- I will turn their mourning into joy…and give them gladness for sorrow. (Jer.31)
- Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs (Ps. 84).
- …tomorrow’s dust flares into breath. (Strand)
- …so that what had been spoken of by the prophets might be fulfilled. (Mt. 2:23).
Disaster and hope. Two sides of the prophetic coin. These two themes intertwine in all four of our readings today, beginning with Jeremiah.
Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry spanned over forty years and several kings of Judah. During his time, Judah found itself in the crossroads between several larger kingdoms fighting for power –Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, not to mention smaller kingdoms fighting for land and to stay alive. There wasn’t one period of exile, but several, and the exiles to whom Jeremiah spoke were in both Babylon and Egypt, depending on which wave of invasion had directly affected them. They were spread all over, which is one reason why he speaks of gathering people from all nations back to the spiritual center, Jerusalem.
Power struggles, invasions, uncertainty—their loyalties were pulled in many directions. Pressure was put on the kings of Judah by the population which was divided between who they thought should be courted as allies—Babylon or Egypt. In the midst of this maelstrom, Jeremiah calls the people of God to be centered in one thing and one thing only—their loyalty to God and the ways of God. To live lives that reflected a belief in the dignity of all creation, to bring light and not darkness, mercy and kindness and not terror and injustice. In essence, to go against the grain of the world around them. He calls them to true moral reform—to trust in their relationship with God and not in governments, or religious institutions, Babylonian laws, or Jewish piety. He does not call for insurrection, but a change of heart. Like Jesus who, several thousand years later, tells his followers to “pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”, Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon to build homes, plant gardens, marry, and seek the welfare of the place to which they had been exiled. That is how they would bring God’s light to the world, not through violence and bloodshed. A moral rebellion, not a physical one. That’s where their hope for a better life would lie.
Years later, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we find another time of power struggles and uncertainty, although, this time, within the empire…. Herod, for the moment, had saved his neck and remained in power. Having supported Mark Antony over Octavius in a power struggle that Antony lost, Herod managed to speak with Octavius before Herod’s imminent demise. He was clever and fast. “Don’t think about to whom I was a friend, think about what kind of friend I can be.” His clever words to Octavius kept him in power. But it left Herod nervous about his position and his grip on power. So when rumors started flying about the birth of a Jewish king, one who might challenge his power in the years to come, he was decisive in his actions. “Find that baby. If you can’t find that baby, kill every male under two, since the magi from the East had seen the star almost two years before and traveled all this time to reach the child.” (that’s the part in vss. 16-18 that was cut from the designated lectionary for today). The hope in the midst of this disaster cames from the successful escape of the one to whom the magi came, the one who was to fulfill the prophecies of old, prophecies of God’s reign returning to earth.
But now, over two thousand years later, where are we? Power struggles, invasive terror, and uncertainty continue to exist. The U.S. and Russia ( aren’t we done with that yet?), Syria, Iraq, ISIS, Afganistan, hot spots in several African countries. How long, O Lord, how long? And into the midst of our time come other prophets bringing hope, keeping the light alive. Mark Strand’s poetry represents them.
Even this late, it happens; the coming of love, the coming of light. You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves, stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows, sending up warm bouquets of air. Even this late the bones of the body shine and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.
Hope in the midst of disaster. It seems to me that there is imbedded in our human nature, part of our essence, the capacity for hope. We find it in the Old Testament, the New Testament, writers throughout the ages of all religious persuasions, modern activists and poets. Hope is woven throughout our contemporary literature and movies—Star Wars ( old and new), the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Independence Day. Darkness and Light, disaster and hope, life/death/and rebirth. And hope is found in real life, it is not just make-believe—our prophets include Florence Nightingale, Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Janani Luwum, Daniel Barrigan, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu. All people who, in the midst of violence and death, speak of the possibilities of peace and justice, life and joy.
The hope I am talking about is not a greeting card sentiment, but a gritty hope.* A hope like theologian Reinhold Niehbur talked about when he said, “ Anything worth doing won’t be achieved in one lifetime; so there is hope.”* It’s the hope that gets up again and again in the morning when new life, and peace, and joy seem far away. Who names the truth and proclaims hope today? Who are our prophets? Who brings light into our darknesses? Who proclaims what we cannot see, that God is not dead but is present with us in the fight—present in the fight to be just in the face of injustice, present in the struggle to keep centered in God’s love and not be pulled into exile in the land of anger, fear, revenge, intolerance. Who will speak the truth in 2016?
If we go back to the story of Jeremiah, it began with a call from God and Jeremiah’s reply “ Who, me?” If we go back to the story of Jesus, when things really heat up, we find him in the garden in prayer: “ Abba, Father, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want”. If we look at both the real prophets and the literary prophets, there is always a call and a hesitation. Who me? Why me? Certainly not me! But it is always me, always you.
We gain our inspiration from other prophets, but the call to live lives of love and light comes to each of us. The choice between good and evil is a choice we each face. The choice between God and not God is always before us. We won’t always make the right choice. And that is why we celebrate the birth of Jesus. God knows we will not always make the right choice, as individuals and as societies. But God does not give up on us. The birth of Jesus is the beginning of God’s testimony that nothing, nothing, can destroy the love of God, even when things seem at their darkest. In this is our hope .