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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 11/28

With Advent, in the church we begin a new year and we move into the season that leads to Christmas, we begin a season of watching and waiting and preparing, As far as the wider culture goes, that puts us both ahead of the times and behind the times.  We’re ahead of the times in starting a new year which the Gregorian, civil calendar doesn’t do for another month.  We’re behind the times though in terms of a season of watching and waiting and preparing for Christmas which culturally seems to start earlier and earlier every year with displays in stores, advertising, shopping, decorations and so forth. 

So while the church can often be out of step with the wider culture, on this first Sunday of Advent it is particularly apparent.  But that’s not the only problem.  The other thing that you can’t help but notice is that in the lessons appointed for today, especially the gospel, there is not really even a hint of Christmas and even though we know it’s not Christmas yet and that we do attend to Advent and its rituals, even in church we can hardly help but have Christmas in mind with Thanksgiving over and December starting in a couple of days.  Our seasonal, cultural compass pulls us toward Christmas, but the gospel for today doesn’t; it’s is not focused on anticipation of the birth of Jesus, but on some apocalyptic day in the unknown future when the Son of Man will come again.

Reactions to texts like this one tend to fall into two general categories among church goers.  Some, I would guess the majority among Lutherans anyway, don’t pay much attention to them, they don’t concern themselves very much with the second coming.  In the creed they confess faith that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead but they don’t expect it to happen in their lifetime.  So these people kind of grit their teeth, their eyes glaze over and they endure these ominous sounding texts when they come up at the end of a church year and at the beginning of Advent as they always do, maybe knowing that we’ll hear from John the Baptist next week, who isn’t all that Christmasy either, but at least we can connect him to prophecies concerning Jesus first coming; he kind of gets us in the ballpark.  So anyway, not paying much attention to this kind of stuff is one reaction. 

Others though aren’t so casual about dismissing these passages.  They take them quite seriously as anticipation concerning the second coming is more central to their faith so they do pay attention, lots of attention.  They read their Bible and they follow the news and they see all kinds of indications that these predictions of the end are coming true, it’s happening or at least it’s getting close.  These people make the people in the previous group a little bit uncomfortable. 

There’s caution concerning both of these reactions though.  With their indifference, people in the first group can become apathetic and unconcerned about their accountability before God.  That’s not good as it can lead to a pretty casual Christianity.  People in the second group can become overly concerned and consumed with anxiety as they try to figure out just when all this is going to happen along with who’s going to make it and who’s going to be left behind.  That’s not good either as it can be a distraction from serving in the here and now.

The approach of both groups is flawed because both approaches miss the point.  They miss the point that texts like this one are intended to make and they also miss the point of Advent.  Advent is a time of waiting and watching and preparing, not only to celebrate Christmas and Jesus’ first coming but also to celebrate his presence with us here in the present, and yes, to watch and prepare for his promised return.  None of this waiting and watching and preparing is done in a state of apathy or a state of anxiety though.  Advent is about joy and hope so as we encounter any Advent text, joy and hope are the starting point for thinking about it, joy and hope provide the lens through which we look at these texts.

It’s true though, that joy and hope are not immediately apparent in gospel texts like today’s with warnings about keeping awake and days and hours no one knows, one taken and one left behind.  It all sounds a little ominous and to some extent it is, but even with that, it brings home the point that the future is in God’s hands; there is much that we don’t know about it, and it may be a little scary to think about, but the future is in God’s hands and because of that there is meaning to life for each of us individually and for all of us collectively and that’s important. 

In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Macbeth says, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Now that’s a pretty resigned, apathetic approach to life, bordering on despair actually.  It’s not just Shakespeare though who gives voice to life as meaningless.  In the Bible you have Ecclesiastes saying repeatedly, all is vanity and a chasing after wind, again, pretty pessimistic.  Some theologians contend that the biggest source of anxiety among younger people today is not death, but meaninglessness; you live, you die and that’s that; it doesn’t really matter.     

The dominant story of life that we get in the Bible is quite different from that, and it offers a counterproposal to meaninglessness.  It is a story enacted according to God’s pleasure and will.  It includes grace and it also includes judgment, both of which require our attention, but it is story that moves forward with meaning, toward a time when God will make all things new. 

As kind of an aside, I do find it fascinating that a voice like that of Ecclesiastes that declares life to be meaningless is included in the Bible.  It would have been easier for those who organized the Bible to eliminate voices like that, but instead they left them in, creating tension and leaving us to weigh the testimony of different witnesses.  The weight of the biblical evidence does lie on the side of meaning with the story moving forward and the future in God’s hands and I do think that’s a good way to approach and appreciate today’s gospel without getting hung up on things that don’t matter very much. 

You’ve perhaps heard it said of someone who thinks they’re pretty smart, “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”  Relative to the return of the Son of Man, it’s important that we know what we don’t need to know.  From texts like this one today, we know that we don’t know the time or the hour, we know that we don’t know exactly how it will be at that time and we don’t need to know all that.  But we do need to know that the time is coming.

Knowing that we don’t need to know what we don’t know, that we don’t have to try and figure it all out, what then do we do?  There is a clear call in this text to be awake, to prepare, to watch, but how do we do that.  Curiously, in this text that is looking toward that unknown apocalyptic future day, Matthew’s Jesus is planted quite firmly in the present.  His attention is focused on the present day and the needs of the present hour and with that present day focus, he mentions specifically the field and the mill, the daily grind in other words, the ordinary, mundane places where life is lived.

Our watching and preparing is mostly about doing what we do.  But knowing the future to be in God’s hands, we do what we do knowing that it is meaningful.  Contrary to Macbeth it does signify something.  Contrary to Ecclesiastes, it is more than chasing after wind and in the ordinary of life, moments of meaning happen. 

You’ve experienced this.  Many times as people grieve they’ll be going about their normal activities and all of a sudden something triggers emotions that they didn’t expect, maybe emotions that they thought they were finished with, but there it is and it’s a meaningful moment, sad perhaps but sad in a good way.  It also happens the other way when in the ordinary of life suddenly things seem clearer and more hopeful, life is worth living again.  You weren’t necessarily looking for it or expecting it, nothing dramatic happened, but again there it is, appearing unexpectedly, a meaningful moment that provides a new vision. 

Advent watching and preparing relative to Jesus’ return isn’t about figuring it out, it’s about doing what we do, living in hope, being attentive to those moments of meaning.  It’s knowing that we are part of God’s story; that story will be told according to God’s will and pleasure as it always has been, it is in his hands, but we are part of it even as we watch and wait.     

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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