Jeremiah 33:14-18, Romans 5:1-5
In this first week of Advent, our focus is on hope. Not wishful thinking, or good intentions, but Christian hope. We’re going to think about this concept by looking at a prophecy from Jeremiah and also a statement from the book of Romans. You are all probably at least reasonably familiar with Romans, but what about Jeremiah? Jeremiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah who proclaimed God’s warnings and promises during the last years of the kingdom and also for a few years after it was destroyed. He started prophesying during the time of King Josiah, the story we heard last week. Jeremiah doesn’t pull any punches. He warns the people very clearly, and is also really honest about how hard it is to say these things. In the last few years of the kingdom of Judah, the city of Jerusalem was under seige by the Babylonians, and Jeremiah was imprisoned in the palace jail. This was an awful siege. People destroyed their own homes to try to build up the broken walls. People starved to death, and dead bodies were simply left to pile up in the streets. It’s possible that there were even some acts of cannibalism, of parents eating their dead children. Now I know that’s graphic and awful, but we won’t really understand the power of what we hear this morning unless we know the reality of the situation. Up to this point, Jeremiah has been giving words of warning and condemnation. But now, during this siege, the message shifts and we hear a different tune. “So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-18
“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’
For this is what the Lord says: ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel, nor will the Levitical priests ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.’”
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also boast in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Did you hear the shift in the prophecy of Jeremiah? It wasn’t a word of warning, or a word of condemnation; it was a word of hope. And it came in the middle of some of the worst suffering that the kingdom had ever experienced. In fact, that hopeful promise of restoration did not come until the suffering reached a fever pitch.
And did you notice the progression in Romans 5: suffering, perseverance, character, hope. What starts with suffering ends in hope. This is how Christian hope is different from wishful thinking or good intentions. One of my favorite theologians defines hope this way, “Hope is the expectation of a good future that is awakened through God’s promise and supported by trust in God.”
Expectation: that’s literally what the word Advent means. It means that combination of waiting and trusting. It’s why we say that pregnant women are “expecting.” Baby G is in a state of “already but not yet.” And so is the whole world. The expectation of a good future that is awakened through God’s promise. Hope is sparked in us by God’s promise that the good days are coming, not in heaven but here on earth. From the beginning of the Old Testament to the end of the New Testament, the sure and certain promise is that one day God is going to set everything right side up. The ancient Hebrews heard this in the context of exile and return, which is what Jeremiah is referring to. We Christians set those prophecies in an even wider context, believing that Jesus began a process that will ultimately culminate in God making all things new.
But hope doesn’t just happen. We don’t just hear a promise and feel it. We might, for a moment. But the longer we suffer, the harder it is to feel hopeful, am I right? So the question is how do we cultivate hope? How do we nurture it and grow it in our lives? We do it not just by listening to God’s promises by by taking them into ourselves through choosing to trust God. This is what Romans is saying. Hope is something that we produce, that we work out, that we accomplish. Hope is a spiritual discipline. And it doesn’t come easily because it doesn’t usually begin to grow until things get hard. Paul says that the process of hope begins with suffering. Suffering is the manure, the fertilizer, in which we cultivate our hope. Without it, unfortunately, hope doesn’t grow. We don’t grow. We don’t grow in the easy times; we grow in the hard times … when we choose to.
Let’s look again at the progression. It starts with suffering. And if we engage in the suffering, if we work in it, we produce endurance or perseverance, a Greek word that literally means to remain under. And if we persevere, we produce character, we prove what kind of people we are. And character produces hope, expectation, anticipation, welcome.
The good news is that if we don’t already feel hopeful, we can do something about it. We can choose it. We can practice it. We can develop it. So how might we do that? Well it has a lot to do with how we frame our thoughts and how we talk to ourselves and one another. Have you ever been struggling and someone said to you, “You’ll get over it. Be positive. It could be worse. Just have faith!” Those things usually are not helpful, and they are not actually hope. They aren’t rooted in anything; they’re just commands. Psychologists actually call this “toxic positivity.”
What if you said something like this instead? “This is really hard. And you’ve done hard things before, so I believe in you.” Or, “Yes, there is a lot that could go wrong in this situation. Let’s think about what could go right.” Or how about, “It’s normal to feel this way in a situation like this.” Or “How can I pray for you in this situation?” Or this is my favorite one, the one I say to myself most often: “This is how it is right now, but something good is always possible.”
When we are trying to cultivate hope, we want to find that balance of acknowledging reality, but not being bound by it. We want to have empathy for ourselves and each other, we want to take time, and we want to be specific.
We can cultivate hope in our lives, not just for ourselves but for the world. God’s promises are not for our personal health and wealth and power. God’s promises, the ones in which we ground our hope, are declarations about what God will someday do to fix poverty and violence and addiction and loneliness and prejudice. We do not ground our hope in the idea that the good people will escape to the good place. We ground our hope in the idea that God will remake this place to be good for everyone. And we can trust that, or not. It’s a choice. God’s invitation to each of us and all of us is to trust in who God is, to let the testimonies of what God has done in the past move us to anticipate what God will do in the future.
That’s what we do when we come to the Communion table. We keep showing up at this feast because we need to keep remembering what Jesus did. Jesus was a Jewish man who was deeply rooted in the Old Testament promises like the ones in Jeremiah. He chose to trust that God had a plan for restoring the world, and that God’s plan was so important and so good that it was worth sacrificing everything else: all his privilege, all his comfort, his very life. And as we look back and remember what Jesus did in his sacrificial love and how God affirmed that by the resurrection, we root ourselves in that promise and find the courage to risk our own sacrificial love on behalf of the world.