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. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
It is strange that we begin our journey toward the light of Christmas with the prophet Jeremiah, because Jeremiah was not the sunniest guy on the block. He was a bit of a crier, and was known to be prone to melodrama, and he was the perennial bearer of bad news. He’s the guy we all hope RSVPs no to our holiday party. Weeping Jeremiah, the guy whose book of the Bible consists of 52 chapters, 48 of which are depressing as all get out, speaking of destruction and coming exile and a nation filled with stubbornness and pride and disobedience- he’s how we must begin Advent?!
Yes, yes he is. Because Advent is not some sappy, overly optimistic 1950’s laundry detergent commercial. Advent is the very real hope of a people who live in the real world, a world which year after year faces war, and environmental degradation, and violence, and this terrible haze of indifference. Advent is the hope of people like us whose faith charts do not curve nicely on the up and up from year to year, but peak and plummet in haphazard zig zags that are frankly embarrassing.
This is the season of promise, we declare, and we must say it realizing it has always sounded ridiculous, coming from zig-zaggy people like us who clearly don’t look like the kind of lot that can turn things around anytime soon. It is a preposterous sort of notion, which is something as Christians we must just get used to proclaiming. “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.” And when God made that promise, it was to a bunch of people who had forsaken righteousness, who had bowed down before foreign gods and idols, who had been scattered into foreign lands and experienced what they thought to be impossible when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. And this promise was given by a prophet who felt overwhelmed by his task and openly considered whether he was a total failure, a prophet who was seen as a traitor and had lost most of his friends, a prophet who, despite his declarations about God’s faithfulness, confessed to having deep underlying worry and tension, and showed bitterness toward the people he tried to warn and who did not heed his warnings in time…which is to say, it was written by an actual human being in a very dark and difficult situation.
This Advent hope is not some abstract sentimentality. It is battle-torn and defiant and, yes, preposterous. I’d venture to say the only reason it held on at all is because it happens to be true. God’s promises are like that- doggedly resistant to other forces at play, willing to go underground and wait it out until the time is right. God’s promises are often hidden soil, turning over, laying fallow, quietly resting beneath the turmoil of the world above, waiting to bear fruit in due season. So Jeremiah- even poor, tragic Jeremiah- tells us that God has promised to cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, to execute justice and righteousness in the land.
This season, as in the time when Jeremiah first shared those words with God’s people, we must hear that promise in the context of our own world- Hurricane Sandy, a recent divisive national election, seemingly endless violence between Israel and Palestine, uproar in Syria, tension in Egypt, and a parade of commentary on the looming fiscal cliff. And it sounds as preposterous as ever.
Thank God- as literally as one could mean it- Advent is not about our progress. It’s not about us at all, really, though the hope is that we get caught up in it in such a way that we become part of the very real way Advent hope comes to bear on the world. The promise of God springs up, just as it did in Jeremiah’s day, seemingly out of nowhere, and certainly not because we finally figured it out or got our acts together. God just does that—shows up in the middle of nothingness, or stranger, in the middle of the worst kinds of something-ness—and reminds us that he’s been there all along, biding time, preparing the soil for the promise that will surely come to pass regardless of evidence to the contrary.
A couple of summers ago I re-read The Secret Garden with my kids. If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of an orphan girl who goes to live on a large English estate, and she discovers a rose garden that’s been locked up for 10 years, ever since the wife of the estate owner died. When she first finds the key to the locked door and makes her way inside, she looks around at all of the trees and bushes and says, “I wonder if they are all quite dead. Is it all a quite dead garden? I wish it wasn’t.” “She could only see that there were only gray or brown sprays and branches and none showed any signs of even a tiny leaf bud anywhere…There seemed to have been grass paths here and there, and in one or two corners there were alcoves of evergreen with stone seats or tall moss-covered flower urns in them. As she came near the second of these alcoves she stopped skipping. There had once been a flower bed in it, and she thought she saw something sticking out of the black earth—some sharp little pale-green points…’It isn’t a quite dead garden,’ she cried out softly to herself. ‘Even if the roses are dead, there are other things alive.”
Many things seemed to be dying away in Jeremiah’s age. Certainly life as they once knew it was coming to an end, and they were now taking up residence as exiles in foreign lands, as people who had to learn to live without Jerusalem at their center. In the first chapter of Jeremiah when God calls him, God says, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Some things were passing away, but it wasn’t a quite dead garden. Even if some things were ending, there were yet other things coming alive. Sticking out of the black earth was a sharp little pale-green point, a promise of God whose name we now call Jesus. In the midst of the plucking up and the pulling down, the turning over of the soil of history, the building and the planting, comes the promise of a child who will show up out of nothing—or stranger, out of the something-ness of what looks like a quite dead garden.
Advent is the story of a world that continues to fall down, and a God who continues to come up right in the middle of it. Advent is about the promise of God coming to fruition in the Christ child, brought up from the ground of God’s previous promises and the history of God’s people. The soil is the sure promise of God, and it will bear its fruit in due season. Advent is here to remind us that we have not been promised results. We have been promised a relationship. But that relationship is the steadiest thing this world has ever seen. It is a garden quite alive.
Moltmann says that Christian hope is not an “opium of the beyond” but “the divine power that makes us alive in this world.” If we are to be awakened this Advent by the promises of God, it means being and becoming the preposterous people who speak of hope when others throw up their hands in dismay or despair or defeat. It means resting on a promise whose fruits we may not yet see.
My spiritual director friend told me the story of a king who was trying to decide how to lead his people. He learned of a wise sage who lived up in the mountains, and so he traveled there, which took two weeks, to ask him for advice. When he finally arrived, he said, “I have heard you are very wise and I have come to seek your counsel. How should I lead my people?” And the sage said, “Do you see that stick in the sand over there?” The king looked, and he nodded. The sage said, “Water the stick.” The king said, “But there is no water nearby, and I have no bucket.” The sage told him to return to his village to fetch a bucket, and bring water back in it. So the king begrudgingly traveled back to the village, got the bucket, filled it with water, and slowly traveled back up the mountain. When he finally returned, he poured the water over the stick and turned to the sage and said, “Okay I have done as you said. Now will you tell me how I ought to lead my people?” And the sage looked at him and replied, “Yes. Water the stick.”
This story means many things, but this week I am reminded that our faith in the promise of God often feels like watering a stick lodged in sand. Time consuming, labor intensive, seemingly pointless, and a bit ridiculous. But perhaps the sage is right in telling us that this is what we must do to make our way forward. Advent is about a promise, but it is also about waiting for that promise. And though waiting can be exciting, it can often feel like watering a stick, idle work that doesn’t have much of a chance of affecting an outcome. And yet, the process of watering it, of traveling back and forth in hope, is actually the wisdom itself. It’s a willingness to admit that we cannot do one thing to make a righteous branch spring forth. We must wait, we must let go, and in the meantime, we practice trust by watering the stick.
So here we are at the beginning of Advent, ready to make our way up the mountain to Christmas. We are probably a mess, and if we’re not now, just give it a few weeks of shopping and holiday parties and the end of year work crunch. No matter. Because the promise of Advent rests on the steadiest relationship this world has ever seen. We only need to be willing to carry our buckets and water the stick.