The season of Advent

The season of Advent 

In the church liturgical year, this is the season of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new year—so happy new year! The English Advent is derived from the Latin Adventus, meaning “coming.” Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and thus is four weeks long. The liturgical colour for Advent traditionally has been purple, which symbolizes royalty. However, more recently blue the colour of hope has become more common in many churches.

  • We prepare for Christ’s coming into the world as a baby.
  • We celebrate Christ with us now in daily life.
  • We look forward with hope to Christ’s coming again.

One of the traditions during Advent is an Advent wreath, which may have originated in Germany, usually made from evergreen tree branches. The wreath symbolizes:

  • Eternity and God’s love for the world.
  • Consists of four candles, one for each week of Advent.
  • The candles remind us Christ is the light of the world.
  • The candles also symbolize: Week one prophecy or hope candle; week two Bethlehem or peace candle; week three shepherds’ or joy candle; week four angels’ or love candle.

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Sermon I Advent Yr B

I Advent Yr B, 30/11/2008

Isa 64:1-9

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Waiting for God”

 

Well, here we are in one of my favourite seasons of the church year—Advent. Advent is the beginning of a new church year; hence it is a season offering the possibility of new beginnings, fresh starts, which we all need. Advent is, as you likely know, the Latin word for coming. In Advent, we celebrate three “comings” of Jesus: first as a human being who came in the past to live with us on earth; second as Jesus comes to us in the present through, primarily, the preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments; and third, we look forward into the future to his promised second coming, at a time no one knows, except God the Father. Advent is therefore a season of preparation—we prepare for Jesus as he comes to us each day to guide and direct our lives that his will be done. We prepare for his future second coming, so that we may be found faithful and ready to greet Jesus at that time. We prepare too for the next season after Advent, Christmas, so that we can truly be ready to celebrate with joy the birth of Jesus. Therefore, it is appropriate during the season of Advent to wait, to watch, to live in readiness by preparing for Jesus. So welcome to Advent, and yes, Happy New Year!

In our instant society, it is a huge challenge to wait; people want and expect everything to happen in a nano-second. Our high-tech world keeps speeding up and those of us who are growing older are increasingly challenged to live life not in the fast lane, not in the faster lane, but in the fastest lane! Yet, the season of Advent moves us in the opposite direction. We are called and challenged to slow down, and to wait.

Waiting can be and often is a challenge, yet that is what God often requires us to do. In Advent we wait for God. I like the following humorous story about waiting, as told by Edwin Robertson:

At the Opening Service of the Oslo World Student Conference in 1947, when Bishop Eivind Berggrav’s sermon was ended and he moved down from the pulpit to the altar to give the blessing, a misunderstanding with the organist occurred. Berggrav began, somewhat quietly, with the explanation, “If I may, I will give the blessing in Norwegian.” The organist did not hear, and assumed it as the usual greeting: “The Lord be with you,” and played for the congregational response, “And with thy spirit.” As Berggrav then said, “The Lord be with you,” the organist thought it was the blessing, and thundered out the threefold “Amen,” followed with his usual piece after the blessing, going on for some time. Berggrav stood quite still until the organ was silent. Then he finally said in a loud voice and this time in English, “So is it often in life that one has to wait for God’s blessing, but it always comes.”1

In our first lesson today, the people of Israel, returning from their Babylonian exile also discovered this truth, that one does have to wait for God’s blessing, but it always comes. The passage, described by scholars as a community lament, consists of Israel’s deep longing for God to come as he had in the past. The desire for God to reveal himself by tearing open the heavens and the mountains quaking at God’s presence is reminiscent of the past, like for example, God revealing himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. For the Israelites, God ruling over the natural world were signs of God’s power that evoked in human beings a state of reverential fear and awe towards God.

As the passage continues, Israel is reminded of the blessings that God gives through waiting and being obedient to God’s ways, they recite the following promise, which was fulfilled over and over again for them, and continues to be for us as well when we wait and are obedient to God’s ways, they said: “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.”

So it is with us too, our waiting for God is blessed when we are faithful, when we are obedient to the LORD. For example, a student waits for her or his day to come when they finish and graduate and find that dream job. Yet, it involves more than waiting. It also involves faithfulness in study, attending classes, doing the assignments, writing the exams and calling on God for help and grace to learn what is necessary to learn for the future.

