It was a fortuitous decision when, several years ago, Churches who value the ancient traditions—like Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and others—decided to use blue as the color for Advent. Once upon a time the color was purple, the penitential color of the longer season of Lent. And as function follows form, a purple Advent was often treated as a mini-sort of Lent. Dark. Spartan. Somber. “No Christmas for you”…until the night of December 24th.
But Christmas is not Easter. So Advent should not be Lent. Yes, the crucified and resurrected Son of God is at the heart of both of these seasons. Which means that sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness permeate both Advent and Lent; but each in its own way.
In the preparatory season of Lent, the weeks grow darker and darker in the Readings, the preaching, the hymns and other music, the closer we get to Good Friday, that day when the darkness becomes palpable. Then Easter bursts upon us in glorious light. Purple, black, golden white…these are the colors of the season.
In Advent, starting today on the 1st Sunday, with only hints of the day that is to come, the Readings and preaching and music of this season grows brighter and brighter the closer we get to Christmas. Unlike Lent when the light is extinguished, Advent is the season of the coming of the Light. So the color is blue giving way to the white of Christmas candlelight. And now it begins again. And, man!, does it begin in the dark!
Now you wouldn’t think so from the little snippet of verses we have in our Reading. Jeremiah announces, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord.” Days of promise! “I will fulfill the promise I made,” says the Lord God. “A Righteous Branch will spring up for David, and He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land… The Lord is our righteousness.” Good stuff!
But all of this good stuff about promises and salvation is set within a very dire time in Israel’s history. Jerusalem has seen the northern kingdom of Samaria conquered and deported by the Assyrians. Only Judah and little Benjamin remain of the twelve tribes of Israel. And now the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, is knocking at the city gates, to huff and puff and blow their house clean away. Jeremiah himself is in prison. The powers that be grew weary of his prophecies of doom and gloom. Life was grim…very grim. And yet in this passage, Jeremiah is anything but grim! He announces, “Behold, the days are coming…” Days of promises fulfilled. Days of salvation. Days of justice and righteousness and peace. “I will fulfill!” says the Lord God almighty. The day is coming…but…not yet. Just like Christmas.
Jeremiah’s words here remind me of Robert Frost’s famous, famous poem. “Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow. / My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year. / He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake. / The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake. / The woods are lovely, dark and deep. / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.”
The poet has a long way to go before his promises are fulfilled. And yet…there in the darkness, so silent he can almost hear the sound of falling snow…already he has a taste of that fulfillment. The miles yet to go, the sleep yet to come, is already there with him by those woods so lovely, dark and deep.
Jeremiah, locked up in prison, will buy a piece of property in doomed Jerusalem. The deed will be buried in a clay jar, to be recovered someday…although not by him. He does this because the Lord had promised, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” The promise is a long way down the road, but already Jeremiah has the fulfilled promise made tangible in that deed buried in the ground.
So the prophet doesn’t turn away to easy answers. He doesn’t lie to the people about the darkness that is coming upon them. Yet Jeremiah proclaims hope in that darkness, a hope that comes from far beyond the political, military, social, and economic solutions which politicians may dream up. Even the best of human dreams are still only temporal. But Jeremiah points to a future in which the Lord’s own righteousness will dwell with His people. The time is not yet, but it is coming. The Lord has promised.
Jeremiah doesn’t know, but we do! We know. We know that Branch. His name is Jesus. We know His justice…His surprising crucifixion justice. He suffers so that we may be redeemed. He dies so that we may live forever. Such otherworldly justice!
We know His righteousness. His pardon for our sin. His grace for our great fall. We know Him. And yet, not yet do we fully know what God has promised in His Son, Jesus. Not yet do we know perfect freedom from sin and fear that comes in Christ. Not yet do we know the paradise of perfect life and perfect peace. Not yet…not yet. Still, the Lord promises, “The day is coming…”
“Oh, there you go again,” sneer the critics. “That’s the trouble with you Christians and your Christmas…it’s all pie in the sky!” What, you don’t like pie? Ah…here is where the critics always get it wrong. Certainly the day of fulfillment is not yet here—for Jeremiah that would be Christmas; then at Christmas that coming day would be Easter; then following Easter, the coming day is the Last Day. And certainly it is pie in the sky as far as that goes.
But…but this particular pie is one that God has sliced and served up on a plate. He has warmed it up for us and even added a scoop of ice cream. His pie in the sky is already served up right here in front of us today! The not yet is ours now.
Jeremiah was directed to bury the tangible promise of God in a clay jar where it would remain for some seventy years before its fulfillment. But even though he would not live that long, he already had the fulfillment made tangible in that deed.
So too for us, the days are yet to come…Christmas pointing to Easter pointing to the Last Day. The fulfillment of all that God has promised is yet to come! But already what is on the Last Day was there at Christmas; it was there at Easter. Already this particular pie is served up for us! It’s served up into your ears by the sound of my voice. It’s served up onto your tongue in the Body and Blood at the altar. The promise of God, and all of its future fulfillment is made tangible, for you, now! Take heed! Take, eat!
When we are in the midst of a ‘situation,’ as is our nation these days, not to mention Europe, and the whole world, we have difficulty looking beyond that situation, except into darkness. The way ahead dissolves into panic over the immediate circumstances. The horizon shrinks down to concerns of sheer survival. And there are miles to go before we can sleep peacefully once again in the midst of all of our ‘situations’ these days!
But standing against all the fears and failures of the present time is Jeremiah’s prophecy: God’s promise will be fulfilled. A righteous Branch will spring up. God’s people will dwell in safety. That’s Jesus in a manger…Jesus on a cross…Jesus coming one day with the clouds of heaven and all His holy ones.
But…not yet. For now—as we sit here, like Robert Frost’s sleigh-rider, with all the miles stretching before us before we sleep, and perhaps with so much piling up on us that we wish we could just curl up in that snow and go sleep now—with miles to go before fulfillment, the promise of God is already here for you. The fulfillment of all of God’s promises is Jesus here for you, now. His voice in your ear. His flesh on your tongue. Here and now, promise enough to ride on in hope and faith, through our present darkness, to that promise of fulfillment that is most surely coming.