Out on a Limb
When I was a seminarian, a growing number of years ago, my homiletics professor would sometimes begin her comments after a student’s classroom sermon with the words, “So, where is the Good News?” That was her greatest single criterion for any sermon - forget drama, gestures, stories, jokes, poems, songs, tears, learned quotes, mountain tops - she wanted every young Christian preacher to deliver the Good News. If it came through any of the aforementioned methods, great, but where is the Good News? This she would ask with loving guidance of young women and men who had just finished their earnest treatises that perhaps captured all of humanity’s sinfulness, but none of God’s grace; all of humanity’s striving for justice, without the influence of the Gospel; all of the brilliance of theologians through the ages but no testimonies to a lived faith within them or anyone; the soundest of exegesis complimented by relevant modern examples - solid sermonizing! - that did not capture the transformative, salvific power of Christ and his radical ethic of love, justice, and mercy. “Where is the Good News?” she would ask.
(I sincerely hope you will not be asking yourself that question when this sermon is through!)
My homiletics professor wanted to hear the Good News; she did not want to hear nice news, that all you need to do is let go and let God. She did not want to hear the cheap news, that our actions and choices really don’t matter because God’s grace, thankfully, will cover our debts. She did not want to hear preaching that tied up heaven and earth in a tidy little bow. The Good News of Jesus Christ meets human experience where it is, in all its pain and joy, rather than waving from far ahead of the finish line. Yet the Good News of Jesus Christ is the finish line, and it is everything in between: suffering to restoration, oppression to deliverance, execution to resurrection. No one can testify to this sufficiently in twenty minutes, but to choose any one point on the continuum and leave the congregation there is not the Good News.
Memories of my seminary professor came back to me last week during a student Bible study at Princeton. Considering the text from Luke’s gospel that is appointed for this morning one student asked, “Why do we read this in Advent?” Why indeed! Global distress, people fainting from fear, dissipation, drunkenness, the worries of life. This is not about the joy of the coming of the baby Jesus (actually, it is!). This is not about our expectation of the birth of hope, peace, and redemption (actually it is!). I said to the student, “Because this is the Good News.”
The Good News is the full, unsparing story of our salvation, the arc of God’s long universe. We begin Advent with a reminder of where we are now on that arc, and where we soon might be. They are places of profound challenge, but I didn’t need to tell you that. You know. Life is at once so beautiful and very hard. So many communities around the globe are on fire including, still, the land of Jesus’ birth. Cancer attended my extended family’s Thanksgiving celebration two weeks ago, inhabiting the brain tissue of a beloved cousin. We had the most joyous and thankful and real gathering ever, rejoicing in all that is beautiful because we are living so potently with the specter of death. Life is so beautiful and so hard, and God and Christ suffuse all of it. So that’s where we start Advent, “the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning”, as one writer puts it. Fear and foreboding, the fig trees that herald the approach of summer’s sun, the turning of the seasons with prayerful hopes that they might be better than the last, all signs of the kingdom of God - or were they? A glimpse of restoration is followed by fear of dreaded news that throws the soul into the deepest pit. What that we experience is a sign to believe and to follow and what is not? What is false, what is a projection of our hope or ego, our strivings, our pandering for acceptance? The seas roar and we remember how vulnerable we are. We open an email and remember how vulnerable we are. We are consumed with our lives.
And so we listen for the Good News as we begin Advent: be on guard, be alert, pray for strength, don’t miss Christ when he comes. “Really?” we think. “When the Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and great glory it will certainly command my fullest attention.” But we are consumed with our lives, this and every Advent, so we re-read Christ’s words: don’t let your heart be weighed down - not with dissipation, with distractedness, apathy, smug contentment, self-satisfaction. Be alert at all times, praying. Be on guard, says Christ, that your hearts are not weighed down with drunkenness; with whatever is your addiction, whatever habit or interest has become your compulsion, with whatever you use to numb yourself. Be on guard, says Christ, so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life. Well! We are responsible people and so we worry about the things that deserve our worry. They are legion. Christ doesn’t say don’t worry; he says don’t be weighed down by worry. I wonder for myself how to separate those two! How to worry appropriately but not to the extent that I am consumed, diverted, missing the arrival of the Messiah in my midst? Christ isn’t just talking about the end of history; he’s talking about Advent 2012 as an opportunity to miss his coming. “Be on guard,” he says. “Be alert at all times, praying.” Hear the Good News!
