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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent 12/02/2012

One of the themes of Advent is waiting.  We all know about waiting and I dare say that most of us don’t like it.  Probably people have never liked it but in our age of instant gratification waiting is even more difficult.  If you have a doctors appoint at 2:30 and it’s close to three and you’re still sitting in the waiting room, how do you feel?  With all the fast food restaurants, if you go to a regular sit down restaurant and have to wait very long for service or for the food to come, are you enjoying waiting while you watch the other people eat?  If you’re at the airport, how do you like the long wait between flights?  How about if the flight is delayed?  Those are a few of the waits that annoy me and there’s lots more and you probably have your own list.  We’re not a patient people; we don’t wait well, and then we have this season of the church year where waiting is one of the themes.

It seems fitting to me that on this first day of the new church year we have a reading from First Thessalonians which is the earliest writing of the New Testament so as far as the New Testament goes it takes us back to the beginning.  Paul is thought to have written this in the mid to late 40’s, which is less than 20 years after Jesus was physically present.  At that time, the people were waiting; they were waiting for Jesus to return, because a prominent early Christian belief was that Jesus would return, soon…or so they thought. 

So some 20 years later, they were waiting for Jesus’ return and some 2000 years later, we’re still waiting although our sense of urgency about it probably isn’t as great as theirs was.  After this long this isn’t a wait that bothers us as much as some of those other waits we have to deal with.  These days most of us don’t think too much about the second coming at all, unless there’s reference to it in the lectionary and even then I doubt that you’re going to go home and spend Sunday afternoon worrying about it.

In what I read these days, there is a fair amount of discussion about just what the early Christians were waiting for.  Based on some rather vague statements that Jesus had made there was belief in his imminent return and so there are references to “the coming of the Lord” or “the day of the Lord.”    From this the idea evolved that this coming or this day would mark the end of the world, the end of the space/time universe as we know it.  What those who study that first century time period say though, is that such an ending wouldn’t even have been thinkable for those people, it wouldn’t even have been on their radar because they were people of this world. 

So the thinking is that the return of Jesus that they were waiting for was more about a transformative change here; it would still be this world, but it would be different.  This is more like what prophets like Jeremiah referred to when they talked about what would happen “in those days” or when they made reference to “the days are surely coming.”  Jeremiah wasn’t talking about the end of the world; he was talking about events and consequences in the world they knew.  When there is apocalyptic imagery like there is in today’s gospel, talk of “signs in the sun and the moon and the stars” and so forth it is thought be just that; apocalyptic imagery intended to convey the idea of dramatic change, dramatic and hopeful change in the social and political and religious structures of this world.  They weren’t literal predictions of what was going to happen and they weren’t meant to scare people but to encourage them!

Still, whatever the understanding was, the people Paul wrote to in Thessalonica were waiting for Jesus’ return; that was their expectation.  For us though, that’s not our expectation.  Even if we believe that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead” as we say in the creed, it’s probably not the cornerstone of our faith and we don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.  We tend to think that people who spend a lot of time worrying about it or trying to predict it are either crazy or have way too much time on their hands.

So we don’t spend a lot of time on it but early Christians weren’t obsessed with it either.  Jesus’ return was a more prominent aspect of their belief but it was never the most important thing.  It does however, help to explain the sense of urgency that comes out in some of Paul’s letters and sometimes in the Gospels.  If Jesus was returning soon, there wasn’t much time to prepare. 

Even though our beliefs about this have changed, even though we don’t share Paul’s sense of urgency about the time of waiting, the basic question for us isn’t all that different than it was for them because like them we are still people who wait.  Our worldview is different but as followers of Christ, part of our focus is on the future.  Especially on this first Sunday of Advent, we’re not looking back and remembering the birth of Jesus, not this week anyway.  Instead, we’re looking forward. 

Central to Christian belief is that we are moving toward something and that something is something good, something better despite how difficult it can sometimes be to find evidence of that something better.  For Christians, the birth of Jesus that we celebrate in a few weeks marked the beginning of this something.  It was good news for all people because in that event God entered this world in the baby that was born to Mary and Joseph.  Despite brokenness and sin God didn’t turn his back on the world, but entered it even more fully.  That’s good news. 

The good news of Jesus’ birth of course culminates in what seems like the bad news of the cross but even that turns out to be good news as God is present in what seemed to be the worst thing possible.  His absence is felt and it’s real, but then there is the joy of the resurrection as even horrible death is transformed into new life; more good news.

But that’s not the end of the story.  It’s the beginning of the end.  It’s the beginning of the end because we now live “in between” in between because we are headed for a hopeful future, but we’re not there yet, and so we wait.  We don’t share the imminent sense of expectation that the Thessalonians did as they waited, but we wait and we live in hope because we believe in the future that Jesus has opened up for us.

For me, that belief in a hope filled future is one of the critical elements of Christian faith.  In Christ we see past the reality of this world and get a vision of his reality, which is a hope filled reality.  We can’t lose that sense of hope, but it’s hard when so much of the news is not very hopeful, fear of fiscal cliffs and things like that these days all of which create anxiety.  But we have another story, another story by which we live, and so we wait and we hope.  As we wait we don’t necessarily embrace the timeline of the Thessalonians regarding their waiting, but we can still embrace their sense of hope. 

The Apostle Paul had lots of advice for the Thessalonians as well as for other groups and churches he wrote too, advice about how they should live as they waited for the coming of Jesus.  Paul can get very specific with his advice sometimes but I think he’s at his best when he writes in more general terms like he does in today’s reading.  “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”  Whether it’s advice to the Thessalonians as they wait in urgent expectancy or if it’s advice to us who don’t really expect the coming of the Lord in our lifetime, Paul’s words are helpful.  “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

It’s not a how to manual, not that Paul doesn’t sometimes try to do that.  But here he leaves it to the recipients of his letter to fill in the blanks because what fills in the blanks is different for everyone.  The goal is the same, to increase and abound in love, but how that is done is up to each of us to figure out.  As we begin a new church year with this season of Advent, with its waiting and watching, it’s a good thing to think about.

The Thessalonians and other early Christians were obviously wrong about Jesus imminent return because it didn’t happen; we’re still waiting; we’re still living in between times.  In a lot of ways it doesn’t really matter.  Our call is the same as theirs; to live, to live in the present, waiting and hoping, in expectation of a Christ centered future, abounding in love for one another and for all.

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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