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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 11/29/2015

There is nothing wrong with the church being out of step with the wider culture, in fact, it could be said something is wrong if we aren’t sometimes out of step. Every year, Advent feels like such an out of step time. With Thanksgiving behind us, for many, it’s now full speed ahead to Christmas if it wasn’t already. In church though, we kind of put on the brakes and slow down the Christmas rush.

For example, as far as the gospel lessons go, we really don’t get anything remotely Christmas-y until the Fourth Sunday of Advent, three weeks from now. Today there are some scary sounding end times prophecies and then, the next two weeks feature John the Baptist throwing cold water on any Christmas joy that might be stirring in you. We will have the children’s Christmas program in a couple of weeks and there are other events that will point us to Christmas, the decorations will gradually appear, but still, the lectionary focus stays on waiting and watching rather than on celebrating.

Today though, in the reading from Luke, the waiting and watching isn’t about Christmas and the birth of Jesus, it’s about Jesus’ return. It talks about the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. It speaks of signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, accompanied by distress and fear, the powers of heaven being shaken. We’re all captivated by the story of Jesus’ birth, our hearts are warmed by Mary and Joseph, the manger, the angels and the shepherds but in Advent, before we get to that, we look ahead and think about the second coming with this apocalyptic imagery that isn’t very heart warming.

When it comes to talking about the second coming, Walter Brueggemann suggests that we have to navigate our way between two groups of people. There are those who spend lots of time with texts like today’s trying to figure out the strange symbolism and determine exactly when it’s going to happen and they’re pretty sure they can tell you and they never seem to be discouraged when it turns out that their calculations are wrong. Brueggemann calls them the people who know too much. On the other hand there are those who are dismissive of these texts, thinking that they represent a misinterpretation on the part of the gospel writers, that these texts speak of something that is never going to happen. Brueggemann calls them the people who expect too little.

In between those two groups are the rest of us. We don’t take texts like this one from Luke literally but we do see them as announcing a change, announcing that God’s kingdom will come, that the powers that work against peace and abundant life for all people will be defeated. We live in hope for that to happen, but we don’t pretend to know when it will happen and we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. We don’t know when because there are things about God that are a mystery and will remain a mystery. But again, we trust that the steadfast love of the Lord will prevail, that the kingdom will come. We pray for and we wait for that time.

Not worried about the when of the kingdom, we can focus on the now that comes before the when. In the now, we do consider what it is that we wait for, the what being the fullness of God’s kingdom, and we consider the way of that kingdom, that way being the way of Christ. Not worried about the when, we’re able to focus on the things that matter now. Today’s psalm, Psalm 25 helps us with that and in doing so, it helps us with our Advent preparation.

While sometimes seeming to be an afterthought in the Sunday readings the psalm of the day is often useful in providing reflection on the other texts of the day and also reflection on the themes of the season in which it occurs. In this case the season is Advent, the beginning of a new church year. A good way to approach a new church year is to kind of get back to basics, to think about the nature of the God for whose kingdom we wait and to think about how to live in ways that honor that God. In its own way, Psalm 25 does both of those things.

It is a psalm of waiting although our translation doesn’t reflect that so much, but phrases like “I trust in you” and “I look to you” can also be translated as “I wait for you.” Importantly though, such waiting is not the kind of waiting that is mostly about passive inactivity. The Hebrew sense of the verb “to wait” is about being alert, actively and eagerly watching for signs with hope and expectation. So it’s not about waiting idly, doing nothing and it’s also not like a night watchman who may be alert and watching but still, what he hopes for is that nothing happens. The psalmist fully expects the Lord to act because that’s what God does, that’s what the watching and waiting is about. These were not people who expected too little; they expected a lot!

Coupled with that sense of expectation is the simple fact of how God centered the psalm is. That isn’t all that surprising as being God centered is characteristic of the psalms, focused as they are in many cases on the God who created the world and is revealed in the majesty of creation, a God known in acts of steadfast love and miracles of faithfulness. In the psalms it’s not a surprising focus, but in our world it is.

We are taught self-reliance, take care of yourself and as a result we can wind up mostly trusting in ourselves and in our own abilities, sometimes in private and public institutions and authorities. We become those people who expect too little from God, seeing the world as a closed system where nothing new can happen apart from variations of what has happened before, apart from things that we can manage and control. The God centered focus of the psalmist says otherwise though. There was confident faith in a God who could do new things, who had done new things and who would do new things, things like breaking into this world as an infant, interrupting the affairs of the Roman Empire at the very moment that they were about business as usual, the business of raising taxes to support the empire and its military operations.

At the beginning of Advent we’re reminded that we wait for an active God, an active God whose actions are primarily characterized by words like steadfast love and faithfulness. They are words that recur throughout this psalm: “Remember me according to your steadfast love; all your paths O Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” As I’ve said many times, God is portrayed in a variety of ways in the Bible but the words that come back over and over again are words like steadfast love, faithfulness, mercy and compassion and I don’t think I can ever emphasize that too much. Those are the words that describe the God for whom we wait; those are also the words that describe the path, the way that we are to follow in our waiting.

The psalmist prays, “Show me your ways; teach me your paths; lead me in your truth.” It’s a great prayer to start a new year and the psalmist prays knowing and trusting that the Lord does just that, teaching sinners in the way; leading the lowly in justice; teaching the lowly in his way. On the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new church year these are words that can orient us or reorient us as we begin again on the way.

We’re told that the slate is clean, that we can begin again, but even so, we know it’s not easy; sin gets in the way. That’s another interesting thing about this psalm; it fully acknowledges sin and the need for forgiveness. “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; forgive my sin, for it is great.” Sin too is part of reality at the beginning of a new year, but so is forgiveness because of the steadfast love and compassion that defines our God. Again, that’s what we always come back to.

Despite the lectionary’s hesitancy to take us there right away part of Advent is preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. In that event, God did a new thing to reveal to sinful humanity, once and for all, the steadfast love, grace and forgiveness of God. Despite the ominous sounding texts we always have in the first week of Advent we remember that the second coming that we anticipate is not about the arrival of wrath and foreboding but the arrival in its fullness of the kingdom where the love of Christ prevails and the steadfast love of God defeats the powers of sin and death.

Not being distracted and worried about the when, acknowledging that we don’t know enough to even speculate, we can focus on the now and the how of living in Advent anticipation of that kingdom.

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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