Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
2 Kings 22:1-23:3
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Every so often over the past few years, I have found myself really missing Gettysburg Seminary, where I studied before moving to Falls City in June of 2011. I could talk about a lot of different things that I miss – the amazing friends that I made there, the learning environment, the sense of history, the proximity to places like Washington, D.C. and Baltimore – but one of the things I’ve missed the most, particularly this fall, was the fact that at Gettysburg I lived in rented housing. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here too – God has placed me and our family in a wonderful community, and I’m getting to share this amazing ministry with all of you – but truthfully, there are some times that owning a house can be a real pain. You have to keep up with all those little maintenance needs that pop up all over the place, and when you don’t it can cost you a lot of time and energy and money to take care of them. More than that, though, it seems that there’s something about the relationship between the condition of our house and the general feeling we have about our lives that is much more acute than it was when we were renting from the Seminary.
I thought about that relationship quite a bit this week as I reflected on the text before us on this First Sunday of Advent. Today’s Scripture reading begins with King Josiah’s need to catch up with deferred maintenance on the house of the Lord, the temple in Jerusalem built by his predecessor Solomon. The temple had fallen into some disrepair over the centuries, owing in part to the rapid succession of kings who had found the condition of the temple a matter of more or less importance depending on their commitment to the covenant that God had made with their people. In fact, I don’t think it would be wrong to say that the physical state of the temple largely mirrored the spiritual state of the people. That seems to be the case, at least, as the reign of Josiah begins. One of his most recent predecessors, Manasseh, is described by the writer of the Book of Kings as one of the wickedest men ever to rule over Judah, and by all accounts his son Amon wasn’t much better.
By the time Josiah takes over, the house of the Lord is in need of some serious work, and this king is determined to make sure that the needed work is completed so that God’s dwelling might be preserved for the worship and service of God’s people. If I’m right about the state of the temple mirroring the state of the people’s relationship with God, then I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that the “home improvement” project going on at the temple results in the “discovery” of the book of the Law. It seems fitting, in fact, that the renewal of God’s house would lead to the renewal of the people’s covenant with the one who had chosen to dwell among them. While both of these things are obviously important, it’s pretty clear that the writer of Kings sees Josiah’s recommitment to the law to be a much more significant event. After all, the people of Israel and Judah lived in relationship with God long before there was a temple in Jerusalem, and that relationship has continued long after the destruction of the temple centuries later. All of this is possible because of the preservation of the law, this gracious body of instruction that reminds those who read it and submit themselves to it what God desires for their lives. Where that instruction is absent, it is easy to stray from the path that God has set before God’s people; where it is cherished and made a part of the life of individuals and communities, God continues to direct the people to pursue what is good and right.
As Christians, of course, we are part of that people, and the same principle that applied to those who lived in Josiah’s day is also important for us to remember. Where the word of God remains at the center of our lives, we are gifted with the ability to live the way that God desires; where we depart from it, we make it more difficult to discern God’s power and presence in our lives. What makes our situation different from Josiah’s is that we have a different relationship with the word. During Advent, we focus our minds and hearts on the coming of God’s Word into our world in the person of Jesus. Where Josiah’s life (and the lives of those around him) were changed by the discovery of the scroll that contained the Law, our lives (and the life of our world) has been changed by the advent of the Word-made-flesh, the one who spoke creation into being and then determined that he would become identified with that creation so closely that he would dwell among us in our likeness. Where Josiah’s reform consisted of restoring the instruction of God to the center of community life, our constant reformation as individuals and as a community consists of God’s decision to take up residence among us in the person of Jesus.
It is important to note, of course, that Josiah’s discovery and ours have something in common – neither of them has the effect of eliminating the experience of hardship and struggle. Despite Josiah’s best efforts – and despite the enthusiastic response made by the people at the public reading of the Law – Judah was still subjected to the humiliation of exile, the pain of being separated from the land that they called home. By the same token, the knowledge that Jesus dwells among us and promises to come again does not prevent any of us from experiencing heartache or sadness or suffering. In both cases, the presence of the law – or of the Word – helps us to make our way through times of suffering and loss with confidence in God’s goodness and love for us and for the whole creation.
