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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Day 8: The Second Sunday in Advent

Here is my sermon from this week.  The texts were Isaiah 26:1-4, Luke 1:11-22 and Luke 2:25-32.  
The Promise of Peace

     One of the first commandments that we tried to teach our dog Tanner was Come! We wanted to be able to be with him in the open countryside and allow him to run freely off the leash. But in order for this to happen in an effective manner, he needed to learn to respond without hesitation to the Come command. Also, come is a useful command even when you are in a confined area, like our house, because sometimes he gets into things that he should not and then you want to be able to call him away. Of course, the most effective way to teach a dog to obey is to bribe him with treats! So as we taught Tanner the Come command, we would hold out a doggy treat so he could see what awaited him upon his arrival at our beck and call. The command to come quickly morphed into Tanner, come get a treat and over time we began to get decent results. However, neither Tanner nor we have mastered the Come command to the fullest extent. At best Tanner comes when called 80% of the time. When a treat is involved the odds do rise to 90% but if he is hyper focused on another activity, like chewing on a big stick or rolling in horse dung, he absolutely will not respond to our call. Sometimes he just stands a few meters away and stares us, daring us to chase him down. And let me tell you, there are fewer things more frustrating in life than when your 45 kilo moose of a dog will not listen to you. I cannot count the times that I have been in a park, or the woods, or some other open place where the echo of my voice can surely be heard by all within a 5 kilometer radius. Because of course, the one living being who is not listening to me is Tanner. And when he is unwilling to heed to my call, well, there is little I can do but just wait it out. He always eventually comes back, but sometimes not until I am so exasperated that I feel tempted to just leave him in the woods to figure out life on his own! Waiting for something to come, especially something you really want, is indeed a very hard thing to do. And when it doesn't come, you feel frustrated and disappointed and you wonder why that which you most want never comes to fruition.
     In many places of our world, one of the most sung hymns for advent is called O Come O Come Emmanuel. The song has origins that date back to the 12th century and the English version was translated in 1918 by British scholar John M. Neale. The text is based on the biblical prophecy that states that God will give Israel a sign that will be called Immanuel or "God with us". The verses sum up the longing of Advent as they depict the desperate plight of humanity in need of a Savior, and address Christ with seven grand titles, pleading with him to come save his people. Part of the brilliance of the hymn is that it is set in minor key and begins with a haunting melody that gives rise to the longings that are buried deep within us for a Savior to come and release us. Listen to the first verse:
O come, O come Emmanuel, to free your captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appear.  Do you ever feel like you are mourning in lonely exile, waiting for the son of God to appear in your life? You have cried out to God, come, O come and yet in
some ways feel that your cry has fallen on deaf ears and you wonder if your longings will ever be realized in fulfillment? I can assure you that you are not alone these feelings and today I hope you discover anew the promise of fulfillment that God extends to each one of us through his son Jesus Christ.
     Our scripture lessons from Luke are focused on two men, Zechariah and Simeon, both men of God whose longings were deep and profound. I am sure both of them struggled with the failure of fulfillment throughout their lives for both waited an extraordinarily long time to see what God was doing in their midst. We are reminded that just because we don't see what God is doing doesn't mean that God is not at work in profound ways. Walter Wangerin, in his book, waiting for Jesus, says this: “God is a God of history, weaving its past and its future together, designing the times by overseeing the intricate patterns of human events, granting meaning to whole of humankind and thereby making any single moment incandescent with meaning.” What we find in Zechariah is God remembering his promises, answering his prayers but with timing that causes Zechariah to doubt what God is saying to him. God's message to Zechariah is that he will be given a son, and the son will prepare the way for the coming Lord, the messiah...two promises being fulfilled in this one terrifying, awesome moment...You Zechariah, against all odds, will have a son, and he, Zechariah will be called John and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit and he, Zechariah will bring news of another son, the promised one...the Messiah, the Son of God. And after waiting for so long to hear these very words Zechariah responds with doubt. We see in the text that Zechariah says, “How can I be sure this will happen? There is so much evidence to the contrary.”
