Saturday, December 01, 2012

Advent 1

Jeremiah, according to the timeless song released by Three Dog Night in 1971, was a bullfrog.  Nobody, the song tells us, could understand a word he said, but he always served a mighty fine wine.  After years of supposing these lyrics were some sort of deep commentary on the prophet's personality or flinty integrity, I found out the other day that the band, in early 1971, was on the point of breaking up, and decided that they needed to come out with a rip-roaring silly song to rekindle the fire.  Which it certainly did.

Jeremiah, of course, did spend some time – a couple of chapters after the bit we read this morning – incarcerated in a cistern, a sort of muddy underground water storage pit, so I guess he would have sounded like a bullfrog indeed, squawking up from there – and it is also true that nobody ever understood a word he said.  Jeremiah was also a priest, which hardly any of the major prophets were – only Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  During my priestly training we reflected regularly on different models of priestly ministry, but Jeremiah was never one of the examples chosen.  I've often thought, since then, that he should have been.  In our modern English idiom a Jeremiah is taken to mean a person who is relentlessly negative, a prophet of doom – but that, I think, is simply an example that proves the truth of the song.  Nobody ever understood poor Jeremiah, because he insisted on doing his job.  When the Babylonian army attacked Jerusalem with overwhelming force the king and the army and the newspapers of the day came out fighting – 'we'll soon see them off the premises!'  'No, you won't', says Jeremiah.  When the king negotiated an alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt, who flew to the rescue with thousands of chariots, everybody thought it'd be over by Christmas. 'No, it won't', said Jeremiah.  When the Babylonian army destroyed the Egyptians and tightened their ring of iron around the capital, all Jerusalem thought it was the end of the world. 'No, it isn't', said Jeremiah – and to prove his confidence he went out and bought a ridiculously over-priced piece of land and deposited the title deeds in a safe place.  'You'll be planting crops again here before you know it'.  When the Babylonians swept into town and put most of the population to the sword and rounded up the rest and shackled them in chains to drag them into exile in Israel, everyone from the king down realised that God had finally abandoned them, God had brought down judgement on them for their past wrongs.  'No', said Jeremiah – and this is where we come in today, on the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Church year – 'No', says Jeremiah, 'all of the promises God ever made to you are coming true'.   Jeremiah has spent most of the book that bears his name up to this point criticising the kings of Israel and the people for their faithlessness, for their lack of justice and compassion, and has been promising God's judgement in frightening and explicit detail.  Now that it has arrived – 'No', says Jeremiah.  'God has not abandoned you'.

And of course, since it is the first week of Advent, the passage we read promises that mercy and restoration will come through a future descendent of David – we are only partly right to read this as a reference to Jesus, because it is also a reference to the historical reality in which Jeremiah lived, and what he is saying is this – if it is the faithlessness of Israel's kings who have turned away from justice and righteousness that has led to this humiliating defeat, then restoration will come through a future descendent of David – a king who will rule with integrity and compassion and justice.  Even when the people turn away from God, and reap the bitterness and misery they have sown in failure to show mercy to the vulnerable and the poor, and failure to live with righteousness according to their covenant with God – even then, the promise of restoration and mercy is heard.  And Jeremiah – as the people are being led into slavery in chains – encourages them and tells them to seek the good of the city to which they are going, to work hard, to marry and have children and to believe in the future.

Jeremiah isn't negative, but he is counter-cultural.  He tells the people what they don't want to hear, he challenges them to think wider than they want to, he gives them a dose of reality when they'd rather live in fantasy-land, and he encourages them to see new possibilities when they'd rather curl up and wallow in depression.  No wonder they don't like him.  No wonder he ends up in the cistern, squawking like a bullfrog.

But he does the work of a priest, which is to articulate the promises of God, and to do so in a way that leads the people from fantasy to reality, that reminds the people that the promises of God have got something to do with their own faithfulness and integrity and their own commitment to hope.

Advent is about hope, of course.  But we get it way wrong if we think that Advent is about hoping that Jesus will be born in a stable on Christmas morning.  No point in hoping for that, because it has already happened.  Yes, Advent points us to the hope for the world that is embodied and given flesh and blood reality in the miracle of Bethlehem, but Advent is also about present hope, and the incongruent juxtaposition of that hope against the reality of everything in our world, and everything in our own lives, that is hopeless and broken and unredeemed.  Advent is a dose of reality, and I'm sorry if you – like me – feel it comes exactly at the wrong time, when we are all frantically trying to get our Chrissy cards out and buying gifts and stocking up on tinsel and plum pud and trying to manoeuvre an oversized chunk of pine tree into our lounge rooms.

