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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent 11/27/2011

The story begins again on this First Sunday of Advent.  For Christians, our story is the Jesus story and the cycle of the church year takes us through that story every year starting on this Sunday.  We start though, at a different place than many would like to start and I’m not just talking about those people “out there” who have little to do with the religious aspects of this season.  Even for those who attend church regularly and who do observe Christmas as the religious festival that it is, the birth of Jesus seems like the most logical place to start in telling his story.  With that as a starting point Advent could be a four week introduction to Jesus’ birth, we could hear prophecies that point to Jesus, hear about the angel appearing to Mary and sing Christmas carols all month which I know would make some people happy and it would put us more in line with the cultural observance of this season.    

We will get to prophecies about Jesus and the angel appearing to Mary but in today’s lessons there isn’t much that even hints at Jesus’ birth.  That’s because in church we do start at a different place.  In church we start with the reason for the birth of Jesus, the reason for the Incarnation.  And the reason is…because something is wrong.  Something is wrong and it has to do with us and we can’t fix it; that’s where we begin the new church year. 

It’s not a popular place to start because it does place us out of step with the wider culture, but…in church, rather than joy to the world and peace on earth, Advent begins with something of a lament, a cry for help.  “O that you would open the heavens and come down,” we hear from Isaiah.  Then from the psalmist, “Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, stir up your strength and come to help us!  Restore us, O Lord; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.” 

All of that was an acknowledgment that things weren’t right.  Reading further in those lessons you find that what wasn’t right had to do with sin.  It had to do with the relationship of those people with God, a relationship that had been damaged by their unfaithfulness, their inability to live according to the ways of the Lord.  Their efforts to save themselves had been exhausted, so this was a call by the prophet and the psalmist for God to come down and change things, to fix what’s wrong.

It wouldn’t fit very well to sing Joy to the World after that.  It’s something of a cold slap of reality, but it’s an honest way to begin a new church year because it certainly isn’t hard for any of us to relate to the idea of something being wrong.  We know that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We know that the world is beset by problems that we can’t fix. 
This is beginning to sound more like Lent than Advent though.  There was a time when Advent was thought of as “Winter Lent;” the color of the season was purple as it is during Lent making that connection even more obvious.  But now the color for Advent is blue.  It’s not the season of penitence that is once was, not that some penitence isn’t fitting.  Instead of that though, we focus more on themes like hope and joy.  These lessons today do start with recognizing that something is wrong, but digging deeper you find that underlying that recognition of things being wrong, there is hope.  Acknowledgement of sin is important, but on this First Sunday of Advent it is appropriate to emphasize hope.   

Even in their lament and complaint, the Old Testament people of God always remembered that they had a history with their God and that history was a source of hope for them.  They remembered what God had done in the past.  They remembered that God had molded them and guided them.  “We are the clay and you are the potter,” Isaiah says, and with that there was recognition that despite whatever was going on, whatever was wrong, God could change things because he’d done it before; there was hope.  There were times that they had suffered the consequences of their failure to follow, but it was never God’s last word to them.  Along with those Old Testament people, that is a hope that we never want to lose sight of…because we too have a history with this God.

With the coming of Jesus, we understand that the cry of Isaiah for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” was answered.  That’s part of how we tell our story.  The hope that God could and would change things was revealed in Jesus, although not in the way that Isaiah or the psalmist or anyone else had expected because the desire for God to fix everything didn’t happen; we and the world are still far from perfect.   As a result, 2000 years later in this season of Advent we wind up voicing the same lament; we express the same desire for God to “tear open the heavens and come down.”

We do it though, in mind of our history and the hope we’ve seen revealed in Jesus.  He didn’t fix everything 2000 years ago, but he did reveal a future that we continue to hope for.  In him we saw glimpses of what could be, of who he would have us be, of how he would have us treat each other.  As bothered as we can get by what we see as being wrong in our world, with eyes open we continue to see those glimpses of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, but we still hope for more.  We hope for the fullness of that kingdom to be revealed and that hope is not just wishful thinking, it’s expectation; we expect it to happen because we do have a history with this God. 

So Advent doesn’t just look to the past and to the birth of baby, something that happened a long time ago, we also live in the present and anticipate and expect a future where our clay is molded into to what Jesus wants it to be.  What we never want to forget is that the God we worship is in the business of changing things, making things new, bringing light out of darkness, life out of death.  We wait in hope and confident expectation of that change. 

The writers of the gospels can often be the best sources we have for imaginative glimpses of hope although that might not be your first impression of today’s gospel, our first reading from Mark in this new church year.  Texts like this one that talk about the sun and the moon being darkened and the stars falling from the heavens, texts like this used to scare me when I first encountered them as a kid.  It made it sound like the end was near and I didn’t want it to be near; I kind of liked things the way they were. 

I know more now than I knew then so I know that while these verses are scary sounding when taken out of context, if one considers that Jesus said these things just prior to his arrest and crucifixion, he’s not trying to frighten anyone.  These aren’t literal statements about heaven and earth passing away. Instead Jesus is offering comfort and assurance, he’s offering hope to his followers despite events that are about to upset his and their world.  What looked like devastation and defeat would be transformed into victory.  That’s the essence of the Christian story; so with these images, Jesus is offering hope. 

That’s the message of the fig tree.  For people in that part of the world, the fig tree had a very predictable cycle.  Year after year its green leaves signaled the coming of summer, they could count on it.  Around here we may not know much about fig trees but while we know that from year to year there are variations, there aren’t many things as dependable as the cycle of the seasons.  We know the signs and what follows them.  A couple of warm November days don’t fool us into thinking spring is on the way.  We know the signs. 

With the fig tree as his example, Jesus was providing a reminder that his words and his presence and his promises are as dependable as the cycle of the seasons.  Despite our sinfulness and despite upsetting events that tell us that something is wrong, Jesus’ words of comfort and welcome and forgiveness don’t change, the promise of his kingdom is still good, the hope that we find in him will be fully realized.  We can count on it just as we count on the unfolding of the seasons.

But we want it now.  We want everything to be all better now so we cry out, “Tear open the heavens and come down; stir up your strength and come.”  Underlying our impatience though, is the same hope that sustained Isaiah and the psalmist.  We know the story, especially the Christmas story we look forward to celebrating in a few weeks.  We know that God has acted in the past and so we wait in expectant hope for him to act again, to stir up his strength and come; we wait for his face to shine upon us.   

The story begins again and we stay awake and we watch, because we know the future we hope for is coming.  We can count on it.  We’re not quite ready for Joy to the World yet, but we will get there.

Rev. Warren Geier

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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