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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent - 11/27/2016

Father Ken was the Episcopal priest in the town where I served in Massachusetts. He was a good guy, we got along well. Like many of us though, he was bothered by the ever increasing commercialism and consumerism of this time of year, factors that for him seemed to drain the season of any religious meaning, making Christmas strictly a secular holiday. In particular it bothered him that the liturgical season of Advent pretty much got lost as for many the month of December tended to be an extended Christmas Eve celebration full of parties and Christmas music rather than being the separate season it’s supposed to be with themes that distinguished it from Christmas.

So Father Ken decided that in order to properly observe Advent not only would his church not sing any Christmas carol’s until Christmas Eve, there also would not be any Christmas tree or other decorating at the church until Christmas Eve. They would observe the four weeks of Advent and the only decoration would be an Advent wreath. When Father Ken took this to his church council, the vestry I think they call it in the Episcopal Church, they told him that was fine, but that he’d be putting up the tree and decorating the church by himself on Christmas Eve. His intentions were liturgically noble, but not very practical. You win some, you lose some and life goes on and so it was for Father Ken.

The season of Advent does present challenges. Even for those of us who appreciate Advent and try to observe it as the season it’s supposed to be, like it or not, we are affected by the tone that the wider culture sets and truth be told, we like it more than we don’t like it. We enjoy the festiveness of December because there is a lot that is good about it. We still want to observe Advent and we do, but even for Advent diehards it does tend to be a bit disconcerting that in church, in the weekly readings, apart from Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament, we don’t get anything remotely Christmas-y until the Fourth Sunday of Advent, instead getting second coming, judgment warnings today followed by two weeks of John the Baptist.

Today does mark the beginning of a new church year and it’s almost as if the goal of the lectionary is to shock us, to get our attention, to wake us up in case we’ve drifted off during the twenty-seven Sundays since Pentecost. It’s a reminder that the church is often out of step with the wider culture. Advent represents a new beginning, a new time of hope and watchfulness. Still, every year, even though we know it’s coming, the gospel reading on the First Sunday of Advent comes as something of a surprise.  Christmas decorations are already out there, every day you see a few more houses decorated, but today the lectionary puts up something of a road block to Christmas celebration with cautions concerning the return of the Son of Man.

What’s interesting though, is the nature of the caution. These verses come from what is called Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse, his discussion with his disciples concerning the end times and final things. There is a theme of judgment and with that one might expect the caution to be about blatant sinfulness, but that’s not what we get here.

First there is the example of the people at the time of Noah. The Noah story in Genesis does talk about God’s anger at the people for their sinfulness and wickedness but in Matthew there is no mention of that. The people aren’t condemned for wickedness, they’re condemned for complacency, for having comfortably settled into business as usual, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. There’s nothing sinful about any of that; just the suggestion that the people assume that life is what it is and nothing is going to change. There’s no confidence in a God always at work, making things new.

The second example is the owner of a house that is broken into with the owner being criticized for letting down his guard, assuming that nothing bad would happen. Again, the caution is not about anything that would be considered sinful, it’s about complacency, about failing to be watchful. Both examples are about complacency, complacency that can also affect us.

For us though, a better word than complacency might be resignation. Complacency implies being mostly satisfied with and accepting of the way things are. Resignation though isn’t so much about being satisfied, it’s more about feeling helpless which then leads to feeling hopeless. In resignation we join the people of Noah’s time with their assumption that nothing is going to change. In resignation we join the owner of the house in not being watchful but for us it’s not because we think nothing bad is going to happen, it’s because we think that nothing good is going to happen or that this is as good as it’s going to get so we might as well just accept it. Again, no confidence in a God still at work.

What we have to remember is the apocalyptic nature of this text. The First Sunday of Advent is not about Christmas and anticipating the birth of Jesus; that already happened and we will get around to celebrating it. Today though is about anticipating the return of Jesus which for most of us isn’t even on our radar. The early Christian community thought it was going to happen real soon but not us; we acknowledge Jesus’ return as a matter of faith but then don’t think too much about it. A text like this one then, should get our attention and cause us to think about it, not that we should go stand on the highway with signs that say “The end is near!” but so we think about how we should be living during this time in between Jesus birth and his return. Included in that, is the call to be watchful.

Watchful for what though? For that we go back to one of the central themes of Advent, which is…hope. Some of you probably remember when Advent was more like Lent. The liturgical color was purple as it is during Lent and like Lent, Advent was a more penitential season. Now though, the color is blue with blue being seen as a color of hope. The watchfulness of Advent then has to do with looking for, being watchful for signs of hope and that is an appropriate way to begin a new church year.

I continue to think that proclaiming hope is a central task of the church in a world inclined toward resignation, if not outright despair. Our story and the cycle of stories that begins again today are about hope. It’s not naïve optimism that denies reality, but it’s good news that offers the hope of new life and new possibilities out of the most broken of situations. It’s Luther’s theology of the cross that tells it that it’s in the brokenness that we find God at work. Our story witnesses to God’s love for us, love that is revealed in many ways but at this time of year we especially see that love as we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus as God joins us in our humanity but we also see God’s love in the promise of Jesus’ return. In between those two events, we watch for signs of hope, signs of God’s love in the midst of a world that can seem quite broken.

The signs are out there, if we are watchful, and what we also remember today as we begin a new church year is that we can be those signs, we can share in God’s love and make it known to others. None of us is in the position of being able to change the world in large and dramatic ways, but all of us can do what we can in small ways, bringing hope to the small corner of the world we live in. We can’t do it all, but by the grace of God we can do something and we do better to consider what we can do rather than despairing or being resigned about what we can’t do. As Christians we offer a vision of hope for the world, hope that is centered on the belief that God is present and active among us, faith that Christ has died, Christ is risen and that Christ will come again.

The first reading this morning from Isaiah is another vision of hope and it’s a good vision to end with on the first Sunday of a new church year. The words and poetry of the prophets are always worthy of attention but especially so at this time of year and this text is a good example of that with the vision of the nations streaming toward the mountain of the Lord, swords and spears, instruments of war being turned into tools for useful production. We need such images because we are affected by what we read and what we hear and what see, the images that we hang on to and go back to. During Advent, prophets like Isaiah give us images of hope, images of the future God will give us, and we do well to carry such images with us, like those of nations streaming toward the mountain of the Lord, swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. They serve as an antidote to the resignation about which the gospel cautions us. They help to make Advent the season of hope it is intended to be.

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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