What Do You Expect? – Rev. Jessica Tate

29 November 2009 • First Sunday in Advent

Jer. 33:14-16
14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Psalm 25:1-10

1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.

2 O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;

do not let my enemies exult over me.

3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD;

teach me your paths.

5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,

for you are the God of my salvation;

for you I wait all day long.

6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,

for they have been from of old.

7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;

according to your steadfast love remember me,

for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!

8 Good and upright is the LORD;

therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

9 He leads the humble in what is right,

and teaches the humble his way.

10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,

for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

***

It may be that the church is crazy, that we are crazy.  They say, after all, that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result.  And yet, here we are.  Celebrating Advent one more time. Waiting again for the birth of a baby, a baby who was born ages ago.  Waiting, for something that has already happened to happen.  Could be we’re crazy.

Or, maybe what we do in Advent isn’t actually wait for Christmas morning, even though we will still do all those Christmas morning things.  Maybe what we’re waiting for now is not the birth of a baby.  For God has come into the world over and over again: to speak creation into being, to enter covenants with God’s people, to lead the people to freedom, to enter human experience in Jesus, born of a woman, living life—eating, drinking, making friends, discovering enemies, longing, suffering.  God has come into the world and come close to us.  That’s not what we’re waiting for.

What we’re waiting for is what Jeremiah proclaims: that a new branch on David’s family tree will come and it will be a time of justice and righteousness in all the land.  Then, in those days of justice and righteousness, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety, that is, we all will be saved and live in safety.

What we’re waiting for is what the psalmist waited for…for salvation, to be saved, to be made whole, to be made right.  To be sure we have been saved already—that is the gift of the cross—and yet, still, we wait for the day when that salvation is fully realized throughout ourselves and throughout creation.  When we feel it, know it, live it.  When all the consequences of sin and death are destroyed and brokenness is made whole.  When the new heaven and new earth are born in our midst.  We wait for those days of justice and righteousness.  We wait for salvation.

I have noticed this year, like I do ever year, that the church’s season of waiting is at odds with what’s happening around us.  The stores have long had up their Christmas decorations.  There’s at least one radio station that’s been playing all-Christmas-all-the-time for the last three weeks, maybe longer.  Fairfax Corner held their lighting of the Christmas tree two weeks ago.  I may be old fashioned, but I don’t much care for all the Christmas decorating until at least after Thanksgiving.  In my family, if anyone attempts to play Christmas music before we’ve had our turkey dinner—well forget about it—you’re absolutely trumped.

While we may very well get swept up in all the holiday festivities that surround us even now because there are traditions we love and carols that warm our hearts, I suspect, if we’re honest, the holiday cheer is ever-so-slightly tinged.  We probably won’t say it because it wouldn’t be proper, but our holiday merriment is most likely mixed with some anxiety, pain, grief or disappointment.  For all our anticipation of Christmas, I suspect it is Advent’s delayed gratification that more readily captures our experience as humans.[i]

The psalmist illustrates this Advent mood, this delayed gratification, for he found himself in a period of waiting. O my God, in you I trust; he writes, do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.… Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

The psalmist waits for God.  He, too, waits for salvation.  He longs to be restored.  The psalm, you see, was written during the exile.  During the time when the people of God were put to shame.  Their city under siege, they are forced to leave their homes and their way of life.  The covenant between the Hebrew people and God, you’ll recall, is based in the land.  God frees them from slavery and leads them to the promised land.  The exile forces them out of this land, out of their communities, their homes, the place where they know their God to be. They are forced out of the land and out of the covenant with God.[ii]  This is the context in which the psalmist offers these words to God.  He is waiting for God to save the people, to save him from this exile.

I hope not many gathered in this sanctuary this morning have lived in such exile.  Collectively, we’ve not.  The United States has been a superpower for decades now.  We have not been forced from our homeland.  Only very rarely is there any attack on our soil.  As Christian people, as people called by God in this North American context, we have not experienced exile that even approximates that experienced by our Jewish ancestors. Our coins still read “In God we trust” and our pledge still states, “one nation, under God” and while we can debate the secularization of Christmas, it’s still a holiday rooted in our faith.

Collectively we’ve not been exiled, we’ve not been separated from our homeland and our communities, but, perhaps we have experienced exile on a smaller scale:

–       Through the loss of a job, maybe,

–       or the experience of mental illness,

–       some of us felt exiled by the Bush administration; some of us by the Obama administration

–       We may feel exiled by a bully at school

–       or by technology that we don’t understand

–       or through arguments with family members.

The psalmist speaks as one exiled and maybe he speaks on behalf of all those in exile.  He speaks for the people of Judah, who were exiled from the place they called home, from the community that God called and created.  Exiled—it felt—from the presence of God.  And perhaps the psalmist speaks even on our behalf as we experience moments of exile in our lives.

His people shamed and forsaken, the psalmist ruminates upon past sins and transgressions and he’s quick to place distance between himself and the truly sinful.  He hopes for mercy and waits for some sort of restoration.[iii] Isn’t that where we often find ourselves?  Feeling separated from God somehow?  Feeling somehow not good enough, somehow empty, somehow despairing?  As if evil triumphs over good, that greed wins out over compassion and war over peace, consumption over community and fear over hope?  Are we not quick to place distance between ourselves and those we see as truly horrible—the terrorists, the murderers, the destitute, the abusive, mothers-in-law?  At our core don’t we, too, hope upon hope for some sort of restoration, for wholeness?

