bibleGrace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around the church. Sometimes, when the weather is nice, I walk around this place in which we gather, and I pray. I found my way out to the prayer garden and sat down on the swing.
I was praying for this community, for the hurt that’s been a part of recent conversations, and for each of you, for the joys and struggles I know about and those that I do not.
There are times in my prayers when I am really sad. I hurt in the love I have for you and this community, I hurt as I know your hurt. So I give it to the only one who can do anything about it. I place you, and me, and the world, into God’s hands.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m not a person who likes to give up or give over things I think I should be able to fix. It’s easy to say slogans like, “let go and let God,” but a lot harder to do.
After all, what do we really imagine God’s going to do with all the pain of the world?
I sat out there, challenging God to answer all that I had thrown over for God to catch. Gazing around the garden, I noticed all the flower and plants that had died back for the winter. All that was once green was brown, drooped. The perennials pull back their life, their energy and let go of all that isn’t necessary, waiting for the warmth to return, for it to be safe to bloom again.
The whole garden looked dead. Except for one plant. An Easter lily was in full bloom. Its delicate trumpets stood ready to proclaim: “life will come again!”
(Monty Python- “I’m not dead yet.” )
I’m not really a God sent me a sign type of person, but that lily was a reminder to me of God’s power for life. On Easter, we celebrate that God transforms a situation of grief into a cause for joy. Where there was death, there is life. New life comes out of suffering and death. This present moment isn’t all there is, but a new and better future is coming. Alleluia, Christ is Risen… and we shall arise.
But wow, it’s hard to trust that there will be new life when it feels like death. Or to look forward to healing when you’re sick. Or to think of planting a garden in peace when your land is trampled by armies.
Isaiah speaks of a shoot coming up out of the stump of Jesse. A tree cut down, and yet, somehow, coming back to life. This little twig of life holds the promise of a strong trunk supporting thick limbs. In due time.
The people of God have had plenty of times in which everything looked hopeless. They were a tiny nation, constantly conquered by neighboring nations who were stronger than them: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia… there were even wars between factions within the community. Through Isaiah, God promises that there will be life springing out of what was once cut down. The remnant will not be wiped out, but will grow.
This shoot from a stump, like my blooming lily, is a sign that life is not done yet. There’s reason to hope. God is here.
The lily’s blooming was out of season. Its trumpet didn’t wake all the other slumbering plants. It was a herald of things to come. There will be a full bloom in the garden this spring.
Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of what is to come. God will restore all things. God will bring all creation to life. This new life will be like Isaiah’s vision of the holy mountain, where even the natural need of predators to kill will be fulfilled with peace, and all creatures will be safe.
This season of Advent isn’t just about counting down to Christmas. We’re preparing not only for the baby in the manger, but for the Savior who will come again. We’re waiting and expecting Jesus to come and finalize his work.
What do we imagine God is going to do with all the pain of the world?
First, God feels it. God doesn’t just look down on us from some heavenly realm and feel bad for us. God comes into creation to share all of human life, including its pain. More than that, as Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus pulls onto himself all the pain of the world. Betrayed, rejected, cursed, banished, and tortured, Jesus- God in the flesh- feels all the worst. No matter what we experience, we are not alone, Jesus is there, not afraid to come near to our suffering, because he’s been there, too.
Today, God continues to carry our pain. Jesus walks with us, through whatever comes in life. We experience God’s support for us through prayer, worship, the sacraments, and our community. God puts people in our lives who embody God’s love and support for us. That’s part of the work we do here in this congregation for each other. As we care for each other, being there in both difficult and joyful times, Jesus loves through us.
One day, God will wipe all pain away. The world will be transformed. We will be transformed. There will be wholeness of life that will never end. The bloom of Jesus’ resurrection will spread over all of us, and we will know the joy of Jesus’ conquering of death, sin, and evil.
God’s promise to Isaiah’s listeners was spoken through images that translated their present pain into future joy. Where in your life do you need new life? This week, pray for God to give you a vision of what it would look like for God to heal struggle and widen joy in your life. Pray also for the eyes to see signs of that good future coming. May you have time to notice glimpses of life, even when you see life drawing back, and faith to trust that God will bring you into a fully bloomed creation again.
This is paired with a Gospel telling of John shouting at the crowds. While it might be fun to play the part of John the Baptist, it certainly isn’t fun to be yelled at.
But I know I yell when I’m afraid someone’s not paying attention and they might miss something that is life or death.
