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Third Sunday of Advent
Pastor Anke Deibler
- Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
- Psalm 126
- I Thessalonians 5:16-24
- John 1:6-8, 19-28
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I came to the US for the first time in 1984, when I was in high-school. My family visited our home congregation’s partner churches, one of them located in Chambersburg, PA. Chambersburg being so close to Gettysburg, of course we were taken there on a trip to visit the battlefield.
Even in German history class, I had learned about the civil war and the deciding battle in Gettysburg. But there was one fact that I had never realized until I visited the national park’s museum: The battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1st through 3rd, 1863. However, the civil war did not end until May 9th, 1865. Almost two years later! Even though this was the pivotal battle and afterwards everyone could see where this war was going, it went on for another two years of struggle.
This civil war truth is a good illustration for the tension of Advent. We, too, know what will happen at the end. We know who will win in the end. The decisive, pivotal battle was won for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And yet, the struggle lingers on, because the final victory is still to come. We are still waiting for the day when all fighting will be over and God’s kingdom will rule the whole earth.
Advent acknowledges the tension between celebrating what God has already done and praying for God to finish his work. It is the “already, but not yet” of life in Christ. Christ has already come to bring God’s kingdom to earth and into our lives; but the fullness of that kingdom isn’t here yet and won’t be here until Christ comes again. That’s why we pray “Your kingdom come”, even though it already has, yet it isn’t fully encompassing everything yet.
This is the tension of Advent. It is a tension well expressed in Psalm 126, the psalm we read today.
The psalm begins by describing the incredible joy of God’s people when God has done something huge for them. We don’t know which one of God’s deeds the author has in mind. Maybe it was the day the Jews captive in exile in Babylon were allowed to go home. Maybe it was the day God parted the sea and led his people to safety in the exodus. Maybe it was the day when they were hungry in the desert and God rained down manna from heaven to feed them. Maybe it was the day when David killed the giant Goliath and saved the nation and won the war. Maybe it was the day the new temple was dedicated and the people could finally worship God in style and dignity. We don’t know.
What we do know is that it was something big. The faithful don’t respond with a polite little smile and a timid cheer. Instead, the psalm says, ‘Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.’ This was noisy, exuberant joy. Think of the noise of your home team winning against the arch rival. Think of the sounds when the famous pop star finally steps on stage at a concert. Three times the psalm mentions “shouts of joy”. This noise is going on and on, like some European soccer fans keep up the singing and shouting throughout the whole game.
Whatever God has done is so big that even non-believing people have to admit that God has done something amazing: ‘Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”’ And Israel responds with something like: “Oh yeah he did! That’s we are carrying on so.”
Let’s see if we can come up with some shouts of joy here today. Please take a moment and think of something wonderful God has done for you. Maybe God saved you in danger or healed you from illness or provided a job or gave you a child. Think about something, either in your life or someone else’s life.
Thought of something?
Good. This is what we will do: I will count to three, and on three, each and every one of us will shout out what it is God has done for us. Just yell it out, all at the same time, joyfully and loudly. Ready? One – two – three!
Wow! That is the sound of our mouth filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. Doesn’t that sound good? And doesn’t it feel good, too? Isn’t that the kind of thing that sends a shiver of awe down your spine, a sense of amazement?
It feels good to shout out God’s praise, to remember with joy what he has done for us. For those deeds of God for us in the past are in tension with all the things that are amiss now. So much is awry in our lives and in our world, that it can be easy to forget the good things God has done.
On Monday, our congregation council met for our monthly meeting. We always take time for prayer concerns. We go around the table and share what weighs heavy on us and what we ask others to pray for. I was shocked by the number of people just our council members know who are in terrible times of trial: a mother of three with advanced colon cancer; a man who lost his father one month and had a son diagnosed with Lymphoma the next; a coworker who had three close relatives die in half a year; a mother-in-law who is ill and nobody is able to determine the cause of her illness; a young adult child beginning the transgender journey from female to male; and more. So much sadness and struggle and pain around that table. I am sure any group of people gathered around a table could share like this and be overwhelmed by the power of suffering, sin, and death. O Lord, your kingdom come!
Watching the news is not exactly uplifting, either. The images of neighborhoods going up in flames in California; the realization of just how many women have been harassed by men who got away with it for years; the plight of refugees, starving children in Yemen and Congo, and bombed cities in Syria and Afghanistan; nuclear powers showing off; terrorists trying to bomb the New York subway; again, an overwhelming sense of the power of suffering, sin, and death. O Lord, your kingdom come!
The psalm acknowledges this reality. It begs God to do again what he has done in the past: Restore our fortunes. Help us. Rescue us. Save us.
The poet uses two metaphors to express his faith and trust that God will provide blessings in the future.
The first talks of the watercourses of the Negev. The Negev is a desert in the Holy Land. Most of the time it is bone dry, a dead, hopeless landscape. But when the annual rainy season comes, that Negev desert is suddenly full of rivulets. Water gushes all over the place, and the desert starts blooming. As rain makes the desert bloom, says the psalm, so will God make our future blossom.
The second metaphor is from the world of agriculture: seed and harvest. ‘Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.’ The farmer places his seed in the soil in the trust that it will grow. He might experience grief at the time of sowing, but when the harvest comes, there will be so much grain, so much abundance, so much blessing that he will sing songs of joy. The same God who replaces tears with joy, who makes seeds grow into abundant harvest, that same God, says the psalmist, will bring blessings into your life, as well.
I love the way the psalm expresses this hope of faith. It doesn’t ignore the fact that our world is filled with pain, with sin, with death. It doesn’t try to appease us with empty phrases, such as “God must have a plan,” or “just hand things over to God” or “tomorrow is a new day”. Those always ring hollow to me.
Instead, the psalm is very honest: Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes we feel dry, deserted, abandoned like a desert. Sometimes we have reason to shed tears.
In those times, our faith gives us the endurance to carry on by reminding us of what God has done in the past. The Bible is full of stories about God helping, saving, rescuing, sustaining, blessing his people.
This time of year, we especially focus on the story when God became a human being like us and entered our lives, with all its pain and death. In Jesus Christ, God showed us just how much he cares about each and every one of us. God made it clear that he sees our struggle, our suffering, our tears. He sees them and is doing something about them: In Jesus Christ, God’s kingdom broke into this world. It is not fully here yet, but enough of it is here to help us believe and trust that our future rests with a loving God who wants to restore us like the watercourses of the Negev.
John the Baptist is announcing this in today’s gospel story. Someone amazing is coming, John says. In fact, someone is already here who has real power, power of the Spirit, power to save.
John is announcing the very news while he lives in the desert and while he is being interrogated by the Jewish leadership as to by what authority he thinks he can just go ahead and baptize people? John is in a hostile landscape and is being questioned by hostile powers, and yet he announces with conviction: The messiah is here among us, and he is incredibly powerful, and things will be awesome.
When we are in those dry spells, in those periods of grief and loss, in those desert times, then I pray that we can cling to our faith in God.
Let us listen to John, who announces that the messiah is already present, even when everything still looks like desert and hostility.
Let us pray the psalm, acknowledging our pain and sadness, but also remembering the things God has done for us in the past. That gives us the hope and assurance that God will do further amazing things for us in the future.
And let us share those things God has done for us. Let us talk about them to one another. Let them fill our mouth with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy. Let’s do that one more time. Remember what you shouted before. Here we go: One – two – three:
Thanks be to our faithful Lord who was and is and is to come. Amen.