Third Wednesday in Advent

Phyllis Anderson—December 14, 2005

John 1:6-8; 19-28
Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

We have come very close to the end of the semester—for many of you your first semester at PLTS. This is inevitably a time of taking stock. Has this been harder than you thought? Academically? Emotionally? Financially? In terms of your faith? Did your classes measure up to your expectations? Was the community all that you hoped it would be? Were promises kept?

I expect most of you have experienced some disappointments this term—and I expect you’re in for some more as you anticipate the holidays. Most of our Christmases do not quite measure up to the image of sparkling lights and spicy greens, wrapped surprises and favorite foods, beloved faces around the table, quiet talks by the fire.

Life is full of disappointments. Some of us over-function much of the time trying to avoid disappointing ourselves or others. To survive, we learn to lower expectations. If we are wise, we also learn not to over-promise. Too much hype breeds disillusion and cynicism.

Some of you are experiencing more than garden variety disappointments. Cancer casts its shadow over members of this community that we hold very dear. The future is uncertain.

If we look beyond the boundaries of this community, into the streets of Oakland or New Orleans or Fallujah, the gap between the promises and the realities is very wide. How long has it been since the prophet announced:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the broken hearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And release to the prisoners -

There was no release this week for Stanley “Tookie” Williams.

Against the background of unmet promises, we hear the lessons for today.

The great prophecy of Isaiah, proclaiming the day of the Lord, a day of justice, and fulfillment of the deep hopes of human kind.

The voice of John pointing beyond himself to Jesus, the promised one.

How do we keep on trusting and hoping despite all the evidence to the contrary? One theme seems to run through all the lessons—possibly through all of scripture. The great underlying theme is something about the faithfulness of God. Thinking about these texts started me humming to myself the hymn we’ll sing in just a few minutes: “Great is thy Faithfulness.”

For me the faithfulness of God came out most directly, most clearly in the lesson from Thessalonians. Let’s focus on those passages, beginning with verse 23:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How likely is this? The Lutheran in me is skeptical. We watch our bodies decay and we know that our souls are not blameless. Will God sanctify us entirely? Not in this life. Are we not always saint and sinner?

Please join me on a little ecumenical excurses here. I’ve learned from Methodist friends to see this passage in a new light. Methodists make much of this idea of “entire sanctification.” Their ordination candidates vow to pray perfect holiness, believing that it is possible. As we enter into full communion conversations with the Methodists, we will doubtless challenge one another, and hopefully enlighten one another. Where we Lutherans are made very nervous about any sniff of “entire sanctification”, the Methodists are surprised by our lack of faith in God. You see, they quickly drop down to the next line:

The one who calls you is faithful and will do it.

Isn’t that a stunner: “The one who calls you is faithful, and that one will do it. ” God will make your aching body sound. God will take your much compromised soul and make it blameless. God will bring in a day of justice and peace. God comes to us in the form of a child, takes on our flesh and our sins, and overcomes all the distance that separates us from God. Who are we to say what is or is not possible? God will do it. You can count on God. The one who calls you is faithful.

This simple affirmation is at the very core of my faith. The one who calls you is faithful—God is trustworthy, reliable. Finally that is all we need to know. It is enough.

The disappointments and delays and detours are still part of the landscape of our lives. But because God is faithful, we can live in faithfully. And the admonitions of Paul to the Thessalonians do not seem like so many pious platitudes.

“Rejoice always,” even when things do not turn out as you expected. “Pray without ceasing,” especially when things seem dark, when promises are broken and your trust betrayed. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” even in circumstances which are frankly disappointing.

You can rejoice, and pray, and give thanks in all circumstances because your ultimate trust is in God, who is faithful, who earnestly desires this kind of life for you—full of joy and security and peace, not tossed about by circumstances, but rooted in God’s faithfulness. “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

“Do not quench the Spirit,” because it is the Spirit that enables you to grasp and trust in the faithfulness of God.

“Do not despise the words of the prophets,” just because their visions have not been fully realized yet. But study them, internalize them, live by them, build the world to be more like them. They are God’s word to you, and God is faithful.

“Test everything.” Because God is faithful, you can dare to question, to test, to push the boundaries. God is not going away. God is not going to change toward you. God is not afraid of your seeking the truth and testing the boundaries.

“Hold fast to what is good; abstain from what is evil.” You don’t have to do this alone. The one who calls you is faithful. The one who calls you will do this in you more and more as you grow in faith and trust.

Somehow on the other side of these ruminations, it seems a very different thing to congratulate you on completing this semester and to wish you a Merry Christmas. Of course I hope you loved it and learned a lot at PLTS this fall. Of course I hope you have happy family reunions and safe travel. I hope everyone loves your presents and the kids don’t get sick and that you get a tear in your eye when you sing Silent Night by candlelight. But even if all that doesn’t quite come true this year, Christmas is still very merry. Christmas pulls us back to the roots of our joy. Follow the star. Find the baby in the manger. This child is the ultimate sign of God’s faithfulness. God found a way. God’s love broke through. God is with us. O come, o come, Immanuel!

In advance and with great confidence, I wish you a very Merry Christmas!