November 29, 2015 Jeremiah 33: 14-14
600 years before the birth of Jesus, the people of Israel were carried off into exile in Babylon. The prophets tried to tell them, “You’re not living right by God. It will be your downfall.” The people didn’t listen. Now Jerusalem, their temple, life as they knew it, lay in ruins. Their former glory days of military and political power under King David was now only a dim memory. As Kate Huey states in her commentary: “Their hopes were dashed upon the rocks of the brutal history of empire.”
How often has that scenario been repeated in human history? Jerusalem, the city whose name means “foundation of peace” has been invaded, captured, governed and sometimes destroyed by 20 different nations over the centuries. 20!
I remember walking through the ruins of another ancient city in the Holy Land thinking “Why is it that humans feel the need to conquer and destroy each other’s way of life? Why do people succumb to this power hungry madness - the never ending desire for more: more land, more money, more possessions, more fame, more control over other’s lives?
In 627 BCE Jeremiah, a young boy, 12 or 13 years old, was called by God, despite his protests, to be a prophet. He must have known at that early age it’s not an easy life being a prophet! For the next 40 years, during the reign of four successive kings, he prophesied against Judah and Jerusalem for their faithlessness. The book bearing his name contains those oracles.
But in chapters 30 to 33 we hear a change in tone and message. They are referred to as the Book of Consolation or the Book of Comfort. Our reading today comes from Chapter 33:14-16.
“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."”
In a very dark hour, when all seemed to be lost, when the people were suffering from depression, PTSD, anxiety and fear, Jeremiah, sitting in prison, was sending a message of hope to his people. He must have realized you can’t live without hope, especially when your world seems to be crumbling around you.
Jeremiah is reminding his people that God is still with them, despite their distancing themselves from God. Their covenant holds. And there will come a time when God will raise up a righteous Branch for David, a leader who unlike the flawed and failed kings of Israel’s history will execute justice and righteousness.
Those are two favorite words of the Old Testament prophets: justice - the fair and equitable relationships among people, impartial law courts, the protection of the weak from the strong; and righteousness - the personal characteristics that make such conditions possible.
And who might this person be - this righteous Branch for David? For Christians, of course, it is Jesus, the one who came to show us how to create the kin-dom God is envisioning here, the one who preached justice and embodied righteousness.
Leonard Beechy describes the promise we hear in this text in this way: “After a long and terrible night, said Jeremiah, a brilliant morning would dawn and a generation of God’s people would wake up in safety in a place renamed ‘justice.’” Almost 3,000 years later we’re still waiting to wake up to that day. I think God has a different concept of time than we do.
We know that Jesus didn’t come and wave a magic wand to solve all the world’s problems. We still live in a world filled with violence and war, poverty and greed, inequality and prejudice, disease, natural disasters, and those of our own making.
This past week 1,500 mourners gathered at Temple Sinai in Sharon for the funeral of 18 year old Ezra Schwartz, one of the 100 victims of senseless killings in what we call a Holy Land. It is a land divided, filled with fear and mistrust, in some cases outright hatred; a land where a thirty foot high wall divides those of different faiths and economic status. It’s hardly the land Jeremiah had envisioned. It’s hardly the kin-dom Jesus came to usher in.
We stare in disbelief at the images of a downed plane in the desert, once filled with innocent people returning from vacation; at millions of men, women and children fleeing the war torn violence that once was their home; at mass memorials of flowers and candles honoring the lives of people gunned down or blown up while enjoying a Friday night out in Paris, the city of lights; at a dash cam video showing a white police officer shooting a 17 year old black teenager multiple times as he lay crumbled on the street in Chicago. The brazen disrespect for life seems incomprehensible.
Where do we find hope today? Where is God in this broken, suffering world of ours?
Who is this God the Psalmist places his trust in, and looks to for guidance?
Who is this God Jeremiah channeled through his prophesies, who we are to place our hope in for a better life?