Advent points us to the hard lump of reality about ourselves that we wish we could keep pretending wasn't there – the indigestible truth about ourselves that we'd rather not own up to – and it says, that's where hope is at work in you.  That's where God's Holy Spirit is at work, that's where grace is, if only you knew it.  The irresolvable contradiction, the bit of you that hurts the most, that's where God is at work in you to transform you into light and grace and truth.  It just doesn't happen, however, unless we are prepared to work with it.  Believe it, the time is coming when the promises of God will come true in you, take on flesh and blood in your life – the time is coming when through the broken cracks of your life will shine joy and love and beauty.  Believe it, and live into it.

We also read today from St Paul's first letter to the church in Thessalonika – on the first day of the new year – how counter-cultural is that? the Church celebrates New Year's Day according to God's calendar! – we read from the very oldest document in the New Testament, way older than any of the Gospels, written maybe 20 years after Jesus crucifixion.  Paul has travelled to Thessalonika – maybe as early as 49AD and preached there to a group of day-labourers – the poorest of the poor – and from this unlikely beginning a new church has come into being.  Concerned to know how they are getting along, he sends Timothy to encourage them, and Timothy has reported back that despite discouragement and persecution – early Christians were an object of scorn for following the gospel in its insistence on social equality and inclusion for the poor and the vulnerable – the Thessalonian church was growing in faith and strength of purpose.  And St Paul says – 'thank God for that!'.  And he reminds them that Jesus is coming soon – this was the expectation in the first couple of decades of the church, that Jesus would return very soon – and prays that they should increase in love, and then he says to them, 'be blameless'.

Excuse me?  That's a bit of a back-hander isn't it, in this letter full of encouragement and compliments?  Be blameless – own up to the unredeemed bits, the not so wonderful bits of your life as a congregation – and do something about them?  Ah, it seems St Paul also knows what the work of a pastor should be about.  Point to what's encouraging and good about the life of the Christian community – point to the reality that there is still work to be done.  A bob each way, like Jeremiah.

We no longer know, of course, what wasn't yet blameless about the church in Thessalonika, what Paul needed to give them a nudge to face up to.  But the work of Advent is honesty, and becoming holy, which is not, actually, just a long-faced form of piety and carol-singing.  The work of Advent is the painful scrutiny of what is unredeemed about ourselves, our world and our church.

It occurs to me sometimes that we let ourselves off the hook, when we digress at this point to talk about the big issues of our world.  Our world is, as it always is, torn by war and the intolerable suffering of the innocent.  During Advent, we confess the failure of our generation to change that.  Our own nation veers unsteadily between wanting the rest of the world to think that we are good sports, that we believe in a fair go, and the enacting of brutal and punitive measures to drive the desperate and vulnerable from our shores – policies in fact that reveal our own deep insecurity and uncertainty about what, if anything, we stand for.  During Advent, we need to confess our own part in the national character and the policies enacted on our behalf.  But we let ourselves off the hook if we fail to also examine the realities of our own lives, and our life together as a church.

As the priest of this parish, I thank God for you, and I find great joy in my ministry among you.  What gives me joy is the evidence of my eyes and ears that the gospel of self-giving love is indeed being lived out here. That children are encouraged – being both heard and seen – and delighted in, that they are being nurtured and protected.  That the elderly among us are respected and cared for, that their experience is valued and their voices are heard.  That differences of culture and language and colour enrich, rather than diminish our community, that the fabric of our Christian community is daily strengthened by new relationships, by lives shared and by tasks undertaken gladly together.  I wrote this sermon yesterday in the office while listening to the happy buzz and clatter of the Op Shop – by now you know I believe it is in low-key and unglamorous activities like this that we proclaim the gospel and show hospitality to the community around us.

I hope it is an obvious reality that this work of community, of mutual love and care, is the work of the whole community.  As the priest, I get to notice it, and to delight in it, but this work is the priesthood of the whole community.  And we fail in it sometimes.  We are not blameless.  Too often, still, people quietly leave our congregation after having failed to find friendship and support here.  Sometimes they tell me off about it.  This saddens me.  It is not in our worship but in our hospitality and friendship that we proclaim whether or not we actually believe the Gospel.  The welcome and friendship shown to strangers is not an optional extra but the core business of a Christian community.  In showing hospitality to strangers and outsiders we proclaim the God who shows hospitality to us.  It is strangers and outsiders, in fact, who show the truth about us – as Jesus would point out to us, it's easy to be friendly to people you are already friends with – even Gentiles do that.

Paul gives thanks for the tiny working class church in Thessalonika, and he encourages them to grow in love, to find new ways of loving beyond the boundaries they are already used to, to grow in holiness.  Be blameless.  The bit you have to grow into yet is the bit where the Holy Spirit is hardest at work in you.