Oh, friends have you ever been there? You pray for something, your pour out your heart, you ache with longing and you wonder why God does not hear your prayer and in some cases God moves in your life in a way that perhaps fulfills the desire or perhaps shifts the longing and it's scary to think about this new thing that God is doing in your life and so you respond by saying, “Really God, how can I be sure?” Or, in other cases, you carry those longings with you and nothing seems to be happening at all and we respond by saying “Really God, must you be so silent?” In any case, when we respond with Really God?, what we are actually saying is that we aren't fully confident that we can really trust God. So one of the most important questions of Advent is whether or not we really do believe that God will make good on his promises. If we don't have a fundamental belief that God can be trusted to be faithful then the peace that is offered us through Christ will forever escape us. For the peace of Christ which passes all understanding is rooted in an ability to trust that God is working and moving in our lives even when we see no evidence of such from our point of view.
The text from Isaiah reminds us that peace comes when we keep our thoughts fixed on God. It reminds us as well that we can trust in the Lord for the Lord God is the eternal Rock. The first six verses of Chapter 26 are offered as thanks to God for his deliverance. It's clear that the first verse isn't necessarily pointing to a geographical city but rather a state of mind...Instead of living in fear, they are confident that they are surrounded by God's salvation. This is why they can trust God...they do believe that he is their eternal rock. They believe that God can do what they cannot do. What we see revealed in these short verses from Isaiah is that trust must become a way of life. It is not a fleeting notion that we turn to now and again but rather the perfect peace that is promised to us comes through enduring trust. Trusting God involves a waiting component that becomes so poignantly real during advent. One Old Testament scholar sums it up so beautifully by saying that “Waiting is not doing nothing however. Rather waiting is doing what you know is right while refusing to run ahead of God to try to solve your problems yourself.” In other words, to wait on God is to trust God while allowing him to reveal things to you in his time and in his way. Peace will come if in the midst of our waiting, in the center of our longings we can trust that God is active and alive and will reveal the fulness of his promises to us when the time is right. One of the more challenging aspects of our faith is trusting and believing that God is capable of doing that which we are not. We have to remember that the prophets had been prophesying for years and years and years before the incarnation of Jesus Christ actually occurred. All the revelation necessary to prepare for the coming of Christ was concluded with Malachi's prophesy, the final book of the Old Testament. Do you know how many years and years and years passed between the time the prophets ended prophesying about the coming Christ and his birth? 400 years! Can you imagine that? A period of 400 years ensued before all the circumstances were right for Christ's incarnation. During most of that time, the Jews had little control over their political destiny, being ruled by one great power and then another. The glowing promises of the prophets for the time after the Exile had not come true. God was questioned even in the book of Malachi: Mal 2:17 says, “Where is the God of justice?”, and in Mal 3:14 the people proclaim that, “It is futile to serve God”. Each generation has its naysayers, and yet, what we see over and over again in scripture is God making good on his promises, delivering his people from the peril that they thought would swallow them up. During times when we feel that God is doing nothing, believers need to be encouraged by the evidence of God's faithful activity in the past and that his promise that he will never leave us or forsake us is valid today as well.
     That is why encountering Simeon is also very important to us. Simeon is also a great man to encounter during advent because he spent his entire life waiting expectantly to see the Messiah. Our text tells us that Simeon was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was with him as well. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, Simeon encountered them and knew that his expectations were finally coming to fulfillment. And his gives witness to God's faithfulness with this prayer: Now let your servant die in peace as you have promised, I have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all people. And then he affirms the purpose for Christ's coming into the world, that he is a light to reveal God to the
nations, he is the glory of your people Israel. Simeon is a testament to someone who never lost faith that God would deliver on his promise to him, even as he grew older, even as the years went by without fulfillment.        
