Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Embracing Restoration

Embracing Restoration
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55[1]
After all my “confessions” this Advent season, some of you may be convinced that I am a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch! You may have wondered, “Is there anything about Christmas he does like?” Well, you’re in for a treat today, because that’s exactly what I want to talk about—what I do like about the way we celebrate Christmas. The one aspect of how we as a people “celebrate Christmas” that I like is the fact that we make it a time for family. We scheme with our families how to surprise other family members with just the right presents. We gather with families around the table and the Christmas tree. We worship with our families at the altars of our churches. It is a time for reunion and reconciliation, for embracing and entertaining, for sharing and supporting one another.
I guess I have to add another “confession”—I haven’t always enjoyed this dimension of Christmas. Truth be told, it’s one of the parts of the way we “celebrate Christmas” that many people dread! For many people, Christmas becomes a time when you have to endure your relatives, whether you want to or not. It becomes a time of fighting and re-opening old wounds, a time for throwing discretion to the wind and behaving in ways that are embarrassing and offensive—toward the members of our own family! Christmas is a time when the gaping holes in the fabric of our “family ties” become painfully apparent. It is a time when we desperately need restoration and healing in those most basic human relationships.
Advent is a time when we focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world. It is a time of waiting in silence, a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over God’s presence among us. I think it’s tragic that in the midst of all this Gospel talk, many people in our society find themselves more depressed than at any other time of the year. I would venture to say that one of the main reasons for that is that it is a time when we become painfully aware how broken this world is—particularly our own families.
One of the themes in the lessons for this Fourth Sunday of Advent is that it is a time to celebrate the work of restoration God is carrying out in the human family—the whole human family. Take the lesson from Micah. At first glance, one might think that the prophet Micah was no different from many of his contemporaries. In virtually the same breath that he speaks about the coming of the Prince of Peace who will restore and reunite the people, it seems that he looks forward to the domination and oppression of their enemies! And yet, the prophet Micah may very well be an exception to the pattern of looking for restoration for Israel in terms of punishment for their enemies.[2] Like Isaiah, the future Micah envisions is one of “beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Mic. 4:1-4). And in our lesson for today, that restoration includes the reunion of the divided Jewish family. Think of it—Micah looked forward to the coming one who would heal the bitter enmity between Judah and the tribes of Israel and bring them together in one family for the first time in 200 years!
We think of reunions as happy and joyful, but the reality is that sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. In Mary’s Magnificat, we hear that one of the ways God’s work of restoration would come about is through the “Great Reversal”: the proud humbled, the powerful pulled down from their thrones, those who are stuffed will go away empty-handed, while those who are disempowered will be lifted up and those who are hungry will be filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). [3] Mary describes the overturning of the current system of consumption and oppression and violence by the norms of God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, and love.[4] I think many of us saw a little of that in action yesterday as we distributed food to needy families.
There’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family. That barb is this—those among us who flourish on the backs of others, those who get rich by the poverty of the many, those who wield power through violence of any kind will be impoverished, overthrown, and overturned.[5] And yet, even here there is good news—the restoration that God promises is one in which some of us will suffer loss, but in the end we will all gain immeasurably more than we lose. The future Micah and Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family. They saw in the birth of the coming one the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for all creation.
Advent is a time for waiting in anticipation. It is a time of looking for the fulfillment that promised salvation, and a time of singing for joy over God’s presence in our midst. It is also a time to embrace the restoration and healing God has promised to the whole human family in our families. Tread lightly this year, instead of taking up the challenge to engage in bickering. Do whatever you need to show a little extra consideration to your family—after all, we’re all stressed out during this time of the year. And after all we’ve been doing, many of us are frankly exhausted. Try to say the kind word, do the kind thing; extend your arms to the one who aggravates you and embrace the restoration that God is bringing to us all! Now that’s the way to celebrate Christmas!




[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/20/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Randall J. Pannell, in “The Politics of the Messiah,” Perspectives in Religious Studies (1988): 131-143 argues that it’s possible that Micah actually contrasts the Prince of Peace who will bring restoration to the people with the way in which Israel would seek it’s own restoration—through violent means. For a broader look at the issue in Hebrew Scripture, see Hans Walter Wolff, “Swords into Ploughshares: Misuse of a Word of Prophecy?,” Currents in Theology and Mission 12 (June, 1985): 133-147. He states plainly (p. 137), “Biblical faith decisively rejects all that has to do with war.”
[3] Cf. the article by my friend and fellow seminarian Ruth Ann Foster, “Mary’s Hymn of Praise in Luke 1:46-55,” Review and Expositor 100 (2003):451-463. She says (p. 458), “Mary acknowledges God's mercy and love for the lowly and a radical reversal of normal human values in the coming messianic kingdom.”
[4] Cf. Hans K√ľng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 89: in the light of the Kingdom of God, “all existing systems, all ordinances, institutions, structures and indeed all differences between the mighty and the powerless, between rich and poor, appear from the very beginning to be relatively unimportant: the norms of this kingdom must be applied even now.”
[5] Cf. Foster, “Mary’s Hymn,” 458: “even though Mary has been often ‘regarded as the comforter of the disturbed .. . she [or at least her song] is far more accurately the disturber of the comfortable’” (quoting Doris Donnelly). Cf. similarly Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089. She says, “God's great reversal may come too close to home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in the their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”

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