Sermon: 1 Advent (29 November 2009)
(Jeremiah 33:14-16/Psalm 25:1-10/1 Thessalonians 3:9-13/Luke 21:25-36)
Stories and Hope
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
I believe that story has power to form people – more power than reason or will or fear or shame. It is not incidental that Scripture is, first and foremost, story. Yes, there is law and prophecy and theology, but these are always embedded in story and are always at the service of story. When the gospel is proclaimed it is not with the wisdom of philosophers or the logic of mathematicians, it is not with the arguments of lawyers or the methods of scientists; it is with the poetry and plot and character of story: the story of creation, fall, and redemption – of God our creator, Jesus our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, our Sanctifier. The story we hear, the story we believe, the story we live: this story makes all the difference in this world and in the world to come.
I think a lot about the stories we tell today, about the stories that form us as a people. These stories are not always explicit – rarely does anyone say, “Let me tell you a story.” – but they are always there and may be inferred from the behaviors and lifestyles they form. Does anyone else find it ironic that the day following Thanksgiving – a holyday set aside to reflect on our multitude of blessings – is Black Friday, the day which encourages and celebrates conspicuous consumption, as if the blessings for which we gave thanks some 12 hours earlier were not nearly sufficient? There is a story there that underlies that bizarre behavior – a story that tells us that we are primarily consumers, that our worth is measured by our buying power. We have been told that story in thousands of subtle and not so subtle ways until we accept is as true and act on it unthinkingly. I watched a bit of the American Music Association (AMA) Awards recently and took it as a commentary on modern youth culture. The blatant and often aberrant sexuality of the performances obscured any musical quality and told another story, that we are primarily sexual beings and that music and art have nothing to do with truth and beauty but are mere aphrodisiacs. Our country is at war on multiple fronts, and whatever you think about those engagements, there is a story that justifies them, a story that says our security depends on power and violence. I think a lot about the stories we tell today, about the stories that form us as a people, and I wonder.
I wonder what stories Israel told in Egypt: slave stories or covenant stories, bondage stories or deliverance stories? Did they tell of Noah, who alone was righteous in his generation, and who was delivered by God from the destruction of the world – delivered to bless all mankind with life and knowledge of God? Did they tell of Abram, elect of God: called to leave his father’s house, called into covenant with God Almighty, promised children as the stars of the heavens, given a land, and delivered time and again – from pharaoh, from Abimelech, from Chederlaomer? Did they tell of Abram’s line, of Isaac and Jacob, each of whom received the covenant in his turn and each of whom was delivered by God? Did they tell of Joseph: of his fall from beloved son to foreign slave, of his rise from powerless prisoner to the right hand of pharaoh – yet another tale of God’s covenant faithfulness and the deliverance of his elect? Did Israel in Egypt feed its children on the bread of slave stories or on the manna – though it lay in the future – of these stories of hope and deliverance, stories of their God who always comes in deliverance of his chosen? I wonder what stories Israel told in Egypt.
There will be other stories for Israel, told not in words but in deed of power, acts of deliverance: water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, boils, darkness, hail, and the terrible death of Egypt’s firstborn sons. There will be stories told not in words but in sacred symbol: blood on the doorposts and lintels, a lamb roasted whole and eaten while standing, unleavened bread. There will be stories told not in words but in awe and wonder: a pillar of cloud and fire, a sea parting for one people and closing in over another, a mountain quaking with the presence of God – with thunder and smoke and darkness, a tablet of stone become Law. There will be stories told not with pride, but with shame: a golden calf, fear of giants, wilderness wandering, disobedience and death. There will be stories told not in whispers, but with shouts of victory: Jericho, Ai (the second time), and city after city given into Israel’s hand by their God Almighty. There will be stories of priests and prophets: Eli and Samuel. There will be stories of the kingdom – At last! – and its great kings Saul, David, and Solomon. And there will be stories of civil war and secession: rival kings Rehoboam and Jereboam – and rival kingdoms Judah and Israel, and the nation rent asunder. There will be stories of idolatry in Israel and social decay in Judah. There will be stories of Assyria and Babylon and destruction and captivity and exile until Israel is no more and Judah is a memory.
I wonder what stories the Jews told in exile, what stories they told by the river Kebar in Babylon: exile stories or covenant stories, captivity stories or deliverance stories? Did they tell the story of Jeremiah the prophet, the story of his oracles?
14 ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah: 15 ‘ In those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David A Branch of righteousness; He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. 16 In those days Judah will be saved, And Jerusalem will dwell safely. And this is the name by which she will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS’ (Jer 33:14-16, NKJV).
This is a story worth telling, a story of hope for captives and exiles. It is a story of the once and future king. Long ago God had made covenant with his servant David, king of Israel.
‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: “I took you from the sheepfold, from following the sheep, to be ruler over My people, over Israel. 9 And I have been with you wherever you have gone, and have cut off all your enemies from before you, and have made you a great name, like the name of the great men who are on the earth. 10 Moreover I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more; nor shall the sons of wickedness oppress them anymore, as previously, 11 since the time that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel, and have caused you to rest from all your enemies. Also the LORD tells you that He will make you a house.12 “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. 15 But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever”’” (2 Sam 7:8b-16, NKJV).
Israel’s hope in exile is this: that the story told by Jeremiah is true, that God will fulfill his covenant to David, that God will raise up a king – a Righteous Branch – from the lineage of David, that this king will judge the enemies of God’s people and vindicate the elect in righteousness, that Judah will be saved and Jerusalem restored, and that God – in the person of the righteous king – will reign over his people forever. This is Jeremiah’s story. This is the exiles’ story. And, this is our story.
We gather today to tell the story once again as we have year after year for two millennia. God fulfilled his covenant with David and his promise to Israel – and through Israel to the world. God raised up a Branch of Righteousness from the house of David and gave to him an everlasting kingdom over all the earth. And when this branch, Jesus of Nazareth, was cut down, God raised him up again and exalted him to God’s own right hand and gave him a name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – whether in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth – and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (cf Phil 2:9-11, NKJV). And this same Jesus who now reigns in heaven will one day bring his kingdom fully to earth – the holy city, New Jerusalem, descending from heaven to earth, adorned and gleaming like a bride prepared for her husband. And thus we shall be forever with the Lord.
Advent, we call this story: coming. It is a story that stands in the middle of time and looks in both directions: past to angel and maiden, to shepherds and magi, to stable and manger, and future to clouds and power, to great glory and redemption.
25 “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; 26 men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (Lk 21:25-28, NKJV).
To those of us who live as exiles, as resident aliens in a land not our own, this story is good news; this is a story of hope. And so we watch and wait and pray to keep the hope alive. We watch and wait and pray that we may be found worthy to stand before our coming king (cf Lk 21:36, NKJV). We watch and wait and pray that the Lord may establish our hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints (cf 1 Thess 3:13, NKJV). We fast in hope of the feast to come. We light candles in hope that we will see the light of Christ and that the light will shine forth through us into this dark world. We sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” in hope that our longing will soon be fulfilled. We tell the story in word and symbol and sacred action, in hope.
The world has its stories: money, sex, and power. It shouts them in every venue. But the stories are lies; the stories are without hope. Thanks be to God we have a different story: creation, fall, redemption. This story is true; this story is hope incarnate. This story is advent past and advent yet to come. And so we say in the cry of the early church: Marana tha! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Let us pray.
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and come, that by thy protection we may be rescued from the dangers that beset us through our sins; and be a Redeemer to deliver us; Who livest and reignest with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.