November 28, 2021
Our second reading on this first Sunday in Advent comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Continue listening for God to speak to you today.
Now it may sound strange… but I want to start this morning by talking about toilet paper. Trust me when I tell you… this will get us to Jeremiah. I’m sure you remember as this ongoing pandemic began how suddenly there was no toilet paper. And people worried and fretted at the empty shelves where before there was always plenty… and plenty of variety to choose from. But now… now it was all gone and the shelves were empty. Some people in their fear rushed out and bought all that they could… hoarding it… stocking up on their own private stash of toilet paper… without a square to spare. Stores eventually put limits on how many packages you could buy at one time. It got apocalyptic quickly in the world of toilet paper didn’t it… and not the best of our shared humanity came out for all to see. Emotionally we were sure it was the hoarders who had caused this problem. People buying up everything and then turning around and reselling it for a profit. It had happened with hand sanitizer. Why not toilet paper? The most reasonable explanation I heard about the whole toilet paper shortage was that suddenly everyone was home and using the bathroom at home. No one was at work or out using the bathroom elsewhere. Everyone was home and so the pandemic had upset the delicate balance of supply and demand in the toilet paper game. It took a while, but a new balance eventually came and the shelves once again were full with a wide variety of all your toilet paper needs.
But lately… continued pandemic supply chain problems and empty shelves here and there got me thinking about something else. I remember when I was a kid and one of the ways the anti-Soviet propaganda machine prodded our patriotism was through our ability to consume toilet paper to our little heart’s desire. I’m sure you remember the stories… and it would be in films and such… of those godless Soviets over there standing in line for hours and hours in the cold and the snow just to maybe get a single roll of what was sure to be some low-grade single ply. Probably had wood splinters in it. While we good Americans had so much toilet paper that we could throw it in the front yard trees of our neighbors and clog our plumbing with great big wads of paper use. There was no end to the blessings of our great consumer god. Until… that is… the shelves were empty and what you had at home was quickly disappearing.
While I’m just being a little tongue in cheek this morning to make a point… Jeremiah in his time was facing a real crisis. Not the Babylonians outside the walls of Jerusalem… he was faced with a people who would not believe that the danger was real. Not that that would ever happen, right? Not that people would convince themselves that the Babylonians who surrounded and cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the world… that the Babylonians the greatest empire in the world of their day… that the Babylonians with their armies of thousands and their siege works which had broken through every other walled city… despite all of that… the people had convinced themselves that the Babylonians would never breach the walls because the Temple was in Jerusalem… and God was in the Temple… and because God was in the Temple the walls would hold against any and all enemies. Jerusalem would not fall… not like those other cities had. This was Jerusalem. There were plenty in Jerusalem during the crisis… propping up this belief and assuring the people of its ultimate truth. Jeremiah was not one of those people. His words spoke of destruction and hard times coming… hard times that needed more than trusting in the Temple… hard times that would require becoming the people of God. Be the people of God. It’s a message that is repeated over and over again. In every age… in every situation… be the people of God.
Still… Jeremiah was an unpopular prophet in his time talking about how everything they were so sure of… everything that convinced them further in what they knew to be true… everything in which they had faith and proof that there was no end to the blessings of God because of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jeremiah tried to convince the people that where they placed their current hope… that hope would fail them. Now was not going to be good. Now was going to be bad… very bad. But the days are surely coming… the days are surely coming when the promises of God will be remembered. That this is not the end of the story of God’s righteousness. Place your trust there… with God’s righteousness… and no matter what the world brings… that trust will not be betrayed.
I was thumbing through a book early this week by Douglas John Hall called Thinking the Faith and I came across this… “The history of the Christian church contains periods, some of them lasting for centuries, during which it was possible for Christian thinkers to assume – simply take for granted – certain things about the nature of humanity, the possibilities of rational thought, the movement of historical time, the nature of the good, etc. These assumptions could be entertained without radical and regular examination, being generally and widely held within the culture at large. During such periods, it is not required of the church that it engage in active dialogue with the social milieu in order to discern the character of the situation and thus its appropriate witness within it. At least, such a requirement is not felt by the church.” You see, when the surrounding context is good and the shelves are full of any type of toilet paper your heart desires, what is the point of living into a future hope… the kind of hope we talk about here on the first Sunday in Advent? When Jerusalem is strong and the enemy is not at the gate… when trade is good and there are enough full bellies and coins to jingle jangle in enough purses… then the hope we are to be living into… that hope quietly gets substituted for the experienced good… even if that experienced good is violating the principles and the character of the God… even if that experienced good is not illuminated by the character of God… the character of God being the key to understanding justice and righteousness. While the good consumer god is fulfilling all our needs… it is quietly deemed alright to substitute in that golden calf for the actual hope to which we are being called. Until… until it isn’t.
Until that crack appears that is large enough for us to see through to the God that is being covered up… replaced… forgotten. The people in Jerusalem were covering over that crack as quickly as it would appear. The Temple of God is our protection. Don’t bother us, Jeremiah. And Jeremiah would reply… Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. So says God. Don’t bother us, Jeremiah. Don’t ask more of us, Jeremiah. Let us stay passive and in denial in our belief. Babylon will not breach the walls. Until… until they do. And how quickly will they find that their experienced good gives no hope to sustain?
What are our deceptive words today that we would rather believe in? Where have we put our trust while living away from the righteousness of God? Has it been the assuredness of the consumer god that met our needs and granted us all our prayers of avarice? Was it telling ourselves stories again and again about our great American character… of how when challenges arise we somehow become our best… pulling together… neighbor linking arm with neighbor? Good stories those… until that crisis came and our character was also found to be in short supply. What happens when we discover there is real distance between the lived reality of the ideas of American exceptionalism and Christian discipleship? Which hope do we ultimately embrace? What can we not bear to deny… true or not?
To go back to Thinking the Faith… “Those who are in good physical and mental health, with money in the bank, a promising career, and two lovely children, may have some additional comfort from the ‘consolations of religion’; but they are not likely to cry out for help, forgiveness, salvation! The same may be said of societies. Surely the reason why Christianity has operated in our society primarily as a ‘culture religion’, a blend of religious denominationalism and nationalism, is that few have needed it for what it really is – a religion of radical grace. The dominant culture of our society has felt no overwhelming need for the drastic reading of the human situation that is presupposed by a theology of radical grace.” Now those are not new words. This book is thirty years old.
At no time is the culture religion and the Christian religion seen in greater contrast than at Christmas. And it isn’t some new issue. Charles Dickens knew the truth of it in his time. In the mouth of one of the men who go to ask Scrooge for a charitable donation he put these words… “A few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?” Vapid news story after news story whines the fear that Abundance will not be able to rejoice as they would like this year because the supply chain disruptions means that what your heart’s desires is unavailable. The shelves are empty and all the Who’s down in Whoville will all cry “boohoo”. If you purchase less because of inflation, or you don’t get to give or receive just the right gift… or if that traditional menu is going to have some substitutions… miraculously we here at Parkway Presbyterian will be here on the 24th telling the same story of radical grace that has nothing to do with any of that. Christmas will come.
And here… here on the first day of Advent when we look to the coming hope of the future Christ… we will tell you once again that there… in that there… in that same radical grace… is all the hope we will ever need as disciples of our Lord. Amen.