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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent 11/29

Remember when you were a little kid how slow time seemed to move between Thanksgiving and Christmas?  I do.  I couldn’t wait for Christmas but those December days moved so slowly…and then after Christmas, after all the excitement, the let down of thinking how long it would be before the next one because all year, despite birthdays and vacations and other holidays, nothing else quite measured up to Christmas.  You get older and it changes, to the point where you wish you could slow the time down as the days and seasons fly by.  You know time is moving at the same pace it always has, but it sure seems different.

          Time is a funny thing.  We’re not terribly conscious of it most of the time, but there are times when we’re more aware, like when we turn the page of a calendar to the next month and maybe especially when we take down the old calendar and put up a new one for the next year.  Today is the first day of a new church year but there’s no calendar to turn; but I still think it’s a day when our consciousness of time and time passing is heightened a little bit, at least it should be. 

We’re familiar with linear time vs. cyclical time, I think.  Linear time is chronological, one day following another, one event following another such that when a day or an event is completed, that’s it; it’s over, you can’t get it back, you can’t undo it.  Cyclical time is what we experience in the yearly cycle of seasons in which you still can’t get a particular day back but you do know that the beautiful colors of fall or warm summer days or snowy winter days will come back around; there are variations, no two years are exactly alike, but that cyclical pattern is repeated.

          We live and experience time in both ways, linear and cyclical, simultaneously and time in church is like that too; there is a linear aspect to the history of any church with people coming and going, living and dying as the years unfold, and there’s also linear time on a more cosmic level beginning with creation and moving toward some kind of end, the return of Christ, judgment, however you view that.  But then the worship life of the church is cyclical. Every year the same pattern of events is reviewed, the events and stories of and about Jesus are retold and celebrated.   There is a cycle to it, it all comes back around and one of the times we’re reminded of that is at the beginning of a new church year.  

There is a cycle, but the cycle isn’t necessarily what one would expect it to be.  Logically, chronologically, the church year would start with Jesus birth, which it does following a few weeks of Advent preparation, but then you might think it should end with the Passion/Easter story.  The way we do it though, the end of the story comes more in the middle and then we go back over some of the events in between before coming back again to the beginning.  Chronologically, it doesn’t exactly make sense.

          So today does mark the beginning of a new church year but at least part of the focus today has to do with endings, not beginnings; our cyclical time is out of whack before we even start.  The gospel lesson is part of an address by Jesus concerning the end times which doesn’t seem to fit especially with the cultural focus already on Christmas.

We begin Advent thinking not about the baby in the manger, we begin thinking about the “Christ will come again” part of the proclamation we sometimes make during the communion liturgy, and not only that, the gospel sounds kind of scary and Advent is supposed to be about hope not fear; one of the reasons for the change from purple to blue paraments some years ago was to contrast Advent hope vs. the purple penitence of Lent.

          To figure out what Jesus was up to with his scary sounding words though, it helps to go back to Jeremiah.  His is actually the first voice of the new church year and this is an interesting text from Jeremiah.  It speaks of a “righteous branch” springing up for David and right away we as Christians hear that as a Jesus text; Jesus would be that righteous branch.  That’s legitimate; that’s a legitimate interpretation, but today, on the first Sunday of Advent, that interpretation rushes us to Christmas a little too quickly.  Today, to help get at what Jesus is talking about in the gospel we want to think about the context in which Jeremiah spoke, the events that were on his mind at the time he talked about that righteous branch.

          At that time, the army of Babylon, the most powerful army in the world, was headed for Jerusalem.  The streets of Jerusalem would soon be filled with blood and the bodies of its residents.  It hadn’t happened yet, but it was inevitable and Jeremiah knew it, actually any reasonable person would have known it.  Jeremiah had been talking for some time about this inevitability with prophecies of judgment against the people and the leaders, prophecies that caused him to be imprisoned because those in power didn’t want to hear it; they didn’t want to hear the truth which can often be the case for those in power.  But Jeremiah’s prophecies were coming true. 

The thought of a righteous branch springing up from the house of David was absurd.  The thought of justice and righteousness and safety in Jerusalem was absurd.  But it was at this time, under these circumstances that Jeremiah spoke these words.  The world as they knew it was about to crumble around them, as Jeremiah said it would, but now he speaks of hope and unexpected joy. 

          It was absurd, and the ensuing events support the absurdity.  The Babylonians destroyed the city and burned the temple, four hundred years of rule by David and his descendents ended.  Anyone who mattered was deported, taken into exile.  Even though the exile eventually ended and the people were allowed to return to Jerusalem, never again would a descendent of David rule.

          It seemed like Jeremiah was wrong…but the people remembered his words and the words of other prophets and they believed…they believed that their God would do something new and change things.  They had a vision of the future focused on the promises of God and at least some of them, would not let that vision go.  As a result they kept watching, they kept hoping because they believed in their God.  If they stopped believing, they were left with nothing, and again, at least some of them, would not do that.

          On the face of it, Jesus’ words don’t sound as hopeful as Jeremiah’s, but he too was creating a vision of the future, a vision of God’s future.  The scary sounding images were intended to encourage his followers that even the seemingly all powerful rule of the Roman Empire would come to an end.  In the meantime, in the presence of that power, what would become the Christian community was to continue in ministry, witnessing to the alternative of Jesus through words and actions and prayer.

          This vision of Jesus was no less absurd than the prophecy and vision of Jeremiah, but again, at least some refused to stop believing.  They refused to stop believing in a better future, they refused to stop believing in the words of Jesus, because if they did, they too were left with nothing. 

As the recipients of Jesus’ words today, many would say to us, “Jesus was wrong.”  They would say he was wrong about a better future, wrong about the kingdom of God being near because it doesn’t appear to be any closer today than it did almost 2000 years ago.  Another Advent has come around and here we are, talking about visions of the future that still seem absurd, tempted perhaps to forget all this Advent stuff and just cave in to popular culture that celebrates a month long, early winter festival of lights and food and gift giving and parties that has nothing to do with Jesus.

It seems like Jesus was wrong, just like it seemed like Jeremiah was wrong, but we remember his words and his vision and we believe.  More than anything we believe that Jesus has shown us the future in his own death and resurrection.  He has defeated death and that is the future and the hope and the promise for us.  We need the cyclical time of the church to bring us back to this hope and remind us.  We begin the church year with talk of endings because who we are and what we can be is determined by our future; we need to know that future; and we do. 

At the beginning of yet another church year, we refuse to stop believing.  We watch and we wait and we hope, because we believe; we believe in the future of that righteous branch, the future that Jesus gives us.  We believe; we might wish we could speed up the time that leads to that future, like a child waiting for Christmas, but we believe.  We believe in the promises of God; otherwise, we are left with nothing.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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