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Bethany Evangelical
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Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent 12/01/2013

In my newsletter article I wrote about how watching some movie version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is something I do every year during December; for me anyway, as familiar as the story is, it never gets old, it is a classic.  Another movie that shows up at this time of year is Miracle on 34th Street.  It doesn’t have as many versions as A Christmas Carol, I think only two, and I don’t feel compelled to watch through the whole thing every year, but it’s another classic of the season purported to convey the real meaning of Christmas.  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case but it is a nice heartwarming story.

You’ve probably seen it so you know it’s about a department store Santa, Kris Kringle, who claims to be the real Santa Claus which of course makes most people think he’s crazy.  One of the other main characters is little Susie Walker who has been taught by her matter of fact mother that Santa isn’t real and pretending is silly.  Part of Kris’ task is to convince Susie otherwise and in one scene he says, “You’ve heard of the French nation and the English nation, haven’t you?  Well this is the imagi-nation.”  Miracle on 34th Street may not convey the true meaning of Christmas as it is said to do, but what it says about imagination is useful.

You know that I have talked about the use of imagination when engaging biblical texts.  For me this insight has been a key in my own faith journey and as we begin a new church year today, I have a feeling you’ll be hearing about imagination again this year because I think it is an important spiritual gift and it’s one that we all have…if we don’t suffocate it.  I think that those who wrote the Bible were especially blessed with the gift of imagination so that in visions and dreams and even more in observing and understanding events that were going on around them, they were able to perceive things that others couldn’t, truth that others couldn’t.  Inspired by God, with their stories and their poetry they convey divine truth and reality to us, truth and reality that we in turn use our own imagination to engage.  If we don’t engage it that way, we run the risk of missing a lot of what it says. 

Like little Susie in Miracle on 34th Street though, we reach a certain age and we’re taught to get serious, to grow up.  Imagination is not encouraged as it’s thought to be stuff of children, but maybe that’s what the verse is about in Matthew that says “Unless you change and become like children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  It’s a verse that’s often interpreted as being about having the blind, unquestioning faith of a child, but maybe it’s about using the gift of imagination that we’ve been given.  After all, an imagination is a terrible thing to waste but that’s what we do when we read imaginative texts literally with the assumption that the only real truth is literal, matter of fact, scientific truth. 

The challenge is to imagine something different and that’s what many of the prophets, including Isaiah did.  Isaiah imagined what peace would look like and I don’t think it was any easier to do that in his time than it is in ours.  He imagined peace in Jerusalem, all the nations of the world streaming to Jerusalem to hear the word of the Lord, to learn the way of the Lord, Jerusalem like a magnet that everyone is drawn to.  He imagined weapons of war being changed into tools for farming.  He imagined all the people of the world walking in the light of the Lord.

It’s a beautiful image but you know matter of fact Mrs. Walker, Susie’s mother?  She wouldn’t have any room for Isaiah’s imagination nor would any other Mrs. or Mr. Walkers out there.  After all, it’s silly to imagine such a thing as swords into plowshares; it’s not going to happen.  Let’s just deal with the reality of things, the fact that people can’t get along, they never have, peace isn’t possible, war in some fashion is always going to be with us.  That’s what grownups do; they take the facts on the ground, the accumulated wisdom of the history of the world and they draw the appropriate, logical conclusions.  To imagine otherwise is for children or for the hopelessly naïve…

…or for the Isaiah’s of the world, the poets whose vision is different.  It is hard to imagine the unimaginable, it’s hard to imagine things being different, but that’s what some have been able to do and that’s we’re invited to do as the season of Advent begins a new church year and prophets like Isaiah help us to do it. 

Isaiah is not hopelessly naïve; far from it.  What’s interesting about this text today from chapter two is that if you go back to the end of chapter one the tone is quite different with a vision of devouring fire; “The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work will burn together, with no one to quench them.”  Isaiah sees that too, but he is able to look beyond the devastation and judgment of the coming fire, devastation and judgment that is certain, but Isaiah looks beyond it to the latter days, the days to come; “In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established.” 

That’s quite different from unquenchable fire but it’s the book of Isaiah in miniature actually as this move toward hope is the overall pattern for the whole book.  Judgment is real and it is coming, but Isaiah imagines for us what the long term intention of the Lord is.  Isaiah’s hopeful image is not obvious, the evidence says otherwise, but Isaiah’s imagination went past the evidence and using our own imagination and stifling the Mrs. Walker that lives inside us and only wants us to consider that evidence, we can join him in imagining God’s possibilities which is really what the season of Advent is all about.

I’ve said before that of all the seasons of the church year, Advent may be the time we’re most out of step with the wider culture.  Out there, December is kind of like one long Christmas Eve with decorations and lights and parties and concerts and other activities and even in church we’re not immune to that; it sneaks in here too and it’s not evil or anything, far from it, but at church, in addition to that, at least at the beginning of Advent, we are kind of like Isaiah as we look beyond; we look beyond the celebration of the already of Jesus’ birth that happened a long time ago and look forward to the days to come, the not yet of the Kingdom of God.  In Jesus the Kingdom came near but we continue to anticipate the day it is here in full.  Isaiah helps us to imagine it as we live in the present, in between the already and the not yet.

There’s tension today too though; that’s another thing I talk about a lot, the tension of the biblical message and it especially applies as we talk about living in the in between time of the present.  Just as you get comfortable, just as you settle in to imagining with Isaiah his vision of future peace which is a nice vision as we move into the Christmas season, Jesus, in the gospel doesn’t let you get too comfortable.  “Keep awake!” he says, jarring us before we nod off into heavenly peace.  He doesn’t contradict Isaiah, he doesn’t deny the vision of peace, but he does offer a reminder that judgment is part of the equation too and even with visions of peace we can’t forget that, or maybe a more helpful way to think about it is that as we live in these in between times there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and the way you live will be noted; the Lord does notice.

What it really is, is the old law and gospel, grace vs. cheap grace thing that we talk about as Lutherans.  We know that we can’t earn our salvation, it’s only by the grace of God, but still, we want to know, we need to know, how we’re to live our lives in light of that gift of grace.  Today it’s Jesus who reminds us of that and Paul in the Romans passage has some pretty concrete advice about how to do it; we need that.  But still, as we begin Advent, it may be the imagination and hope of Isaiah that we need the most.  He helps us to see beyond the grown up, matter of fact limits of what we think is possible.  He even takes us past judgment that is real and deserved, but he takes us past that and into the light of the Lord.

Isaiah imagined that things could be different and Jesus brought that difference near.  Awake and ready with them we continue to imagine the unimaginable story that begins again on this first day of Advent, the story that will give us the real meaning of Christmas.   

Rev. Warren Geier


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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