For a congregation to flourish, it also involves waiting on God, as well as acting in obedience to the LORD’s ways. A congregation, as you know, cannot survive when people do not love God and neighbour. This love includes both waiting on God and acting in faith, by obeying God’s ways. There are times in the history of a congregation when hardships and troubles seem overwhelming. Yet, at precisely those times a congregation needs to wait even more on God and act in obedience to him and his ways. At our Southern conference convention, Bishop Mayan told the story of a small rural congregation in our synod that was struggling to survive and wondered if they should close their doors. However, as time passed it became clear to the congregation that they would stay open longer. However, this involved some changes for them, one of which is a Sunday evening worship service once a month along with a potluck meal instead of worshipping during the day. This particular change has become well received and popular in the community.

Speaking of change, those ancient Israelites also realised that they had sinned against the LORD because the LORD had hidden his face from them and delivered them into their own sins. God allowed them to suffer the consequences of their sins by carting them off into Babylonian exile. They confessed their sins and repented of them. Then they appealed to God as their Father to mould and shape them as the potter does with clay. This theme of repentance, of turning away from our sin and toward the LORD and his forgiveness is an important one during the season of Advent.

According to former LAMP Pastor-Pilate Les Stahlke: We think that flying in the North is quite safe, but there is one simple practice that makes it even more so. That is the willingness to turn around when something is wrong. Reversing course or “doing a one-eighty” as we call it, when faced with poor weather or mechanical problems, reduces the risk dramatically and prevents us from getting into serious trouble. Making that decision is not always easy because of “get-home-it is” or simple pride that tempts us to say, “Aw, I can handle this.”

In life we must make similar decisions. Our Advent King said of Himself, “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Yet we are still tempted to speed on to our own destruction because we don’t want to admit that we need help or that we have gotten ourselves into deep trouble. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their evil way and live, says the Lord.”

Advent is a good time to reassess the direction our lives are taking.2

In turning to God, our Potter, we can live in hope—for he will form us creatures of clay in ways that are pleasing to him. He can shape us in beautiful ways so that we can indeed wait patiently and respond when the time is right by acts of obedience and serve his holy purposes. As Advent people, we live in hope; for Christ our Saviour has come, continues to come, and shall come. Our future is hopeful as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled in Jesus our Messiah. Amen.

1 Edwin Robertson, Bishop of the Resistance: The Life of Eivind Berggrav, Bishop of Oslo, Norway (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), pp. 174-175.

2 LAMP Advent Devotions 1988, p. 6.

I Am The True Vine

I Am The True Vine

In this last of the “I am” sayings series of headers, Jesus, in John 15:1, employing agrarian ancient Eastern imagery describes himself by saying: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Then, in verse 5, he goes on to reiterate: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Once again, Jesus emphasises that it’s all about relationship and remaining connected with him. The vine, and branches by nature, grow and bear fruit. So it is in life. Life is a journey of growth, of producing and bearing fruit. Abiding in Jesus the true vine means participation in the Word and Sacraments-worship; the community/communion/koinonia of sinner-saints; and acts of loving kindness. Shorter, pruned branches remain closer to the vine—hence; they are the most healthy and fruitful. So in our lives, pruning vis-à-vis repentance and sufferings keep us closer and more connected with Christ the true vine for the purpose of growth and bearing fruit. Vines, of course, produce grapes, which are one of the symbols for Israel. Grapes, in turn, become wine—the drink of life for Jews in the Passover and for Christians in Holy Communion.

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Prayers for Bethlehem during Advent & Christmas

Prayer changes both things (i.e. history and events) and people. Today, when I visited the World Council of Churches web site, I discovered the following wonderful project that people of faith can participate in from around the globe.

As many Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Advent and Christmas in the security of their homes and communities, they are invited to pray for justice, peace and security for Palestine and Israel – and to send a prayer or a peace message to Bethlehem.

You too can participate in this project by clicking here.

Martin Luther and the theology of the cross

Martin Luther and the theology of the cross

 

This year I’ve been reading a devotional book consisting of Martin Luther’s writings: Day By Day We Magnify Thee: Daily Readings For The Entire Year, which I highly recommend. Here’s a sample.

