Restore Us, O God

Fourth Sunday after Advent, (Year A), December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Restore us, O God,” the psalmist prays.  How many times have you prayed something like that?  Restore us, because we’re tired.  Restore us, because things just aren’t like they used to be.  Restore us, because we’re broken down.  Restore us, because we’re hurting.  Restore us, because we’re hurting others.  Restore us, because we’ve lost our way.  Restore us, because we’re all alone.  Restore us.

Maybe it’s the rush to get everything done: trees, decorations, presents, cookies, parties.  Maybe you feel like you’ve been running for a month straight, and you long for a good night’s sleep and a day free to do nothing but relax.  Maybe you’ve been fighting an illness—from the cold that’s been going around to the flu to something more serious.  Your body just isn’t doing what you want it to.  Or maybe it’s your heart that is failing you; maybe you feel more like the Grinch than anyone should.  Maybe your joy in the holiday, in the coming of Christ, has gotten lost amid the cares and woes of life, and it feels like you’re on the outside, looking in.  Restore us, O God!  Help us to be the people you created us to be.  Help us live up to the gifts you have given us.

For some of you, the holidays are a dark time.  For those of you who grieve lost loved ones, the holidays can be a grim reminder that things will never be the same, that you can’t share the holidays with those who were so dear to you.  Everyone talks of who they are going to visit, and who is coming to visit them.  Old traditions that you cherished can never be the same.  While everyone else seems so happy, the grief and loss can make you feel so isolated and alone.  And even if you know that you will see them again some day in God’s kingdom, that doesn’t help the ache and loneliness you feel now.  Restore us, O God!  Fill the hole in our hearts!  Help us to experience the joy of your kingdom!

Maybe you don’t feel like you need to be restored this season.  Maybe the joy of the holidays has kept your spirits high and your body and soul rejuvenated.  But even if that’s the case, I bet you that there have been times when you have desperately needed renewal and restoration.  I bet there have been times when it felt like you could not go another step without help.  Or maybe there have been times in your lives when you felt like everything was crumbling down, when old certainties turned to doubt, when things in your life changed and you didn’t know what to think, let alone do.  And you longed for the old certainties, or new certainties to replace them, for faith in the midst of a world full of doubt.  And when you felt like that, did you join in the Psalmist’s prayer?  Restore us, O God!  Turn around our lives and hearts, give us faith and strength in our time of need!

I wonder if Joseph thought of this psalm when the angel came to him.  Because that angel turned Joseph’s world upside down, and left him without the comforting certainties and pattern that he must have expected his life to follow.  The ancient world was very predictable: a man would follow in his father’s trade, and marry and have children who would carry on his trade in turn.  That pattern was supposed to ensure prosperity for the community.  Everyone had their place.  If anyone stepped outside that pattern (for example, if a woman got pregnant outside of marriage) that person had to be punished so that the community would survive.  And sure, it didn’t always work out—the Roman overlords had imposed heavy taxes that drove even hard-working citizens into debt and slavery, and Israel’s king was a Roman puppet who spent more time currying favor with his masters and building lavish palaces than governing his people.

There were a lot of problems in Joseph’s day.  But still people clung to the idea that if everyone just behaved themselves, if everyone acted properly, things would be okay.  They prayed for God to restore them, and they hoped that that God’s restoration would patch up the problems in their society and their world while still keeping their day-to-day lives looking much the same.  A place for everybody and everybody in their place.  Joseph, a carpenter, engaged to be married, must have felt like he was about to take his place in that great pattern.

And then he learned that Mary, the woman he was supposed to marry, was pregnant, and it wasn’t his child.  Well, that was the end of that.  He would have been within his rights to order her stoned; instead, he wanted to send her quietly away as if that would let him pretend that nothing had happened.  That relationship was over, broken, gone.  Smashed beyond any hope of fixing.  Bad luck this time, try again.  Sweep the problems under the rug, and hope you don’t get ridiculed too badly for your girl stepping out behind your back.

And then the angel came.  “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.”  This child, this shame, this problem, is the Messiah, the chosen one sent by God to restore Israel, to save it, to bring God’s light to the world.  Israel had been praying for the Messiah to come and restore them for a long time, but that restoration was coming in the form they least expected.  In scandal, in disruption, in poverty and weakness: that was how the Messiah was going to come.  I wonder if Joseph prayed: Restore us, O God, let your face shine so that we can see your light.  You’ve given us a new life; give us the strength to do what must be done.  Let your hand be upon us.  Restore us in the way you want us to be, not the way we think we should be.

Jesus’ birth was a scandal.  We know people gossiped loud and long that Joseph wasn’t really Jesus’ father, because in a couple of places in the Gospels people made a point of calling Jesus the “Son of Mary” instead of the “Son of Joseph.”  Jesus’ birth was weakness; even in Joseph’s family’s hometown, nobody wanted to take them in and so Jesus was born in a stable.  Yes, kings came to his birth—but so did shepherds, who were on the bottom of society.  By any objective measure, this was a failure of a family.  But wrapped in that weakness was a strength great enough to turn the world upside down, to save people from their sins: not just the people who have it all going well, but the people who have failed.  The people who have lost their way, the people who don’t measure up, the people whose lives are a mess.  The people who despair.  The people who seem to have everything going well but are empty inside.  God’s light is bright enough even to save those people.  God’s love is great enough to include all people, to reach out to them, to restore them to what and who God created them to be.

God created the world, and God created the world to be good.  If you read the first creation story in Genesis 1, that repeats over and over: “it was good.”  But sin and brokenness have marred God’s good creation.  We are like works of art that have been vandalized.  Sometimes the vandalism of sin is plain to see, but sometimes it is hidden away in our hearts and minds.  We need to be restored.  Restored to life.  Restored to health and wholeness.  Restored to a community that supports and empowers instead of tearing down and excluding.  Restored to relationships that are good and life-giving, with God and with one another.  We need to be restored so that the light of God shines brightly in us and around us, the light no darkness can overcome.

O God, you are the shepherd of Israel, you lead Joseph like a flock.  Stir up your might and come to save us!  Restore us, O God, let your light shine!  Make us whole, and transform us into your people, people who live as you would have us to live!  Let your hand be upon us, and give us strength for the trials ahead.  Give us life, and we will call your name!  We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, God made flesh, who was born in scandal and weakness and died in shame on the cross, but who rose in glory and comes to bring in God’s kingdom.

Amen.

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Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

 Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times.  The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing.  The Scientific Revolution was just getting started.  The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up.  The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East.  During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna.  And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in.  The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change.  In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.

It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength.  In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil.  What a comfort!  No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us.  No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us.  We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.

But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same.  It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same.  God is always the same, but we are not.  Martin Luther found that out.  You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before.  One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins.  They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven.  They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it.  But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.

This was a big deal!  This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear!  And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places.  It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray.  We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.

Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened!  They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word.  Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives.  They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another.  And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out.  They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It had an impact on their lives.  Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived.  It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained.  It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith.  But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too.  It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level.  It changed how families lived together.  It changed the position of women in the community.  It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society.  Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before.  Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.

That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before.  We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out.  And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian.  This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before.  In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation.  They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing.  We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners.  We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed.  As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit.  We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.

It’s hard.  It’s hard, because the world is changing.  It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God.  Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble.  Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation.  Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness.  Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.

But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.