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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent 12/08/2013

This is the week when we usually talk about John the Baptist crashing the pre-Christmas celebration as he calls people names, you brood of vipers, and has visions of unquenchable fire for those who don’t repent.  He’s on the edge and with his crankiness, it seems like if you did a genealogy of Ebenezer Scrooge you might find John the Baptist in there somewhere; he comes across as being more about “Bah, humbug” than being about Christmas cheer.  Along the same line, it might also seem like the apostle Paul wouldn’t be especially welcome at any of our holiday gatherings either, inside church or outside.  I don’t think of him being a life of the party kind of guy any more than John the Baptist as he’s rather curmudgeonly a lot of the time, putting a damper on festivities with his many lists of things he doesn’t want us to do.

Paul can be like that but there’s more to him than lists of vices and virtues, more to him than just being a disciplinarian.  In his letters he responds to a lot of different situations, but at the heart of Paul’s writing is the hope that he found in Jesus.  He does have clear ideas about what constitutes proper behavior but still, hope is the underpinning of his teaching and that’s what you get in today’s reading.  It’s part of the end of his letter to the Romans, the letter that most fully unpacks Paul’s thought and as he concludes things he does so with words of hope.

Advent can seem like a season during which the church acts as something of a disciplinarian, with me and other pastors being the chief agents of discipline, among other things, preventing you from singing your favorite Christmas carols in church until Christmas Eve. The truth though, is that the intent of the church in observing the season of Advent isn’t to stifle the celebration of Christmas or to prevent anyone from singing Christmas carols.  The church observes these four Sundays because we need Advent because the bottom line of Advent is hope. 

Advent isn’t primarily about discipline, it isn’t about the rant of John the Baptist and it isn’t just about getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus either.  We don’t hold off on celebrating Christmas pretending that Jesus’ birth is going to be a big surprise.  We know it happened, a long time ago, and it is worth celebrating again, but…while anticipation of that birth is part of Advent along with discipline and John the Baptist, welcome or not, the primary theme during Advent is hope, hope that is and always has been desperately needed.  The celebration of Christmas has already started out there and one hopes that we all find ways to enjoy it, I was at the Negaunee Male Chorus concert last night, I’ll be at Carols in the Cathedral today, but in church we hang on to Advent, because we know we need it.

“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  That’s Paul, not at all curmudgeonly but quite Christmas-y actually, getting at the heart of what Advent is about.  Hope for what, though?  That becomes the big question.  Biblical hope is not a generalized emotion that ignores reality and just pretends that everything will be OK.  The hope we talk about is a core kind of trust that depends on the steadfast love of God, the faithfulness of God.  Biblical hope dares to imagine that God is not just some kind of vague, impersonal force or power out there but is a relational God who has acted and will continue to act with steadfast love in bringing the world to where God wants it to be.

Today’s lesson from Isaiah gives us another vision of God’s future, similar to what we had last week, the peaceable kingdom where the wolf will live with the lamb; but today Isaiah gives us more with a new kind of royal figure at the center of the vision, a figure on whom the spirit of the Lord will rest, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.  He will judge with righteousness and equity.  For Isaiah, this was not a reflection of present reality because the present reality for him was the threat posed by the Babylonian empire, the superpower of his time.  In the face of that, his vision wasn’t a reflection of what logic and reason would predict.  It was a revelation of future events beyond what logic could see.

 Guided by the spirit, prophets had the gift of seeing what others couldn’t with visions like this, visions that went beyond their immediate circumstances and into visions of a new creation.  For Isaiah and then later for people like Paul, this is hope.  For us, this looking beyond is Advent where we don’t rush to Christmas, but take time to consider the impossible possibility of hope, the hope for all things new in a new creation.

In church, we are out of step with the wider culture during Advent but it’s for more than the most obvious reasons.  It’s not just because we hold off on singing Christmas carols and it’s not just because we try to keep Christ in Christmas as the signs say.  It’s also not because we reject all the trappings and commercialism of secular Christmas; if that were the goal we might as well admit defeat and move on because most of us, as much as we decry the excess of commercial Christmas, we still buy into it to some extent.  Trying to temper the excess might place us slightly out of step but it’s not the big factor. 

What we do during Advent is to begin a new church year with the renewed affirmation that Jesus Christ exists as the center of our life and world view.  We reaffirm and celebrate his birth, not just as a “Happy Birthday Jesus” celebration but because, as he was born, he lived as the image of God showing us that God is not a vague, impersonal force but is relational to the point of entering into humanity so that we might be touched by the divine.  He lived and he died, but in dying he defeated the power of death, and so he lives, and because he lives we have the same kind of hope that Isaiah and Paul envisioned, hope not centered on our own ability to change things, but hope centered on the promise of Jesus as the light of the world.

This is what really places us out of step.  We have a vision of the world that is unwilling to be beaten down by the conflict and pessimism and cynicism that prevails.  We don’t deny reality, but we see more, we see beyond the facts on the ground because we know the story of this baby whose birth we prepare to celebrate.  With Isaiah and Paul we know that hope is at the heart of the story and at the heart of our life with God, a story and a life we become part of in baptism. We have hope that trusts in the God revealed in Jesus and that does put us out of step, out of step with the message that the world needs to hear.

One of the things that becomes increasingly clear to me is that if the church is to have a future, it has to be an agent of hope.  Correctly or incorrectly, the perception of many is that the church is mostly about rules and regulations, obedience, being the morality police if you will.  It’s not that those things are trivial, they have a place, but for those outside the church, if that’s all the church has to offer, they’re not interested, the church is irrelevant. 

Hope is at the heart of our Christian story and at the heart of our relationship with God.  That’s what we have to offer and while the wheels turn slowly, there a signs that a shift is starting to happen.  I say that because of what’s coming out of the Vatican these days.  I know we’re not Catholic, but what the Pope says does ripple through all of Christianity and Pope Francis is setting a tone that is different.  He too wants to change the perception that the church is just hung up on rigid ideology concerning a few moral issues.  As I interpret what he says and try to put it in Lutheran terms, what he wants is a church that is primarily about proclaiming the gospel rather than being about enforcing the law.  Mind you, that doesn’t mean that the law and obedience don’t matter, but the gospel is the message of hope that is or should be at the heart of any Christian church…

…and that’s why we need Advent.  At the beginning of a new church year it reestablishes the message of hope that we offer to the world, hope that we won’t give up on.  It does include hope for a Merry Christmas, but it also goes way beyond that.

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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