 

One of Martin Luther’s greatest insights on the theology of the cross was that God chooses certain sufferings for us to teach us beyond what we would learn on our own. Human nature, in and of itself, avoids suffering at all costs—yet that is precisely where God meets us. God in Christ is revealed to us through the Spirit’s creative activity through the Word and through the suffering. Here is a quote from Luther’s comment on Psalm 32:8: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”

 

Behold, this is the way of the cross, which you cannot find, but I must lead you, like a blind (person). Therefore, not yourself, not a (human being), not a creature, but I will teach you, through My Word and Spirit, the way wherein you are to walk. You should follow the work which you choose and not the suffering which you devise, but that which comes to you against your choosing, thinking, and devising. It is there that I call you. There you should be a pupil. There is the time. There your Master has come to you. (The seven penitential Psalms, 1517. W.A. I. 171f.)

Sermon 26 Pentecost Yr A

26 Pentecost Yr A, 9/11/2008

Josh 24:1-3a, 14-25

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Serve the LORD”

 

The company’s management team put their heads together to decide how to reduce the high employee turnover rate.

“They spend their first six or eight weeks learning our system, then they join another company,” complained one executive.

“Yes, but doesn’t that at least speak highly of our training program?” chirped an optimistic colleague.1

In today’s society, there certainly is a concern about choice and loyalty. It seems that personal interests trump loyalty for the purpose of service and the common good in all kinds of relationships whether it’s in the workplace, in school, at home, or in church. If choices are to be made, loyalty, more often than not, is viewed more as a vice than a virtue by many people these days.

Decisions, choices. It seems life is full of them. Some say we have lots of freedom to choose and relish that freedom. Yet others observe that such freedom only gets us into deeper trouble, since we fail to choose wisely, making the wrong choices. Yet others would say that we don’t really have any choices at all—why? Because someone else more powerful than us chooses for us. And still others would say that by remaining indecisive and not choosing is also actually a choice made by some people.

Dangerous Minds is based on a true story about high school teacher LouAnne Johnson (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) making a difference in the lives of troubled but smart inner-city students.

In one scene, while LouAnne is in front of the class teaching, the students are upset with her because they felt she “ratted” on three students for fighting. LouAnne asks them if they want to discuss the issue. There is no response. Fully calm and composed, she tells them if they feel so strongly about it, they should leave the classroom. No one is forcing them. They can stay or leave.

One of the students objects and tells her they don’t have a choice. “If we leave, we don’t get to graduate. If we stay, we have to put up with you.”

LouAnne tells the student that’s a choice—not one they like, but it’s a choice.

Another student angrily objects and says, “Man, you don’t understand nothing. You don’t come from where we live. You’re not bussed here. You come and live in my neighbourhood for one week, and then you come and tell me if you have a choice.”

LouAnne, with a slight tinge of anger, firmly replies, “There are a lot of people who live in your neighbourhood who choose not to get on that bus. What do they choose to do? They choose to go out and sell drugs. They choose to go out and kill people. They choose to do a lot of other things. But they choose not to get on that bus. The people who choose to get on that bus, which are you, are the people who are saying, ‘I will not carry myself down to die; when I go to my grave, my head will be high.’ That is a choice.” Then in a slightly louder and angrier tone, she says, “There are no victims in this classroom!”

The camera shows one student seriously considering her words.

Another female student says, “Why do you care anyway? You’re just here for the money.”

LouAnne quickly responds, “Because I make a choice to care, and honey, the money ain’t that good.”2

LouAnne in this movie is much like Joshua in our first lesson, who says: “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” As people of faith, we are called upon to be loyal to our LORD and his will even when the majority all around us are turning away and relying on other gods.

In a conversation I had with an elderly retired woman, she lamented over the trend today of many youngsters and their parents turning to sports as a form of religion. They will do anything to keep themselves involved in sports. They become so committed and loyal to sports that everything else takes a back seat. This elderly woman lamented too that her family members do not attend church nearly as often as they used to and as she and her husband had brought them up to do. In fact, most likely a minority of Canadians attend church on a regular basis or place their Christian faith as the most important commitment in life.

Over against this setting, our first lesson today has much to teach us. Even though we as Lutherans believe, as did the Israelites, that God has taken the initiative to choose us, not the other way round; nonetheless, like Joshua of old and the Israelite tribes, we are called upon to respond to God’s having chosen us first by also choosing to be faithful to God.

