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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany - 1/14/07

Every year, either in a sermon or a newsletter article, I talk about the struggle to make the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas something other than a four week Christmas Eve celebration and more of a time to focus on the traditional Advent themes of hope and preparation and expectation.  I talk about how we are not just preparing to mark the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, something that happened a long time ago, but also that Advent is about now, the ways Jesus’ presence is made known among us in the present and also about the future, the time when the kingdom Jesus talked about will exist in full. 

Every year I do that, and to a certain extent I just did it again and I also touched on it in my December newsletter article; but that’s it.  I’m through, I think.   I’m not going to do it today anyway. Partly it’s because it always feels like a losing battle, plus the fact that I always have to admit to myself that I’m not really sure I know how to do what I say we’re supposed to do.

Even more than that though, it’s because as I think about it, the way we presently observe Advent may be OK, in some ways.  Not the rampant commercialism and consumerism of the season, I don’t mean that.  That’s not OK, in fact the shopping frenzy that many engage in could rightly be called obscene.  All of us could greatly simplify the expense of Christmas, we could reign in the excess of giving and receiving gifts that often aren’t all that meaningful and which we often can’t really afford. 

I don’t mean don’t give gifts; that is part of the season after all.  I’m not that much of a Scrooge.  It is fun to give gifts and it is fun to receive them.  But the spirit of Christmas and the joy of giving can be experienced in a much simpler and saner fashion.  So I think it’s OK to take a swipe at that part of this pre-Christmas time because we all do get sucked into it.

What I’m talking about as being OK is a lot of the other stuff we associate with December; the lights and other decorations, parties, music, concerts, the cooking and baking and special treats, maybe even Santa Claus.  The liturgical police would say that Advent is a time of restraint, not a time of celebration so all of this is inappropriate and should be put off until Christmas Eve and the 12 days of Christmas.  It is also true that all of these things can and often do get out of control and become sources of stress, but I would say when that happens, back off.  If you’re stressed out about all you have to do at this time of year, that’s a pretty good clue that you’re over doing it and things are a little bit out of perspective.  With a little bit of Advent restraint though, all of these things can be a meaningful part of your observance of Advent.

Here’s what I’m thinking.  This time of year always has something of a make believe, unreal, imaginary quality about it.  It’s not like any other time of year.  All of the things and activities we associate with this season contribute to this different, unreality.  At its best it’s a kinder, gentler time; people are nicer to each other; they’re more generous, more willing to help those who they know have less; there’s more of a sense of hospitality; there’s a genuine sense of joy and goodwill about things; at its best. 

Might I go so far as to say that our pre-Christmas traditions could represent an expression of Advent hope concerning the kingdom Jesus talked about, shades of the way he would have things be?  I might.  At its best, this time of year is a source of hope, providing us with an image and a vision of the way things could be, of the way that Jesus promises that things will be.   We need such hope.  We need such visions.

There is a make believe, unreal quality to it, but at the same time we haven’t forgotten the reality of the world we live in.  We know something’s wrong.  The sense of joy and goodwill we feel doesn’t make all that other stuff go away.  So we still know about a war we can’t win and we can’t get out of.  We know about terrorist threats.  We know about genocide and starvation in parts of Africa.  We know about rogue nations trying to develop nuclear weapons.  We know about whatever our own personal problems and crises are.  It doesn’t all go away.  There are sources of fear that are a very real part of our world.

For awhile though, we let those things go and allow ourselves to have more of a sense of hope.  In the traditions and activities of this season we might actually experience at least a taste of something different.  That’s a good thing, lifting up a vision of hope against a background of fear, and I would suggest that it is most appropriate for Advent.

I believe that the lectionary supports me on this.  The readings assigned for Advent are addressed to people living in fear.  During Advent we hear from prophets like Jeremiah who in today’s lesson is speaking to people living in exile.  They knew fear, having been separated from their homeland and their way of life, conquered and dominated by the Babylonian empire from which it appeared there was no hope of release.  But against the reality of this situation of fear, Jeremiah and others began to offer visions of hope which must have sounded like make believe to those who first heard them.

The portion of Psalm 25 appointed for today is an expression of deep trust in a God of love and compassion and faithfulness, but what we didn’t get were the final verses of this psalm which are an acknowledgment that something is wrong; the Psalmist is fearful and alone and in misery.  Those verses add to the power of this text and really make it one for Advent as they show that the psalmist is not blindly naïve in his praise.  He knows what’s going on and can still imagine something different simply because he has faith in the goodness of God.  In faith he can speak these words of trust and praise through his fear.

At the time of the gospels, the time of Jesus the heavy hand of the Roman Empire was on the people.  This was another empire that inspired fear, another one that appeared to have no end.  But into that reality came Jesus announcing a different kingdom, a different reality, sometimes using apocalyptic, make believe imagery as is the case in today’s lesson from Luke.

Paul’s letters all were written to communities living with a degree of fear.  They were scattered, minority communities, who believed the strange, make believe sounding gospel that Paul was spreading, a message about Jesus and resurrection.  It was a message they wanted to believe but others were telling them they were crazy, and it was never a message well received by those of power and influence at that time.  So there was always the fear of persecution but into this fear Paul continued to preach words of hope and encouragement.

Whether it was the prophets or the psalmist or Jesus or Paul, you could say that they all were speaking words of Advent hope.  They were all creating visions of a different reality, often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  For awhile, during the month of December, with our lights and decorations and parties, isn’t that kind of what we do?  I think it is…at its best.  Seeing what we do as an expression of Advent hope it becomes an expression of trust in God and God’s promises and God’s vision for us despite all the other stuff we know is going on.  It’s trust in that make believe sounding story we’ll hear later this month, the story of the messiah born in lowly surroundings to a poor young couple, and announced by angels to shepherds. 

It’s a story of hope.  It doesn’t make the fears that we face disappear anymore than it has at other times of history.  But this story and the ways that we prepare to hear it, perhaps more than any other story, is what we need to live through the fear and continue to know a different sense of peace and joy and hope.  It sounds like make believe, but we know it’s true. 

          Welcome to Advent, and may it be a blessed time of preparation for you.

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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