These are fitting lessons for the beginning of this season of reflection and preparation. In Advent, we are more aware than ever that the world is not the way that God desires it to be, and yet we are also made aware of God’s promise to come again to make all things new and to restore everything to God’s design. As we continue to move through this season, let us pray that God will make us more aware of Christ’s presence in our midst. Let us pray that we might be freed from the stress and strain of life to focus our attention on Christ and the way that Christ calls us to live in relationship with God and with one another. Finally, let us pray that we might be inspired by Josiah to commit ourselves to the Word that forms us to be God’s people in the world, so that we might always be ready to welcome that Word in faith, hope, and love. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Complementary Text – Psalm 23:1-4
Preaching Text – Matthew 1:18-25
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
For the last three and a half months, our congregation has been exploring the story of God’s relationship with God’s people as we’ve journeyed through the Hebrew Scriptures. During those 15 weeks, we’ve seen God make promises to Israel, promises that have been threatened by that people’s willingness to turn aside to their own way rather than walking in the path set before them by their gracious God – a willingness that is, of course, shared by us and by all of God’s people: past, present, and future. We’ve also seen how God renews those promises over and over, offering mercy and grace to all as they recognize their failings and turn again to God. Throughout that journey through the Hebrew Scriptures, we have been looking with anticipation to this day, when we make the move from the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament, specifically to the Gospel of Matthew that will be the focus of our continuing exploration of God’s story for the next four months. As we begin reading through Matthew, it’s important that we don’t forget what we’ve learned this fall, because the story of Jesus’ life cannot be separated from the story of God’s people that unfolded before his birth.
Today, then, we start near the beginning of Matthew, with the startling circumstances of Jesus’ conception. As the story begins, we read that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was engaged to a man named Joseph, a distant descendant of Israel’s greatest king, David. During the year-long period of engagement – that time after Mary and Joseph made formal promises of faithfulness and commitment, but before Mary moved from her father’s household to live with her husband – Mary was found to be pregnant. We don’t know much about Joseph, but the one detail Matthew gives us is this: that he was a righteous man, meaning that he was devoted to doing what the law of Moses required. In this case, Mary’s pregnancy was grounds for immediate divorce, most often a very public proceeding that resulted in great shame for everyone involved, but particularly for the party whose infidelity had broken the marriage agreement. In Joseph’s mind, there was no other way to proceed – how could Mary have become pregnant unless she had been unfaithful to her him, and how could unfaithfulness like that be tolerated?
Joseph’s mind was made up, and he readied himself to do what was necessary to uphold God’s law, when he received more shocking news from one of God’s messengers in a dream: Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will hear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Suddenly, righteousness wasn’t as cut and dried as it had been before. What was Joseph to do? Was it more righteous to do what the law required – this law that had been passed down from generation to generation and been so good for God’s people? Or was it more righteous to heed the call of God’s messenger, recognize the work of God’s Holy Spirit, and take Mary as his wife, knowing how that might be perceived by others who lived in Bethlehem? The unfolding of God’s plan and purpose hinged on Joseph’s decision, and it was by no means an easy choice for him to make.
We know, of course, that Joseph chose the latter, and by obeying the angel’s message he received Jesus, the holy child, as his adopted son. We also know more than Joseph did. We know that Jesus’ birth fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, a Hebrew name which means God is with us. We know from our journey through the Scriptures this fall that the prophets had long been telling of a servant of God who would come to establish justice and righteousness in the land and bring salvation to God’s people. If we back up to the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel and the genealogy that follows, we know that the identity of this child has already been established: he is the Messiah, the son of the revered patriarch Abraham and the renowned monarch, King David. We know that as the story of Jesus unfolds, we will learn more about what it means for God to dwell among us, about what God’s will for our world might be, and about how we are called to be a part of that story as we follow Jesus.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the time of waiting and preparation that we call Advent is drawing to a close. In three short days we will gather again and, with Christians throughout the world, celebrate the birth of Immanuel – God with us. As the prophets and all of God’s people yearned for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a redeemer, we, too, yearn for the fulfillment of the renewed promise to reconcile the whole world to God. This week, as we call to mind that holy birth some two thousand years ago, let us pray that God would use us – like Joseph – to be instruments of reconciliation and renewal for our world. Let us wrestle honestly about what it means to live lives of righteousness in obedience to our God, especially when we perceive that God may be doing a new thing in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally, let us praise God for all the ways that Christ continues to dwell among us now, saving us from our sins, turning us again to God’s will for us and our world, and making God’s power and presence known in our lives. Thanks be to God for the promise of a Savior, and the knowledge of that Savior’s presence with us this day and always. Amen.
