Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent - 12/03/2017

In the most recent issue of Christian Century there’s an article titled “Don’t Deck the Halls,” written by the pastor of a Mennonite church in Virginia about a family, a husband, wife and kids, who joined his church a couple of years ago. In talking with the parents, Mike and Pam (I assume the names have been changed to protect the innocent), they announced to the pastor that they didn’t celebrate Christmas; they and their children did not go to Christmas parties, they didn’t have a Christmas tree, they didn’t sing holiday songs, talk about Santa or exchange gifts.

When the pastor asked why, they told him that the December 25th holiday wasn’t really about the birth of Jesus but had been co-opted from the winter solstice celebration of the ancient Romans, that Christmas trees and hanging greens were derived from pagan rituals, that attending party after party was not an appropriate way to await the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the gift giving was simply a marketing ploy to prop up our consumer economy. They were even opposed to buying Christmas presents for low income families feeling that that wasn’t the best way to address poverty or promote a sustainable lifestyle.

So…Mike and Pam and their kids opted out. When December and Advent came around, they stayed home, feeling that even what went on in church was not biblical but had been compromised by the consumerism and materialism of secular Christmas. For Mike and Pam, this was just their personal stance; their intent wasn’t to get the church to change what it was doing, but to a degree, that’s what happened. The pastor and church council took a look at how they were observing Advent and Christmas and some changes were made in an effort to make this family feel like they could participate.

While I can’t disagree with Mike and Pam on the fact that the commercial aspects of this season are pretty much out of control and that culturally the commercial aspects do dwarf the religious aspects of the holiday, I think there are ways to scale back the commercialism without completely opting out as they did, without completely sucking the joy out of activities which, if understood properly, add enjoyment to the season. For any of us though, as individuals and as a church it’s not a bad idea to think about what we do during the “holiday” season, and to think about how much of it actually does have to do with anticipation and celebration of the incarnation which is a celebration of Jesus’ presence among us then, now and always. It also made me wonder if such a family showed up here, how would they respond to what we do? How would I, how would we respond to them?

Their questioning of holiday practices does highlight the importance of what we do in church at this time of year as what we do does stand, or at least it should stand in opposition to how the season is celebrated in the wider culture. I don’t know how Mike and Pam would feel about what we do here, but I think we do OK with Advent, being intentional about observing it as a season separate from Christmas. It’s not that there are no compromises with secular Christmas in all of the activities that take place here, but those of us involved in planning for the season and planning for worship do try to slow down the rush to Christmas and observe Advent properly, even though it does leave us out of step with all the pre-Christmas activities already in full swing.

The First Sunday of Advent leaves us especially out of step with a gospel lesson that doesn’t look back on preparation for the birth of Jesus but instead is focused on the future and the second coming of Jesus. There is a sense of urgency about it with the call to be awake, to be watchful, to be alert to the signs. The sense of urgency though, for the day and for the season, is set before that, in the Prayer of the Day that leads into the first reading and the psalm: “Stir up your power Lord Christ, and come,” the prayer begins.

I don’t know how much attention you pay to the Prayer of the Day, but it is an important part of the liturgy that brings the gathering portion of worship to an end and introduces the lessons of the day. It used to be called the “collect,” and its intent is to bring together, to collect the themes and ideas from the lessons of the day and to bring some focus to them. During the season of Advent, every Sunday, every year, the Prayer of the Day begins with the words “Stir up.” Sometimes it’s a call to stir up something in God, God’s power or might, sometimes to stir up something in us, to stir up our heart or will.

In the second verse of today’s psalm, you find out where this phrase comes from: “Stir up your strength and come to help us;” there it is. As is the case with every psalm there is a context in which it was written, a context that you can sometimes figure out, sometimes you can’t. In this case, Psalm 80 seems to indicate the occurrence of some kind of devastating event, perhaps the destruction of Jerusalem, and in response to that there’s a call for God, the Lord to act on behalf of the people. It’s not polite; when things are urgent being polite might not be enough to get the attention of the one you’re addressing. Instead, this is an imperative which asks, perhaps even tells God to give life in a circumstance of suffering and death. Whatever it is, something is wrong and the psalmist is calling on the Lord to address it.

What’s interesting in psalms like this is that God is seen as both the problem and the solution. There’s the image of an absent or inattentive God who needs to be stirred up, roused to activity, because the cause is urgent. “Stir up your strength and come to help us. Restore us O God; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.” The “Restore us” verse is repeated three times! It’s a refrain of urgency, but one spoken in confidence that God can and will act.

This sense of urgency is also reflected in the first reading today from Isaiah. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” In this case it’s not that God is perceived as asleep or absent, just remote, comfortably situated in the realm of heaven, not interested in what’s happening on earth. With his cry to “Tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah is recalling other times when God’s presence has dramatically been made known as it was to Moses on Mt. Sinai with thunder and lightning, the mountain shrouded in smoke and fire. As was the case in the psalm though, it again is an urgent call for God’s presence to be made known all of which does set the tone for Advent.

At the beginning of a new church year, on the First Sunday of Advent, we join the psalmist and we join Isaiah in recognizing that there is a problem that can only be solved by God’s radical intervention in our world. The psalm and Isaiah do come out of specific historical contexts and problems but they also address the larger problem of sin, of a broken relationship with God. At the beginning of Advent we again acknowledge the problem and look back on the time when God’s power was stirred up, when the heavens were torn open and God became one of us in the person of Jesus. God took on our humanity in order to restore the divine image within us and to mend the relationship.

In the birth of Jesus the process begins and it continues in his death and resurrection. In baptism we become part of the story as we die with Jesus and are joined with him in new life, eternal life and we get glimpses of life in his kingdom. During Advent though, while we do look back to the beginning of the story, we also look ahead to the end, to the time when the kingdom is present not just in glimpses, but in fullness as Jesus returns.

In the meantime we are called to be alert, to watch and to wait in anticipation. With urgency, we continue to pray for God’s power to be stirred up and for the heavens to be torn open and God’s presence made known not only in the future, but now, in the midst of the divisiveness and dysfunction that is such a part of our world. “Restore us O God; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.” Like the psalmist, we pray with confidence that God can and will act. Stir up your power Lord Christ, and come! We never lose hope.

That’s where we begin Advent here at Bethany. I think that even Mike and Pam might be OK with it.

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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