In Those Days We Will Be Thankful

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November 28, 2021

In those days … I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 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.”

“To tell you the truth… I never thought this day would come.” So said Wanda Cooper-Jones on the steps of the courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia, just moments after the guilty verdicts were delivered to the three men who had killed her son, Armaud Arberry. “I never thought this day would come….but God is good.”

And in those days … I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

About eight or nine years ago, I met two extraordinary people one night in Jerusalem, two people who call each other friends – very dear friends – and from whom I have learned much about what true friendship can mean.

One of them is an Israeli Jew called Rami. In the fall of 1997, his 14-year old daughter Smadar was with two schoolfriends on Jerusalem’s equivalent of Michigan Avenue, when a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up, and, in doing so, killed Smadar, the two girls she had spent the afternoon with, and two other bystanders.

Alongside Rami, I met Bassam, a Palestinian Muslim. Ten years after the death of Smadar, Bassam’s daughter Abir, who was merely ten years old, was shot in the back of the head by an Israeli soldier as she stood innocently with some friends outside the gates of her school in a Jerusalem neighborhood in the occupied Palestinian territories.

If there were two people who should hate each other, it is these two. In a quarter of a century of leading pilgrimages in the Holy Land, I have seen no shortage of Palestinians and Israelis who possess hard-line positions of dislike, distrust and downright hatred of the other, even if they have not, personally, suffered a bereavement of the kind of which I have just spoken. But everyone out there can tell countless stories of the distrust, humiliation and violence experienced across the faultlines of the longest-lasting military occupation in modern history.

But Rami and Bassam do not hate each other. Indeed, the depth of their friendship and love they have for each other, is remarkable – something which they are very happy to explain to the many groups to whom they speak as members of a body called the Parents Circle – an organization which desperately hopes it will never recruit another new member, as the one criterion for joining it is to have suffered a bereavement caused by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

In a recent interview with an Australian newspaper while on a speaking tour, Rami recounted the first real conversation he had with Bassam after Bassam’s daughter was murdered. He told Bassam that her death had felt to him like losing his own daughter a second time over, and he asked Bassam, “What are we going to do now?” Bassam, who is a devout Muslim, simply replied, “God is testing us.”

And the prophet Jeremiah said 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.”

Today marks the start of Advent – possibly the most misunderstood of all the seasons of the Christian year. The secular world does its best to crowd out Advent with the commercial and sentimental demands of Christmas, and even churchgoers are not immune. I will admit that even in the Deanery from Wednesday onwards we will be opening the flaps on Advent calendars, whose images are all taken from the Christmas story. I have yet to see images of the ‘roaring of the sea and the waves’ or of fig trees sprouting leaves, or any of the other things of which Jesus spoke in that scary gospel reading make their way to a so-called Advent calendar.

And while it is true that, in part, Advent is the season in which we prepare to celebrate Christmas, just as Lent is the season in which we prepare for Easter, there is much more to Advent than this.

For if Lent and Holy Week are simply a gateway through which we and other Christians remember an event some 2000 years ago, then we have missed the point. The preparation and penitence of Lent are there to help us walk with Jesus and relive in our own hearts and minds the rigors of the wilderness and the horror of the crucifixion, so that we might understand again the power and glory of the resurrection… and reflect the power and the glory of the resurrection of Christ in the lives we lead.

What you might call the whole ‘Easter cycle’ is not just about memories of the past, but about the impact of those memories shown in lives transformed in the present, which thus impact on the future.

And it is equally true with Advent and Christmas. The great season which starts today is not just to help us prepare to recall the events of the first Christmas (events, let us not forget, of seeming indifference to two of the four authors of the gospels). We journey through Advent to prepare ourselves to live lives that reflect the power and glory that we see in the astonishing truth that God becomes human – fully and completely human – and does so out of love for this world and all its peoples. A power and glory framed in the utter weakness and vulnerability of a human baby – and one born in poverty to a family who become refugees who have to flee from the homicidal actions of a deranged tyrant.

When young Alice found herself in the middle of the most bizarre game of chess ever played, when she was transported through the looking glass, the White Queen contemptuously remarks to her that, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”. And the point of Christian liturgy, and the Christian celebration of the liturgical year which begins today, is that when we gather together, especially when we celebrate the Eucharist together, we are making our memories work forwards.

Because every part of the story of Jesus whom we call and know as the Christ – every tiny part of this most wondrous story, including its pre-echoes in the Hebrew Scriptures, tell us that God in Christ didn’t just act once in history 2000 years ago. This great story tells us that God has not finished with God’s world – that God continues to be involved with and care for God’s world, and that the story is very far from over.

Which is why the prophet Jeremiah was so sure that the days were surely coming when the Lord would fulfil the promise that had been made to Israel and Judah. The promise that In those days… I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.

