06 December 2009

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2009 - "Reinterpreting History"

What do you remember about December 2006? Here were some of the “big” stories, according to Wikipedia. The H5N1 flu was scaring a lot of people; proving, I guess, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Florida Congressman Mark Foley was in big trouble for sending suggestive text messages to his interns. There was a coup d’etat in Fiji.

Here’s what I can tell you about December 2006: Kristin was pregnant. Wonderfully, painfully pregnant. 3cm dilated on December 23rd, just a few days before we took a week-long trip to Nebraska for Christmas and New Year’s with family. My brother and his wife lived in Plattsmouth, NE, and we spent New Year’s Day at their house, the guests of honor at a baby shower my sister-in-law planned and carried off wonderfully.

What do you remember about December 2007? Again, according to Wikipedia: Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his involvement in dogfighting. A gunman shot and killed two people at a church in Colorado Springs. Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed to become prime minister when his term ended, and endorsed Dmitry Medvedev as their party’s candidate for president. Putin was also named Time’s Person of the Year for 2007. Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, was assassinated at an election rally, after which the killer detonated a bomb on his body and killed another 22 people.

Here’s what I can tell you about December 2007: Kristin was pregnant. Not so monstrously or painfully pregnant – Alanna didn’t come until July 2008. But Kristin was pregnant again. We came to Ames to go house-shopping three nights after the worst ice storm the city had ever seen, and when we pulled up the driveway of what would eventually be our house, our realtor’s Cadillac was on so much ice it slid backwards after she parked it.

What we think is important and what matters on a global scale are sometimes very different things, and we need look no further than the gospel of Luke to see this is true for God as well. What seemed important on the scene all those thousands of years ago were rulers and countries. Tiberias, Herod, Lysanias, Caiaphas. These were the people who mattered, the movers and shakers of their day. But what is important to God in that time was John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the voice in the wilderness proclaiming the advent of God. The gospel of Luke sets the stage, then reinterprets history by showing what God was up to while we were watching the mighty and powerful.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, pull our wandering eyes to you. You sent your servant, John, to call us to repentance, to prepare the way of your Son. May your Spirit open our eyes to see his coming now, in this time, and to be prepared. Amen.

In January 2003 I took a cross-cultural trip to Germany with four fellow students from Luther Seminary and eight from Wartburg Seminary. Our trip began in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther spent the majority of his life as a pastor and professor. The first night we were in Wittenberg, my roommate Jared and I were supposed to ride bicycles three kilometers from our host family’s home into the old city, where we would be joining our classmates for introductions to the staff at the Wittenberg Center and an orientation session.

We had been in Germany for less than six hours when we left for the meeting. We had good directions, and it was a pretty straight shot into the city. But we were nervous, so we rode hard and didn’t take a lot of time for sight-seeing. This probably explains why Jared and I, dedicated Luther scholars though we were, rode right past the door of the Castle Church where Luther posted the 95 Theses without a second glance. It was only the day after, on our first walking tour of the old city, that we realized what we had missed.

I guess Jared and I needed a prophet. The popular understanding of “prophet” suggests that prophets are fortune tellers. But the prophets weren’t focused on telling the future; prophets are called by God to turn the eyes of God’s people to God, to refocus life and reinterpret history through the lens of what God is doing in the world. Any note of future prediction from John the Baptist only served to draw the eyes of God’s people to the coming of the Messiah, the promised Savior of God. John didn’t ask the people to stop observing the world around us – John insisted that the people should see the world through the lens of repentance, forgiveness and salvation. God, John prophesied, is breaking into the world – the kingdom is coming. And whenever God’s kingdom comes, what we once thought was of paramount importance will pale in comparison.

This doesn’t come about just because John was a nobody and God wanted to knock the “important” folks down a notch. God works through kings, too. Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire around 540 B.C., and after conquering the Babylonians, Cyrus issued an “Edict of Resoration” allowing the people of Israel, who’d been taking into Babylon in exile, to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding their city. Here’s what Isaiah 44-45 has to say about Cyrus:

24Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who by myself spread out the earth;
25who frustrates the omens of liars,
and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
and makes their knowledge foolish;
26who confirms the word of his servant,
and fulfils the prediction of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited’,
and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,
and I will raise up their ruins’;
27who says to the deep, ‘Be dry—
I will dry up your rivers’;
28who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose’;
and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt’,
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’Cyrus, God’s Instrument

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,

6so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the
Lord, and there is no other.
7I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the
Lord do all these things.[1]

Thus says the Lord to Cyrus, his anointed – his “Messiah,” in Hebrew. God anointed the most powerful Gentile king of his day to end the exile of the people of Israel and return them to the promised land. God’s reign was established and affirmed by a Persian king who might have simply been concerned with the well-being of his subjects. History might suggest this was the magnanimous act of a great king: we people of faith are called by God to reinterpret history and assert that God was working through Cyrus to bring about the kingdom of God and the care for the well-being of God’s people.

And God gets bolder through John the Baptist. John was not only a prophet to the people of Israel: in John’s own words, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” John’s father, Zechariah, said it even more boldly when John was born:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[2]

John was called to be the voice of God to the entire world, to point to the coming day when all people will see the greatness of God and live in the glorious light of God’s kingdom. And John wasn’t just talking about life after death – John didn’t say a word about death or hell here. John was talking about forgiveness, repentance, transformed lives in THIS world, in THIS time. John wasn’t preparing the people to be taken away from this world – John was preparing this world for the in-breaking of God, right here, right now, among us. And when Jesus came, all of history began to be re-interpreted in the light of Jesus’ love, grace and mercy.

This is the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama. Chet Culver is the governor of Iowa, and Anne Thompson the Mayor of Ames. Gregory Geoffroy is President of our beloved Iowa State University. The Reverend Mark Hanson is the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, and The Reverend Michael Burk is the bishop of the Southeastern Iowa Synod. But we might not remember such things in years to come. What we will remember is this: Jesus is here with us, now, and the reign of God is breaking into the world. The dawn from on high continues to break upon us, and we who sit in darkness follow the light of God into the way of peace. Let history say what it will: let us be God’s people, reinterpreting history in the light of God, and let us live in that light, now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 44.24-45.7, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Luke 1.76-79

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