Bible Centered, Gospel Focused, Liturgical and Sacramental Worship in Loveland, Colorado

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

November 28 2021 – Advent 1

The summer of 2020 was a particularly low point for me during a difficult year. In hopes of finding time to recuperate and rest, I was taking time off with my family in the cool of the mountains, hiking around a lake outside of Prescott, Arizona, called Goldwater Lake. I saw a Park Ranger emptying trash cans, I turned to Madeline and said, “I want his job.” Indeed, I was very much questioning my decisions to spend years of my life studying for the Priesthood and service in the church, only to find myself burned out, frustrated, and feeling like a complete failure. The Roman Catholic Contemplative Priest Richard Rohr says, “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”

I can see now that I was doing a lot of things wrong. While there were certainly some incredibly unusual and difficult circumstances that led me to wish I had a job emptying trash cans in National Forests, the core of what I was doing wrong was that I was operating in ministry with a bad set of expectations. My expectations for ministry were bad because they were false, they were not true.

I entered ministry with what you might call a “Christendom” mindset of what the Priesthood would be like. Maybe I just remembered white-washed versions of stories from the many Priests I grew up around in my family, and close to my family. While I expected ministry to be challenging, I certainly did not expect it to be as difficult as it really is. I needed to adjust my expectations. I had to learn to expect complaints about music, no matter what; expect that not everyone will receive my preaching and teaching positively; expect most Bishops to disappoint me; and expect that just about everything in the life of a Parish is entirely outside of my control; those are realistic expectations for ministry. Of course, it is also realistic to expect profound blessings in ministry; expect that content and happy parishioners are often the least vocal; and expect that God is always near to meet me in difficult situations. Those are all good, true, realistic expectations.

Most Christians I know, live their lives with a set of bad expectations. There are times when people will ask for my counsel on career changes, relationship changes, and so on. I find that it is more helpful to ask them: what did you expect your career to give you? What expectations did you place on your marriage? What did you expect people would do when you did the right thing? We can make changes, but those changes are often not all that different from rearranging furniture on the Titanic: it might provide an illusion of temporary control, and give us something to feel busy while drowning.

Most Christians I know, live with bad expectations. And recognizing this is important because to be a Christian is to have certain expectations for our lives and for our destiny. Christianity is a faith of expectation. Christian expectation is more than a belief about what will happen in the future, what could happen tomorrow, or even what we want to happen in the future. Christian expectation is better described as a deep desire, a yearning, and a longing. Christian life is a life of expectation. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that “to desire God is to have him.” We are what we desire, we are what we hope for, we are our expectations, and to expect God is to have God. So, what are our expectations of God?

In my Wednesday Bible Study, I introduced a tool in the form of an acronym for reading the Bible through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. I say this all the time, God did not give us the Bible so that we would read some passages in isolation from others and pick out what we want them to say. We are not meant to proof text, but to read the Bible as a diverse whole with a center in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The acronym I find helpful to do this is “CASKET EMPTY.”

CASKET EMPTY stands for Creation, Abraham, Sinai, Kings, Exile, Temple, Expectation, Messiah, Pentecost, Teachings, Yearnings. That is the Biblical story told through the lens of an “empty casket,” or “empty tomb,” if you will, a sign of Resurrection. Working through the Bible with teenagers and adults, after reading a passage I will ask, “where are we in casket empty?” Where are we in the story of the Bible? How does where we are in the church year connect with the Biblical story? These are almost always trick questions because so often reading from one place in the biblical story is to read from many places in the Biblical story, and to stand in one place in the liturgical year is to stand in many.

It is certainly a trick question when we ask it about Psalm 50, our Psalm for this morning. Psalm 50 is like all of the Psalms, a Psalm for exiles. As people used to churches on every corner who treat attendance pretty casually, we fail to appreciate how devastating it was for the Jewish people to lose their homeland and access to the Temple in Jerusalem during their exile. The Temple was where they were supposed to go to meet God, that physical location was the center of the entire Jewish system of religion. The Psalms were then given to Israel and used by Israel, so that they would have the means to enter God’s presence from a distance, wherever they were, through these songs and prayers of exile. “Out of Zion, perfect in her beauty, has God shown forth in glory” sings the Psalmist. The Psalmist cries of beauty once known. Beauty and that glory are now in a distant, far-away land, where God’s people can no longer see it, and no longer access it.

Because Psalm 50 is given to a people in exile, Psalm 50 is both a Psalm of expectation and a Psalm of yearning. It is not difficult to see why God’s people in exile would be a people who are shaped by their expectations, and yearnings for the promises of God to be fulfilled. God, deliver us once again, as you once delivered us from bondage in Egypt. Bring about a new Exodus. Make good on your promises, act in our lives again, speak to us, and please do it soon. That cry is seen in the passage which I would especially like to draw our attention to this morning from that Psalm: “Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence.” Only people who feel God’s absence, and sense God’s silence, long for God’s coming down to them, and God’s speaking to them. The expectation of the Psalmist is precisely this: Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence.

Our God shall come. Human religions throughout the world tell a story of mankind searching for the divine. A story of human beings seeking God. We talk about “finding God,” or climbing stairways to heaven, or climbing Jacob’s ladder, but the relationship between God and humanity moves entirely in one direction, the opposite direction of what universal, human religion teaches. Our life with God is entirely dependent on God’s coming down to us. The movement of Scripture is always downwards, and any consequent upward movement that human beings experience is literally on God’s back, as Jesus Christ lifts us up to where He himself has now gone, but only because He first has come down, and will come down again. Abraham, Moses, David, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and all of the other names we know from Biblical history did not seek God. God came down to them, and God spoke to them a word of promise, deliverance, restoration, or salvation. God’s coming down and speaking is the singular focus of all of God’s people’s expectations throughout the history of God and His people. Our God shall come to us, and shall not keep silence.

