The First Sunday of Advent

Downstairs at home is still pretty much a building site as the repairs from the broken water pipe are being done. The tiling is part way done. (One more day to finish all the tiling and after that there is still lots of jobs to do to put ‘Humpty’ back together again.) But we can walk on the tiles that are down and use the kitchen. But here’s the thing … I know there are repairs happening (you can’t not know!) – I helped move the fridge into the adjacent room – and yet every time I want something from the fridge, I turn to where it used to be! What’s that about?!  

I suppose it shows that I am human – a creature of habit and routine. We simply are used to doing things in a certain way – to the point I suppose we don’t actually think about it. It’s not that we’re not thinking – the brain isn’t switched off – but we’re not necessarily conscious of the thought-action moment. A lot of our life is formed from these routines and patterns. Athletic training, rote learning, ‘muscle memory’ – in fact fitness itself or memory are products of repetition – and all this repetition can be good for us or harmful for us. The adages of ‘we are what we eat’ or ‘we are what we think’ or ‘we are the stories we tell ourselves’ have in common that we are products of patterns and routines in our behaviour and our thinking which shape us – or to use the word I prefer ‘form’ us. I think a lot about formation.  

In my world of grace and sin – and I mean that personally because I am a human being and also ‘professionally’ that is, in my office as a pastor – I see and sense how God forms us as his people and the mystery of how, by nature, people simply muck things up for themselves and for others. There is the definite action of God – in Christ – accomplished in time and eventually on a cross and empty tomb – who saves us, justifies us, gives us new life, makes us new creations in Christ – and there is the continual action of God (we generally think this is the work of the Holy Spirit) who brings this reality to us definitively – through words, water, bread and wine – and also forms us in this reality – through faith. So worship, prayer, reading God’s Word, meditation, struggling with sin, looking how to serve others are continual things that form us in our identities, that express what we believe, and are things we do – even if only receiving.  

Sin has similar qualities of definitive deed and the patterns or things that form us to be susceptible – tempt-able – and it doesn’t help that in our Lutheran understanding we live in ‘sinful flesh’ and so we might conceive of ourselves almost as a walking ‘civil war’ (think Romans 7:14-25). People’s behaviour that hurts themselves or others very often has a routine or pattern to it that forms them and one way to stop or minimising such sins is to break the routine or pattern that leads to the behaviour that hurts yourself or others and which Jesus doesn’t want you to do – because it hurts you or others and stifles living. Sin is like drinking salt water – it gives you an illusion of control, a quick ‘fix, but increasing fear.  

I encounter people from time to time who have ‘left the church’ because they were ‘made to go as a child’. I understand the sentiment. However all of our life is strongly patterned and in routines and has rituals of all sorts and so doing Christian ones are not themselves necessarily the problem. If we’re not doing Christian ones, we are doing own spiritual ones. What the time of Advent reminds us of is the nature of this God who keeps coming – interfering! – into the world. Humanity, by nature, doesn’t like competition and Jesus is feared more than other gods because he can’t really be controlled. And yet, when the message does get through that Jesus – and the Father and the Holy Spirit – are about grace – and want to deal with our sin so that we can live, then living in any patterns or routines that relate to such a God is part of living life to the full. GS