Who is this God I pray to for wisdom and guidance?
In his book Proof of Heaven, Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, shares some insight from science, of all places; “Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity - that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.”
Just try to get your brain around that idea! It seems very abstract to my non-scientific mind, but it is one expressed by mystics and spiritual leaders throughout history. While in a coma for seven days, journeying to a dimension of the universe he’d never dreamed existed, these ideas became realities for Dr. Alexander. He adds, “Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also - I now know - defined by love.”
He reinforces something I have believed for years; that God is that source of unconditional love and wisdom that we can tap into; that the divine is in everything and everything is enveloped by the divine. We just don’t see, or maybe I should say experience it, most of the time.
Theologians have a name for this. They call it Panentheism. God then becomes a life power, a presence and grace trying to draw us into what I and others call the heart of God. Knowing that presence is there in relationship with us gives me hope. We’re not in this alone. It gave the psalmist and Jeremiah hope. I believe it was the source of Jesus’ hope also.
If you think of God this way, then God is not separate, up there in the sky looking down on us. God is with us, a part of our lives and all of creation. Maybe that’s what the covenant with the ancient Israelites was all about, God’s presence: that the love and wisdom and guidance of God was always available to them, and us, even in our darkest hours.
It’s we humans who back away or reject it, like the people of Israel in Jeremiah’s time - the kings and leaders, then and now, who became obsessed with their own power. Think ISIL, Al Queda, Boko Haram. We have the free will to choose to be in relationship with God, or not.
If we could just see that spark of God source in each other, in all of creation; if we could see how we’re all united; you can only imagine how differently we would treat each other and the world we live in.
That brilliant morning Jeremiah talks about has not dawned yet. We are not living in a safe place called “justice.” But we catch glimpses of it now and then, and that gives us hope.
Watching those thousands of refugees walking in hope to a new life in strange lands fills me with hope that there are still individuals and whole countries willing to reach out to desperate people in need.
Standing with hundreds of protesters listening to refugees speak at a rally in front of the state house last week, hearing how our support gave them hope, gives me hope that there are still people in this country whose compassion overcomes any fear they might harbor.
Looking out over the fellowship hall during our Thanksgiving Dinner, packed with our members and guests, knowing that new folks are joining during this sacred season, gives me hope for the future of our church.
During this season of Advent, those signs of hope seem more visible. (or maybe I’m just looking for them). Anticipating the birth of a child is a hopeful time. Just ask the Oppenheimers and O’Reilly’s, those proud new grandparents. Celebrating Jesus birth each year is a reminder that his Spirit is with us - always - another reason for hope.
Whether you’re a religious or secular person, hope, peace, joy and love permeate our consciousness this time of year. Compassion and generosity abound. Whose lives can we make a little bit better?
As I was thinking about all of this, I remembered something I do each year about this time to find those stories of hope and love that inspire me to try and do better. I want to share one of them with you this morning. She’s the winner of the CNN Heroes award. Have any of you watched CNN Heroes?
I recommend that next Sunday, December 6th, at 8 p.m. you set a box of kleenex nearby and tune into CNN Heroes for a good dose of Hope. It will do your heart good in these dark times, and hopefully inspire you at the same time. (show video)
I still believe in the power of goodness to overcome evil. I believe there are more good people in this world than evil ones. That was brought home to me last Friday when I visited the 9/11 museum in NYC. As I was leaving there was a quote on the wall by Jay Minuk, co-founder of “My Good Deed” the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance, along with photos of events across the country and world. He said, “The great spirit of community and charity and selflessness that helped rebuild this city and this country in the aftermath of 9/11 - if we can somehow bottle that and keep that going … then the terrorists don’t win, and future generations learn not just about the attacks but how good people of the world responded.”
I remember friends in NYC telling me after 9/11 how people came together to help one another. They were united, if only for a while - proof of what can happen in such dark times.