Sunday, November 29, 2009

First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

"O my God, in thee have I trusted." Psalm 25:2b, ASV

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.” Unfortunately, that song has been ringing through my head since Halloween, when the television commercials for retail stores began advertising holiday sales. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the shelves fill up with decorations, wrapping and handy presents, some of which are prewrapped for your convenience and divided by price. Do you need something for a man worth $10? There’s a number if interesting items like backscratchers and remote control caddies. Need something for a girl costing $5? There are shelves filled with lip gloss and hair ties. The gift boxes of food are diverse and delicious: kits for hot cocoa, sundaes, coffee or soup, meat and cheese packages and candy galore.

I have to admit that I have already been shopping for Christmas presents. Like those who live far from home, we have packages that need to be readied for shipping well before Christmas. We also did the shopping for our angel tree gifts this week. I’ve been working on homemade gifts all year and have been rushing to get those finished this week so that they are ready to be given to friends and family as we gather during the upcoming weeks. I’m thinking about getting the Christmas decorations out to begin the long process of transforming our house for the holidays.

I know. These things don’t really matter. This season is about something much more important than presents under a brightly lit tree. We spend much of Advent grumbling about the secularization of Christmas, and yet we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season, anyway. Most of us, at least those who read this devotion, balance the secular aspects with spiritual disciplines. Many will follow advent devotions. Others will find time and resources to take care of those for whom the holidays are difficult. We still get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays that we lose touch with our God. Our lavish and greedy lives speak little about the love of Christ and even our generosity is often founded on questionable motives.

But there’s good news in all this for us. God is not looking for the good and upright. He’s looking for the humble. He’s not looking for those who think themselves righteous, because they are self-righteous, pious based on their own works rather than on God’s grace. God is looking for the people who are teachable, who will learn and grow and be changed by His Word. He is looking for those who by faith are willing to wait and watch and hope for the fulfillment of His promises.

We are entering into the Advent season, a time for looking forward to the coming of the Christ child. We wait for Christmas, preparing our hearts for the coming of our Lord in the manger. But we are also looking forward to the coming of the Christ who will reign for eternity. Christ has come. Christ will come again. Advent is a time of the now and the later. It is a time to look back even while we are looking forward. It is a time to remember the coming of Jesus and the promises He fulfilled even while we hope for the promises to be fulfilled forever.

Jeremiah writes, “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” In this verse we see the reality of the now and later, the ‘is’ and ‘will be.’ I don’t think there is anyone who can say that Jerusalem lives in safety. As a matter of fact, the dangers in that part of the world are horrifying and devastating. People die on a daily basis due to violence and hatred. Others are suffering because they are unable to satisfy the most basic needs. Their homes and other buildings have been destroyed, their roads are impassable. They are unable to get from one place to another. This is a problem that affects everyone in the region; it is a place where the victims fall on both sides. Everyone has power and yet no one has power. We, who live so far away, take sides in the fight, each thinking we have chosen the right way of thinking. What we do not realize is that there is nothing right about what is happening in that place. There are no winners. There are victims everywhere. For every victim on one side, there is a victim on the other. Peace is now, as it has always been, beyond reach.

It is hard to imagine that God’s promises are being fulfilled even now in places where children are recruited to wear bombs on their chests that blow up marketplaces and kill innocent people. As we wait for the coming of our Savior and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises, we see that the world hasn’t changed at all, even after two thousand years. Jeremiah spoke of those days when everything will be made right, and we connect that promise to the birth of Christ. Yet, we know that even as He has fulfilled the promise, the work isn’t complete. The work isn’t complete, so we try to fulfill the promises in our own ways, by our own strength and for our own purpose.

The people in Jeremiah’s day thought that they were seeing the fulfillment of this promise. The word that is used in verse 16 for “The LORD is our righteousness” is similar to the name of Zedekiah. The people hoped that he was the answer to their prayers. They hoped that restoration would come at his hand. Judah was, at the time, under the rule of Babylon, a colony under Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, but Zedekiah turned to Egypt for help with a revolt. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took Zedekiah into captivity. Though his name meant “The LORD is my righteousness,” Zedekiah was not the Lord’s righteousness.

The people had hoped that Zedekiah would be the one to make things like they’d been during David’s reign. They were wrong. They sought fulfillment of God’s promises through the strength of men, and learned that the strength of men and princes is not trustworthy. This is why God has always called His people to trust in Him. The psalmist recognized this and sings, “O my God, in thee have I trusted.”

