Defiant Hope

Text: Jeremiah 33:14-16

If there is one thing that most people don’t know about the Bible, it’s this: The greatest and most profound stories and sayings from Scripture were written in times of adversity or decline. The greatest words of hope, deep reflections that long for God’s presence in the world, were all written in dark times.

They are defiant, proclaiming God’s love and power when things were falling apart. This is a rage against the darkness, and it gave and gives energy for people to persist, to continue, and to make it through those dark times. When the prophets of the day raged against the dying of the light, their words became that very light that gave people hope.

Take Jeremiah:

14The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” –Jeremiah 33:14-16

This has a tone of the epic. The days are surely coming… that a righteous branch will spring up for David… and there will be justice and righteousness in the land… All will be made right, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. All will be well… and all hope fulfilled.

Wow… admittedly, this sounds really cool… but so what? It seems to be an optimistic expression of something but really we don’t know what. Jeremiah is expressing hope for the future… great! Yet it seems disconnected, from anything tangible.

Unfortunately, we take this one out of context if we just leave it here. Jeremiah expresses this wondrous vision of hope towards the end of this chapter, in the larger picture, he’s saying here’s the hope, “but we’re not there yet.” If this vision is of a hope of Israel restored, the message comes in the midst of a very dark time. It is defiant hope.

At the beginning of Advent, we often hear from several of the well-known in Hebrew Scripture, Isaiah, Jeremiah in particular. What these and others have in common is a shared crisis, facing the destruction of their nation, needing to plant a seed of hope when everything else around them has gone up in flames. The greatest and most profound expressions of hope came in very dark times.

So often our knowledge about Biblical history is rather limited. We tend to think of Biblical times as having been idyllic, peaceful and trouble-free. We tend to look to the heydays, the high points in Israel’s history… king David, king Solomon… among others. Yet we have long since forgotten that most of the Biblical experience, a large part of the writings that we have today, came together during dark times. Foreign occupation, war, famine, strife, exile were very much a part of the experience. It is out of this struggle with identity and crisis do we get these optimistic voices. These are not sun-shiny, sentimental wishes, but a genuine expression of hope in the midst of dark times… almost as a defiance of what is happening around them.

In Jeremiah’s case… by the time he offered these words towards the end of the book, his prophetic words that Judah would indeed fall to the Babylonians had come to pass. Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Temple in ruins, and the religious and cultural elite were being forcibly confined in exile. Jeremiah escaped, fleeing to Egypt, but he voices optimism and hope that Israel would be restored. Jeremiah expresses of hope that this shall happen, but it certainly has not happened. Not yet, anyway. We have to remember that Jeremiah would not live to see the fall of Babylon, but ultimately this voice of optimism helped give the people a strength of faith that would see them through this dark time. Even so, Jeremiah would spend the rest of his life in the midst of the not yet.

It is that sense of expectant waiting, but also that sense not yet that is the essence of Advent, perhaps many more of us can relate to. We celebrate Advent in a changed world. International relations have taken on a much different tone since September 11th, and even the rights and freedoms that we have taken for granted were called into question… lost… and now we seek to recover them again. We live in a time where while we no longer live with an immediate fear of nuclear annihilation, we find ourselves still looking over our shoulders, not even really sure why. When I served as Presbyterian Chaplain to the University of Western Ontario, I did far more counseling in the months that followed 9/11 than I did in previous years combined. It’s wasn’t just with undergraduate students, it’s been with faculty, staff, graduate-level students. There is an underlying fear, and people are looking over their shoulders wondering if they could be next. As a people today, I think we understand the “not yet” all too well.

Maybe that’s why Jeremiah’s words carry such a deep resonance today. Not in so far as his specific words, because really, they come across as almost a dreamy Disneyland-ish vision of the future. In essence it isn’t what he says so much as when he says it. In the midst of this “not yet” world, Jeremiah has the audacity to proclaim a vision of hope, when even he himself is weighed down with the burden of the reality he sees. He expresses optimism in the midst of a pessimistic landscape, where Israel has become “just like everybody else.”

Jeremiah dares to see something different. He dares to look forward, to hope, when everyone else is looking over their shoulder for what doom is coming next. I think that takes a great deal of courage, to be able to speak with hope of the future when everyone else it seems is sitting in ashes around him. He lives with a sense of optimism, even though he himself knows that he won’t live to see it fulfilled.

Advent is about daring to see something different, about daring to see the world differently. It is about lighting a candle in the midst of darkness, and not trying to stampede our way into Christmas… but consciously live in that sense of not yet. The trouble is, our society is not very good at waiting in this sense of ‘not yet’.

The hope of Advent is not about ignoring the dark times, but to affirm that God is still there, working in the midst of them towards something new. We know that Jeremiah would not live to see his own optimistic hope of Israel restored, but we also know that his prophetic words would give that sense of hope not only for the people who lived in the darkness of the exile, but for generations to come. His inkling that God was up to something new would turn into something far beyond his own imagining. His expression of hope that a root from the branch of Jesse would spring up again gave a metaphor for something truly new and unique many hundreds of years later, and would have an impact for thousands more. Jeremiah’s words continue to give hope to us today, reminding us of promises fulfilled, as we ourselves continue to wait in defiant hope.