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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 11/30

          With Thanksgiving behind us, I guess we’re now officially into the Christmas season, according to the secular world anyway.  It’s true that stores have had Christmas displays up for a long time now, ads have been on TV for just as long, but for many Thanksgiving still marks a more reasonable (and seasonable) dividing line; after all, Santa arrives at the end of all the Thanksgiving parades, the decorations that have been on the light poles around town for awhile are now lit, the tree downtown by Old Ish is lit, lots of houses around town have lights on and there will be more before long. 

While I love the season of Advent and think that we should observe it in all its fullness, every year I also have to confess that I really don’t mind the early signs of Christmas (after the Thanksgiving dividing line anyway); the lights and decorations do brighten the long December nights and personally I especially appreciate the people who have their lights on early in the morning when I run as they also serve to brighten the dark mornings. 

          With all this Christmas stuff as a backdrop though, it makes it even more disconcerting to come to church on this first Sunday of Advent and in the first reading to hear verses from Isaiah that are part of an extended communal lament that at first glance anyway doesn’t have anything do with Christmas joy or even have much to do with the Advent themes of hope and anticipation.  It’s a passage where the people dare to question God because they were supposed to be in a time of hope and renewal and restoration and it wasn’t happening; God didn’t seem to be delivering on what he said he would do, so they complained.   

          This passage comes from the time after the exile.  I’ve talked about the exile before as one of the defining events of Old Testament history and theology.  Many of the people of Israel, the best and the brightest, had been captured and taken away to live in Babylon so during this period of about 50 years they were in a state of dislocation, physically, spiritually and culturally separated from all that had been comfortable and familiar.  Everything they thought they could count on was called into question, including their God.  But finally their God, through the imaginative words of the prophet Isaiah announced that their time of exile was over; they could go home.  But that’s next week’s earlier and more familiar “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God” passage.  By the time of today’s text, that time of anticipated comfort was in the past.

          The words of Isaiah were true; the exile did end; the people did return home to Jerusalem, but the return wasn’t what they expected; all their problems weren’t suddenly gone, it was just a new set of problems and that makes me think that maybe this is a good place to start Advent after all.

          Today we begin a new church year; the cycle begins again.  That means last Sunday we ended yet another church year; we went through all the seasons, the festivals, the celebrations, the times of penitence and all the ordinary time in between and through it all the overriding message was that God has acted decisively in and through Jesus Christ so that things are different.  There’s all that promise, all that hope, all that good news.  Every year for about 2000 years we and those before us have gone through the cycle, and yet…and yet…things seem pretty much the same, maybe worse. 

In 2008 everybody has had another year of their own personal ups and downs to deal with but on a national and global scale there’s no arguing that things are pretty bad, the challenges are arguably as great as anyone of my generation or younger has ever faced, but still we are beginning another church year, we’ll go through the cycle again proclaiming the good news that God has acted decisively in and through Jesus Christ so that things are different…and yet…things don’t seem very different; they seem pretty much the same, maybe worse.

          Faced with things pretty much the same, maybe worse, the people of ancient Israel weren’t as nice as we are.  They could praise God with the best of them when the situation called for it, but they missed the lesson on praise God and be thankful no matter what.  They knew that God had expectations of them, but they also had expectations of God, not idle expectations, but expectations based on God’s promises to them.  So, when God seemed to be absent or inattentive or when that mysterious dark side of God showed up, the people weren’t afraid to point out a few things.

          First, in verses that come before today’s reading, they reminded God of his identity as Father and redeemer.  That’s an important statement of faith and confidence.  They know this God; they haven’t forgotten his mighty deeds of the past, they know he can be summoned to act again and they just want to make sure he hasn’t forgotten all that.  They also know that they’ve sinned; they are not blameless in this time of lament but they do dare to suggest that God might be part of the problem; “You have hidden your face from us and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”  In other words, if you, God, had been paying closer attention, things might be going better, we might be doing better.    

          There is recognition of God’s power in this prayer, but also recognition that for them as God’s people, there is unpredictability about that power.  There is recognition that God is God and they are not, that God is free to act and it may not be in the manner they would choose.  But still, knowing that, in an astounding act of faith, they appeal to this God to tear open the heaven and come down and in this appeal they have upped the ante because just a few verses earlier in chapter 63 they implored God to look upon them, but now they want God to do more than look.  It’s risky, but they trust that like clay in the hands of a potter, this God can and will mold them into what he would have them be.  They trust that he and only he has the power to address the lamentable situation in which they find themselves.

          There is an important Advent perspective here because this first reading of the season places Advent in the context of the real world where things aren’t perfect; we don’t live in a Christmas village world of make believe.  The people Isaiah was speaking for in today’s lesson had an expectation for difference that was not being met.  We know about that; we all have expectations for this pre-Christmas season and for Christmas itself, but you know that however it plays out, even if you have a great Christmas, the whole family is there, the worship services are great, you’re able to buy the perfect gift for someone or you receive the perfect gift, when you wake up on December 26th after again joyously celebrating God’s decisive incarnational action, things will be about the same;  the troubles of the world won’t be gone; the kingdom Jesus promised will still be hard to see; you’ll still be waiting for the difference.  Yet… 

          “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Those of you who heard WB speak last year may remember he said to pay attention to words like therefore and yet.  In this prayer of lament, everything turns on this “yet.” Yet O Lord, you are our Father.

          This is a great Advent prayer because it acknowledges guilt, it acknowledges a time of trouble, it even dares to hint that the Lord might be part of the trouble.  There’s good reason to stop praying and to abandon faith, and yet…O Lord you are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter.  In the end the people of Israel pray this way because they can do nothing else.  They must turn to the Lord because in him there is always hope, without him, there’s nothing and they won’t settle for nothing…

                   …and neither will we, and so today we begin the cycle again, still waiting for the difference, still hoping.  We know though that the most important difference has in fact taken place.  We know that God has acted decisively in the birth we celebrate in a few weeks.  In that action a decisive turn was made.  To be sure there is a not yet to that turn, a sense sometimes that things are no different, yet the Spirit is at work in the life of the church and in the life of believers.  We live in the real world of trouble and guilt, yet…because of that divine turn, we never lose hope.  We never lose hope for what God can do for us and through us because O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter.  Tear open the heavens and come down.           

 

 
 

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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