This is the posture of Advent: waiting, hoping.  Hoping for restoration, for salvation.  This kind of waiting, this kind of “hope is always situated between the world gone wrong, life off track, tasks undone, and the expectations of the world righted.”[iv]  This expectant waiting is what the psalmist claims.  He knows the sin and brokenness in him and around him.  In fact, within these short verses he covers the whole gamut of the Hebrew concept of sin. There are three words for sin in Hebrew and he uses all of them.  He confesses that he has sinned, that is, he has missed the mark.  He confesses his transgressions, those times when he has deliberately done wrong.  He confesses his guilt—he acknowledges that he is twisted out of shape, bent over, bowed down—what we might call broken.[v]

The psalmist confesses his sin—his shortcoming, his wrongdoing, his brokenness—and he pleads for God to remember him.  He says that three times too.  (1) Remember, O God, your mercy and love.  (2) Remember NOT my sins and transgressions.  (3) Remember me, O God.[vi]  In asking God to remember, the psalmist points God back to the time of the Golden Calf, when the people disobeyed and failed to trust in God.  After they created that most famous idol, God renewed the covenant with the people, and promised to be a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.  It is no accident that the psalmist offers these words back to God.  Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, he pleads. Be mindful of your steadfast love, for your mercy and steadfast love have been from of old.  The psalmist is asking God to remember who God is, to remember who God promised to be.

Reminding God (and perhaps himself) of the promise, the psalmist can wait patiently for salvation, trusting that God will not fail in who God has promised to be.[vii]  My friend Jarrett McLaughlin, a pastor in Kansas says, When God is [known] as one who holds together both punishment and restoration, the appropriate posture for the faithful [in need of salvation] is patient waiting.  “Not waiting to see how it all ends, as if the final outcome is in question, but rather a patience that is willing to persevere through the trials of the present time, confident in the ultimate outcome.”

McLaughlin goes on to say that nothing about this psalm suggests the waiting is painless.  This is not an idle passing of hours in boredom, but rather, a time of affliction and loneliness.  The psalmist lives in certain knowledge that Israel will be saved but not yet…for now they must wait.  Wait and live with the brokenness in themselves and their surroundings, with the pain of their past mistakes and indiscretions.  Waiting for God to remember who God is; waiting for salvation no matter how long it takes.”[viii]Advent is a season that confronts us most directly with the paradox of God’s salvation—the already and not yet. God has already saved us, restored us, and made us whole and still the completion of that salvation is not here yet.  It is not yet fully realized.  There is still sin and brokenness, mourning, crying and pain.  But we wait, expectant, because God has promised that Christ will come again and when he does, he will usher in the new heaven and new earth and restore us all.  We wait, expectant, because the season of Advent doesn’t begin with “once upon a time” but with Jeremiah’s call that the days of justice are surely coming.  Despite every sign to the contrary, days are surely coming when God will fulfill God’s promises![ix]

When I was young, my church would go on annual church retreats.  One of the highlights of those weekends in the mountains was the bonfire with marshmallows and singing around the fire.  I always liked to get there early, while Henry Eddy and his helpers were building the fire.  Mr. Eddy was a grandfather type and expert fire builder. He’d stack the wood very precisely so that it was taller than me.  He didn’t believe in lighter fluid.  And then, when all was set, he’d strike the match and catch the kindling.  I’d watch and wait, anticipating the glorious marshmallow-cooking flames that were to come.  But, they didn’t come, not right away.  I’d start to get fidgety and anxious—what if it didn’t work!  Maybe we should light another match!  Maybe we need more kindling! Maybe we should try lighter fluid!

But Mr. Eddy, he knew the fire would catch.  He knew it was only a matter of time before the burning kindling would create enough heat to catch the logs.  He knew there was nothing more to do; we just had to wait.  So he’d stand there and wait, patient and calm, with a glimmer in his eye.  He knew the fire would catch.  He’d seen it before.

We’ve seen it before too.  We’ve seen glimmers of that day that is surely coming.  We’ve seen glimpses of wholeness and salvation.  It’s when you’ve given up and then something’s changed, offering a new way forward. It’s when you share laughter through tears.  It’s deep honesty and vulnerability between friends or spouses or family members.  It’s freedom in the midst of a heavy load.  It’s the love and support of others that keep you going when you’re not sure you can.  It’s noticing new life in the midst of grief.

This is what we do in Advent.  We wait, confident of the salvation that is coming.  We wait, expecting God to live out God’s promises of mercy and steadfast love.  We wait.  Not for a baby to be born because he has been born long ago, but remembering and celebrating the birth of this Christ child because he, too, is a promise of God’s mercy and steadfast love.  He, too, is a promise of salvation.

What we do is wait.  But Advent is not so much a season about waiting; it is about hope.  And so today I invite you to wait and to hope.  There’s nothing to do.  No meals to prepare or parties to attend or sales to hit or anything else that we might frantically try to do between now and Christmas.  What we do is wait and hope, patient and calm, with a glimmer in our eyes.  For we have seen this before.  And those days are surely coming.
Thanks be to God.

[i] Jarrett McLaughlin, in a paper presented to The Well 2009. Advent 1: Psalm 25.
[ii] Jarrett McLaughlin.
[iii] Jarrett McLaughlin.
[iv] Mixon, Randle R. Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 25:1-10. In Feasting the Word, Year C, Vol.1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, p. 11.
[v] Thanks to Jarrett McLaughlin for this tutorial in the Hebrew concept of sin.
[vi] Jarrett McLaughlin.
[vii] Jarrett McLaughlin.
[viii] Jarrett McLaughlin.
[ix] Block, Deborah A. Pastoral Perspective on Jeremiah 33:14-16. In Feasting the Word, Year C, Vol.1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, p. 2 & Charles, Gary W. Homiletical Essay on Jeremiah 33:14-16. In Feasting the Word, Year C, Vol.1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, p. 5.

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