This coming week I will be taking a Christmas service for families of those who have died this last year. Some people come back year after year. Grief, like other forms of pain and tragedy, affects people differently. We will light candles, sing, and put an ornament representing the one who has died on a special Christmas tree.
Christmas is a festival celebrating love, generosity and hope. It celebrates babies and new beginnings. We sing carols we’ve heard from childhood. Yet for many Christmas is a painful reminder of loss. We think of those who aren’t at the table this year, and should be. We think too of the distance between the joy of the celebration and the reality of many of our lives.
The preparatory season of Advent is a time for thinking about hope. And this morning I want to talk about four biblical examples of people choosing a pathway, usually an illogical unconventional pathway, and in doing so exhibiting or finding hope.
The first example is Jeremiah. It’s one of those books in the Bible that I don’t read all that often because I find it depressing. ‘Woe betide ‘ee, you’ve been disobedient and – guess what – the evil empire (Babylon) is going to invade and deal to you/us…’ Jeremiah was not a popular preacher. Indeed his negative preaching landed him in prison.
Sure enough the evil empire came in 597 and took Jerusalem. Then there was a rebellion, leading to a siege, the destruction of the city, and the exile of many its leaders and people. Jeremiah lived through these horrific times.
Out of a book of 51 chapters you can find a few hopeful verses, as in our reading today, pointing to a time way in the future. The fact is there wasn’t much hope around in the 590s BCE.
More interestingly while Jeremiah is in prison…, while it is obvious to any realist that the Babylonians will triumph…, while it is likely that the people will be either killed or exiled…, Jeremiah buys a field. Huh? Who in their right mind buys property in an enemy-occupied war zone?
Jeremiah’s cousin is the seller and he clearly wants to cash out. Who wouldn’t?! Jeremiah decides to buy. Not because he thinks he will ever occupy that land or have benefit from it. No, he buys it because he hopes for a future he will never see.
Today as we are besieged by many things – as diverse as plastic-saturated oceans, kauri dieback disease, huge global displacements of people, public health deterioration in our poorer communities – we need to make economic investments, private and public, the results of which we will probably not see in our lifetimes. We need to make long-term visionary investment.
It was not ‘til 539 BCE that the exiles returned from Babylon and by then Jeremiah was well and truly dead. He never saw that field, let alone profited from it. Jeremiah chose a path, a path probably derided by the investment analysts of his day, a path that signalled his hope in the future. His was unconventional, upside-down thinking.
The second example is Naomi. This last week we concluded our study course on the Book of Ruth. Really it should be called the Book of Naomi. This was a woman who suffered the death of her husband and her two sons while in the land of the despised enemy, Moab. These deaths were tragic; devastating; both relationally and financially.
Naomi’s name had been ‘sweetness and light’ and now she renamed herself Mara, ‘bitter’. She symbolizes the story of so many who start life secure and positive and feeling blessed. Then something happens outside their control (though they often irrationally blame themselves). It might be an assault, a death, bullying, a divorce, or a health travesty. Suddenly, the security, the positivity, and the blessedness evaporates and the world seems to crumble.
In a conventional story of this period, the expected solution to Naomi’s problems would come in the form of a man arriving to swoop her off her feet, giving her the security and blessedness of marriage. A male saviour would take her under his wing. Indeed this is still a conventional fairy-tale solution.
But in our story, the solution is bizarre. It comes in the form of a foreigner from the despised land of Moab, a widow with no financial resources. This widow, Ruth, is the unlikely saviour. By the end of story the chorus are singing that Ruth is the equivalent of seven sons – a line that is culturally totally nuts!
Naomi’s hope comes as a result of the loving fidelity of a needy outsider. It is unconventional, upside-down thinking.
The third example of hope is that of Matthew’s Mary and Joseph as per our second reading this morning. We can only speculate about who the father of the baby might be, but without going into detail I’m theologically not inclined to attribute Jesus’ paternity to a non-human power.
What the narrative does give us is some insight into the characters of Mary and Joseph. They are betrothed – the first step in the Judean matrimonial process which is the exchange of consent. But they don’t live together. Which is code for saying they haven’t had sexual intercourse. Mary becomes pregnant. And this is a problem; a scandal.
The problem for them both is that in the then patriarchal world the implication is that Mary has committed adultery and needs to be punished for it. In a strict legal determination she would be stoned to death.[i] Until Joseph has a dream, he has no doubt that Mary has been unfaithful to him but wants to find a way both to be faithful to the law and merciful to Mary. He doesn’t want to see her dead.
The part I find interesting is the dream. For we now know that dreams arise from our subconscious processing our lives. We also know that many men struggle with the notion that their wife or partner has had a sexual partner prior to them. We also know that many men struggle to be as loyal to their step-children as to their own progeny. It is also likely given the risky implications of continuing with the marriage and with the pregnancy that Joseph is in love with and deeply committed to Mary. All these feelings go into the subconscious blender of the dream world; with the result being Joseph changes his mind and defies both the law and the conventions of his day.
Mary too, though we know this only from Luke’s account, is also influenced by the dream/spiritual world. She too is prepared to defy convention. She sees, along with the narrators of these accounts, the pregnancy as a sign of hope. Hope not just for her and Joseph, but for Israel and the whole world.
So what looks from the outside/’obvious’ world like a young poor unmarried girl, in a land ruled by a foreign power, is illegitimately pregnant by means of a consensual or non-consensual encounter and will suffer, along with her family the shame and consequences of such adultery, is seen from the inside/’spiritual’ world as a sign of hope. Huh?
This too is upside-down, unconventional thinking.
My last example is the party-going habits of the adult Jesus. One of the things about Jesus both in his teaching and social practice was that he liked parties. Time and again his stories end with a party. Time and again he is found with both society’s desirables and dregs happily mulling life over around the dining table.
His critics noticed. ‘The people are suffering and yet you are celebrating?’ they sneered. ‘Mr Jesus, how can you be pious and party?’
They had a point. Palestine had been invaded by the Roman Empire and its expansionist greed some years before. Taxation was heavy. Most people lived on very little and were pressured to pay more. Resistance was brutally suppressed. There seemed little to celebrate. Life was bad and probably going to get worse.
There were other prophets, like John the baptiser, who went around saying ‘It’s only the start of bad things.’ These prophets advocated belt-tightening, prayer, and hope that a God somewhere off the planet would come and rescue them.
Jesus, seemingly uniquely, had a confidence in the basic goodness of a this-worldly God who was close at hand and close to the heart. It was an irrational confidence. Yet from that confidence emanated hope. It was a quiet assurance that all would be well even when everything looked so bleak.
Having a party to celebrate life when times are tough is not a crass act of denial but a tentative act of faith. It is not ‘eat, drink, and be merry and anesthetize our pain’, but ‘eat, drink, and be merry for today we are alive.’ It is getting together in the hope that no matter how desperate things seem the spirit of life is stronger still.
So acts of hope: buying a field that you will never benefit from; finding grace in the fidelity of a poor foreigner; supporting an illegitimate pregnancy;, and celebrating life even when life seems hopeless. These are signs of Advent, signs that don’t make much sense (are a non-sense), signs that point to the upside-down, topsy-turvy community of God that Jesus was and is instigating.
[i] Deuteronomy 22:20-21