And so, we move into a new Christian year. Just like that, the calendar flips. Many of us have our fresh Christian Seasons Calendar on the wall, several of us gathered here last night at our “New Year’s Party” to celebrate and pray in thanksgiving and hope, as a reminder that we’re keeping time differently, that our lives are shaped not by the Roman calendar, not ordered by the rhythms of civic holidays and royal edicts, but according to the pattern of Jesus. The Christian year finds its rhythms in the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus, and the practice of working the meaning of that stuff into our everyday lives. Recognizing that following Jesus is a lifetime’s work or more, we do it again and again. We come back and start fresh, year after year. Perhaps this year we’ll follow a little more closely. There’s an old rabbinic blessing that wishes the student to be covered in the dust of their rabbi; to keep so closely to the one they follow that they wear the evidence of the path, the marks of the journey. May it be so for us, this year.
But one of the beautiful things about the Christian year is that it won’t let us get ahead of ourselves. We’re not allowed to just get down to business. We don’t get to rush into angels and shepherds and magi. We don’t even start at the birth announcement. We don’t get to pretend that God acts in a vacuum, or that Jesus landed here from heaven like an unexpected guest that we have to scramble to set an extra place for. We don’t get to move straight into the long walk of discipleship, or busy ourselves with church-work. Instead, we start with waiting.
We don’t tend to be a people that is very good at waiting. We’re an “order with the click of a button” kind of culture, same-day delivery, video on demand kind of culture. We don’t want to wait for strawberry season, we want strawberries in December. We don’t want to wait for tomorrow’s paper, we want up-to-the-minute, 24hr news. We want next year’s model this year. Even the more patient among us, those of us skeptical of technologies that gratify us on the spot, the more contemplative among us, still can’t quite avoid the expectations of the world around us: that we should have what we want, when we want it; that we should always be doing and accomplishing something. Patience might be a virtue, but it’s kind of old-fashioned and we don’t much care for it.
The Christian year, in the wisdom of the Church, has this peculiar effect of reminding us that we’re being shaped in another way. It forces us, here at the start of a new year, to stop our relentless getting, to end our constant grabbing, to pause from our eager and obsessive doing and accomplishing, and to wait. We don’t start by following Jesus, we start by waiting for him. And it’s only if we’ll do that that we stand a chance of accurately understanding what we’re getting ourselves into when we answer his call to follow; what it means that we’ve been caught up in God’s call. We have this gift built into our rhythm that forces us to be a bit still, to remember our humanity—that we are not, in fact, God—and to remember who our God is, what our God is like, how our God moves through us and in the world. To remember our need for God, whose work began long before we managed to do anything. And so we start by waiting.
To help us in that, over the next four Sundays, we’re going to be spending time with the Hebrew prophets. We’ll be looking at the readings from Jeremiah and Malachi, Zephaniah and Micah, who will remind us that our waiting is not simply twiddling our thumbs until something happens, we’re not tapping our toes until the angel choirs show up. But our waiting is a waiting on the Lord. It’s taking the time and space to attend to God, to who and how God is. And it’s taking the time to let the truth of who and how God is get all mixed up with who we are, where we find ourselves, the ups and downs and comings and goings of our lives. It’s readying ourselves to receive what we can’t get on our own. It’s taking the time to get our waiting right—to ask with open hearts, “If God is who God has revealed himself to be, then what, exactly, are we waiting for? What can we hope for?” What are we waiting to see come to life and be laid in the manger? What are we waiting for the angels to sing about, for the shepherds to dance about? At the beginning of this Christian year, what are we waiting for?
Jeremiah gets the first word. He’s kind of a startling usher into this time of year. He stands in stark contrast to the holly-jolly songs that have been playing in retail stores for weeks already. Jeremiah doesn’t look good in tinsel. Jeremiah screeches any merry-making to a halt and forces us to look behind the decorations, to squint past the glare of lights, to listen through the festive music that’s meant to put us in a buying mood, and to see that there is much in this world that we are still waiting for.
