Sunday, November 29, 2009
Now or Later
I can remember just one year when I went poking around for hidden Christmas presents. Did anyone else do this as a kid? I guess I don’t have to limit it to just children. Maybe some of us are present peekers even now! I, however, did it just once. Well, there was the year that my sister and I agreed to exchange one present secret before Christmas morning, but we only went looking for our presents once. I must have been in about 6th grade, definitely old enough to know better, but Kara was in 9th, so certainly she had even more responsibility than I did!
Anyway, one evening while our parents were out for the night we went snooping in the closet to see what might be hiding. I don’t remember even looking for something in particular that I really really wanted. I just remember wanting to look, to peek, to know right then when surprises were lurking, what presents were coming in the next few weeks. I wanted the excitement, the joy, the happiness right NOW and I didn’t want to wait any longer.
What do you want for Christmas? It’s a question we’re going to ask ourselves each week this year during Advent? What do we want for Christmas? As a child that year that I snooped I had wanted the stuffed bear that I found. It wasn’t a present at the top of my list, but it was a giveaway bear I had seen at the store – one of those promotions, if you spend a certain amount of money, they throw the teddy bear in for a few extra bucks. Those are the only presents my sister and I found, 2 of those bears. We had seen them at the store, these totally Florida bears in cute flowered swimsuits in the middle of December. We wanted them, but they weren’t on our “lists” or anything.
They were, basically, meant to be an impulse buy. A gimmick to get you into the store and a way for the store to get a few extra bucks. I’m sure plenty of bears were bought my frustrated and tired moms and dads who just wanted to make their kids happy during a long and tiring shopping trip. Instant gratification. That’s what the gift of the bear really was. That’s what my sister and I went looking for when we went snooping. That’s what we wanted for Christmas more than anything. Happiness. NOW.
I imagine that Jeremiah’s audience wanted a little instant gratification themselves. We heard last week from the book and prophecy of Daniel, who ministered during the exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s ministry started a bit before that, right when God’s people were on the edge of exile, when Judah, the southern portion of the united kingdom we usually think of as Israel, was becoming more and more corrupt in the eyes of God, and Babylon was threatening to invade and destroy Jerusalem, the nation, God’s people. Jeremiah delivered messages of warning to God’s people and especially the leaders. Change now while you can. Turn away from idols. Turn away from the useless little “g” gods to which you have been looking.
He delivered indictments against the leaders of Israel for taking the people of God down wrong paths – paths of idolatry, paths of unrighteousness. Not surprisingly, his message even landed him in jail. Babylon was knocking on Judah’s door, but the people were too focused on the wrong things and quick fixes to work with God to prevent their own demise. Freedom of speech and huge cultural changes weren’t high on the king’s list of worries as Babylon was threatening the land. Repentance and reform probably didn’t seem fast enough. King Zedekiah wanted solutions and wanted them now. Happiness. NOW. But with their attention on false idols, as they ignored God’s call and even God’s lament for them to come back into right relationship with their Creator, they couldn’t resist falling to the powerful empire.
As we have talked about, the time of the exile was one of tremendous distress. The Babylonians went about exile in a unique way. The Assyrians before them had come into Israel, the northern portion of the kingdom, and completely removed the inhabitants. All of them, swept a way and scattered around that empire in exile. They were lost forever as a united community and completely swallowed by the empire and those that came after it.
The Babylonian exile was different. First the leaders were taken away, just the political and social leaders of Judah, the king at the time, his court, and others respected in the community. Jeremiah was in ministry, was prophesying the whole time, warning the people of the coming empire, pointing to the loss of their leaders and a sign of their need for a change, lamenting as their world was crumbling around them, trying DESPERATELY to get the new king to lead them in a new direction.
But it was without success. The new king wasn’t any better than the last, and with the people turning from God and ignoring the prophet once in their midst, now in jail for his messages, the Babylonians returned to finish what they started. A second wave of the exile took place. Again, leaders in the government and community were ripped from the land leaving a desperate and hopeless people behind. Jeremiah was actually given a choice by the invaders – did he want to stay or go? It seems he kept in contact with those whom he had tried to warn, those far off in Babylon, but ultimately when given the choice, he decided to remain in Judah and speak God’s word to the helpless, the hopeless, the defeated remnant left behind.
Their world had been shattered. The temple, as I mentioned last week had been destroyed. The leaders who had provided them, they thought, with all they needed were gone. Their direction, their guides, their perceived wisdom, their way forward, was all ripped from their land, and they were left behind with no security for the future, no infrastructure, no help, no hope, and without the Temple to hold Yahweh in their midst, it even seemed they had no god.
