12/23/2012 sermon: Does God give us up in Advent?

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Micah 5:2-5a

Does God gives us up in Advent?

I once heard a new preacher—a young parent—tell of her visit to a store with her young daughter. Apparently the child was feeling very independent, because she kept turning down side aisles on her own, venturing further and further from her mother. At first she looked back, and at first the woman scolded her. After a while, though, she let her daughter go her own way; she “gave her up.” But, fearful that she would become completely lost—or worse, stolen—she hovered nearby but out of sight, waiting for her daughter to realize how far she had strayed.

I remembered this story when I read this phrase in our Old Testament lesson for today: “Therefore he [God] shall given them [the people of Judah] up, UNTIL…” This phrase got my attention because God giving us up seems alien, foreign. And yet I wonder, does God give us up in Advent? Isn’t Advent all about waiting for God to come to us anew on Christmas Day…

This IS what our Old Testament lesson told us would happen before the first Christmas Day.

There is a word “until” in the sentence, though, a word indicating that God would give us up UNTIL some time in the future when a Messiah would be born. Not coincidentally, there was, historically, a period of hundreds of years after Judah’s return from captivity in Babylon when there were no prophets. The first to break this long absence was John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the Messiah. This hiatus of prophets was God, waiting just out of sight, just behind us, for us to stop going our own way and return to God.

Why might God “give [his people] up” in Advent? A little history is in order. In the year 722 BCE, Israel’s Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. Those who weren’t killed outright were sent into captivity. But the Assyrians didn’t send their captives all to one place. Instead, they broke up clan and tribe and family and sent them into exile in different places. Then the Assyrians resettled the land with their own people. This policy was so effective that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was lost for all time, absorbed into their enemies’ towns and culture.

So how did the Southern Kingdom of Judah survive the Assyrian threat? Instead of doing what God’s prophets told them to do (pray and trust in God to deliver them), they bought off their enemy. Judah began paying huge tributes to the Assyrians each year. Think of this as a “protection racket,” but on an international scale.

Biblical historians think that the leaders of Judah exempted themselves—perhaps in the service of “trickle-down”—and passed on these huge payments to the poor. These payments were literally breaking the backs of the poor, and only the poor, but the whole country lived in fear of their very existence.

But that’s not all. Despite the huge tribute they were paid, the Assyrians gave away some of the Southern Kingdom’s land to the Philistines, another of Judah’s enemies. Refugees filled Jerusalem to overflowing, but there were no FEMA trailers or emergency assistance in sight. The demand for food was so high, the landowners bought more and more land to produce more and more food. There was only one catch; they lowered their workers’ wages to pay for the new property. The rich got richer and the poor got grimmer; everyone ended up morally bankrupt. After three generations and many unheard prophets, God had had enough.

Micah, God’s latest mouthpiece, had already told the Judeans that God had had enough. In chapter 3, verse 12, earlier in this book, Micah had declared the unthinkable: Jerusalem (the capitol of the Southern Kingdom of Judah) also would be in ruins. Those with money and power really didn’t “get” the situation. I wonder if they called Micah “unpatriotic” and complained about the people’s sense of entitlement. I wonder if those without money and power blamed God (and the rich) for their predicament. But no one, rich or poor, had trusted in God.

Perhaps you, like I, feel a certain resonance between this lesson and our own situation. I want to be very clear, though. I am NOT saying that the bad people, then or now, are of one political party or ideology or socioeconomic status. What I am saying is that, under these conditions, the “good” gets more and more buried under a moral economy so bankrupt that we talk about morals—the right thing to do—in economic terms.

The bankruptcy, then and now, is this: when money is the only measure of success in life, both the haves and the have-nots get co-opted in pursuit of money. The only difference between the two is that the have-nots were just not as good as the haves in running over others to obtain money. In such a situation, everyone has turned the wrong way down the aisle of life, moving further and further from God.

But just as we recognize this divergence from God, we can notice that our lesson today tells us something important about God. God ALWAYS provides—already HAS provided—a way out of the mess that we make of our lives. God is very near, just out of sight, behind us, waiting for us to call out to him and turn from our own way.

As usual, God’s way of salvation has a surprising twist, a turn that is counter to our value system. Remember David and Goliath? David was the youngest of eight sons, making him the least deserving, on the face of things. David the boy defeated Goliath, the mighty giant in battle with only a slingshot. David was from a tiny little town in Ephrathah named Bethlehem, where God promised that he would become a renowned king.

Remember Ruth and Naomi? Ruth was a foreigner (and a MOABITE, no less), until she followed her mistress, the widow Naomi, back to Bethlehem in Ephrathah, where God had promised to make her, the immigrant, the mother of the Messiah.

What do you think became of these promises?

There are countless examples in the Bible of God choosing the youngest, the least favored. This isn’t because God loves the underdog more, but because we love the overdog so much. God is always leveling the field and insisting that God’s value system should apply. God calls us all to the same value system, but God may give us all up in Advent.

This is what God did: He chose an obscure clan, the little clan, of Epharthas in Bethlehem of Judea, in a land that had almost completely abandoned the values of God. Then God told the world that there would be one who would come from this clan who would “rule in Israel,” who would be the King of Peace.

God did not tell the Judeans WHEN this prophecy would come to pass. What he said was that he would “give them up” UNTIL this leader was born. As things turned out, eight centuries would pass after Micah’s prophecy before Jesus was born into the clan of Ephrathah in Bethlehem, God-come-among-us in a new way, in the flesh. God surely gave us up before the first Advent.

So why do we have this reading today? The events that Micah tell and foretell are long past. Yet every third year, on the last Sunday in Advent, we remind ourselves of these events of 2,800 years ago. The reason is simple. We continue to insist on following our own way, if not intentionally, then swept along by being part of a bankrupt value system, one that worships money and is now prone to violence.

I was going to stop here, but I simply cannot. Two fathers grieving for their six-year-old children reminded me of important things last week.

  • Robbie Parker, daughter of Emilie, said that the only way he could even THINK of getting through what had happened was to help others bear their own grief. Robbie reminded me that God does not, actually, walk behind us. God always walks at our side, if only we could perceive God there, sharing our burden.
  • Jazz musician Jimmy Greene also lost his daughter, Ana. Hear what Greene had to say, “In my life, there is but one constant, the one thing I can rely on, no matter what I’m dealing with, and that’s the steadfast love of God.” Jimmy reminded me that God does not, actually, walk behind us, or even just at our side. God also is before us, beckoning us to come to him.

In the meantime, UNTIL…
Come, Christ Jesus, come.


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