Rev. Jessica Palys
I hope you all had a warm and restful Thanksgiving holiday, observing the day as you preferred. I love to hear about people’s traditions and where they come from; some families have certain dishes, or use specific recipes for grandma’s mash potatoes or oyster stuffing or cranberry mold. Some families throw over Turkey for Cornish Hens or Lobster. Some recite what they are thankful for before they proceed with the meal; some sing at every holiday; some just make soup and take the day to be thankful and restful.
This year was the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, and I was thankful that a few of the news stories centered Native Americans on Thanksgiving Day. NPR tracked down one of the elders of the Mashpee Wampanoag, the actual tribe who helped that first group of immigrant pilgrims survive their first winter. In an article by Neda Ulaby, she interviews the elder, Chief Flying Eagle, who is 92 years old, and his daughter, as they prepare his 92nd Thanksgiving Meal.
Chief Flying Eagle said he always looks forward to his Thanksgiving Meal, ‘with loving attention, paid to [the] family's ancestors. In the interview, his daughter says,
POCKNETT: …You make them a plate. And you put it outside after you've done your tobacco.
And the Chief continues,
MILLS: You present the tobacco to the fire. The fire and the smoke bear the message to the spirit world, OK? [as a greeting to those who came before].
MILLS: You probably say, just checking in - hope everything's going well. It's going well here. The family's good. You certainly helped us to get to this place, and here we are.
I love that idea; that our traditions are how we check in with our ancestors. Our traditions help us remember where we come from and who we have to thank for it. Our traditions are part of how we define ourselves, part of our narrative and the generational story we will tell our children. Our traditions and the stories that accompany them are how we reach back into history in order to see beyond into the future. Our traditions - these stories about our traditions - help us weather storms in our lives.
In our first scripture this morning, the people of Israel have an anticipated future that has been thwarted, and devastatingly so. In the Old Testament passage, Jeremiah is speaking to his people in a dark winter of catastrophe. The book of Jeremiah tells the story about both the threat to God’s people from Babylon and their own infidelity to God’s covenant, and then the eventual fate of Judah and, in particular, the city of Jerusalem. The people have been violating the principles of justice and righteousness outlined in God’s covenant, and Jeremiah warns that Babylonian victory and control will be their punishment. They will be amputated from their past, their holy city, and the future they envisioned for themselves. They will be like a great tree chopped down, of which now only a stump remains. The grief they had for their culture and traditions is not far off from the grief we feel now, in losing time during this period of COVID, losing loved ones, losing not just what used to be normalcy but the confidence that such a thing will return. We may feel amputated from the life once enjoyed, from the experience of the person we cherished, a barren stump in the ground.
But Jeremiah’s promise is for a love from God that still endures, that life - and hope - will rise up. As we light this very first candle and read the very first scripture, Jeremiah recalls his own city burning, and yet he speaks not of destruction but of God’s future as he offers his cry of longing. Advent is the time for longing, longing for light, longing for hope. We are always seeking light in Advent. We enter into Advent with the reminder that people have always had periods of longing for hope. It’s not a new experience in the history of God’s people to feel lost in the dark. And yet, God keeps his promises. We see this repeatedly in our Old Testament stories about hardship for God’s people, and yet God comes through for them in the end. Stories of harrowing escapes from slavery and tyrannical rulers thwarted by plagues of frogs and swipes of lambs blood. Stories of enemies bested by the assistance of prostitutes and barren women given miraculous children in old age.
We see this in the way Luke chooses to open his gospel, with the story of the old priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, an elderly couple who never had children. This week as we began our Advent study with Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Light of the World, we took a deep dive into this parallel story of a miracle birth heralding the arrival of an important person - this time, John the Baptist who is born to this elderly couple long after conception was thought possible. As we’ve previously learned, anytime a birth story is highlighted in the bible, there’s a reason for it.
