God Comes, Emmanuel

Sermon on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:3-5  Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. (48)

Introduction

Exceptional grief and sorrow don’t last forever. I remember a couple of years ago, around this time, that I entered into a period of marrow-deep sadness. At the end of 2019, a few negative external events collided with an already present sorrow blended with grief abiding in my soul, and then I was swept into the deep waters of sadness. While I was functional—the gift of being a detached observer—I felt the pain when I was alone. Then, as 2019 turned 2020 and 2020 let down it’s mask revealing itself for the virus laden threat to human existence that it was, I was further pushed into the depths of those deep waters, feeling as if I was just barely keeping above the threatening abyss opened below me.

One chilly afternoon in the middle of a deep south Louisianan winter, I sat on a couch in my therapist’s office expressing my pain through tears, she told me, this intensity of emotional pain only lasts for 45 minutes; if you can make it through 45 minutes, it will alleviate. Your body and mind and soul know they can only handle so much. I trusted her. So, the next time I felt the suction into darkness and pain, instead of trying to numb or run from it, I just sat there in and with it like a blanket draped over me—the intensity of sorrow and grief washing over me, and then, like she said, it would lift. It would not lift completely, but it lifted just enough for me to catch a breath, stretch, fall asleep, care for my kids, and sometimes even laugh and see beauty in what was before me and with me.

Nothing excruciating lasts forever. It can feel like excruciatingly painful moments and events last forever, but they don’t. Even in the deepest and most profound sorrow, things will lighten up emotionally. Even in the scariest moments, that fear will lighten up. Rage will dissipate. Even extreme bliss and happiness will mellow. (This is why there’s caution against chasing the dragon of “happiness”; you cannot sustain such an eternal and infinite sensation; it’s why it’s okay to be “okay.”) While it’s probably easier for most of us to climb down from extreme happiness than climb out of extreme sorrow, it’s nice to know extreme sorrow and grief do not linger forever.

Jeremiah 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.”

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Our First Testament reading is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the weeping and suffering prophet. The words of Jeremiah’s prophecies tell of a soul who felt incredible pain, felt the threat of doom, the urgency of repentance because he felt the tremors and the footfalls of divine presence drawing nigh and with it, divine judgment; but nothing he did or said could cause the people to respond. So, he lived with an immense feeling of failure.[1] “He screamed, wept, moaned—and was left with a terror in his soul.”[2]

Through these feelings, the divine word sought God’s people, the beloved. Jeremiah exhorted—through prediction—pestilence, slaughter, famine and captivity (ref. Jer. 15.2).[3] God’s judgment was coming: turn and repent! Jeremiah cried. But when that judgment came to Israel and Judah, Jeremiah switched gears; the prophet of sorrow became the herald of good tidings offering hope and comfort to those who were heavy burdened.[4]  Jeremiah, in our passage, is in this role, and he tells the people of God, the God who fulfills promises who is fulfilling God’s good word.[5] The wailing and weeping, the long suffering and existential dread, the fear of threat and weight of burden will not last forever, says Jeremiah. God will rescue! God will redeem! God will save! God will comfort and bring rest! God will act! Do not lose hope Jerusalem; shema! Do not lose hope, Judah; shema!

This God on whose behalf Jeremiah speaks is the God of the covenant—the covenant made with all of Israel—the covenant through which God yoked God’s self to Israel, forever being their God and they forever God’s people. This covenant will be fulfilled not through the obedience of Judah and Jerusalem, but by God and God’s self; it is this that gives the covenant that eternal and divine actuality. It will never and can never be violated; God will keep it.[6] Weeping, writes Jeremiah in chapter 50, the people shall come and seek God who has come near, who is near in comfort and love, in rest from burden and weariness.[7] The true shoot of Jesse, the scion, the heir will come;[8] the Messianic King comes to make manifest God’s divine presence and eternal love to God’s people and to bring in all who suffer and weep, those who grieve, those who are in pain, those who are wearied.[9] Extreme sorrow and grief do not and will not last forever.

Conclusion

Everything that we’ve been through in the past (near) 20 months has not been taken in as single unit. Walking through a global pandemic and social upheaval, barely keeping our hearts and minds and bodies and souls intact isn’t something we do all at once. Rather, we do it 45 minutes at a time. I know that the demand to keep walking, to keep getting up, to keep breathing one breathe at a time can feel daunting in times like this. I know you may feel like you just can’t keep going at times; but I know you can.

