Out of Control

Advent reminds us that we can’t stop wars from happening, that we can’t prevent people from murdering other people, that we can’t cure every disease, that we can’t prevent every suffering, that we can’t prevent every (or any) natural disaster. Like when we witness a hurricane or a tornado tearing through our feeble human-made constructions, Advent is a time when we are humbled by the fact that so very, very little is really in our control.

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First Sunday of Advent C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

I used to be someone who watched a lot of The Simpsons.  Not so much anymore, but I used to. I always loved the opening title sequence, especially the part where it appears that Maggie, the little baby with the pacifier, was driving her mother Marge’s car from her car seat.

When I was a little kid, I had a similar fascination with driving. I would sit in the back seat of my mother’s car on the way to school and sometimes, I would hold my hands out like I was holding a steering wheel. When she turned, I’d turn my hands. When we were going straight, I’d keep them straight. I’d tilt them slightly when we were changing lanes. It felt like I was really driving the car, that this big rolling metal machine was obeying my every command, was subject to my every demented whim.

Of course, in reality, I had no control over the car whatsoever. There was nothing I could do twirling my hands around from the back seat that could effect the direction of the car in any way. I had the illusion of control. It appeared that the car was going in the direction that I wanted to go. But the truth was that car was not under my control. Which was a good thing, because I was prone to letting my mind wander off as any kid does, and having the car in my hands was just asking for a disaster.

I wonder how far that illusion spreads. What do we really have control over? What can we really bend to our will? What things or events are really under our influence?

This is becoming a sad, repeating litany, but this past Friday, a man armed with an assault weapon entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, murdered 3 people, and injured 9 others. Such things are common now. We’ve almost become numb to them. I know I have. Open the paper, “Oh, another shooting, how grand.” And I’m off on my day like nothing happened.

But something did happen. Something is always happening. At times, it can feel very much like the events Jesus talks about: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

This is, as I said last week, nothing new. Both our snippet of the prophet Jeremiah and our warning from Jesus’s ministry were written during times of great upheaval. Jeremiah was writing during the Babylonian Exile, when the Babylonians had come down on the kingdom of Judea, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and deported the upper class people to a foreign land. Jesus’s words as presented in the Gospel according to Luke were a warning about the upcoming destruction of the temple by the Romans, which had already happened by the time the Gospel according to Luke was written.

I’ve never experienced having my home city destroyed by invaders. I’ve never experienced being deported from my home and barred from returning, or where returning would mean certain death. But 50 million other human beings on this planet know what that’s like. I can only imagine what that’s like, to have your entire life taken out of your control and forced to endure the pain and suffering inflicted on you by another.

It’s a legitimate question to ask what any of this has to do with the season of Advent, the season that starts today. It’s four weeks until Christmas. Shouldn’t we be focusing on the baby Jesus? Cute little cherubs with wings? Wise men, shepherds, angels, silent nights, family dinners, presents, trees, Santa Claus, wreathes, jingling bells, snowflakes? You know, Christmas? Why do we have to get through Advent first? And why does it start with these readings?

We live in a particular, peculiar time. In the entire approximately 14 billion year history of the known universe, there has been no time like the last 2000 years of recorded history. And it’s true—the event that marks the beginning of this extraordinary time is, indeed, the birth of Jesus Christ in a little town called Bethlehem, an event we remember every year during the Christmas season, which is indeed a separate season after Advent that starts on December 25.

But the birth of Christ, the coming of God-incarnate into the world is just the beginning. It’s just one “pole” marking off this extraordinary time. The other end? It also happens to be Christ’s coming, his coming again, the fulfillment of promises made for his return.

Where that pole is, when this extraordinary time will end, is unknown. We don’t know. We have no idea when Christ will return. The earliest Christians assumed it was going to be well within their lifetimes. When Christ didn’t return immediately, they adjusted their expectations, and they continued to wait. For 2000 years, we have waited, and who knows how much longer we will have to wait? It’s not really in our control at all.

And so we live, and work, are born and die in this great “in-between” time. Advent, really, is about the in-between, that tension between promise and fulfillment, between waiting expectantly and not losing heart. It’s about recognizing and relinquishing the illusion that we have any control over anything that goes on in our world at all.

Advent reminds us that we can’t stop wars from happening, that we can’t prevent people from murdering other people, that we can’t cure every disease, that we can’t prevent every suffering, that we can’t prevent every (or any) natural disaster. Like when we witness a hurricane or a tornado tearing through our feeble human-made constructions, Advent is a time when we are humbled by the fact that so very, very little is really in our control.

Advent, then, could be interpreted as a somber time, even depressing. That happens when we realize that the control we thought we had over the world really is just an illusion, like a child “driving” from the back seat of the car. For many centuries the season of Advent looked very much like the season of Lent, with purple paraments, with penitential rites, with lament. But that’s not what Advent has to offer. There’s a reason we’ve dressed the church in blue: blue is the color of hope.

“Hope? Hope? After everything I just said, you expect me to believe that this is a season of hope?” …. Yes.

Advent is a season of hope because, even though the world is not in our control, it doesn’t mean that the world is out of control. You see, we tend to put ourselves in the center of everything, and can’t imagine that there’s something or someone else who can be in control. But look again at our readings.

Jeremiah’s words aren’t from Jeremiah himself. They’re from God. I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David.

Nothing that Jesus talks about: not signs, not the coming of the Son of Man, not the day of the Lord; nothing comes from human beings. It is all from God.

Giving up control doesn’t mean we condemn the world to lawlessness and evil. It means acknowledging the control of the one who has always had the world in control.

Advent is the season of the in-between. It is the time between two extraordinary events, Christ’s coming and Christ’s coming. It is a stark reminder that we really have no control over the world at all, that the world does not obey our deepest and darkest desires, that it doesn’t bow to our whims, that it doesn’t look and act and feel exactly the way we in our brokenness would want it to.

And that, more than anything, is why Advent, this in-between time, is a season of Hope.

Featured Image: “Crazy driver” by Benjamin Vander Steen is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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