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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 12/02/2018

Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is the one during which it feels like the church is most out of step with the wider culture. I’ve said that before and I’ll probably say it again, because it’s true. During December, Christmas, not Advent, is very much in the air out there and has been for quite awhile. However, despite how grossly commercial it gets, if we’re honest, most of us would admit that while it might not be true in early November, by the time December rolls around, we’re OK with the Christmas atmosphere, we like the lights and decorations, the food and parties and music, maybe even the shopping, all of which are part of what one hopes is a joyous time of year. In church though we do rein in the Christmas festivities, at least to some extent, and try to observe Advent as the separate and special and out of step season of waiting and preparation that it is.

The First Sunday of Advent then is out of step in that it is more about waiting for the return of Jesus rather than anticipating the celebration of his birth a long time ago. Then there’s always two weeks of John the Baptist who was out of step with the wider culture 2000 years ago and still is; my guess is that you don’t or won’t have a John the Baptist ornament on your Christmas tree or lurking around your nativity set; he’s just a little too weird. It’s not until the Fourth Sunday of Advent that the church begins to get closer to where the wider culture has been for quite awhile

In that we’re already feeling out of step, the first Sunday of a new church year would seem to be a good time to be reminded that out of step is exactly where the church should be, not just in December, but all the time. When I say that, I don’t mean it as a moralistic, holier than thou kind of statement. What I mean is that from the First Sunday of Advent until Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, the biblical narrative invites us into a different and out of step vision and version of reality, one in which the God we identify as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the main character.

For those of us in the church, that version and vision of reality might not sound so out of step but it’s not the dominant reality of our world which sees everything governed by a system of interrelated and predictable causes and effects that can be perceived and understood through our senses. In that world, nothing new is really possible, just variations of what has happened before. Reason and intellect are the rulers of that reality which has little room for God or spirit or mystery. Things like Incarnation, God becoming human, things like resurrection are not possible in that vision of reality. Instead, such things are explained away.

Imagining the world that the Bible gives us, a world that does have God at the center, changes that. Scripture imagines a world created and ordered by, cared for and saved by a God who is both infinitely powerful and infinitely personal. It’s a world where new life and new possibilities emerge in surprising ways that are not always predictable. It’s a world that trusts in the faithfulness of God, a world that is open to the mystery, a world that never loses hope. The world imagined by the Bible can’t be fully explained by reason and logic but that kind of explanation isn’t the goal. Instead, for those willing to engage it and imagine it, for those willing to go there and pay attention to the images that are offered, the mystery that lies beneath the surface, the mystery and truth of God and God’s relationship with humanity, is slowly revealed.

This way of approaching the Bible and faith has always been around but for a long time it has been pushed into the background because it doesn’t fit the dominant view. The prevailing way of approaching the Bible has been to use reason and intellect and see it as something of a historical account of some rather implausible and hard to verify events. For a long time the trajectory of biblical scholarship has been similar to that with an effort to better understand the world and the time that created the Bible, historical criticism as it is called. There is value to all that and it is interesting but what we really need to do is to imagine not the world that created the Bible, but to imagine the world that the Bible creates. It is in that world, in that reality that we will find divine mystery and meaning.

This has all been a significant part of my faith journey for the past couple of years and for better or for worse I’ve been pulling you along with me, hopefully helping you to read and hear the Bible differently. It makes church about more than helpful advice on how to live which, when you think about it, doesn’t really require God. Instead, entering the world the Bible creates opens you to the mystery which is life lived in the presence of God and the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new church year seem like a good time to emphasize this as we hear and think about the texts for Advent.

The first words we hear this year come from Jeremiah and they are words of hope and assurance: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…I will cause a righteous branch to spring up…Jerusalem will live in safety.” Those are comforting words; however, words of comfort aren’t all that we hear today or on the other Sundays of Advent. The reading from Luke today has frightening sounding apocalyptic words about signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, signs that will come unexpectedly, like a trap. Between the two readings we wind up caught in the tension between fear and hope, but again, we start with words of comfort and assurance.

What’s interesting about prophetic words of hope though, is that they quite often came out of times during which there didn’t seem to be much reason for hope. That was true in the case of Jeremiah. The people were being squeezed by Assyria in the north and Egypt in the south. The most practical solution would have been to form a protective alliance with Egypt so they wouldn’t have to face Assyria alone. Jeremiah was aware of the danger, he knew the facts on the ground but rather than offering practical advice and conventional military or political solutions he offered words that pointed to a future in which the Lord’s own righteousness would prevail: “I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David to execute justice in the land.” Jeremiah doesn’t offer advice, he proposes the image of a righteous branch. He holds out a vision of something new enabling the people to see beyond the present.

The beauty of such an image is that it reaches beyond a particular moment. There is a historical context for Jeremiah, but more importantly, in the midst of other things and situations that are hard to understand, his image of assurance carries over, providing hope for our future. It might well be that those kinds of images are what we need more than we need advice and solutions.

For my birthday back in November Kathy gave me a book titled Joy, which is a collection of poems about…joy. I haven’t read all of it, but from what I have read, it’s not sentimental, greeting card poetry, not that there isn’t a place for that, but what the editor tried to do was to find poems that in different ways evoke an image and sense of joy. In the introduction, while he doesn’t put it quite this way, his feeling is that we’re in a challenging time, not unlike that of Jeremiah, and that we need images that get us past that and out of the 24 hour news cycle of “breaking news” about injustice and suffering. What we need are images that give us hope. As the liner notes say, rather than define joy for readers, the goal is for them to experience it. We sometimes wonder who the prophets of today are because they seem to be in short supply but it may be that they are the poets and others who are able to offer us images of hope.

As Christians, the source of our hope is the God we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In different ways, what both Jeremiah and Luke give us in today’s readings are images of God breaking into the world and doing something new, not just 2000 years ago when Jesus was born, but now and in the future. In the out of step world of the Bible and the church, that’s where Advent begins. Hold on to the image of the righteous branch. It is an image of hope and it does represent the direction in which we are going.

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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