But when we get lost in what you might call the sentimental bits of Advent, that are really the inappropriately early reaches of a romanticized view of the Christmas story, it is very easy to forget both that the story is very far from over… and very easy to forget that while God in Christ plays the leading character in the story of salvation offered to the world, we, too have our part to play.

Because, as Rami and Bassam will tell you very clearly, as things stand right now, Judah has not been saved, and Jerusalem does not live in safety. And while the conviction of Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan speaks to the watching world of justice being executed, the very fact that there were major concerns in so many minds that the jury in Georgia might have been based its verdict on skin color rather than on evidence, and that Ms Cooper-Jones could barely believe that the day would come when her son received justice show us that there is not yet enough justice being executed in the world in which Christ was born 2000 years ago.

And it doesn’t stop with Rami and Bassam, and it does not stop with Armaud Arberry and his mother Wanda. On the day that the Georgia jury delivered its guilty verdicts, a record 27 desperate people, 17 men, seven women (one of whom was pregnant), and three children drowned in the English Channel in their flight from persecution and instability in their own countries – drowned while the UK and French governments trade callous political insults with each other rather than properly working together to address such problems.

And even as we come to terms with a new ‘variant of concern’ of COVID that appears to spread very rapidly, we are reminded of the huge inequality in the provision of vaccines across the world, with one African bishop in the worldwide Anglican family speaking this very morning of the fact that in his country just 1% of the population has access to the vaccine.

All in all, it is good that in Advent we speak of the last things, because, by God, if you and I have to be judged on how things are right now, that’s not going to play well. And that is why, in this season of all seasons, we are called to make our memories work forwards.

In that interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, Rami – who would admit to being a man of less religious faith than his dear friend Bassam – admitted he was not very optimistic about the current state of the world, saying, “the forces of evil are dominating, not only in Israel but in the UK [and] America; the right wing is in power in many places. So it is not a good time,” he said…

“but I do believe there will be peace in the end.”

But if there is any truth in John Lennon’s claim that ‘everything will be OK in the end – if it’s not OK, it’s not the end’ – a truth that, in fact, I think our Scriptures bear out – then it is down to us, the Church, to do something about it.

That is why, in what is probably the earliest document of the entire New Testament, Paul prays for the fledgling Christians in Thessalonica, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus…”

Because if the people of Jerusalem had been abounding in love for one another in 1997 and 2007, then Abir and Smadar would still be alive, and the Parents Circle would never have needed to be created. And if the people of Brunswick Georgia had been abounding in love for one another back in February last year, perhaps Wanda Cooper-Jones might have had something less painful for which to give thanks than the outcome of a murder trial. And displaced refugees would not be drowning in the waters between two allegedly developed and civilized European countries, and we would all feel much safer from COVID because we had all had access to the vaccines.

Over Thanksgiving, I read an exquisite novel by the Welsh writer Rhidian Brook called ‘The Aftermath’. It’s a poignant story set in the British zone of the heavily bombed city of Hamburg in 1946, in which the chief character is the Colonel who serves as the military governor of the region.

The novel depicts the simmering and barely concealed hatred between the occupying British soldiers and the subdued Germans, and we rapidly realize the colonel is about the only senior British figure who understands that such hatreds will only hinder and delay the building of peace and of a new post-Nazi Germany.

Near the end of the book, the Colonel is presented with the case of a teenage girl who is subordinates want to have summarily executed, because she is known to associate with the leader of a rebel group of Nazi resistance fighters. The Colonel, however, knows that the girl’s anger stems from her erroneous belief that her mother had died in an Allied bombing raid, whereas she is alive, but suffering amnesia, and in a care facility in another city.

Confounding the expectation of his subordinates, the colonel not only releases the girl, but tells her he will drive her home – but, unknown to her, plans, first to take her to be reunited with her mother. And so they drive out of the city in a direction she is not expecting:

When they joined the autobahn…she sat up. “This isn’t the way.” “I know.” “You’re going in the opposite direction. My home’s back that way.”

“I know,” Lewis said. “But we’re going to go a different way.” “But this is the wrong way. It’ll take longer.”

“Trust me. It’s a better way.”

The killers of Smadar and Abir doubtless thought they knew where their home was, and they did not want to share it, and so they took the quick route that leads, so often, to needless and sinful death. As did Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan. They took the quick route to a home they did not want to share, and another mother’s child was killed as he went jogging in small town Georgia.

But this Advent, God is calling us, calling you and me to ‘go a different way’ – to go the longer way. For the way of those who ‘abound in love for one another and for all’, can sometimes feel the longest way of all, but if we trust God it is, without doubt, the better way, and it is when we walk in the better way that God will finally cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.

For it is when we make our memories work forwards that God will truly execute justice and righteousness in the land, and parents such as Wanda Cooper-Jones, and Rami and Bassam will weep no longer. For then, and only then will we live in the days when Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety and we will know that the Lord is, indeed, our righteousness. Amen.