Jeremiah was Jerusalem’s prophet when the Babylonian Empire was on the rampage. Babylon had attacked the holy city, had taken hostages and deposed the king, and was more or less prowling the streets. There was violence and destruction was around every corner. There was the constant threat, which we know was eventually realized, that every man, woman, and child worth capturing would be exiled to Babylon, away from this land that God had given; and that the Temple would be levelled, giving the distinct impression to everyone looking on, that God had abandoned God’s people.
The pressures weren’t all coming from outside. Things were at least as bad on the inside for God’s people. The religious elite, who were tasked with leading the them in worship and ordering life according to God’s freedom and God’s promises had chased after more seductive things. God’s covenant was traded in for more profitable options. The kings who were meant to shepherd in the ways of justice, love and righteousness, opted instead for violence, self-promotion, and exploitation. The people were taking their cues from the corrupt and idolatrous, rather than from the Mt. Sinai instructions God had given to help them move in the rhythms of holiness and freedom. They were distracted by all manner of principalities and powers, from the wonder that God would be their God, and that they really could be God’s redeemed people—a light to the nations, revealing what God is like.
The turmoil Jeremiah speaks into is complete, the chaos is total. His other writing, the book of Lamentations, is one of the most devastating parts of the Bible. Most of the book that bears his name threatens judgment and destruction, of one form or another. And in his company, it’s almost impossible not to look around and recognize an awful lot of what he’s talking about in our time and place. At Jeremiah’s side, it’s hard to avoid the mess and mire of our own world. We can’t help but admit that we know rampaging empires; we know plenty about injustice and corruption, we know about the truth twisted in the service of a few, we know about idolatry and brokenness.
We know about the devastation of the Downtown Eastside, and a creation that groans, and we know about power-grabbing and soul-crushing greed while the powerless are shoved aside, and our local foodbank use skyrockets. We know about unfaithfulness and fear. We know about wars and rumours of wars. We know that the doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight. We know the voices of prophets and what it is to ignore them. We know that if we pull back the curtain of progress, we’re likely to see a world that might be more sophisticated in many ways that Jeremiah’s Jerusalem, but also that the similarities are gut-wrenchingly familiar. Jeremiah makes us look around and take seriously the brokenness and pain of a world desperate for justice and righteousness. He won’t let us gloss over it; he won’t let us be satisfied with empty distractions. In Jeremiah’s company, it’s not hard to see that we have much to be waiting for.
And yet, we have this oasis in what we know as Chapter 33. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my promise, when I will reveal my justice, when a true shepherd will come and lead my people—a king after my own heart—and my holy city will have a new name, a name that reminds everyone who speaks it that my righteousness will reign, even here and forever. In the midst of the swirling madness around him, amid all the words of judgment and destruction, Jeremiah gets this word, this lingering promise that God really will get the world that God wants. That out of the chaos, God will shape a new heaven and a new earth, a land of justice and righteousness; from the rubble, God will make a city where the broken are made whole, where wars are ceased, where tears are dried and bellies filled, where the nations will stream for healing, where the bound and the weighed down will find relief and release. Aren’t we waiting for something like that?
As Christians, we read Scripture backwards, through Jesus. We can’t help but hear him as the Righteous Branch, bringer of justice, Prince of Peace, God’s own King of kings. But I don’t want to get too far ahead, yet. The wonder of that surprise is on its way. I want to pay attention to what Jeremiah does for his people, what this word of promise in the midst of chaos really does, for a people who yearn for the world that God wants, the world that God yearns for. I think he demands that we look through the facades and to the decay and destruction, but then he says, “and look again; look deeper still,” through the decay and destruction to the One who is our God, who really will be our God so that we really might be a holy people.
