Second Sunday of Advent C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
On Thursday evening, at our first midweek Advent service, I read a story from the first book of Kings, a story of Elijah fleeing his home country for fear of his life, fleeing across borders, fleeing out into the wilderness, looking for safety. Eventually, after journeying 40 days into the wilderness, he makes it to the mountain of God, Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. There, he has an experience of divine revelation in a passage many of us probably know well.
Elijah is told, “’Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
I love that story. For one, it’s an interesting story to ask the question, where is God? Notice, for example, that while God is neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, neither does the story say that God is in the sheer silence either. But it’s also interesting because it reveals our expectations as human beings about where God is.
In that story, Elijah flees his home country to a mythical mountain, the place where God is most remembered to have been, Mount Sinai; in fact, it’s strongly hinted that Elijah flees and hides in the cave in which Moses first met God in the burning bush. And then you have this theophany, this experience of meeting God, and one would expect to find God in the fire, and the earthquake, and the wind. People are used to finding God in the spectacular, in the flashy, in the grandiose. But God wasn’t in any of those. God may or may not have been in the silence, but God wasn’t in the big, loud, extravagant experiences.
It’s amazing to me how often our expectations of God actually get in the way of what God is doing, as if we somehow know better than God. Nowhere is this more true than in the way we view our fellow human beings.
There are those human beings, we say, who have been blessed by God. They have lots of money, large, loving families, great houses, solid careers, live in the greatest country in the world, aren’t addicted to drugs or alcohol, are able to send their kids to the best schools, drive the best and safest cars, spend time on vacation resting up, and when they die, will leave a sizable inheritance for their children to secure their future. They are happy.
And then there are all those other people… those who don’t have any money, who are alienated from their families, who live in huts if solid buildings at all, who are unemployed, who are stuck in backwater countries, who blow all their cash to feed their drug habits, who have crappy schools, beat up cars, who never take time for themselves, and who, when they die, won’t have a dime to their name. Poor, poor them. If only God had blessed them, too.
Obviously, God is more at work in the lives of the first group than in the second, who are more to be pitied than exemplified.
I used to think that our problem was that we looked up to the first group, those who had everything the world says they should have, and assumed that they were blessed by God because they looked just like us; and if they were blessed, then so were we. But I’ve started to think about it from another angle, an angle that changes our self-identity and speaks more truly to human nature. We don’t say that the first group, the group with everything, is blessed by God because they look like us. I think instead, we say that they are blessed by God, because they aren’t like us, and we wish we were like them.
Think about that. Is it possible that we look at our own lives, our own families, our own belongings, and think that maybe we’re not as blessed as others? Is it possible that when we see the good things others have, we then assume that we are not blessed?
And if we aren’t blessed, why not? If we don’t have the same happiness, if we don’t have the same standing, if we aren’t what we think we should be in our own minds, does that mean that God doesn’t bless us at all?
I think the truth, the scary truth, is that we look at our ordinary lives, our ordinary families, our ordinary cars, our ordinary houses, our ordinary town, and we are frightened by what we see; or rather, we’re frightened by what we don’t see—something extraordinary. We are nothing special, nothing worth noting. If we died tomorrow, would anyone outside our small extended families notice or care?
Our greatest fear, then, is that we are unimportant, even to God.
Let me ask you a question, though. Who was Malachi? Malachi is the name of the prophet who spoke the words in our first reading today. Who was he?
If you don’t know, you’re not alone. No one knows anything about Malachi, except that he was a prophet in Israel, probably sometime after the second temple had been built. Even his name, Malachi, may not be his name: it means, “My Messenger”, and may well be just a title used for the nameless man. We know nothing else about his life, and yet he spoke words that are remembered 2500 years later and which still give us hope.
Or what about John the Baptist? At least we know his name and a little about his family. Yet we’re told that he was already a hermit out in the wilderness when he received God’s call to prophesy about the impending arrival of Jesus Christ, God With Us. He was a nobody out in the desert who, if he never uttered a word of prophecy to anyone, would have died nameless and forgotten by everyone.
And lest you think that these are exceptions to the norm, consider this: Abraham was just a man who owned some property. Amos the prophet was a poor farmer. Moses was a murderer and an outcast. Jacob was a trickster and a fraud. Ruth was a widow without a hope of survival in the land she lived in. Paul in his letter to the Romans mentions well over a dozen of his helpers and coworkers spreading the Gospel, most of whom were probably slaves.
Even Jesus Christ himself, the Messiah, the one who was to be the savior not only of the Judean people, but of the entire world and all of creation, was born as a little, unremarkable baby to a poor family.
All of these names we know now, of course, because of the extraordinary things God did through them. But they themselves by and large were unremarkable, boring, ordinary people.
Contrary to what we may hear after every natural disaster or “act of God”, it seems to be the case that God isn’t so much interested in using the big and flashy as God is interested in using the ordinary, the regular, and dare I say the boring. In short, God is interested in people like us. Believe me, I’m boring and I’m perfectly okay saying that.
What would it look like, then, if we stopped looking to others and saying, “Look at them: look at how blessed they are!” and instead looked around at ourselves and said, “We are blessed.” We are blessed in our ordinary lives, in our ordinary ways, in our ordinary jobs and houses and families. We are blessed, not because we are fancy or extraordinary or held in high regard by the world (though that may certainly be the case!), but we are blessed simply because we are God’s own daughters and sons. We are blessed because God takes delight in the ordinary.
Thanks be to God in this ordinary time of Advent, that God can and does use the ordinary for the extraordinary.
Featured Image is an altar in one the caves supposedly visited by Elijah during his flight.