The Lutheran, December 2009
A monthly column by Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson
Addressing our restlessness
God does the unexpected: A Savior is born
Restless. There is a restlessness in the church, in the land, in many souls. It is difficult to identify its source, perhaps because it springs forth from many places.
People feel restless when they are told the economic downturn has leveled off, yet they and those they love continue to face unemployment, foreclosures, depleted retirement resources and diminishing hope.
I sense a growing restlessness in this church. Some are wearied by the seeming preoccupation with human sexuality. Some wonder if they still belong, while others wait for the full implementation of the Churchwide Assembly's actions.
Restlessness often follows unmet expectations: of leaders, of God, of ourselves. At a recent theological conference, someone shared this helpful statement: "Unspoken expectations are resentments in waiting."
Restlessness may be related to the loss of a sense of purpose: for our personal lives, in our ministries, as the ELCA.
Finally, restlessness can be a sign of the breakdown of trust and confidence in leaders, in the church, or even in God's faithfulness to God's promises.
Think how often in Scripture the people of God become restless. Wandering through the wilderness in the infancy of their freedom, they became restless for food and the security of their taskmasters in Egypt. Restless during years of exile in Babylon, they began to lose confidence in the promise that God would bring them home.
Beneath much of our restlessness is the question of whether God can be trusted: will God be faithful to God's promise to be constant in mercy and steadfast in love? In our restlessness we are drawn to other gods for security—a golden calf, financial investments, a political ideology.
Our restlessness blinds our eyes to what God is doing. God, too, must be restless and impatient, waiting for God's people to trust. I can imagine God saying rather impatiently, "What more must I do to be worthy of this trust? I made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. I sent Moses to Pharaoh. I provided manna in the wilderness, gave the law to Moses, brought them home from exile. Ruth witnessed, David wrote the Psalms, and the prophets spoke my word of judgment and hope."
It would be completely understandable if—given our restlessness, our faithlessness—God gave up. But God did not. God does not. God will not. It is God who does the unexpected. God bends low and meets us in the midst of our restlessness. John reminds us that the Word became "flesh and lived among us ... full of grace and truth."
This one, Jesus, born of Mary, whom the angels announced as Savior of the world, is God. Jesus responds to our restlessness, our faithlessness and our sinfulness in an unexpected way. While it might seem incredibly weak and foolish of God to take the path from a manger in Bethlehem to Golgotha's cross and an empty tomb, nothing less than having our full confidence and trust would have been good enough for God, who will be our God, just as promised. For this reason, Jesus lives, claims each of us in forgiving love through baptism, joins us to his body, nourishes us with his body and blood, and sends us into the world.
We are sent into a restless world that questions whether God can be trusted. You and I have something to say to this world. Our witness begins with a child born in humble circumstances in hard times and continues at the foot of the cross and Good Friday's aching loss, the restlessness and forsaken absence of Holy Saturday, and proclaims the new life in Christ of Easter Day.
Yes, by the Spirit's power, we confess this One can be trusted, for God is faithful to God's word of promise. So we confess with Augustine: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
Mark S. Hanson