Advent Sunday 2021
Today, the first day of the Christian year, we wait in anticipation. Not so much for the celebrations around a birth, but for the ability to reconnect with each other (albeit with restrictions). We wait, not so much for ‘the light that cometh into the world’, but to lighten our isolation here and now. We wait, not so much for Christmas day, but for holidays and travel to beaches and other places of relaxation. For it’s been a long three and a half months.
Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of that preparatory season. A season not so much about buying presents and baking goodies, but for preparing in our hearts a room (as the old prayer says). A season not so much about bustle, hustle, and tinsel, but about slowing, noticing, and replacing regret with gratitude. Above all it’s a season, predating Christianity, of praying that the dark will be vanquished by the light, of hope arising again, even against the odds.
The Bible has a lot to say about hope. Often contradictory things. There are stories where hope is expressed by one’s fertility, progeny, or lands. There are stories where hope is expressed by having a king, a great leader, or a messiah. There are stories where hope is expressed as wellbeing for all the community (none left behind); as in good news for the poor, relief for the captives, sight for the blind and blinkered. Sometimes these stories don’t’ sit comfortably with each other.
In some biblical stories of hope the audience don’t hear what they expect. These stories that are illogical, unconventional, that turn expectations downside-up.
Take Jeremiah, for example. It’s one of those books in the Bible that I don’t read all that often because I find it depressing. ‘Woe betide ye you who have been disobedient and – guess what – the evil empire (Babylon) is going to invade and deal to you…’ Jeremiah was not a popular preacher. He was a predicter of doom. Indeed, his preaching was so depressing it landed him in prison.
And, 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 of war, death, destruction, loss, and suffering.
Out of a book of 51 chapters you can find a few hopeful verses, like our reading today, pointing to a time way in the future. The fact is there wasn’t much hope around in the 590s BCE.
While Jeremiah is in prison, at a time when it was obvious to anyone that the Babylonians would triumph, at a time when it was obvious that the people of Judah will be either killed or exiled, at this time Jeremiah bought 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. He’s not buying it as an investment property. No, he buys it because he hopes for a future he will never see. Like in the children’s book I read this week (‘Oscar and Hoo Forever’) he dreams big enough to include even those who can’t dream.
Today as we are besieged by many things – this Covid pandemic obviously and the shortcomings it has revealed (and will reveal) in our public health capacity, the changes in climate and the many knock-on consequences, the deterioration in living standards for many, and the rise in mental stress and jeopardy – let us remember Jeremiah and make investments for a future we cannot see and may never experience personally. Let us plant, buy, give up, one thing or many to make long-term visionary investments.
It was not until 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 an unconventional, upside-down hope.
Then there is the story of Naomi, some 500+ years earlier than Jeremiah. She is a lead character in the Book of Ruth. But doesn’t get the naming rights. Or a nice big window at the rear of St Luke’s church. Not that Naomi would have wanted these things. I would guess that she would be happy knowing that her daughter-in-law is honoured and remembered.
Naomi was a woman who travelled. She followed her husband, Elimelech, who escaping famine moved his family to the land of Moab. A foreign land. A land Israelites had considered ‘the enemy’. There Naomi raised her two sons and saw them married. Everything was going swimmingly until the tide went out.
Her husband died. Then both her sons died. Gone. Tragedy and suffering came to stay. Gone too was money, security, and the wellbeing they brought. There was no family to provide minimal social security in Moab.
Naomi’s name had been ‘sweetness and light’ and now she renamed herself ‘Mara’, which means bitter. She symbolizes the story of so many who start life secure, 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 ‘event’. Suddenly, the security, the positivity, and the blessedness are gone and their world goes to pieces.
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 (maybe?), 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: her grieving daughter-in-law, Ruth, is the unlikely saviour. By the end of story, the chorus line is singing that Ruth is the equivalent of seven sons. How can a poor foreign woman be worth seven sons? Nobody believes that in a patriarchal culture, even in one like our own that pretends it isn’t.
Naomi’s hope comes as a result of the loving fidelity of a needy outsider. One who said, one suffering woman to another, that ‘I will go where you will go’. Kindness and commitment (not unlike they would receive from Boaz). This is unconventional, downside-up thinking.
Then there is the story of dreamy Joseph, from 500+ years after Jeremiah, who is written up large in the Gospel of Matthew. In this gospel he gets the dream of an angel. A big, unconventional downside-up dream.
The backstory that we know so well is that Mary and Joseph are betrothed. This is the first step in the Judean matrimonial process, namely the exchange of consent. But they don’t live together. Which is code for saying they haven’t had sexual intercourse. But Mary becomes pregnant. And this is a problem. A big problem.
Just in case you think I think otherwise, I’m not theologically inclined to attribute Jesus’ paternity to a non-human power. But whether Joseph was the dad… who knows?
Regardless Mary and Joseph had a problem. In that first century patriarchal world the implication would be drawn that Mary has committed adultery. For which there is punishment. In a strict legal determination, she would be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). Until Joseph gets the big 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 know that dreams arise from our subconscious processing of 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 children. It is also likely, in the case of Mary and Joseph, 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. Maybe that’s why the story arose of them leaving Nazareth for a while (getting away from legalities)?
Mary too, though we know this only from Luke’s account, is also influenced by the dream 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, there are two ways of reading this story. One way, the obvious way, sees a young unmarried girl, in a land ruled by a foreign power, illegitimately pregnant by means of a consensual or non-consensual encounter. For this she will suffer and along with her family bear the shame and consequences of such adultery. The other way of seeing this, the less obvious way, indeed the downside-up way, is that this pregnancy is a sign of hope in the midst of hopelessness. And Joseph’s kindness and commitment is what makes it hopeful.
All these three biblical examples talk about finding hope in the midst of hopelessness. One of them, Jeremiah, sees clearly the crisis coming but irrationally uses his resources to buy a field that he will never benefit from. An act of hope in the midst of hopelessness. One of them, Naomi, is in the midst of suffering. Drained. But joins with her suffering daughter-in-law, to together beat the odds and survive. Two poor women express their hope in fidelity to each other. And one of them, is Joseph who dreams a dream (like the patriarch he’s named after) that is big enough to defy society’s laws, big enough to defy society’s ridicule, and big enough to embrace Mary and her/their unborn child. And for that act of hope he’s been immortalized in crib scenes ever since.
All these acts of commitment, kindness, and hope stand against what was conventional, considered rational, and considered wise. What are the acts of commitment, kindness, and hope we need to find and express in this day and time?