We hate this part of the Christian story. Even as Christians, we try to get around it, or diminish it. That God must come to us, and not the other way around, is an offense. It is an offense to the human spirit, especially the spirit of modernity, with its emphasis on the capabilities of individuals. The word which best describes God’s coming down to us is “condescension.” No one likes to be condescended to, but God’s condescension to us is the beginning of the good news of salvation for humanity. If we cannot be condescended to, we have no place in God.

There is a colorful, provocative image of pastoral ministry and preaching that I cling to the more time I spend in churches and in the pulpit. The image compares good preaching and good ministry to “stealing a congregation’s religion pills, and flushing them down the toilet.” And once that is done, “sticking around to handle the withdrawal symptoms.” Our “religion pills” are those pious sounding replacements for the things about Christian faith that we struggle to receive because they offend and scandalize us. They are the stories and patterns of thinking in the world that we baptize with Christian words to preserve our natural ways of thinking about God and ourselves. Seeking spiritual experiences, working hard to get to heaven, doing things for God, all of these are religion pills we prefer over Christian faith.

Another favorite religion pill many in our churches are taking is the myth of the “self-made man.” We love stories about our self-sufficiency. When I say “myth,” I do not mean something that is not true, as that word is commonly used, but a story that creates a culture, and shapes lives around it. Christians do believe there is such a thing as a self-made man, there is such a thing as self-sufficiency, and that is precisely the problem God must come down to fix. Adam and Eve in rebellion determined to be self-made. We are all self-made, and that is the source of our self-destruction, our self-centeredness. We should not long to be self-made, but God-made, transformed, and God-centered. The myth of the self-made man cannot coexist with the truth of the Gospel, the good news of God’s condescension to us. There is no halfway meeting-point between ourselves and God to restore our dignity so that we could take credit for seeking and finding God. Even when we are Christians, God always moves down to us, and that never changes.

Mark Twain said, “I am not troubled by the things in the Bible which I do not understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.” One of the clearest themes in the Bible is this: God shall come to us, not the other way around. God comes down to us, and this fact alone is the center of Christian expectation. Christian life is not about spiritual experiences. Christian life is not about doing things to get to God, or doing things for God. Christian life is not about working hard to get to heaven, but shaping our expectations around God’s promise to bring heaven to us once again, as he did once in Jesus Christ. Our God shall come, and he shall not keep silence.

He shall not keep silence. God has something to say to his people, God has something to say to us. When we talk about God we are talking about someone who speaks, all the time. God’s speech is not like our speech. God’s words create, God’s words direct, God’s words heal, restore, and renew. Christian expectation is always focused on God’s coming to us, but most importantly what God is going to say to us when he does come to us. Like Jews in exile, longing for deliverance and restoration, longing for God to make good on his promises, we long for God to speak a word to us when he comes to us. A word of deliverance, a word of restoration, a word of salvation.

While we long for this word and set our expectations around God coming to us, and God speaking a Word to us, we do not wait as those who have not seen God’s coming and heard God’s speaking to us before. God has come down, and God has spoken a Word, in the Word made flesh, who is Jesus Christ. God shall come to us, and shall not keep silence. God did come to us, and he did not keep silent. To speak the name “Jesus Christ,” is to speak the name of fulfillment, it is to say, “God has come down to us, God did not keep silence.” We say again, God shall come to us, and shall not keep silence. God will come to us again in Jesus Christ, God will speak a Word to us again Jesus Christ. That is what the Advent season, a season of Christian expectation, means.

When you heard that I had decided to preach on the Psalm this morning you probably thought, “what a coward!” Why not preach about the Left-Behind stuff from Zechariah or from Luke? Where does Nicholas Cage fit into our Gospel readings this morning? I preached on our Psalm because that one verse “God shall come to us, and He shall not keep silence,” summarizes all of our readings, and perfectly captures the meaning of the Advent season.

20th-century theologian Thomas Oden describes the obsession with picking apart the apocalyptic visions from passages like our Gospel reading and Old Testament reading in this way. “The blessed hope” of Christ’s return turns into a” disturbing and horrifying “vision when the hyper-religious drift into cynically, almost eagerly, waiting for God to destroy the first creation, as if there were something virtuous in beholding destruction.” To that I say, “amen.” We should examine our desire for clarity about passages like these closely, for often we seek that clarity for ungodly reasons. All we can do when Scripture speaks of Christ’s return is simply hope for, long for, set our expectations on the return of Jesus Christ, God with us, God’s Word in flesh to us. So we expect and yearn for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to us once in great humility and will come again in great power and glory.

As we wait for God’s coming again, God has not left us to struggle without Him. Notice that the two promises of God in Psalm 50, the expectation that shapes the heart and desire of every Christian, are met in the ordinary thing we are doing right now, worshipping together in Word and Sacrament. As we hear Scripture read and hear the Word of God preached, we hear God speak to us. The written word becomes a living Word. God is not silent. As we take part in this great Eucharistic feast together, our God comes to us. God is not apart from us, God is with us in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We set our expectations around Christ’s coming to us again, and his speaking to us, as we hear him speak to us, and receive him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Amen.