The New International Version uses the word “hope” three times in our psalm for today (twice in today’s reading) but other versions such as the New Revised Standard and American Standard use the phrase “wait for.” Hope is waiting for the promises to be fulfilled. But waiting is especially difficult. I think the hardest part of the early appearance of Christmas in our world is the fact that our children do not understand the idea of time. If Santa is in the mall, then Christmas must be soon. They begin even earlier longing for the day when the tree will be lost under the pile of presents. They either drive parents crazy with their anxiousness or they lose interest. How long do you have to wait? Our wait gets longer every year.

We can see the same thing in the faith of many Christians. There are those who live anxiously for the coming of our Lord Jesus in the clouds, as we see promised in today’s Gospel lesson. They see the signs and they believe that the time has come. Throughout history there have always been those who have given up the world in the expectation that the time is urgent. They have cried out to the world, “The time is NOW!” certain that they have understood the signs. Yet the times pass, and nothing happens. They either grow impatient or they lose interest.

But our message for today is to remember that God has fulfilled His promises and He will fulfill them. While we wait, while we hope, we are called to live in trust, knowing that God has done and continues to do His Work in this world. We call for Him to teach us, to make us know His word, to lead us in the right ways. We seek His righteousness, knowing that our own righteousness will not bring into fulfillment anything. We ask Him to teach us His path and to forget our sins. He is the one who is good and upright and his path is steadfast love and faithfulness. He is not looking for the good and upright, He is looking for the humble. He is looking for those who can be taught, who are willing to learn to live in His love and faithfulness, those who are willing to wait for everything to be complete.

When we hear the phrase “In those days…” they are often followed by horrific things like plagues, destruction, famine and death. Jesus says, “Men will faint from fear…” We know in our hearts and minds that we will have nothing to fear, and yet the promise of God does not mean we will never suffer in this world. I know that I have experienced fear and worry when faced with inclement weather like hurricanes and tornadoes. I have been worried about family members who have been waiting for test results that could bring bad news. I have been concerned about financial difficulties and other troubles that we have faced as individuals or as a family. Though I can rest secure in the knowledge that God’s promises are true, I still experience fear, worry and even doubt.

It can be particularly hard when the hard times cause our neighbors to question our faith. What good is believing in a good and upright God if we are suffering? What good is a God who can’t protect His own and fulfill His promises when they are most needed? The world sees our suffering and they see us put to shame. Our enemies exult over us because they think our God can’t overcome the world.

But like the psalmist, we look to God for the strength to escape our difficulties and the strength to be blameless. There is no shame for the righteous. The righteous are not those who are without sin, who are right according to the ways of the world. The righteous are those who have a right relationship with God, a relationship started by God when He came to dwell among men as the child born in Bethlehem. We wait for the triumph of the relationship that began in the manger, moved to the cross and dwells today with us as the Spirit. One day it will be complete. Until then, we will live in an imperfect world, waiting and hoping for God.

Jesus cautions us to not become weighed down by the worries of our world. It is easy to worry when it seems like the promises are far off. It is easy to turn onto the wrong paths when we do not see real solutions to our troubles. At this time of year, especially in times like these, we wonder how we will get through this season. Whether we face financial difficulties or broken relationships, impossible expectations or health issues, many of us carry heavy burdens on our shoulders. How can we possibly trust that God is faithful when nothing seems different today than it was two thousand years ago?

It is true that our world is not at peace. We, like those in every generation, can see the signs that Jesus said would point to that great day. What do we expect that day? Do we expect the world to be changed in a twinkling? That day will be real and it is a future hope. It could be today or it could be in a thousand years. We might think that surely we will be the generation that will see the coming of Christ. Perhaps we will be. But we might be just another generation that waits, living hopeful in whatever circumstances we face. This does not mean we have not received the promise. We live in the fulfillment as every generation before us, because the kingdom of God is near. God is near. He came as a babe in a manger and broke through the walls that kept Him locked in the Temple in Jerusalem, so that all might see His light and know His grace. He now lives among us by the Holy Spirit, and in the gathering of the faithful who share the love and grace of Christ.

We may already be annoyed by the songs of Christmas in the commercials on our television. We may already be tired of searching for the perfect gift or doing the work necessary to make the holidays a wonderful time for those we love. We might be impatient about the day coming, so that we can get it over with. We may worry about whether or not we can get through this season. But we are called to face it with joy, remembering that God is near through it all and that He is looking for the humble to whom He can teach His ways.

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