Remember Well the Future
Receiving Advent’s Covenant Promise
by Don Johnson | December 4, 2019
Planning, leading, guiding, and preaching on Sundays is a high honor and privilege. But planning worship for the Advent and Christmas season is tricky business. Expectations run high, musical preferences run deep, and sentimental memories tug on our hearts (well, maybe not the Christmas carols in Costco in October).
Memories can easily drive Advent habits, customs, and traditions. Some memories are dear and wonderful; others are bitter and painful. Some of us cling to our histories; others run as far from them as we can run. The season of Advent hovers between nostalgia and fantasy—both of which regularly disappoint us.
So throughout four decades of ministry I found it particularly helpful to immerse myself in the revised common lectionary—the Scripture readings assigned to each Sunday over a three-year cycle. These readings capture a majority of themes and stories of the Bible. By looking at the Old Testament lesson, the Psalm, the Gospel lesson, and the text from the Epistles each week, we can uncover deeper themes about how God works with and among us. These lessons remind us that we are part of a bigger story than the one we experience in our present moment. We are part of a bigger movement than our own family, our own local church, or our denomination. There is something truly magnificent going on from God’s perspective that we cannot grasp on our own.
The Gospel lessons for Advent 2019 come from the book of Matthew (you can find them in the lectionary in back of the Covenant Hymnal on page 961). These passages call us to be awake, ready, prepared, repentant, and looking for the Messiah. How can we do that in our busy, distracted, and materialistic culture?
Susan Palo Cherwien’s hymn “Rise, O Church, like Christ Arisen” offers us a gift as we seek to prepare for Advent well. In verse 3 we sing, “Rise, remember well the future God has called us to receive.” What good advice. I am a confessed nostalgic, and I like to remember the good past, the godly people, and the wonderful experiences of my life. But I also remember the insults, slights, and offenses others have inflicted.
We get busy and distracted.
We get caught up in endless things
we think we need to do—and we
forget God. We forget God’s
promises and expectations.
Yet that is not where this hymn points us: “Remember well the future.” How in the world do we remember a future that we have not yet experienced? The key is what comes next. “Remember well the future God has called us to receive.” The future is in God’s hands and always has been. When God calls us to receive the future, that is a call to receive God’s covenant promises to us in faith.
Advent is about God’s covenant promise to redeem us, save us, and bring us hope and life. That’s the way God has always worked. God comes to us where we are and invites us to trust the promises God makes—whether those promises were made to Abram and Sarai, or to Moses and David. And Jesus made many promises to his disciples about his presence, that he would never leave them and that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. God comes to us in our uncertain and fear-ridden times, offering us a promise for our future. To get there, we need to remember just what God promises and what God’s word says.
But we forget. Throughout Scripture we see how often God’s people forget God’s covenant promises and God’s law before they drift off into sin and rebellion. That forgetfulness is not unique to Israel or the New Testament disciples, of course. Forgetfulness is human. We get busy and distracted. We get caught up in endless things we think we need to do—and we forget God. We forget God’s promises and expectations. The words of the hymn ring true as timely advice when we forget God’s promises, when we dwell in nostalgic memories of our family-tribe or become anxious about the fears and worries of the future, our finances, or our families.
So let us remember well the future God has called us to receive. This is not a future found in Wall Street, FOX News, MSNBC, the latest politicians, or self-help gurus. We are a people called into a future bounded by God’s covenant promises given to us in grace and mercy. These promises are not our possession but our trust. We are not owners of God’s promises but stewards and caretakers. Remembering well does not mean we ignore the news but rather that we pay attention to the world around us with the deep awareness that God is sovereign. It means we avoid both the cynicism of the media and the nostalgia of our tribe. And we let God expand our view to include all of God’s people and God’s creation.
Which of God’s promises come to mind as the church year begins afresh and the calendar year comes to a close? Which biblical characters do you identify with in your spiritual journey right now? We Covenanters have always been a “people of the Book.” Where are you going in that wonderful book to find God’s promises for you?