     Friends, we have received the same promise that Simeon has, that we shall see the Messiah before we die. Have you ever stopped to consider how God has been at work in your life to reveal to you Jesus Christ his son? Isn't it amazing that through all of the twists and turns that each one of our lives have taken that in God's great vision for his church, he has landed us all here in Stockholm, Sweden where he wants to continue to reveal the glory of his son Jesus Christ in our midst? That it is God's deep and abiding will that we know his son, that we enter into his presence, that we too come to understand that Christ is the messiah who came as a light to the nations. You see, perhaps as you think about your own longings and the ways in which God is NOT fulfilling them, maybe it is useful to recall what HAS been promised to us. We have been promised salvation through Jesus Christ. We have been given unconditional abiding love from the God of heaven and earth. We have been given a church community, the body of Christ so that together we can pursue the mission that God has set forth for us. God's promises are alive and well in our midst. The struggle that we face is that in our private individual lives some of our longings go unmet and in those personal, private moments of sadness and malcontentedness we wonder where God is and why he is not answering our beck and call. But we must admit that God never promised that he'd be at our beck and call. Instead, he promised us a way to enjoy an abiding relationship with him through his Son Jesus Christ and through Christ would provide for us the strength, hope and courage to face the road of life, that at times may be a quite rough for some of us, and yet still be able to trust that God is at work, even when we ourselves don't fully understand it or feel it. Evangelist Ravi Zacharias once said that “Faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in his power, so that even when his power does not serve my end, my confidence in him remains because of who he is.” Friends, we are invited to cry out to God to come, come and be in our midst Emmanuel...be the God with us, but that is a very different cry than come and do what I want you to in my life. Part of the waiting and expectation of Advent is allowing God to reveal himself in his ways and in his time. A lack of trust only leads to greater frustration and propels us to take matters into our own hands seeking to fulfill our longings through our own efforts, which most of the time will also leave us wanting. In Zechariah's case, his doubt led to silence. He was robbed of the gift of speech from the time it was revealed that Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist until he was born. Months. As I reflected on this I could not help but think that sometimes silence is our greatest need. Perhaps the angel Gabriel saw that what Zechariah needed most was to be quiet so that he could better hear God's voice and thus understand in a greater way what God was busy doing in his midst, even though initially Zechariah could not believe it was true. Maybe this is a good life lesson for us that when our longings are raging, or peace escapes us, instead of clamoring about trying to sate our desires, we need to silence ourselves and take time to listen, to feel, to watch expectantly for the work of the Holy Spirit that is actively moving around us, but at any given moment may not have our own self at the center of the activity. Trusting that God is at work even if we don't see it is one of the primary ways to experience the deep peace that the coming Christ promises us. But it requires letting go of our own agenda for how life should unfold and it means that we need to yield our personal longings to the will of God and trust that in God's grand scheme, he has not forgotten about us but is perhaps up to something that we cannot imagine.
Maybe that's part of why the waiting during advent is hard for us. For in waiting for Christ, we take a risk because we never really know when or how Christ will be born into our lives this year and sometimes that can be very frightening.
     But there are lots of frightening moments laced throughout the Christmas story. Zechariah was afraid, but was given the most repeated command in scripture...do not be afraid. I suppose that many of here today are frightened, unsure of what lies ahead, mired in longing, or sadness or uncertainty. We too can hear that oft repeated command, Do not be afraid. So in the words of a daily devotional that I am reading, let us continue our Advent journey, bravely getting up and joining the adventure, even when we don’t know where it will take us. Boldly claiming the Good News that we know will come. Waiting with joy as we reach out with the grace of God that is so much more than amazing. Trusting that
God is busy at work, readying the world for the incarnation of Jesus Christ, busy making all things new. For in doing so, you will find that the peace of Christ calms your fears, soothes your longings and fills you with joy and salvation. Amen.