Jesus as our righteous Branch. Apparently one of the military tactics that the Babylonian army engaged in against the people of Judah and Jerusalem was to chop down the olive trees. The olive orchards were, in many respects part of “the life-blood” of the economy for God’s people—providing food and oil for eating, cooking and other uses. So, when the olive trees were cut down, the people of Judah and Jerusalem no doubt lamented at their loss. Such a hostile act would have made them feel hopeless. Yet Jeremiah sees hope amidst that situation of hopelessness. Jeremiah sees the righteous Branch. Looking into the future, Jeremiah knew that the olive orchard stumps would produce shoots and branches. In a few years down the road, they’d even come to live again and produce olives.
So it was spiritually too. Jeremiah was saying to his people: “Don’t give up hope in the midst of this Babylonian hopelessness. Yes, we will go into Babylonian exile. However, look into the future, the LORD shall fulfill his promises to us. Hope in him and he shall not disappoint you. He shall send his Messiah-King, the righteous Branch to govern us. One day we shall be back in the Promised Land and eat from the fruit of the olive orchards. On a new day we shall worship the LORD in a new Jerusalem temple. My people, don’t lose your hope amidst the hopelessness—even if you cannot see the hope now. Hang onto it, for the LORD is a God of hope and where there’s hope there is life.”
Members and friends of Grace Lutheran, can you see the hope amidst the hopelessness? Yes, the doors of this edifice shall close at the end of December. And yes, such an event breaks your hearts. We all had hopes, now that are in the past and lost, for the situation to improve here at Grace so we could carry on our ministry. We mourn those lost hopes of the past. Now we face the future. Advent is a season of hope—pointing us to Christ our righteous Branch. After the ministry here comes to an end and our doors close; when we’ve completed all of the last things, then we shall go into a new future. A future where we can find another congregation and become accepted in that faith community. In that future a new hope can be born after the sorrow, pain, sadness and loss—just as new olives are born from chopped down tree stumps.
The days are surely coming, Jeremiah prophesies, when the Messiah-King shall come to rule with justice and righteousness. According to later Jewish tradition, the rabbis said: “The life of a single righteous person is equal in value to the whole world.” And: “Through the merit of one righteous [person] the world survives…”1 That, too, is our hope. The first Sunday of Advent points us to the one righteous person—Jesus, our righteous Branch. He can and does save the world and ensures that the world survives. As the old familiar song puts it: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Moreover, Jeremiah tells us: “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” According to this promise, we are reminded that there is no justice without hope.
Hope is symbolized by the birth of the Christ child, who taught us by example how to make peace, how to heal division, how to restore community.
Hope is born when an Hasidic Jew extends his hand to a fallen Arab, helping him to safety before the collapse of the twin towers.
Hope is born when the parents of savagely murdered teenager Reena Virk help their daughter’s killer gain parole so that he may begin to “lead a useful life.”
Hope is born when the Amish Mennonite parents of five murdered schoolgirls in Pennsylvania encircle the family of their executioner, ensuring forgiveness amid embraces and tears.
Love—not law—is the spirit of justice. Hope is the agenda of justice. There can be no justice where there is no hope. To do justice is to create hope. Justice without hope is like law without gospel.
Restoring hope in this 21st Century will require great sacrifices—especially among those of us who have gotten used to receiving far more than we are willing to give. Whether we take up the cross freely in love or have it forced upon us in hatred, that will be our personal and political choice.2
So brothers and sisters in Christ, do not give up hope for your future amidst the hopelessness. Let go of past hopes so that out of them a new hope shall be born—just like the new olives from the chopped-down olive tree stump. Live with expectation that Jesus our righteous Branch is coming. Prepare for his coming into your hearts, minds and lives this Advent. Be ready to welcome his coming at Christmas. Find the hope for your future and the future of your fellow members of Grace by trusting that Jesus our Messiah-King shall lead you through your hopelessness and exile, sadness and grief into the realised hope of his Promised Land; the kingdom which shall have no end. Amen.
1 Cited from: Rabbi Alexander Feinsilver, The Talmud For Today (New York: St Martin’s Press, Inc., 1980), p. 48. 2 Cited from: Erich & Miranda Weingartner, “No Justice Without Hope,” in Canada Lutheran, December 2006 (Winnipeg, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p. 13.