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, so often left out of our Advent and Christmas recitations, exists as a mirror that reflects the story of Jesus while holding reference to all that has come before. Zechariah was a traditional priest in the Jewish world, where one’s profession as priest was inherited as part of your tribe. He was from the priestly division of Abijah and his wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron - both priestly tribes establishing this couple as part of the Jewish religious heritage with ties to the initial tribes of Jacob. Not only do they continue the ancient ways of the tribes of Jacob, they have a visit from the Angel Gabriel - the same who wrestled with Jacob. Their reaction to the Angel’s message echoes Sarah’s reaction to God; utter disbelief that a child is possible at so late an age.
Luke inserts this story to reach back into the memory and tradition of the Jewish people, to make that connection and make a continuation into the story of Jesus. For his disbelief, Zechariah is struck dumb, unable to speak of the good news until the child is born. But at the same time, the same Angel Gabriel visits another childless woman to announce she will soon miraculously be with child - a child who, according to Luke, will be a cousin to the elderly couple’s late in life baby. And
late in life baby will take on the role of messenger for his cousin. Elizabeth and Zechariah will birth a baby named John, who will become known as John the Baptist, who will teach and admonish all who hear him to harken back to the Jewish religious traditions to prepare themselves for redemption through his cousin, Jesus the Christ.
Advent is the time of both looking forward and looking back. It’s a time of introspection, a time for visiting the memories in our hearts, the impact people have made on us in our lives, and cherishing those people in our traditions to try to connect them to our tomorrow. Whether that’s reminiscing about how grandma made her mashed potatoes, or the secret family cookie recipe; listening or singing along to the Christmas songs that are part of your family history, cherishing and remembering each ornament as you place them on your tree, or pulling out the same old stocking and remembering all the times your kids found them filled. It’s both looking forward to a new hope in winter, and remembering the warmest memories from those who are no longer here to make them.
Struck dumb by the angel Gabriel, Zechariah has a long silence to contemplate the potential of a new child, the hopes and dreams he has for this world with his new child in it. In his bewilderment, he revels in the evidence of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness for his people; he has time to reflect on all the times God has come through for God’s people. During his long silence, Zechariah is forced to watch those around him, to observe the comings and goings and notice the signs, and start to see into the future. And when his voice is restored, it erupts with this proclamation or song of praise;
God has raised up a savior for us from the House of David;
As spoken by the holy prophets of old;
he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors;
and you, child, will go before the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge to the people of their salvation and forgiveness of their sins…”
In our tradition, Advent tells us to watch and wait, staying alert for the signs of new hope dawning, listening to the voices of messengers, and reflecting on our own lives to bring us closer to redemption. And in that process, during this season of Advent when wreath back into the memories of our ancestors while looking forward towards the future, what we discover is that a large part of hope comes from our relationships with God and with others; who and how we send love into the world, and how it comes back to us. We can remember in Advent all the ways that these wonderful people on our hearts this morning have shaped, invested and enriched our lives. Deep in our hearts, we offer the deepest gratitude to God for placing them in our lives in the first place. And as we head into one of our longstanding traditions here, the Kristkindl Markt, perhaps we can find time reflecting on the meaning of our memories of this fun and festive tradition.
And so I pray for each of us during this advent season, during this season of longing, of looking back even while we are looking forward, that we see joy and more joy in our lives; that we are able to relive the hours of yesterday while creating happy ones for tomorrow. That we wait, in hope, and stay tuned for the coming of the light…because we know, no matter how dark it seems, God will keep his promises. Like the scripture predicted, even in times when we may feel like a barren stump stuck in the ground, a branch will grow out of that barren stump, from the place of the severed limb. Although it looks dead, new life will spring forward on the fig tree after winter has gone. And it will never be the size and breadth of what had been there before, but it promises new life in our midst. God promises fairness, and justice. A world of peace, with love of God at its center, and love of neighbor dominates as evidence of God’s central role. A world where all feel safe and all can flourish. That is the promise of God: that God never abandons us, but holds us through winter and into our spring of rebirth, with the memories of love and the promise of new life. Let us continue to reflect and be ready in praise for the coming of that new growth. Amen.