Living in safety in uncertain times
My husband Jonathan is a statistician, and recently he was invited to speak to a convention of youth
on the topic of “Big Data.”
He covered a lot of ground, showing how the use of statistics to analyze data
has revolutionized fields from electoral politics to medicine.
But perhaps the most surprising thing he talked about how people make decisions.
Most of human decisions, despite the fact that we are rational beings, are made on emotion.
And our emotions skew our perceptions of reality.
He asked the youth: what is the most dangerous animal on earth?
He got responses like sharks, bears, and crocodiles.
But none of those even made the top 10 list.
At the top of the list was … the lowly mosquito.
It carries the parasite that causes malaria.
The same is true of other decisions we make.
For example in the months following 9-11, many people chose to drive rather than fly,
thinking they were choosing the safer option.
Unfortunately, driving a car, even with the threat of hijacked airplanes, is still much riskier.
According to a 2005 study from Cornell University, over 300 additional highway fatalities per month
were attributed to “the 9-11 effect.”
Even though people were trying to make decisions that increased their safety,
they unintentionally made choices that actually increased their risk of dying.
Decision making isn’t easy in our modern world where there seem to be so many dangers.
But times in Jeremiah’s day weren’t very secure either.
At the time when our OT lesson was written,
Jerusalem had been completely devastated in by the Babylonians.
The people were forced to walk hundreds of miles to Babylon and live in as refugees in a foreign land.
Starting over from scratch, penniless, among their enemies.
How could they ever live in safety?
It is into this chaotic and fearful situation that Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord:
“The days are surely coming… when I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah…
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.”
The key to the people’s safety is spelled out in this passage, and it isn’t what they had tried before.
Prior to Babylon’s invasion, the people of Israel had been pretty desperate:
they tried to shore up national security by making alliances with other nations like Egypt;
They attempted balancing the national budget on the backs of the poor.
They took matters into their own hands, believing that God would help those who help themselves.
It didn’t work.
And now that the worst had happened, the people were open to what God had been saying all along:
“I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David,” God says.
From the family tree of the great King David, now 500 years in the rearview mirror,
the Lord will raise up a leader, a new branch on what had seemed a dead stump.
This leader will bring back the glory days of Israel –
not by scheming and power plays
by giving justice to his own people and being a light to the nations,
an example for the world to see how living in God’s presence promotes righteousness
safety and the healing for all people.
I think Jeremiah’s words are important to us today as well.
Because at a time of insecurity, we are likely—like the Israelites—to put our trust in the wrong places,
and to make decisions based on fear.
As our country debates the policies toward Syrian refugees
we must remember that our spiritual forebears were refugees, too.
As our country continues to strengthen our national security,
we must remember that our ultimate security is not found in building bigger walls or stricter background checks.
For us as Christians, our safety is found in God.
This assertion has a number of implications.
First, our faith calls us to a posture of trust, rather than cowering in fear or putting up our fists for a fight.
This trust calms our irrational mind, and puts us into a place where we can examine the data,
the history, the situation from a more balanced point of view.
We do not need to make knee jerk decisions.
Instead, we must make decisions that benefit the greater good,
and keep in mind the needs of the most vulnerable.
The other important implication of this trust in God has to do with the fact that
“The Lord is our righteousness” is the title of the leader promised to the Israelites.
His direction is meant lead people into that same righteousness,
multiplying the justice and healing in the world.
Doing right for all, not increasing personal security, is therefore the most important goal those who follow him.
As Christians, we believe that the righteous Branch was Jesus.
In Advent, we pray for his coming in our lives and our world,
not just as a baby long ago
but among us today.
Our prayers are personal, that we lay aside the anxieties that seek to immobilize us
and also in our public lives as we do justice and promote righteousness in society.
Our daily living is a chance for us to follow the example of Jesus,
who made the needs of the poor and the outsider his agenda.
The message this first Sunday of Advent is this:
In Jesus we can face our fears, and allow the light of trust to dispel the darkness.
In Jesus we pray for his work in all circumstances.
We join with Jeremiah in proclaiming the day when God’s work will be complete
when all people will be saved and that all will live together in safety.