Jeremiah calls us to be honest about the way things are. He won’t let us shy away from the hard stuff; he won’t let us turn a blind eye to the messes within and around us. But he also won’t let that stuff have the last word. He leads us to look even closer, through the way things are to the way they really are. He reminds us that, in the company of the promise-keeping God, death and destruction will not get the final say, chaos will not hold sway. The days are surely coming.
At the beginning of this new season, he invites us into what one thinker on these things (Jennifer Ryan Ayres) calls “the strenuous and crucial Christian task of imagination.” This doesn’t mean make-believe. It doesn’t mean finding ourselves a nice new pair of rose coloured glasses to make the grey world look more pleasant. It means taking God seriously, asking “If God is who and how God has shown himself to be, then what does the world God wants look like, what does it sound like, how do we live and move and have our being in it?” What does is look like to bring our whole lives in the service of the world God wants, and to let it come to life in us? If God is who God says God is, then in the end it can’t look like death and destruction. In the end, it can’t sound like groaning and sighs too deep for words. In the end we will not be faithless and fearful, we will not be anxious and shameful, we will not suffer through loneliness and heartache, we will not be abandoned to sin and death. If God is who God says God is, then love wins, justice wins, righteousness and wholeness win.
And what does that look like? What would it look like to be a people truly caught up in God’s dream for all things; what would it look like for us to be agents of God’s unstoppable new world order? Perhaps one thing we’re waiting for, what Jeremiah offers, is a fresh imagination for what is possible. Perhaps an Advent task, strenuous and crucial, is to really allow God to change our minds and shape our imaginations; make time in the seasonal chaos around us to pray, to meditate on Scripture, to let God’s word, God’s self, come to us freshly and change us from the inside out.
St. Paul calls what Jeremiah offers “being transformed by the renewal of our minds.” Don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Don’t give authority to the things that would separate us from God, that speak dehumanizing lies into our hearts, that divide us from our neighbors, that have us treating God’s good creation as something to be exploited for crass profit. Instead, let God give us a fresh imagination for these things.
At the beginning of this new Christian year, what do you need a fresh imagination for? Maybe it’s how you spend time. We get trapped in manic cycles of doing and grabbing because we’re susceptible to the lies that that’s what we’re made for—we like the affirmation that comes with accomplishment, with the glorification of busyness. But our spiritual lives suffer when we glorify busyness. We miss out on prayer time. We stop reading scripture. That stuff is the easiest to put on the back burner, because it doesn’t look like we’re accomplishing anything. But it’s the way God has always shaped imaginations, ready for holy mischief, ready to envision another way. If we’re too busy for prayer and scripture, we’re busier than God made us to be. The point is not to feel guilty about that, but to allow that we need God to give us a fresh imagination for how we spend our time. Because the days are surely coming!
Or maybe we need a new imagination for a relationship. Perhaps there’s a relationship that’s a source of conflict or grief and you need an unexpected way through, and infusion of grace. Will we let God give us a new imagination for how we can be with people? Because the days are surely coming!
Maybe as a church we need a fresh imagination for who we are, and what we’re here for, in this time and place. Maybe we need a fresh imagination for how we do things, and for whom. Old possibilities have run out. The things we relied on to help us pass the faith from one generation to the next are no more. We (the Church generally, not just U Hill) have often allowed ourselves to believe that our work of justice and mercy, the life-transforming work of forgiveness and discipleship, the faithful work of service, the Holy Spirit work of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is all subject to rules and expectations of the world around us rather than bound up with the resurrection power of God to do more than we can ask or imagine! But the days are surely coming!
What do you need a fresh imagination for? What are you waiting on? What’s the deep longing of your heart, your true, God-given desire? Will we take this gift of a season to wait on the Lord? To let God remind us again, who God is, how God is in the world. Will we allow ourselves not to be distracted by lesser things, but to get caught up in the promise that will be kept in the manger and on the cross, that God will get the world God wants, and that God wants us in on that? Will we let God do more in us than we can ask or imagine?
Because the days are surely coming!