A Most Ingenious Paradox (updated)

Sermon for Sunday, November 28, 2021 || Advent 1C || Jeremiah 33:14-16

Did anyone stay up late last night to watch the ball drop in Times Square? I didn’t. If memory serves I have stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve exactly once in my life. I think it was my senior year of high school, and I’m pretty sure my friends had to keep waking me up. So, I was definitely asleep for the ball drop last night. But did any of you stay up? Show of hands?

No one?

Did I open up the wrong sermon?

Obviously, I’m being a little silly. Last night was New Year’s Eve – sort of. Not by our secular calendar, but by our liturgical calendar. Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the first day of the church’s new year. There are several visual clues in the church that tell us we’ve entered a new season: these beautiful blue vestments, the Advent wreath, the greens behind the altar. This season of Advent leads us to Christmas. I love the way the Godly Play story speaks about Advent: Christmas is such a holy mystery that we need several weeks to prepare ourselves to receive it. We need time to get ready, to check in with our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our spirits. And that time is the season of Advent. We start the new year of the church with nearly a month of getting ready.

Today begins a period of deep breathing while we wait and watch with the Virgin Mary as she comes to full term. This is the kind of breathing that the world at large never participates in, because the world at large never stops to catch its breath. The world crashes through Thanksgiving on its way to Black Friday and then keeps barreling towards Christmas in a whirlwind of consumption. But the season of Advent invites us to something different, something revolutionary. Today is the Day of the Deep Breath, which ushers in a season of deep breathing. Over the next four weeks, we have the wonderful opportunity to breathe into the quiet spaces within ourselves and allow God to fill those cavities with the perpetual hope that marks this pre-Christmas season.

That’s what this sermon is about, by the way: hope. Advent is about anticipation, expectancy, and keeping our eyes open. Hope fuels these things. St. Paul puts hope right up there with faith and love as the things that abide. But hope has always been a tricky concept to convey, so let’s tease out hope’s meaning this morning.

When discussing hope, we first must acknowledge the fundamental paradox of our lives as followers of Christ. This is, as the Pirates of Penzance sing, a “most ingenious paradox.” [“A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. Haha haha…”] The pirates’ response to the paradox is to laugh, which isn’t a bad place for us to start either because laughter keeps things light, and this sermon could easily get very, very heavy.

The Advent carol, “O come, O come, Emmanuel” illustrates perfectly the paradox of the Advent season and of our lives as followers of Christ. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear…”

The name “Emmanuel” is a special one. First appearing in Isaiah’s prophecy, the angel who comes to Joseph in a dream gives this name to the child in Mary’s womb. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Do you see the paradox yet?

O come, O come, Emmanuel.
O come, O come, God with us.
O come, O come, One who is already here,
One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
O come, O come. 

This is the paradox – we wait for and anticipate the One who is already and forever with us. And this paradox shows us why hope is such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. Hope is faith projected into the future. Hope is the willing expectation that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive. The trouble is that the times when we most need to be hopeful, the times when hope really is the only thing that can sustain us, are often the same times that faith is in short supply and those boundaries of possibility feel impossibly narrow.

Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes during one of those narrow times. Things are looking bleak for the people of God because they haven’t been acting like the people of God for some time. The book of Jeremiah is a book of suffering. One tragedy after another befalls the people of Jerusalem: siege, famine, betrayal, assassination, murder, all culminating in the worst tragedy of all – being carted off en masse to Babylon and exiled from their homeland.

But in the midst of this bleakest of bleak periods in the history of God’s people, the Word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and says, “The days are surely coming 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…In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

In the midst of the bleakest of bleak days, God affirms God’s promise. There isn’t much hope in the book of Jeremiah, but here, in these few verses in the middle, we get a quarter teaspoon of hope.

But even a quarter teaspoon of hope is still hope. Hope of any size or strength is still hope – full, effective hope. Here again, is our paradox. Hope sustains us with the promises of God fulfilled at some future time that we cannot see in the midst of desolation. At the same time, God is the One catalyzing the hope within us. So God is with us even when, especially when, we are having trouble discerning God’s presence in our current circumstances. And so we pray, “O come, O come, God with us. You are here, O God, but come just the same because I can’t see you right now. O Come, O come, Emmanuel.”

Perhaps your bleakest of bleak day happened on the day your former spouse filed for divorce. Perhaps yours happened when your mother died and you realized that you would never again hear her voice on the telephone. Perhaps yours happened when a diagnosis changed the course of yours or a loved one’s life. Perhaps yours happened when you lost your job, or when you didn’t get accepted to the college you had your heart set on, or when you had sunk so low into depression that your bed became an island in a vast sea of nothing. Perhaps today, New Year’s Day for the Church, this Day of Deep Breath, you are in the midst of your bleakest day.

Whether you are or whether you are remembering when you were or whether you are dreading when you will be again in that bleak time, I invite you today to take a deep, cleansing breath. Let that breath fill the quiet spaces within you. Feel God breathing hope into you, an embryonic hope, like the hope growing in Mary’s womb. That hope will be with us soon, in four short weeks. But, as our most ingenious paradox goes, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is forever with us. Christ is breathing hope into our desolation, Christ is breathing vastness into our narrowness, Christ is breathing promise into our faith. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel comes. Rejoice. Rejoice. God-with-us is here.

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