Jeremiah, one of Christ’s prophetic forebears, spoke, like Jesus, to the people right where they were, and he told them Good News. They were a people living in the fire, and he told them good news. They had Assyria to the north, Egypt to the south and west, Babylon to the east. They were going to get crushed and you didn’t need prophetic powers to know it. Jeremiah told King Josiah not to partner with Egypt for protection. Egypt would be no friend, and the moral compromise would be too great. Remember slavery? He told King Johoiakin to obey God or face ruin. He implored King Zedekiah not to fight the Babylonians. Zedekiah did. Judah lost. Multitudes were exiled, Jeremiah to Egypt. And in the midst of deepest despair, Jeremiah had the audacity to prophecy deliverance. He had good news. He reminded the people that God would yet fulfill every promise ever made. The Good News of God in Christ is available for us to preach at any moment, no matter how dire, because it rests in the promises of our God. God will ransom captive Israel, mourning in lonely exile; those words written some fifteen hundred years ago by a monk in Ireland, fearing for his life from barbarian hordes. O come, o come, he pleads. Fulfill your promises now.
Promises, promises: there are no others in the universe like these. God Almighty promises restoration to a vanquished, scattered people. God promises a descendent of David who will bring righteousness and justice. God promises salvation and perpetual safety to the people. This is very Good News indeed, but remember where the people were when they hear it. Remember where they will be when Christ is born - in the long night of occupation and humiliation, this time by Rome. Remember the communities and individuals living in the fire today across this city and around the world. Advent begins where we are. Hear the Good News!
The wonderings of my own spirit these days are about how I ought to live this Advent. “Oh how shall I receive thee?” asks another beloved hymn. How do I inhabit the Good News, starting right where I am? It’s the only starting place I have. How many times have I - and I bet you - postponed a project rooted in our faith until we got x and y done, reached a certain point, met a certain objective. Nope. Advent begins today with exactly who and where we are. The Good News comes to us today exactly who and where we are.
An Image keeps returning to me from our texts, an image of branches. Jeremiah tells us that a branch will spring up, a branch of righteousness. Jesus tells us of a fig tree “and all the trees” whose extended branches sprout leaves dependably in due season, and whose constancy is a certain sign of approaching summer. I would like to live, this Advent and beyond, with the courage that I believe would come from knowing that I am holding on to holy branches, holding on to the rock-solid promises of our God, holding on to the sprouting signs of the coming of Christ in glory. One day God will be all in all - with what audacity for the Gospel, for the Good News of Jesus Christ - might I live if that were the branch to which I clung? But then a finer image comes to me regarding these branches of scripture - perhaps the calling of the Christian is not simply to cling to them but to live upon them - to speak out and to live out the Good News from the vantage point of the heights to which these branches lift us. We would be living out on a limb - a place of risk and vulnerability, but also of audacity, creativity, newness of voice and of life. When we are out on a limb we do not retract our lives and spirits; we do not live small and live safe. We rather dare to live on the edge - the forward-leaning edge of truth-telling, trust in God, justice-building, mercy-giving, the outpouring of love on earth as it is in heaven.
I’m speaking of this as a place to which to aspire, this bold limb, this extended righteous branch, but we might also think of being out on a limb as where we are now. It is a place of risk and vulnerability that may not feel like Good News. We begin out on a limb this Advent. We or those we love are in the thick of strife; challenges abound; we know about risk and vulnerability all too well. Some of us may be thinking, I don’t need to imagine living out on a limb; that’s my life. Well, hear the Good News: the branch upon which you perch, however precariously, is the righteous branch of God’s promise - the Messiah, the Coming One, who executes justice and righteousness. You are not alone on that limb, for the branch that supports you is the very presence of Christ in your and our midst. Hear the Good News - Advent begins where we are. Hear the Good News: we are in the presence of Christ, who was and is and is to come. We are accompanied always.
Hear the Good News: while we live with roaring seas, dissipation, fainting, fear, drunkenness, and plenty to worry about - while we live out on a limb - the branch that supports us is eternal. Our destiny is all blessing, even if the road there seems all challenge. The biblical texts this morning - that so pointedly reminds us of where we are - are also about where we are going. Defeat, occupation, exile, roaring seas, dissipation, worry, addiction - yes. Peace, safety, redemption, love, hope, salvation - yes. Stay out on your limb, friend, and I’ll stay out on mine. We’re not clasping onto branches there alone, and it’s the only place of faithful integrity in which to be. We need to live out there, speak the truth we know, live it to our best, and pray that all of our efforts testify to the Good News: that no matter the depth of your or anyone’s suffering, no matter where you are now, you are accompanied in your journey by the God who continues to promise and to work blessing and restoration. Be alert, pray, stay awake - that the contours of your life may become the very sign for others that the Messiah will come, that every one of God’s promises is true. Out on a limb - there are easier places to hang out for a lifetime but let’s not do it. People are fainting with fear – let’s tell them the Good News right where they and we are. Out on a limb, let us shout the Good News that Christ is coming soon!
Happy Advent! Amen.