Complementary Reading: Matthew 5:13-16
Preaching Text: Esther 4:1-17
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
As we wind down our journey through the Hebrew Scriptures on this Second Sunday of Advent, we come today to what I would venture to guess is one of the more unfamiliar books of the Bible for our congregation: the Book of Esther. This book takes its name from its central character, a young woman who finds herself caught up in a power struggle within the court of the Persian Empire and who is forced to risk her life to save the lives of others. Since this story is likely unfamiliar to many of us, I hope you’ll forgive me for briefly summarizing what’s happened so far and where it fits into the story of Scripture we’ve been exploring over the last three months.
The story begins in the third year of the reign of Xerxes, a king who reigned over the Persian Empire between the years 486 and 465 BCE, about 100 years after the exile that devastated the people of Israel. By this time, many of those who had been caught up in the exile had been allowed to return to their homeland; in fact, the temple in Jerusalem had already been rebuilt and rededicated some thirty years before Esther’s story takes place. Despite the fulfillment of God’s promise of restoration, many Jews remained scattered throughout the world, including a large number who had settled permanently in Persia, an empire centered in modern-day Iran that covered roughly the same area as the lower forty-eight states during this period of time. Among those Jews was Esther, the title character of our story, who had been raised by her uncle Mordecai, an official serving the king. As the book opens, Xerxes becomes angry when his wife, Queen Vashti, refuses to come to a royal banquet when she is summoned. Xerxes removes the queen from her place, and begins a year-long process of scouring the kingdom to find a suitable replacement for his disgraced wife. Enter Esther, who is sent by Mordecai to present herself to the king (and to conceal her Jewish identity from him). She quickly wins the favor of the king, and becomes the Queen of Persia.
Trouble arises when Mordecai finds himself on the wrong side of Xerxes’ right hand man, Haman, after he refuses to bow to him out of respect for the God of Israel. In response, Haman uses his authority to convince the king that the Jews are unwilling to submit to his authority, and that they should be eliminated for the sake of the empire. Xerxes agrees, and a date is set for Haman’s genocidal order to be carried out.
With that, we arrive at today’s reading. Mordecai pleads with his adopted daughter, Esther, to intercede for her people with the king and stop Haman from slaughtering the Jews. The problem: another law that forbids anyone from approaching the king without being summoned first under penalty of death. Esther, then, is faced with a choice: risk death by going to the king without being summoned, or say nothing and allow her people to be killed. Mordecai’s response is one of the most memorable passages in the whole book:
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:13-14, NRSV)
Esther agrees to approach the king – revealing her Jewish identity – and her appeal leads to the deliverance of her people, the downfall of Haman, and the elevation of Mordecai, who is finally recognized for his faithfulness to Xerxes, demonstrated most clearly in his role in foiling an assassination plot against the king.
Esther’s story is unusual in many ways, and unique in at least one: It is one of only two books of the Bible named for and prominently featuring women, and it is the only book of Scripture that includes no references to God. That doesn’t mean, of course, that God isn’t active; Mordecai’s statement makes clear his belief that God was at work to save God’s people through Esther. In fact, that belief is perhaps the most important thing for us to ponder as we reflect on the story of Esther.
In this season of Advent, we are once again called to the awareness that the world is not as it should be. We yearn for justice to be done on earth, for war and famine and disease to end, for peace to prevail between nations and people, and sometimes it is difficult for us to overcome the nagging feeling that there’s no hope for a better day. The central message of the book of Esther, and the focus of our reading for today, is that God acts in history, through people and events, to bring about God’s purposes for deliverance. Esther had to choose whether to see herself as the vehicle of God’s salvation, or to allow her fear to keep her on the sidelines. In the same way, as we look at the world around us, we are invited to ponder what God is doing around us, and to consider how we might be given an opportunity to bear witness to God’s reign of justice and peace that began with the coming of Jesus and awaits fulfillment when Christ comes again to reconcile all things to God. Who knows? Perhaps you have been chosen for such a time as this. Perhaps you have been chosen to speak a word of peace into a situation of brokenness and pain. Perhaps you have been chosen to join your voice to those who cry out for justice. Perhaps you have been chosen to help meet the needs of our friends and neighbors here in the Falls City area. Perhaps you have been chosen to use your God-given gifts to make the love and grace of God known in the days to come.
