Tenacious hope

Advent begins when night falls early in the afternoon and the days are getting shorter still. At Cheekwood, they started putting lights on the trees back in August, but we try to keep the slower pace of liturgical time in our hurried world, and each Sunday of Advent we light just one more candle. We let a single, small flame draw our attention in the grey hours of morning and the fading light of day; we allow our expectation to build slowly, week upon week, until we proclaim with angels and shepherds the birth of Christ, the Light of the world.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord the cantor sings, and again we seek to do just that, prepare the Lord’s way amid the sweet nostalgia and the joys and worries of these days. In Advent, we practice living expectantly, with hearts wide open to the future God has promised and prepared. During Advent, we week to live more intentionally in the fabric of memory and hope, of promise and fulfillment. We go back in time to cherished family traditions, to customs lovingly preserved year after year, to worn tree ornaments that each hold a story – we go back to the days when we first heard how God became little like us in order to save us. We go back in time, way back to the days when God’s prophets first spoke of judgment and mercy, and God’s people first affirmed that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 25:10). Advent doesn’t begin with an angel’s visit, or with Mary weaving a blanket for the baby and Joseph building a cradle – it begins with the promises of God and the people who seek to live in the light of these promises.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.[1]

Tom Wright writes about waking up one early morning from a powerful dream. He had a flash of it as he woke up, enough to make him think how extraordinary and meaningful it was, but then it was gone. He couldn’t remember what it was about.

Wright invites us to wonder with him if our dreams of justice and righteousness are like that. We have a flash of a world at one, a world where things work out, not just for some, but for all; a world where all of us not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up in the world as it is, and we can’t get back into the dream. Where might that kind of dream come from?

“What are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream? It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all.”[2]

For some, this echo of a voice is only a fantasy, a wishful projection that has nothing to do with the way things really are. They say that we need to learn to grab what we can, because the meek will inherit nothing. “Stop dreaming and toughen up,” they say, “the world’s not going to change.”

Others say that the voice of justice and well-being comes from another world, a world into which we can escape in our dreams, and hope to escape one day for good. For them, this world is run by bullies and that’s that; they urge us to seek consolation in the thought that there’s another world where things are better, but not to hope that this world will change.

There is a third possibility, and it is the one people of faith have embraced for generations. “The reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have.” The reason we have these dreams of justice and righteousness, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us; one who cares very much about this world and all who live in it; one who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, and wholeness, and life in fullness.[3]

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. Advent begins with the promises of God and the voices of witnesses who speak and sing of the God who keeps promises.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah during dangerous times. As a young man, he was called to speak the word of the Lord, and for nearly fifty years, in the face of unimaginable hardships and pain, he proclaimed the word of the Lord. He proclaimed judgment against the city, the kings, and the priests; he accused them of abandoning the covenant of God. They were ignoring the cause of the widow and the orphan; they had chosen to follow other gods, gods that were more agreeable to their ways of ruling. Jeremiah proclaimed God’s judgment against them: the land would be taken, the temple razed, the city destroyed, and the people deported. The prophet didn’t make many friends; he was threatened, verbally and physically abused, and thrown in prison.

In 587 B.C.E., the armies of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, starved the inhabitants, and captured the fleeing Zedekiah, last king of Judah, near Jericho. Nebuchadrezzar first murdered the king’s sons and then blinded the king, so his dead children would be the last thing he saw for the rest of his life.[4] The land was taken, the temple razed, the city burned, the walls demolished, and the people deported.

Imagine a prophet in prison, overlooking a ruined city, desolate streets without inhabitants. Imagine a prophet in tears. What do you expect his parting words to be, words heard and recorded by the homeless of the city and the poor the Babylonians had left behind? Not, ‘I told you so.’

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, 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; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In 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.”

In the midst of catastrophe, the prophet speaks God’s words of promise. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God had promised that it would always be so.[5] Few of them had ruled in justice and righteousness like they were supposed to – but didn’t the end of city and temple, this physical and spiritual wasteland, mean that the promises of God had come to an end?

No, said the prophet of tears, there would be one to execute justice and righteousness in the land, a proper ruler, a righteous branch, and not because the dynasty still had potential, but because God is faithful. The prophet spoke a word of tenacious hope into the darkness of despair.

This fall, I’ve participated in a study group with several men at the Riverbend prison. We’re reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is an African-American writer, and the book is a letter he wrote last year to his 15-year-old son about growing up in this country. In one of our sessions back in October, we had a very emotional debate in our group over a single scene in that book:

That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body; and you must find some way to live within the all of it.[6]

We got into a passionate debate in our study group, because I said I couldn’t imagine not hugging my son in that situation and not telling him “that it would be okay.” One of the guys said telling my son “that it would be okay” was a promise I couldn’t keep; I’d be telling him a lie.

That was a hard moment, a hard way to realize that we had grown up in different worlds: I grew up with the privilege of hope. I tried to explain that the promise wasn’t mine to make, but to trust. I believe God has promised that justice and righteousness will prevail, and I want my son to trust this God and this promise, especially when the world continues to disappoint that expectation.

Days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise, says the Lord. Days are coming, when the city will be called, The Lord is our righteousness.


[1] Jeremiah 33:14-15.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 3.

[3] Ibid., 9-10.

[4] Jeremiah 39:5-7.

[5] See 2 Samuel 7:16 as well as 1 Kings 8:25; 9:4-8.

[6] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 11-12; my italics.