The Second Sunday after Christmas, 2021; Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18
“Adversity does not build character,” said James Lane Allen, “but reveals it.” This is perhaps a kinder, gentler version of the oft-cited line from Nietzsche that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Regardless the source, we have had quite enough character revealing, thank you very much. If current events are any clue, the truth is different. Whatever doesn’t kill you may still get you in the end if you’re not careful.
So, before we go on, let’s acknowledge how hard and scary the past nine months have been for us. Let’s grieve the losses of people and community and tranquility we experience. Let’s admit our distress, disruption, and despair. Until we look inward with clear eyes, we can’t look forward to ways that give life.
Adversity may reveal character. It also reveals the cracks – the flaws in ourselves, in our systems, and in our safe and settled views of the world. We may not be as brave and resilient, as selfless and compassionate, as we thought. Racism, sexism, classism, egotism, and moral cowardice may be harder to root out than we had assumed. Life may be less reliable and more dangerous than we had hoped.
There’s a lot in this life that wants to kill us. It doesn’t care if we get stronger or not.
The first reading for this second Sunday after Christmas comes from people who know all about what wants to kill us. Their homeland was invaded and conquered. Their cities and farms, their homes and schools, their temple and capital were destroyed. They were scattered in exile among the nations. Many of them would never see their homes and homeland again.
The chaos and crisis of the last nine months have been challenging. But it’s been a picnic in the park compared to the trauma of the exiles in Jeremiah. But now, for them, God is on the move. Rescue and redemption are on the way. The scattered flock will be gathered. The captives will be released. The hungry will be fed, and the farms will flourish.
The Lord says, “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.’” God tells the exiles to ask for salvation because it’s already coming. Don’t just ask, the Lord says. Advertise it to the nations so they can spread the word. “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,” God tells them, “and declare it in the coastlands far away…”
Adversity reveals character, all right. But it reveals God’s character, not just ours! In the midst of the distress, disruption, and despair, there is a declaration of hope – “for I have become a father to Israel,” God tells them, “and Ephraim is my firstborn.”
Adversity reveals our cracks as well as our character. Jeremiah’s people know all about the cracks.
Their world became so fractured and fragmented that it fell down around their ears. Their greed separated them from one another and left the vulnerable to die in the dust. Their lust for privilege separated them from their own humanity and blinded them to the political realities around them. Their worship of self turned them away from God and left them hungry for a meaning they could not make on their own. Their pursuit of empire left them naked to the games of world power, and they lost.
The thing about cracks is that they also let things in. I return over and over to the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem.” The lyrics contain such wisdom.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Cracks are how the light gets in. Adversity can break us down. It did that to Jeremiah’s people. But it can also break us open. We can, as Parker Palmer writes, “imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about—a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid.” Or, he says, we can “imagine the heart broken open into new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.”
Jeremiah’s people had their hearts broken – first down, and then open. When their hearts were broken open, then God’s light could shine into their hearts. It’s not surprising that the most vulnerable lead the redemption parade – those far from home, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor. They come weeping for their losses and singing with joy. The vulnerable are the first to lose their illusions of invincibility. They are the first to recognize God’s rescue and redemption.
We are broken down in many ways. We can be broken open, if we’re willing. The cracks in our hearts are how the light gets in. We celebrate that Light in the season of Christmas. “In him was life,” the Gospel text reminds us, “and the life was the light of all people.” Sin, death, and evil seek to break us down, but they cannot win. “The light shines in the darkness,” the Gospel declares, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Jeremiah promises that hearts broken open are hearts made new. Later in chapter thirty-one, he finishes his prophecy. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The law of God’s love will shine through us and into a world wrapped in darkness. If we let ourselves be cracked open by life, the light will shine through us. If we let our hearts be broken open to love, we will grow and learn and flourish.
We stand at the beginning of the end of this particular crisis. I pray that this will prompt a time of reflection in our community, our state, and our nation. Will we return to a time of retreat and rejection, of paranoia and pain, of competition and complicity?
Or will we take this as an opportunity to grow in compassion and courage, in humility and honesty, in partnership and peace? Our society faces a billion small choices and a thousand large ones in that process of reflection.
More to the point today, we church people also have a choice. We can retreat once again into the cold darkness of the safe, secure and stable ways of the past. If we do, I believe we will continue our gentle slide into decline and death. There is no “going back to normal.” There is going toward life or toward death. Times of adversity simply make that clearer.
Perhaps we can stay open to the new possibilities this time in history has created. As our pastor often says, it’s a shame to waste a good pandemic. So, I hope we are praying and reflecting together on some important questions.
1. What can we learn from our own history and from other organizations about surviving and thriving after organizational trauma?
2. What strengths have we seen in ourselves and the church and our community and our world that we need to keep, to ponder, to build on and build out from?
3. What have we done without over the past nine months that we didn’t miss? What did we miss that we can’t do without?
4. What have we remembered or learned about our mission as a congregation that we didn’t see or confess, or appreciate a year ago?
5. What hopes and dreams, plans and promises, do we need to uncover as we prepare to go forward into God’s future?
I believe that congregations that see where they’ve been broken open to the future will find new joy and gladness in the journey. I pray that we and many other Christian communities will celebrate our cracks and choose to be broken open to God’s grace and love.
Let’s pray. Save, O Lord, your people. Bring us from our isolation and desolation into the light of your faithfulness, hopefulness, and lovingkindness. Use our cracks and brokenness to reveal your redemption in us and to the world through us. Fill us with songs of joy for the journey. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.