Brothers and sisters, as we continue through this season of preparation, we draw ever closer to the celebration of God’s coming, not only in the past, but also for such a time as this. As we remember Esther’s courage and Mordecai’s persistence, let us open ourselves to the possibility that God intends to use us to make God’s reign known. Let us keep our eyes open to the ways that God is working in our midst to redeem and save us and the world around us. Finally, let us pray that we might recognize Christ’s presence among us each new day as we trust God, love one another, and live in the hope of God’s promised future. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Complementary Text: Matthew 26:36-38
Preaching Text: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19
As he surveyed his people and his country, the prophet Habakkuk did not find much cause for celebration.
He saw the Babylonian army amassing on the horizon, preparing to swoop into Jerusalem and destroy that holy city, and he could no longer contain his cry: How long, O Lord?
He saw his own people thrown into despair, as their leaders traded justice and righteousness for their own comfort and political expedience, and he could not hold back his lament: How long, O Lord?
He remembered the promises of God that had been proclaimed throughout the centuries and wondered how he could continue clinging to them as that questioning cry escaped his lips: How long?
In our own time, we look around at our nation and our world, and often find little cause for celebration.
We see agents of terror and fear wreaking havoc on our allies and threatening our shores, and in our most honest moments we join the cry: How long, O Lord?
We see people at home and abroad crying out for justice, dignity, security, peace, and equity, and we find it difficult to hold back our own lament: How long, O Lord?
We hear or read the promises of God that have been passed down to us and claimed throughout the generations, and wonder when those promises might find fulfillment as our hearts cry out: How long?
Today, the church begins another year with the observance of the season of Advent. In years past, I’ve shared my belief that this is one of the most important seasons of the liturgical year, because it is a season characterized by brutal honesty about the state of our world and the content of our faith. American Christianity sometimes has a reputation for being unrealistic about the world around us, either through our willingness to ignore the problems that face the human community, or by claiming that we shouldn’t worry about them because they won’t matter in the end anyway. Advent doesn’t allow us to take the easy way out; it forces us to look at our world with eyes wide open, to ponder all the ways that it fails to measure up to God’s plan for creation.
At the same time, the society in which we live is caught between two pervasive ways of looking at our present and our future. The first is an attitude of unrestrained optimism: sure, things don’t always look good out there, but if we just keep trying hard enough, we have the tools we need to fix all of our problems and create the kind of world we want to live in. When we consider, however, how sin permeates even our most well-intentioned thoughts and actions, a focus on human potential alone doesn’t seem adequate. The other viewpoint, of course, is its opposite: an all-encompassing belief that the world is slated for destruction and that there’s nothing that can be done to stop it, so we might as well not bother.
As Lutheran Christians, grounded in the words of Scripture, we are called to resist these two ways of thinking – one of which places all the responsibility on us and one of which allows us to give up any sense of responsibility at all – and look beyond ourselves to God, the one who was, who is, and who is to come. It is this God who – as we have seen during our journey through the Hebrew Scriptures this fall – has proven time and again to be faithful to promises of deliverance, salvation, and renewal. It is this God who has continued to provide voices to remind of God’s will for our world, who has inspired generations of people to resist evil and injustice, and who offers comfort and strength through the words of Scripture. It is this God who was not content to remain on the sidelines, and who chose to become one of us so that we might know that God is with us and for us as we yearn for the day when justice and peace will meet and our world will be filled with God’s righteous reign.
That balance between realism and hope is the great gift of this season, and it is the core message of our reading from Habakkuk. In a situation in which all seemed lost, when the law had failed to achieve its goal and the nations surrounded the prophet, the city, and the nation, God assures the prophet that the brokenness he sees around him cannot thwart God’s purposes for them or for the rest of the world:
…there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not in them,
but the righteous will live by their faith.
(Habakkuk 2:3-4, NRSV)
In response to that renewal of God’s promise, Habakkuk is able to deliver this stunning proclamation of trust in the Lord:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
This Advent, brothers and sisters, may God grant us the faith to look upon our broken and beautiful world and trust that, against all odds and despite all appearances, God is indeed working in this world to bring about God’s promised reign of justice, peace, love, and joy for all people. May God grant us hope as we remember Christ’s coming among us in the person of Jesus, as we open our eyes to the signs of Christ’s presence in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit, and as we look ahead to the fulfillment of all things in God’s time. Finally, in the meantime, may God grant us the strength and the will to be partners with God in bringing about reconciliation, peace, and wholeness for all as we await his coming again. Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly! Amen.