Service on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/seeyouonsunday/videos/229714666819980
From 1917 until 1949, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote the legendarium that is the story of Middle Earth. The stories, histories, and characters were influenced by his own life and childhood, by Anglo-Saxon literature and mythologies, two World Wars, and his Christian faith.
It is from the earliest of the writing that we have the naming of the Long Defeat and it is revealed through the stories of elves and hobbits, dwarfs and humans.
In Norse mythology, the ark of the universe bends toward Ragnarok–an end of things, a time of destruction. What is often missed is that it isn’t a permanent ending but an ending that leads to something new, something restored. Tolkien have held that with the story in Revelation–an ending that brings about new life. Perhaps what Tolkien saw was that endings are not always the end, that there are reasons to get up and keep going. Perhaps in the midst of a war, he saw that there were reasons to get up and keep going.
That is the long defeat–getting up and doing the right things, fighting for the good and the right and the true and the just again and again because it is the right thing, because it is good, because the fight is worth fighting and not knowing how it will turn out, even if there is no winning, no victory.
That is rarely how we go into the world, doing a thing, fighting a fight, interviewing for a job, trying something new when we don’t know if we can win, get the job, do it right or perfect, without checking the odds. We are trained to see winning as the reason–even in team sports there are VIP’s, in bands is a first and second chair. And there are adults and children that choose not to participate, not to join, not to try rather than be less than perfect or the best.
And I think that it extends into not doing something if I can’t get something out of it. What do I have to gain by jumping in, by participating, by joining, by trying, by failing? What do I have to gain by showing up, by doing the right thing, by trying, by failing, by not knowing the outcome?
And to be fair, I think that this is what happens in much of the Christian tradition–we, the universal we, have decided that to convince people to do well now, to do the right thing, to be kind or ethical, to not do wrong or sin, we have market HARD on the end. We have put the reward of renewed life or the destruction of life as the reasons to be good. We hold Heaven and Hell as the reasons to be good, the primary reasons. And there are many who suggest or explicitly state that without the prize of heaven or the fear of hell no one would be moral or ethical or good.
In our story today, we’re about 100 years from last week when we were describing the ideal king, the newborn heir Hezekiah would bring the people back into the covenant and save them from destruction and Hezekiah was great. But his son and grandson… not so much. Josiah was a child when he was consecrated king of Judah in Jerusalem and for two generations the kingdom had fallen away from their covenant with God. But there was something in Josiah that called him back to God, that led him to restore the temple, and recognize the importance of the book of law that they found there and feel the devastation that they had fallen so far away.
They went to hear from God from the prophetess and learned now destruction would be inevitable. Jerusalem would be under siege by Babylon, would be under fire, the temple would fall, their leaders would be removed, and the world as they knew it would be over. In 2 generations the monarchy would be decimated and Judah would just be another part of this rising empire.
And Josiah, the priests, the people could have fallen into nihilism–“God must hate us! It doesn’t matter what we do! We can’t fix anything! We should just keep going as we like! Take what we can! Don’t care who we hurt on the way! It doesn’t matter the consequences because we’ve heard it doesn’t matter what we do!”
But instead, Josiah gathers the people, reads the book of the law–the book of the law they haven’t been following and if they had been following, the story tells us, they wouldn’t be hurtling toward destruction–and they recommit themselves it, to the law, to the God who gave it to them, and to each other–the reason and the way they live the law out.
Maybe there was a slight chance they were hoping that by following they would change the course, avert their demise. But there was no “if this than that” given, no hint of a way out. They chose to recommit, to follow the covenant, they chose God and each other–because that is how they love God, too–without any guarantees, without any benefit to themselves, without a way out.
Maybe they hoped it would be a little better for their children and their grandchildren when the inevitable future was the painful present. Maybe they hoped that the destruction would be a little less if they could just remind themselves and God of who they were.
Maybe they hoped it would be a little easier to live in the midst of the destruction if they had something to hold onto, something that united the community, a bind that held them together, a faith that this moment, this destruction isn’t the end of the story. To give them prayers, rituals, instructions, yes, rules for how to live in the world well, even when it seems the world is falling apart.
That is what faith is: choosing to love God and this world even in the face of pain and struggle. It is doing the right thing, the good thing, the just thing even if there is no reward, no win, no benefit to you and hope against hope that the generations to come will have the hope and faith to see beyond their present moment.
Faith is doing the thing even when no one knows, even when no one acknowledges it, even if there isn’t a payoff, even if it doesn’t change the world. Faith is working toward justice even if it doesn’t change, even if the ark of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice, though I think it does.
As we come to Advent, we are waiting for the coming of the Christ into our world, God who came in flesh and blood and sinews and veins to live and move and walk and teach among us, to show us what love is, to live in a world that wasn’t going to understand that love and would see that love destroyed.
God was born, named Jesus, lived, loved, and was killed–without power, wealth, means, resources, certainty, and, at the end, without friends nor hope.
And yet, God came and lived among us.
And yet, we get up, we do the things.
We care for creation in the belief that we can do something for the future, that we can give courage to the next generation, even if we can no longer prevent a changing climate, maybe we can make it a little bit easier.
In Advent we rediscover the God who came near and lived among us, we uncover the hope in the unknown. We do the work of stepping into the unknown, the uncertain, faithfully, with courage and hope and justice, regardless. We recommit ourselves to the renewal and rediscovery of the faith in a time of hopelessness.
In the face of sickness, we move in love and faith. In the face of our finitude, we still live in hope. In the face of generations of injustice we still work toward a world that is more just. In the face of destruction, we act in community and kindness and love. With no certainty of heaven or hell, of utopia or destruction, of a better world or the same we love, we work toward justice, we stay faithful to God and each other.
We do not know what is to come. We do know the God who came into an uncertain world and loved it anyway.
May we love it anyway.