First Sunday in Advent, Year C
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Welcome to Advent! And Happy New Year! You may remember that the first Sunday in Advent is the first day of a new liturgical and new lectionary year. We begin anew each Advent in our journey through the stories of our lives with the Holy in scripture, worship and community. The Hebrew scripture lectionary text for today sets us on this new journey following the ancient and trusted paths of God. Our text comes from the prophet, Jeremiah, who is speaking to the people of Jerusalem as they are once again threatened by the Babylonians with colonization and exile. The people are living in fear, not sure how to respond to another looming threat - yet again. Times are very uncertain. Where is God in the midst of this crisis? Is God in the midst of it? Jeremiah brings the people a word of hope.
14The time is coming, declares the HOLY ONE, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David's line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what [Jerusalem, the city of God,] will be called: YAHWEH, the HOLY ONE, Is Our Righteousness. - Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 31226-31231).
Jerusalem, the city of God, the dwelling place of the Holy in the temple’s Ark of the Covenant will be called: YAHWEH, the HOLY ONE, Is Our Righteousness. Jerusalem, will be a place called “God is our righteousness.” I find that intriguing! The time is coming! In those days, there will be a place called righteousness led by one who is part of the righteous branch of leaders descending from God’s chosen king, David. In fact, in some translations this leader is synonymous with Jerusalem and is also named, “God is our righteousness.” This was a word of great hope for our ancient ancestors in faith. There will be a place called righteousness! Hope in this place that you already know and call home.
When our Advent candle lighting liturgy asked us to ponder where we find hope, where did you go? Was it a hard place to find? Did you go to an event? A person? An activity that you participate in regularly? A community? Did you look for God? Outside of yourself? Or did you go inside where the Holy dwells in each of us?
I did not find this an easy question. And I was the one who put the question into our liturgy for today, knowing it was uncomfortable question and that I did not have a ready answer. The outcomes of the two trials that have held our national attention in the last few weeks came to my mind, the trial of those convicted of killing Ahmaud Armery and the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. One of those outcomes gave me hope. But the other did not.
Then I wondered why I was always looking outside myself for evidence of hope. Do you do that? I think it’s a common practice. Then, I thought, perhaps, it would be best to begin my search for hope by going within to rest in the presence of God, then look at the world through the lens of the Holy. Isn’t that what I profess and preach and counsel - living within the steady, abundant, forgiving lovingkindness of the Holy One who lives within all of us, within all of creation and whose very being we live within?
Advent prompts us to live with this uncomfortable question: where do we find real Hope? Are we always waiting for it? Is it always in those days that are coming? Or can we claim it in the present of our lives? The prophet, Jeremiah prompts us to have hope in the coming of a “place called God is our righteousness.” His geographic and metaphoric place was Jerusalem. Obviously, Jerusalem, that holy and fractured city of God, is not within our immediate geographic landscape. Where is our “place called God is Our righteousness” where we find the hope of Advent?
Righteousness is a funny, old-fashioned kind of word in our times. We most often hear it used in combination with the word, “self.” No one likes a self-righteous person, someone who thinks they know better than the rest of us how to live, what decisions to make, what is definitively and ethically right or wrong for everyone else. A judgmental kind of person whom we would hope follows their own advice, yet sometimes we are not sure if they do.
In the Hebrew scriptures, “righteousness” frequently used to describe God’s faithful people in contrast to the “wicked” who have departed from God. In that context righteousness does have ethical implications that can direct our lives. Yet these are encompassed in something bigger that right and wrong rules. Righteousness is the Hebrew scriptures is following the path, the way of the Holy ONE through all of life’s inner and outer journeys. As one contemporary Hebrew scholar writes, “A righteous person is not one who lives a religiously pious life, the common interpretation of this word, he [or she] is one who follows the correct path, the path (way) of God.”[i] What is the pathway of God? Scripture gives us so many images and instructions, The prophet, Micah, tells us, “To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.” Jesus showed in his living, as well as in his teachings, how to love God, neighbor and self, how to live within the unfolding and ever-enlivening realm of God’s justice, peace and love. He followed God’s pathway through life to death and beyond to new life.
Each Sunday we gather in worship to hear and to respond to another way to follow in God’s path. Each Sunday, we celebrate God’s ways are challenged by God’s ways as God’s beloved community of faith named Plymouth UCC in Fort Collins, CO. Could it be that we are already living into a place called ‘God in Our Righteousness,” our right path?
In this moment of worship? This moment of worship on the first Sunday of Advent in 2021, begins a new journey through a new liturgical year. What does it mean for us to seek God’s hope in our place called “God is Our Righteousness” in our internal lives of faith and in our external life of faith in community?
Lutheran pastor and author, the Rev. Heidi Neumark, loves Advent and loves to write about it. She has been the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan, NYC since 2003. Prior to that she spent nineteen years as pastor and community organizer at Transfiguration Lutheran in the South Bronx. She writes prophetically from the experience of working with the poor and disenfranchised. Her words on Advent stir me. She writes, “Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. … Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word, anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo, bursts forth: … O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”[ii]
On this first Sunday in Advent we can say with longing, “Come, Holy One who became Emmanuel, God-with-us! We long for your presence to transform us and then through us to transform our world that still bends toward the violence and greed of empire, of the ruling Babylons of our day. Come, lead us to the place, the life, called “God is Our Righteousness!” Lead us to live within God’s ways and remember that God’s ways live within us. Come! We long to stand confidently within Jeremiah’s prophecy, the days are surely coming! Without reservation, we long to rejoice in the coming of God-With-Us, which has already been, yet is now, and will be again and again and again!
As the days in the season of Advent literally grow shorter and hold darkness, we realize that the “dark”, often a place of unknowing, is the place that holds the mystery of God’s presence. We do not always know how to hope, yet we dare to hope for we live together God who is our right path. We do not always have the light to transform injustice into justice, but we stand with Emmanuel, God-With-Us, in the Jerusalem of this beloved community, that promises to be a place of God’s righteousness. We do not, and may not in our lifetimes, see all the transformation and renewal of our broken, yet beautiful, world that we long to see, to experience. Yet we stand in the hope of Advent, of longing, of the promises of the prophet, together with the Holy ONE and we are not alone. Others have gone before us, many others long with us and others will follow as we “trust in the slow work of God.”[iii]
The Jesuit scholar and lover of God, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, reminds us, “We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.”[iv] Our longing is holy. It “trusts in the slow work of God.”[v] It anchors us, grounds us in the place within and without called “God is Our Righteousness.” It is the Advent Hope that can carry us through all seasons. Thanks be to God. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] Jeff A. Benner, https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/definition/righteous.htm.
[ii] Gary W. Charles, “Homiletical Perspective”, Jerimiah 33.14-16, Year C, Feasting on the Word Lectionary Commentary, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 5).
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.