(A sermon based on Psalm 80 & Luke 1:54-55 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent)
I finished writing my Ph.D. dissertation in early 1986; before I could present the oral defense of my work I was required to secure an “outside reader,” a scholar in my field from a school other than mine, who would read and render his opinion on those 250 or so pages of blood, sweat, and tears. I was also required to pay that person $500; the problem was that we did not have $500 and had to figure out how to come up with it. My grandfather had recently died and I knew that I would receive some amount of money from his estate but I also knew that the estate was many months away from being settled. So I called one of my uncles who knew the terms of the will and asked if I could borrow the $500 from him and pay it back to him out of my share of the estate; he graciously agreed and I received a compounding of that grace when the estate was settled and my share was reduced by the $500 that I owed him—but no interest had been charged to me!
I have and will always have gratitude for my uncle; I admit also to having felt a little pride in my ingenuity in securing the $500—until, many years later, I was telling that story to a dear friend of many years’ standing who said to me, “Why didn’t you call us? We would have given you the money!”
The answer to the question “Why didn’t you call us?” was at least partly pride, of course; I did not want to ask someone for the money who did not have the sure knowledge that I would soon have the resources to repay it. But the other answer to the question was that I did not think of it; it never occurred to me to ask them for help—this despite the fact that they had always given me much help and many resources over the years even though I had not asked for them.
In other words, I failed to remember that they always remembered me, that they always had remembered me and that they always would remember me. In my forgetting I failed to trust in their remembering.
Advent people—people who not only celebrate the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem’s manger in the past but who also anticipate his coming to us in the present and to our world in the future—are remembering people, which means that we remember that God always has and always will remember God’s people, that God always has and always will remember God’s promises, and that God always has and always will remember God’s purposes.
Indeed, God’s remembering of God’s people, promises, and purposes always go together. God is working his purposes out and as God works his purpose out he is keeping his promises and as God works his purposes out and keeps his promises he does so through and with his people.
God’s remembering is not at issue—God remembers; but our remembering is an issue—we forget.
Sometimes—all too often, in fact—we forget to remember who God is, what God has done, and what God will do, although our forgetfulness has its roots in what would usually be regarded as understandable circumstances.
One circumstance that affects our remembering is the passing by of time.
Mary’s song, in which she celebrated the mysterious and wonderful thing that the Lord was doing through her, understood that thing as being a remembrance of God’s mercy (v. 54) that was a part of the “promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (v. 55). God had made that promise to Abraham some eighteen centuries before Mary sang her song and so, someone might say, God had taken his time in keeping that promise and the truth is that as we reckon time it had been quite a while.
It behooves us to remind ourselves from time to time, though, that God does not reckon time as we do; indeed, one of the many miracles of Christmas is that God, who is eternal and is thus beyond and outside of time, entered this time-bound world in the person of Jesus Christ. For something to be a long or short time to us means little or nothing to God and yet, because he entered our world as one of us, he certainly understands how time is to us and he chooses in his grace to work within the frame of time as we experience it.
It may seem to us sometimes that it is taking a long time for Jesus to intervene in some crisis through which we are going here and now and it may seem to us that it is taking an awfully long time for his Second Advent to occur. We need to remember, though, that Jesus did not come 2000 years ago and never come again; we need to remember that it is not only his Second Coming that counts as an arrival of Jesus in this world. Indeed, Jesus arrives in our world many times over every day—he arrives, just to give one example, when his Body, the Church, exhibits his love and grace and mercy and forgiveness in any real and substantial—in any Christ-like—way.
We need to remember also that, even though Jesus came into our lives when we received him as Savior, his coming to us in whatever crisis we are experiencing now, while it is the next time that we will experience him, is not the only other time that we have experienced him. When we stop and think about it, we will realize that he has come to us many times over as we have needed him, even if we have failed to acknowledge that he was the one who helped. When we stop and think about it, we will realize that he has always been with us and has never forsaken us.
So stop and think about it—how many times did God come to the people of Israel between the promise to Abraham and the coming of Jesus? Psalm 80 talks about God’s bringing Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus and the establishment of the nation in the Promised Land, but that’s just one occurrence. God’s other acts of intervention in the meantime are too numerous to name.
Another circumstance that affects our remembering is the piling on of problems. For the Israelites during the time that Psalm 80 was composed and in most of the times during which it was employed in worship, the people were experiencing problems and crises aplenty. Whether it was occupation, famine, war, or exile, the problems did pile up. Mary praised God for his remembering of his promises and of his mercy during a time when the Romans occupied the land and when she and many like her would have known tremendous struggles in the living of daily life. It would have been easy for Mary and for all of those around her to believe that God had forgotten them.
Sometimes the problems pile up on us, too. We have struggles at work or we have struggles getting work; we have tensions at home; we have sickness in ourselves or in our loved ones; we have grief over the loss of someone or something significant; we have disappointments because someone has let us down or because we have let someone down. The pile of problems is usually partly of our own making and partly of someone else’s making and partly of—well, who knows from where some of it comes.
And we get to thinking that God has forgotten. But God does not forget.
God did not forget Israel. God did not forget Mary and her neighbors. And God has not forgotten—and never will forget—us, because God does not forget God’s purposes and promises.
The testimony of Mary—the testimony of Advent—the testimony of Christmas—is that God does remember. God does remember God’s people, promises, and purposes. Therefore, we can believe, we can trust, we can persevere—we can wait expectantly and actively and creatively.
We can if we will refuse to forget—if we will practice remembering.
So let us remember—let us remember that God remembers; let us remember that the coming of Jesus all those years ago shows just how far God will go to remember his promises so as to fulfill them.
Do you remember? Will you remember?