I know you can because you’re not alone; and you’ve not been alone—even if it felt like you’ve been alone and isolated. The truth is, you’ve been embraced by God and by the eternal cloud of saints who move ahead, alongside, behind, and with you. And I know this because I’ve had the honor and privilege to be called to walk with you these past twelve months. Through ups and downs, masked and unmasked, in moments of chaos and calm, in change and consistency, I’ve watched you walk, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, through this time—this very historical and very difficult time. And you’ve done it every day with God and with each other, bonded together through the divinity of profound and real love. And the only thing I’ve needed to do, because God’s love for you presses upon me, is remind you that you are the beloved.

And as we enter this new season of liturgy and worship of Advent, let us be consumed with that deep abiding knowledge and peace that comes with the ever-present love of God. Let us come into expectation, let us be brought (together) to the brink of curiosity as we await—with breathless anticipation—the humble arrival of the divine Christ, God’s love born in flesh into the world to reconcile the world to God, to eliminate any and all thought that there’s any such great distance to be crossed to God by God’s people.  

Beloved, extreme sorrow and grief will not last forever, behold, Immanuel, God with us.


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 105. “Jeremiah’s was a soul in pain, stern with gloom. To his wistful eye the city’s walls seemed to reel. The days that were to come would be dreadful. He called, he urged his people to repent—and he failed.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 105

[3] Heschel Prophets 129. “For many years Jeremiah had predicted pestilence, slaughter, famine, and captivity (15:2).

[4] Heschel Prophets 129. “However, when calamity arrived, in the hour of panic and terror, when every face was turned pale with dark despair, the prophet came to instill hope, to comfort, to console …”

[5] John Bright Jeremiah: A new Translation with Introduction and Commentary The Anchor Bible. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman gen eds. 2nd Ed. 1986 Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. 296. v. 14 “fulfill the promise. Literally ‘…the good word.’”

[6] Heschel Prophets 129-130. “The climax of Jeremiah’s prophecy is the promise of a covenant which will mean not only complete forgiveness of sin (50:20), but also a complete transformation of Israel. In time to come God will give Israel ‘one heart and one way’ and make with them “an everlasting covenant” (32:39-40), which will never be violated (50:40).”

[7] Heschel Prophets 129. “The rule of Babylon shall pass, but God’s covenant with Israel shall last forever. The day will come when ‘the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the Lord their God They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, Come, let us join ourselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten’ (50:4-5). Jerusalem will dwell secure under the watchword, ‘The Lord is our vindication’ (33:16).”

[8] Bright Jeremiah 296. v. 15 “a true ‘Shoot.’ Or ‘Branch (so many EVV), i.e., a scion…But Note (vs. 17) that here the promise is broadened to include not merely a single king, but the continuing dynasty.”

[9] Bright Jeremiah 298. “The name Yahwehsidqenu, which is there applied to the Messianic king, is here transferred to Judah and Jerusalem, while the promise of the true ‘Shoot’ of David is referred (vs. 17) to the continuing dynasty rather than to a single individual. Moreover, the promise is broadened to include a never-ending succession of Levitical priests who serve beside the king.”

“God is in the Gallows; God is in the Rubble”

Luke 2:8-20 and 9/11 (Homily)

The following is the homily I delivered in remembrance of 9/11 at the school where I’m a teaching chaplain. It was written last minute because that morning I felt powerfully in my mind and heart to ask the person who was slotted to preach that day to let me do it instead. Here is what I felt called to share…

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)

 

On September 11th, 2001, I walked from the subway station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located just a mile from the station in midtown, Manhattan, just outside of Rockefeller plaza, at 53rd and 5th avenue. The air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. The day was perfect. I didn’t expect that moments later while sitting at my desk I’d be told that a massive passenger plane had flown into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like into.” Was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible?

We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings take over the bright blue sky. And as we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the south tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were dismissed from our jobs and set free into the streets of New York City to find our ways to home? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could come in or leave.

It took me a while before I was able to fight my way over to my big brother’s apartment building, where, when I entered, the door man took one look at me and said, before I could say anything, “He’s waiting for you upstairs. Go!”

By a little after noon, Manhattan had quieted completely. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big one was silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed by, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to ground zero. I could and did walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’ve ever been able to do such a thing.

Manhattan and the immediate surrounding areas would never be the same. You can’t go back to “normal” because we were consistently reminded of the horror and tragedy as we walked by walls, bus-stands, bulletin boards, that were plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me for a bit there, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

All of the events of tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering that happens to us individually and collectively draws up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind the desperate questions of why? And where were you? And, Where are you God? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where was God on 9/11?