Joshua had grown old, under his faithful and wise leadership, the Israelite tribes had entered the Promised Land. They had been successful in their military campaigns against the Canaanites. The Israelites had occupied the Promised Land and the land had been allocated to the various tribes. Life was unfolding in some semblance of normalcy. However, Joshua knew as God’s faithful servant that there were dangers with this semblance of normalcy. It could cause the people to become indifferent towards the LORD and their commitment to him. It could delude them into believing that it wasn’t God who had been providing for them all along—rather, they could falsely believe that it was all their doing, their work. Moreover, unless challenged, the Israelites could put their eggs in multiple baskets by worshipping various gods associated with all of the other non-Israelite peoples around them. Their loyalties could easily be divided among the various false gods. This trend could also mushroom among the Israelite tribes if they lost their sense of identity and unity as God’s Chosen People.

Joshua is now at the end of his life. So here is his last chance to “rally the troops” so-to-speak. He calls them all together in one place, Shechem, his purpose is to renew the covenant between God and the Israelite tribes and reinforce their identity and unity. So, in very solemn speech, Joshua reminds the Israelite tribes of how God had called Abraham away from the worship of many gods in the land of his birth to the worship of the One, True God who led him to the Promised Land and multiplied his offspring.

Following this preamble, Joshua then confronts the Israelite tribes, exhorting them to all false gods from foreign lands and in reverence, sincerity and faithfulness serve the LORD their God. In other words, it was an exhortation to obey the first and greatest commandment of having no other gods beside the LORD their God. He leaves them an option: “choose this day whom you will serve” the LORD God or the false gods of their ancestors. Then, he makes it clear: “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” In this call to covenant renewal, Joshua takes the initiative as God’s chosen leader to set the example before the people—even though the majority of Israelite tribes serve other false gods, Joshua was going to serve the LORD God. He was not the monkey see, monkey do kind of person. He was a true leader, setting the example rather than following an example of the majority. In this act he was in line with all of his faithful predecessor leaders—including Moses and Abraham.

The people, in response do remember the LORD their God, and recite their salvation history. They remember how God had delivered and protected and provided for them. Then they promise, answering Joshua, that: “Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

Joshua, to reinforce their commitment to God further, reminds them of the tragic consequences of serving other gods—the LORD would do them harm if they were not loyal to him. Once again the Israelites respond that they would indeed serve the LORD.

Again Joshua exhorts the people in the form of them having to agree to take a solemn vow or oath that they were witnesses against themselves against themselves that they had agreed and committed themselves to the LORD, and they responded by agreeing, by taking the vow or oath, saying: “We are witnesses.”

Then, in a final recorded solemn exhortation, Joshua once again commands the Israelite tribes to “put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” Notice here that Joshua realises his people still have foreign gods, hence the need to abandon them completely if they are to be truly loyal to the LORD their God. Once again the people answer in the affirmative: “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”

Following this, Joshua completes the covenant renewal ceremony by drawing up a statute and ordinance for his people.

In our faith and life journey, we too can run into dangers and temptations. There are literally millions of false gods we can choose to divide our loyalties on. We, like Joshua and the Israelites of old need to remember where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going. Jesus makes that quite clear for us in the gospels. He tells us we, like the Israelites have been delivered, protected, and provided for. We, like the Israelites have been and still are chosen by God. We have been called, loved, and forgiven. We have been assured that Jesus is still with us always. Do we take that too much for granted? Do we divide our commitments and our loyalties? Or do we, like Joshua and the Israelites say: “We will serve the LORD”? Each Sunday in a sense is a covenant renewal ceremony. We are given the opportunity to remember whose we are, who we are, where we are, where we are going and who to get there. Therefore, Joshua’s confession of faith is really one that we all can join together in: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Amen.

 

1 Bernard Burnsting, The Ultimate Guide To Good Clean Humor (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2000), p. 432.

2 Craig Brian Larson & Lori Quicke, Editors, More Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching: 101 Clips to Show or Tell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan & Christianity Today International, 2004), pp. 30-31.

 

 

I am the Way, Truth and Life

I am the Way, Truth and Life

In John 14:6, which is spoken in the larger context of Jesus’ farewell discourse with the disciples, he answers Thomas’ question about the way to where Jesus is going (his Father’s house) by saying: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In other words, he personifies the way, and the truth, and the life. Jesus the way prevents us from getting lost amidst so many ways. Jesus the truth reveals all that we need to know concerning himself, God, others, the world, his Church, and heaven. Jesus the life provides us with everything that we need to live in this world and beyond. The universe as well as every human who is graced with faith in Jesus is given this way, this truth, and this life. Eventually, Jesus the way, truth, and life shall gather all of his followers into his Father’s house. It is with eager longing that we await that time, even as we live in the here and now.