Title: Untitled 1
Texts: Micah 5:2-5; Luke 1:39-55; Hebrews 10:5-10
Date: December 20, 2009 (Advent)
A couple of weeks ago Celia preached on advent and the expectation that comes along with waiting. She likened waiting to pregnancy – 9 months of hopes and expectations building and building, climaxing in the arrival of new life. In advent we await the coming of the Lord in glory. Something that, when it arrives, will bring abundant new life to us and to our world. I think this was a beautiful picture and think comparing it to pregnancy was very apt. And, in fact, our OT reading from the prophet Micah compares the coming Messiah to a woman who is in birth pangs before she brings forth a child. So Celia had good biblical precedent for her sermon.
But, unlike Celia, I have never been pregnant. So I was looking for something a little easier for me as a male to relate to. Additionally, unlike Celia, I am a somewhat pessimistic fellow. Every advent, I can’t help but remember some comments made to me by a friend who preached at our wedding. A month or so before the wedding he emailed to give me a foretaste of what he said his sermon would be about. He claimed he wanted to use the following words from Ephesians as his biblical basis: “Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the Church.” The exposition which he threatened to provide in his sermon went as follows: Be like Christ, who said to his bride, the Church –“Honey, just going out for a little bit, I’ll be back shortly,” and then disappeared for 2000 years. Fortunately he did not preach this sermon, although the sermon he delivered wasn’t much better. But the irreverent part of me, and it is a pretty significant part of me, finds it hard not to think of those words every advent.
After all, the prophet Micah, who compares the preparation for the Messiah to pregnancy, ministered in the 8th century BCE. 2700 years ago. As I said, I have never been pregnant, but I do know that most pregnancies are significantly shorter than 2700 years. I can’t imagine being perpetually, eternally pregnant. I think expectation and hope would die out pretty quickly. One of the prophesies that we have recorded by this obscure prophet from a small town in the country of Judah is our Old Testament lectionary reading for today: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.”
What great news for the people of Israel, who at the time were suffering under the boot of the Assyrian Empire whose thirst for violence and power had driven them to conquer much of the then known world. This little group of people living in a precarious land were going to be rescued from this mighty Empire. A ruler from Judah, from the tiny clan of Bethlehem, would rise up and free his people, returning those who had been driven out of their homes, away from their land and away from their families. Some day, soon, God would provide salvation from such a mess.
Of course, Israel never did conquer the Assyrians. Rather, another violent and pagan empire arose – the Babylonians – and demolished the Assyrian Empire. And the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians. And the Persians by the Greeks. And the Greeks by the Romans. Seven centuries of virtually uninterrupted foreign rule in the land of Israel. And yet no one had truly freed Israel from oppression and restored the captives to their rightful place in the land.
And yet seven centuries later, Luke claims in his gospel, through the words of Mary, that the God of Israel “is mighty and has done great things for her. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”
Luke seems to be claiming that the hopes and expectations of Micah and numerous other prophets are being fulfilled in the very strange events surrounding Elizabeth and Mary. The time has finally arrived. Micah prophesied that out of Bethlehem God would bring a ruler, and Luke claims that Jesus was born in Bethlehem – that this sleepy little town was the center of God’s long-awaited deeds. How exciting! Sure, it only took 700 years, countless generations, and untold suffering, but hey, God is finally getting around to it!
But then, what exactly is God getting around to? Our Gospel reading has two rather unlikely main characters – an old woman who gets pregnant after years of waiting and a young woman who gets pregnant before she is even married. Oops! Bad timing all around. What ill-advised pregnancies. Of course both Elizabeth and Mary are quickly vindicated. Well not quite. Elizabeth’s son turns out to be an angry, bug-eating, homeless man living in the desert who gets his head chopped off. Perhaps she wished she had never been given a crazy son who died a horrible death. Similarly Mary’s son has a rather inauspicious life. He lives 30 years or so, preaches a few good sermons, but says a lot of crazy stuff as well. In fact, so crazy, that his family thinks he has lost it and tries to bring him back where they can keep his embarrassing antics out of the public eye. Unfortunately they fail to control him and he ends up getting himself nailed to a cross. Just one more failed Messiah.
The disappointment over this long expected deliverer is made clear at the end of Luke’s gospel, when two of his disciples voice their shattered hopes: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But nope. Instead of freeing them from Rome, Jesus had let Rome put him to death. And with him, the hopes of his followers. And yet Luke claims that all of this was scriptural. Yep, Jesus suffered and died – but this was necessary first – only after suffering and dying would he bring to fulfillment all those great and glorious promises of freedom, justice, and peace that God had communicated long ago. So now that he has been raised from the dead, we expect great things. Now the fireworks are gonna happen. Now Rome is gonna get what is coming to it – and all those people who had trusted the God of Israel, in spite of the mounting evidence, were going to be vindicated. Now all those who had suffered and died at the hands of the pagans would win their reward. Now God would usher in his kingdom and set all things right. God’s kingdom, his political campaign, would make sweeping changes.
Well, it is some 2000 years later now, and we all know that things didn’t quite turn out that way. Jesus’ impact seems to have been minimal. His very existence was noted by only a few ancient historians who weren’t his followers. Apparently they didn’t realize that the revolution was under way. And I doubt most would believe it is under way today.
I don’t spend a whole lot of time paying attention to politics. And I especially don’t spend much time paying attention to American politics, probably because I am cynical enough already that I don’t need to fuel the fire of my apathy. But it seems to me that one thing that every good politician knows, is that you need to make extravagant claims and promises in order to get enough support to win an election, but once you have won, you need to temper your remarks, distance yourselves from previous claims, reinterpret your statements, and blame the other party for your inability to fulfill your word. Then when the next election comes along, you hope you can make a bunch of new promises and that people will forget how ineffective you were with the last batch. Politicians live off of the forgetfulness of the masses. Voters with too good a memory are going to burn you when you fail to keep your word.
And yet here we are, one more time, in the season of advent, in the season of waiting and watching. In the season where we remind ourselves of the hope that we as followers of Jesus have carried with us for 2000 years. 2000 years of facing our doubts, facing evidence that God has yet to right the many wrongs of this world. Perhaps you are running out of patience. I know I feel like I am. Perhaps, you like me think we should forget these old warn out campaign promises from centuries ago. Perhaps we feel like we should reinterpret them, allegorize them, spiritualize them in order to protect God from the charge that he has failed. Perhaps we feel tempted to blame it on others – Republicans or Democrats, Wall Street or the White House.
But we meet together, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, reading and rereading these same ancient texts with all their far-fetched promises and hopes. We sing songs and preach sermons about these hopes. We try to honestly share our joys and struggles in the midst of this waiting. We come together, reminding God of his promises, reminding him of his plans, reminding him and ourselves that what we currently face is not the end of the story.
We are either the most foolish, oblivious people, or a people who is trying desperately to be patient with a God who works in his own time. We either are the most gullible people, or we are a people who refuse to forget God’s promises, 2700 years in the making though they may be. I hope it is the latter, but I confess that many days, I feel certain that it is the former.