I’ve spent the majority of my academic life in the pursuit of that question: where is God when we suffer? Where is the comfort in divine silence? And there are times like 9/11/2001 where I come up silent myself. The only I answer I have are the tears I shed because suffering is real and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving?

But there are times when I see so clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has but a last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows; God is in the rubble.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quack. And the only reason why I can say this is because Jesus the Christ lay in a manger and the dirty outcast shepherds came and dwelt with God as dirty outcast shepherds. This God, wrapped in swaddling clothes, came to be with us in our suffering as humans. Jesus suffered and died and was raised on the third day to give us hope in solidarity with us. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. Did you know that this is possibly the most unique thing about the proclamation of the Gospel: our God dwells among the suffering as the Suffering God?

And God does indeed dwell amongst those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is in the midst of God’s people as we gather together, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines formed of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact shared in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed yes, but, more: when they showed up.

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.

Praise be to God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Easter’s Present: Hope Springs Eternal

He is risen!

Hallelujah!

The Lord is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

I’m not one to put more emphasis on one aspect of the liturgical calendar over and against another aspect. I know the importance of holding in tandem all the events of Christ: birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though I do hold these events in tandem, each one solicits from me a different response. Christmas brings with it anticipation and expectation: the baby has been born, the great rescue plan is under way! Christ’s life solidifies that I can have that expectation and anticipation; he is the perfect one, his is the same mission pursuit as the One who sent him: to seek and save the lost, to heal up the brokenhearted, to set right what was wrong, to defend the defenseless (to mention a few). Good Friday thrusts me in to solemnity that leads to my own death as I witness Christ’s death because he so loved the world that he couldn’t leave the cries of the burdened and oppressed go unheard. Easter is the brilliant light in the darkness; Christ’s resurrection draws from me a deep sigh of relief: my hope finds its grounding and fulfillment. The ascension reminds me: God is with me, God is working in the world, perpetually making things and people new and overhauling the dead.

As a rational and logical person I hold these events of Christ’s activity toward and on behalf of the world in tandem, but as someone who has suffered violence at the hands and words of other humans, Easter pulls strongest: hope springs eternal.

As a sufferer, I need to be called out of myself in the midst of my suffering, I need to be called to look not down at myself (turned/turning inward) but up at Jesus, raise my face to see this very God who is merciful and unyielding in His love; who, by the life of His one and only Son, through the event of the incarnation and the cross, has declared “it will not always be so.” Darkness, depression, sorrow, suffering, grief, loss, and pain have been given their verdict: no; and we have been given ours: yes.

Suffering has a unique way of drawing us to the Suffering God who suffered for us on the cross, who was raised from the dead and has declared that the suffering of this life will not last forever, that it is not the final word, and that He has conquered it. Suffering draws us to this God who is not far off when we are at our worst, ugliest, decrepit, sick, infirm, maimed, even when we are angry at Him about our own suffering or the suffering of those close to us.

Suffering draws us to this God who has come close and breathes into our breathless lungs—lungs carried in bodies exhausted from the battle, pelted by the hail-storms of pain and loss, bones made brittle by unfulfilled pleas and petitions. It is this God who breathes into our lungs and re-creates us from the dead, gives us real and true life and new hearts, who causes us to love him and to love others and uses all those things intended for evil for good. Even in suffering, the Light cannot be overcome by darkness.

This is Easter: hope. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is our hope. Hope that is so vibrant and fertile that it is the sole reason so many of us who have suffered incredible pain still walk this very earth. Our hope is historical, it is current, and it turns our faces toward the future because the promises of God have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled. The resurrection of Christ is the event that reverberates through the halls of time; it is the voice that echoes: “hold-fast; I am.”

The event of the resurrection of Christ gives the broken-down, the oppressed, the suffering, the down-trodden future hope that (in it’s most amazing and beautiful way) reaches back to the now and gives it life, life abundant. Future oriented hope in resurrection makes this current life vibrant technicolor rather than drab monochrome. We can walk through this life with our scars, because a new body, a new life waits, one free from the muscle memory of pain and fear. We can bear the pain of loss and sorrow deep in our bones and carry on in life because the future hope of resurrection and reunion reorients our gaze upward toward the one who defeated death once and for all. We can fight for and free the oppressed because our future oriented hope gives us the audacity and freedom to do so in the here and now, to live into thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Hear ye, beloved, these comfortable words:

“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken” (Is. 25:8).

And the Lord GOD has,

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15)

Today, Easter, hope springs eternal because Christ is risen from the dead.

Hallelujah!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!