For many times seem pretty desperate even now. In this country anyway, we have no obvious empire breathing down our necks, but our threats seem pretty daunting anyway. Health care costs and debates seem to stifle quality services. An economy beyond struggling, jobless people, and growing level of poverty add anxiety to the national atmosphere. The completely polarized political system leaves many of us feeling like there’s no one leading anymore, just two sides with locked horns fighting each other, but not for anything. Meanwhile the poor keep suffering, the middle class keeps dwindling, and the rich seem to be moving in completely different realms.
All of us are grabbing at straws looking for quick fixes, instant gratification, happiness NOW through advice for shopping or saving, relaxing or working harder, taking time for me or pitching in to help others. The answers are all about easy things to make now feel better. There seems to be little focus on the long haul and lasting changes for the future.
An old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon might speak to the situation today. This particular installment originally ran in 1990, almost exactly 19 years ago from this date. Pictured are the young boy Calvin, actually named for our theological parent John Calvin, and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. In the first frame Calvin speaks to Hobbes and says, “Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got.”
In the second frame he explains, “You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you’d be sorry you put off your pleasures. That’s what I say – live for the moment.” And then he asks Hobbes, “What your motto?” Hobbes answers, “My motto is – Look down the road.” (In Bill Watterson, Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons [Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews and McMeel Publishers, 1992], p. 66.)
Jeremiah’s prophecy is about looking down the road. Instant gratification is lasting. Searching for happiness NOW is no way to live life for the long-haul. Instead Jeremiah points to what is coming down the road towards us, the promises God has made to Judah, the promises God makes to us when it was said, “The days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute righteousness in the land.”
What do we want for Christmas? Like Calvin, many of us want this moment to be the best moment of our lives. We want happiness NOW and maybe that doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Maybe like the people of Judah we’re feeling devastated, torn apart, stomped all over, and defeated. Maybe it feels like the world we know has been pulled out from under us and we’re ready to cling to any half-good idea, any fleeting wish for enjoyment, any momentary delight that will calm the anxiety even just for a second. Maybe it feels like it’s our turn to “live for the moment.” What do we want for Christmas? We want happiness and comfort and stability, and we want it now.
But what do we get for Christmas? Well, that’s a little bit of a different story. A lot bit, really. God usually isn’t about quick fixes, things like instant gratification. God is all about looking down the road. God isn’t known for handing out happiness NOW, but instead delivers promises for later. “The days are coming,” says the Lord. Promises will be fulfilled, promises we can trust because come from the one who is most trustworthy. Promises that can be counted on even if their fulfillment doesn’t seem obvious now, because they come from God whose promises are always fulfilled. They come from God who makes and keeps covenants even with the must untrustworthy of all – us. What we get for Christmas is a look down the road, or even better we get a look in both directions, and that means we get hope.
Looking back we can see the promises that have been made through the ages, the promises that have been fulfilled – the promises to Sarah and Abraham, the promises to Noah and his family, the promises Moses and the Israelites, the promises to the people in exile and the remnant that remained. I will not leave you. I will not forget you. Looking back we can see the promise for a Redeemer to come from David, a Redeemer who came not with happiness NOW but a Redeemer who came with the hope of a new baby, a Redeemer who came to bring hope, the trust in promises yet to be fulfilled.
That’s what we get for Christmas. We get hope. We get the reminder that God keeps promises. God is with us. God is for us. No matter how desperate the situation, no matter how gloomy the look, no matter how TERRIFYING our reality may seem – God is coming to redeem it. The image of that coming doesn’t seem so comforting in Luke’s gospel, signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, distress and confusion by the roaring of the seas, the shaking of the heavens. But the signs of God’s coming are part of the promise. When things are at their worst, when the world is THIS close to caving in, God is THIS close to redemption. When the promises seem least likely to be fulfilled, that’s when we can have the most hope, that’s when we can trust in the birth of our salvation, that’s when we can believe that God’s hope is not lost.
Jeremiah chose to remain with those who were left behind in the exile. He chose to stay and be a witness to God’s hope for the future, to testify to the truth that God fulfills promises even when the future looks bleak, maybe even ESPECIALLY when the future looks bleak. The days are surely coming, says the Lord. The days are surely coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled as they have in the past, and for that day we have great hope. Trust in the Lord, our righteousness, who is coming down the road not with happiness NOW but with the promise of justice later. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Thanks and credit to The Rev. Richard Fairchild for pointing me to the Calvin and Hobbes illustration.