Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

Advent is Eric Garner, dead from a cop’s chokehold.


In light of the two grand jury decisions to not indict the police officers who killed two young black men, I’m posting tonight the text version of the sermon I preached at St. Lydia’s a few weeks ago. This is, after all, the first week of Advent. #blacklivesmatter (You can listen to the recording here).

I’m so bitter right now, I’ve lost my voice. So, I’m letting my past words speak for me. #blacklivesmatter

The End is Near: Finding our Voices in the Wilderness of Advent

First Sunday of Advent (St. Martin’s Lent), 2014

14 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. 15 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. 16 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.” – Jeremiah 33.14-16

The end is near.

Tonight, our Advent begins. Advent is the traditional Christian season right before Christmas, when the Church prepares for the arrival of the incarnation of the Christ Child, God with us, Emmanuel.

It is a time to connect the Old Testament to the New, to remember God’s promises to a hurting, lonely world, a world in need. In Advent, we prepare to celebrate the gift of salvation.

Advent is full of symbols and songs and special rituals to create a special time of expectancy. Traditionally that time is four weeks. This year, we are going back to an earlier time when it was seven. St. Lydia’s is like that. It is a time of messages full of joyful expectation.

The end is near.

Advent, like her twin, Lent, is a journey where we pay close attention to each step we take, to our direction, to our end. Like Lent, Advent is a journey through the Wilderness to a place of rest and new life. This year at St. Lydia’s, we are taking seven weeks to prepare for the end. We have just experienced a season when we have listened to God’s liberating justice for the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden. Now, in Advent, is the time we prepare our response. Now, is the time to speak and to be voices in the Wilderness. What will we say?

The end is near.

Advent isn’t only about the beginning. It’s about the end. We have become culturally conditioned to understand Advent as purely a time of joyful expectation. And I am here to ruin that. The end is near.

As hopeful as Jeremiah’s promise sounds, tonight, it is conceived in the worst of circumstances. In a seismic shift of sixth century geopolitics, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah are on the verge of collapse, crushed between two juggernauts, Egypt and Babylon. They chose Egypt. They chose wrong.

Jeremiah’s hope of comfort is in the midst of absolute and real annihilation. Judah is about to buckle under Babylon’s war machine. Jerusalem shall soon be razed, its people scattered to dwell in lonely exile. Egypt cannot save them. Jeremiah is not the only one to know this. Everyone knows this. King Nebuchadnezzar is coming.

The end is near.

A theology is the practice of creating and cultivating an understanding of one’s encounter with God’s identity and action. At least that’s one definition. If you’ve thought about God, you’ve probably done theology. I first started thinking about theology when I found that sermons and bible studies weren’t enough. I had to go my own way, into my own Wilderness. I had to find my own voice and learn how to speak. And learn how to listen.

This passage of Jeremiah has always troubled me, because when it applies to Jesus as judge, where is that safety promised? This is a prophecy about a realized justice in a city restored. If this incarnation is the presence of that justice, the Lord our Righteousness, then where is it, now? And that’s where my theology kicks in. Theology, for me, is mapping out the puzzles about God. Theology to me is like great works by the artist M. C. Escher, with people walking impossibly-connected stairways or ants on giant moebius strips. It is strange and hypnotic. There is paradox and problem. The puzzles are not always solvable.

It is hard to believe in Jeremiah’s branch of justice, this arbiter of righteousness, especially in this world that we live in. Jeremiah writes something seeming too good to be true. It’s hard to believe. Where is this justice?

Jeremiah’s passage points to a solution to the puzzle of his people’s coming death. Was it enough then? Is it enough, now?

Jeremiah is thinking about God. A lot. And he is not alone. Because the Book of Jeremiah is composed of many voices: poetry, speeches, narrative biography, oracles. There is not a single Jeremiah. There was a Jeremiah, but he did not write his book alone. It is a communal endeavor, composed and developed over centuries, reframing and reframed, filling in gaps, erasing its own parts, speaking again and again for those who have ears to hear. All of this blurs and smears into what we receive now as The Book of Jeremiah and what we read and hear tonight. And what we take away. Jeremiah is the collective encounter with God and with ourselves across time and place.

