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The Days Are Surely Coming
November 29, 2015
A reading from the book of Jeremiah:
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 seems appropriate that we would have the woman almost in her ninth month of pregnancy to preach on the first week Advent, doesn’t it? The irony is not lost on me, don’t worry. I now feel a certain sense of solidarity with Mary that I have never been able to relate to, except I refuse to ride on a donkey to the hospital. But I do understand differently about the aspect of waiting and anticipation that comes with pregnancy rather than waiting for a Christmas present. For twelve weeks my husband and I endured a class where we learned about the entire process of birth from beginning to end, and in the last class, they finally discussed the actual care of a newborn. So for eleven weeks, we talked about the time of labor that rarely lasts over 48 hours, but it was not until the very last class that we talked about the beginning of a journey that will take the rest of our lives. Maybe we spent so many hours talking about labor because the labor is so hard. Maybe it’s because of the pain and cursing that comes from the “in between time” from first to second stages of labor: that time of transition. That time of limbo. That time of already and not yet. They said that during labor, the time of transition is when you look into the eyes of your partner or doctor and say, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
The audience in our prophetic passage today looks up at Jeremiah or even God and says, “We just can’t do this anymore.” For thirty chapters of the book of Jeremiah, we have labored with our prophet through his impending words of doom and gloom, listening to him weep about how he wished he had never been born. For thirty chapters Jeremiah claims that the king of Babylon will overtake the people of God: they will be exiled, they will lose many among them, they will be the strangers. The days are surely coming where their city will be destroyed and feelings of security will be lost. As they go into their enemy’s hands, they will seek refuge. It’s not as though the people of Israel were without fault, either. The political leaders, kings who came from the line of David, and frankly David himself, were not administering justice. The “least of these” were not being cared for by the community. People went about their business. The poor would go unnoticed. The people would not be cared for. And the corruption was extending into the religion as well. The children of God forgot about God and about what God wanted them to do. They worshipped other gods, instead of the creator of heaven and earth. So, of course, righteousness was not even on their minds. They had forgotten what righteous living even looked like. They had begun to lose their way, their identity as God’s people. And it would soon come to pass that they would still be the people of God, but an exiled people, overtaken by their enemies.
Already, we here at UPC are doing a good job of caring for those who need to be cared for. The mission we support and the programs we do accomplish a great deal. We can rattle off missions that we appreciate about this place, whether we participate in them through our time or with our money. And I think we are doing well here. We talk about ourselves as a healthy church and rightly so. And at the same time, our tribe, our church, may be practicing righteousness and justice in our own backyard, but we struggle when we talk about our larger family. When we discuss the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a whole, I find it difficult to find opinions that are not either apathetic or negative. “Our denomination is declining. We are losing churches left and right. PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville has no idea what they are doing.” And I can include myself in this rhetoric.
I have been known to say that I don’t know why the Lutherans are putting out amazing children and adult curriculum while the Presbyterians seem to be falling way behind, and we used to be known for being the super educated church. Or why it appears that at presbytery meetings that people only want to show up when it is a “hot button issue,” get angry at the results, and go home to tell other people about how much they hate presbytery. And some of you are sitting in this congregation today and have no idea what I’m even talking about or you are sitting there thinking, I really don’t like getting caught up in church politics. Yeah, me neither. It kinda makes it seem like some kind of evil empire is overtaking us. But it seems to me that our denomination as a whole is losing its way, losing its identity, and that affects us here in Austin, Texas. I went before the Committee on Examinations a few weeks ago to be examined before I could become called here at UPC. And the people on the committee were kind and wanted to hear about campus ministry at UPC because it’s a unique ministry and because “the church is declining” rhetoric is being combatted by our work with young people. And we talked for quite a while about campus ministry, and then came a question I was not expecting. I was asked what the essential tenets of the Reformed faith are. And in that moment something shifted, something moved within me, and I realized that I was part of something larger than myself, something greater than simply a friend to college students. I made a joke about how we really seem to like committees, which did not go over well, but then they asked me to research the question and get back to them when I appear before presbytery in late February. While I have not yet completed my task, I did stumble once again upon the great ends of the church, a list of attributes about the church that Presbyterians adopted in 1910. And number 5 of the list of six is the promotion of social righteousness. And I want to get caught up in that. I want to get caught up in leadership that promotes social righteousness. I don’t need to be a part of a church that sits around and talks about the justice that is going to happen one day in a land far, far away. I want to work alongside of people who are hoping for that right here and right now, where we are a part of bringing the “not yet” to earth. And I wonder where that church went? I wonder where the people are who believed fervently in the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, the maintenance of divine worship, the preservation of the truth, the promotion of social righteousness, and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
And I think I am in good company, as the people of Israel watched their religious life crumble in the face of their enemies. And this golden nugget of verses tucked inside of this prophetic book claims that a branch from David’s line will spring forward, allowing for peace in the land once again. No, for more than peace: to allow for justice and righteousness to exist in the land. Right before this text in the book of Jeremiah, a beautiful scene of bride and bridegroom in the house of the Lord, voices praising God, a party, a banquet. Aunts and uncles, children and friends, mothers, fathers, and grandparents all gather around their relatives to welcome the merging of two families. They are happy and celebrating. They are having a party and everyone is invited. And another scene explodes from the pages of this book: a scene of green grasses, enough for sheep to graze. It will be the land of plenty once more. Shepherds won’t go hungry and neither will their sheep. And each sheep will have a place in the flock. They will be numbered; they will count. Each one will count. Hope seems so small and idyllic here in Jeremiah. Compared to the 30 chapters of pre-scripted doom and gloom, here stands just three chapters of hope and comfort. And this oracle of hope and comfort begins with a phrase that at first made me think that something bad was about to happen: the days are surely coming.
The days are surely coming, my friends. Not days of doom and gloom, but days where we plan parties and invite the least of these, days where we have enough for everyone to eat and we know that we matter. Days where we can say that we are Presbyterian and not have to hang our heads in the shame of always being moderate. But days where we are the voice for the voiceless. Days where we can say that we are Christian and not have not combat that with “not the Starbucks-cup-hating kind of Christian.” Days where we know who we are and whose we are, and not because we came up with yet another amazing mission statement. The days are surely coming where we proclaim the Lord is our righteousness, not that we came up with righteousness on our own. This Old Testament text did not come to us today by accident. We are on the verge of a huge transition in our denomination, and this advent season, this preparatory season is a time of listening for what is next for us, a time where we actually listen to the voice of God, where we spend time discerning instead of deciding, where we listen, especially to voice of the past, instead of speaking for people or groups that we do not even understand. The days are surely coming where we are going to need to stand up for the least of these, but for now, maybe in a quiet moment, we just listen to the voices that rarely speak. We don’t know what might spring up, but knowing the Advent story, knowing the fate of the people of God, there is always a Christ child at Christmas. Christ finds his way into our lives, into our world, into our church to bring about the Kingdom. He is our spring from the line of David, in the darkest and coldest of winters. And he will execute justice and righteousness in the land, and we will live in safety, proclaiming at the party: the Lord is our righteousness and the Lord is come.