Jeremiah’s Jerusalem is under siege. There is no escape. His immediate situation is hopeless. In the verses just before tonight’s passage, we hear that we live in the wasteland, the wilderness, empty of people and animals. There are no crops. No fruit. No offspring. We live in the end times. The end is near. This is Advent.

So, in tonight’s verses, Jeremiah cracks through the bitter, desperate present to foresee a future when Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. As strange and improbable as it sounds, even today. One commentator calls these oracles “hope beyond national disaster.”

God will fulfill God’s promise. Justice and righteousness will be in full force and plainly seen by all. This is a political prophecy, not one about personal salvation. It’s the city that will be restored. Its people will flourish. But for now, Jerusalem is a wasteland. It is empty with echoes. Judah is barren, scorched, and churned up by violence and injustice. There is hunger. There is fear. This is Advent. Advent is the coming of the Babylonians. They will soon be here.

In the wilderness, the roots are dried up. What was green was eaten by long gone sheep. There is only nothing. There is no food, no shelter, no safety. This is what Advent really is. Advent is the dire circumstances of life in a world with no garden. Advent is a besieged city. Advent is a crying infant, hungry and cold. Advent is an unemployed mother about to lose her housing. Advent is an unwed couple, pregnant, and looking for a place to give birth. Advent is a sleeting midnight. Advent is the Syrian civil war zone. Advent is Gaza and Jerusalem. Advent is a young black man shot dead by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Advent is a young black man in Staten Island dead from a chokehold. Advent is the Gowanus Houses. Advent is Hoyt Street. Advent is here. Advent is the Wilderness. Advent is now.

O Lord, how long?! The end is near! Can’t you see?! No. No, we can’t.

The days are surely coming. Surely. They must. How could they not?

What shall we do about this? How can we take what we have heard, what we have experienced, and work for justice in the midst of Advent? In anticipation of its end? In our desire for God’s justice and just-ness? In anticipation of the identities and actions of Jesus, Christianity’s claim on this branch? To work for safety, justice, and dignity in our city, in our country, in our world? In anticipation of what Christmas is, what Christmas can be about.

Here at St. Lydia’s we gather each week together to prepare, create, and share a meal. In this creation of community, we share ourselves and create something new, something together. Setting the table is a kind of Advent. It is an empty plate, empty cup and empty chair. But there is full expectation of the meal to come. We believe it will come, which means we believe in others that it will occur, that it will be made present. That we will be fed. We gather for that meal when no meal is yet here. This is a kind of “lived theology,” where were play out our beliefs and understandings. In Advent, the season makes plain our expectations. We seek encounter and community. The season of Christmas is the meal. We do this every year. Advent is the “not yet, but soon” of Christmas’s “always already.”

One of the reasons St. Lydia’s Theology Circle was created was to offer a safe space to find and develop our own theological voices. To seek our understandings of our questions about our relationships to God’s identities and actions, including the questions of God even existing and acting at all. Or, perhaps, somewhere on the spectrum. And everything isn’t bleak. I promise.

Advent is many things. Your Advent will be different. It will be your own. We want to hear yours. Let us take this opportunity to speak this Advent in eager anticipation of finding our voices and speaking with confidence and humility. And then once we have found our voices, we can have a better understanding of our actions, the actions of others, and what we understand to be the actions of God.

In Theology Circle, we consider Jeremiah’s words about God’s justice and righteousness and an actual, safe, thriving city free from fear and ask “What does this mean in our Advent, in our Wilderness, in our Brooklyn, in our lives?” Surely, those days are coming. Well, let’s talk about those days. The end is near, when those days will arrive. “In the Wilderness will come a righteous branch,” says Jeremiah. A tree will grow. Justice and righteousness shall be sustained.

We become St. Lydia’s, feeding each other and being fed. We hear a sermon and we share our stories. And intertwined in all of this are the voices much like those that created the Book of Jeremiah. There are poems and plans, histories and futures. Our individual theologies intertwine to create theologies of St. Lydia’s. We speak about God’s actions and where there is no God at all.

Speaking with each other about God is Advent in action. It is a journey in the Wilderness toward a place of rest and understanding. Share in the meal.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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