Of my children, the little one is a runner and the big one is a dreamer. Lydia would just as soon run away from me in the parking lot because she thinks it’s funny and she loves to be chased. Laila would be dancing around assuming everyone in the world is watching out for her.
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: advent, Christmas, community, holiday stress, Isaiah 11:1-10, Jesus, John the baptist, Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Today we gather with John the Baptist’s words ringing in our ears: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
Does anyone know how many days are left until Christmas? Maybe some of the kids among us? There are 16 days and 14 hours until Christmas. Not too long at all. Because of this countdown, the word “Prepare” starts my heart racing and my head pounding. There’s too much left on my list to do before Christmas! Thinking of preparations fills me with anxiety and a sinking feeling that this year, like so many before it, will be another one in which I’m up past midnight finishing presents, and even so, many things will be left undone.
So when I hear John the Baptist echoing Isaiah’s call through the centuries all the way to us here today, I feel more than a little overwhelmed. More preparations? This time for Jesus? What does that even look like?
John calls the people before him to prepare for the Lord by repenting and being baptized. For them, this is a call to a new way of life, signified by the washing and drowning in the water. That leaves me wondering- what more does God want us to do? What in my life needs to be remade? And it leaves me exhausted—what power do I have to make my heart – my life- perfect enough to be anything like a straight path for the Lord to enter?
At this point of frustration and even despair, I find myself thinking that maybe I’m doing this Advent thing all wrong. So often we talk about Advent as a season of preparation. And we know it is that- preparation for Christmas, preparation for welcoming baby Jesus to the manger. But it’s important not to be confused about the worth of our preparations. It’s not my preparation- or your preparation- that makes Jesus come to us or not. Just like we don’t go through Lent and Holy Week wondering whether or not Jesus will really be risen on Easter Sunday, we don’t go through Advent wondering whether or not Jesus will choose to be born a human baby. Jesus has already come- entering that stable, entering First Century Palestine, entering our day and our lives.
John the Baptist quotes Isaiah as it was written in Greek, but in the original Hebrew the word order might be a little different. So Isaiah reads: The voice of one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” Maybe that doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but if I think of my life, I think it’s often closer to the wilderness, with ups and downs, false starts, broken hopes, and best intentions never coming to fruition, than it is to a perfectly straight and groomed road, sparkling with welcome and good works for God. Our lives might be more or less wild, rather than perfectly constructed, but Isaiah says that it’s in that wilderness, in us broken people that God will make a way to be present.
Advent is not so much a time of preparing for Baby Jesus to come but of celebrating that Jesus has come and is transforming us so that we might be part of the way- the path- the people of God.
As an example of what this straight way, this coming of Jesus into our world, looks like, we need to turn to our reading from Romans 15. There we see a reflection on how Jesus is making a way in the midst of the newly emerging Christian communities. Most of the New Testament is really about how Christians relate to each other. It’s all about the struggle of making one community in Christ out of diverse people- rich and poor, women and men, employed and unemployed, married and unmarried, sick, disabled, healthy, full or hungry. One other division, the primarily expressed division is between two ethnic groups: Jews and Gentiles (Gentiles are everyone who isn’t Jewish).
Verses 5-7 are key here. Paul writes, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ as welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
The way of the Lord that Jesus is preparing in our midst is the community Jesus forms- it is all of us, with no one left out and everyone welcomed in.
Professor Valerie Nicolet-Anderson writes an insightful reflection on what this means for us:
Unity according to Christ also means that differences are not erased. Members do not have to conform to one particular pattern of behavior, but they do have to realize that the essential and defining character of their identity is now Christ.
Our churches too are called to this hospitality. This hospitality is not a lukewarm sort of welcome that would translate in letting anyone come in as long as they adapt to what is considered the “strong” position in the church (Romans 15:1), conform to the customs of the established church, or follow the agenda established by the ones in charge inside the community.
Rather, the welcome Paul has in mind threatens the ones who offer it. It pushes them to the threshold of the community and forces them to accept those who come as they are, without seeking to first transform them so that they adapt to the dominant practice. The criterion is the ethos of Christ, and this criterion is one that does not seek to change those who come to Christ.
Professor Nicolet Anderson’s words hit right at what we typically envision as helping people into the church. I look at the way we teach children to be, how we teach newcomers to be in church. I think of how often the refrain “This is how we do it” can be heard coming from well-meaning church folk. And I think of how hard it can be to welcome new ideas and ways of doing things.
When we struggle with inclusion in our own congregation, we join a struggle that has been part of the church since the beginning. It’s a struggle that Jesus helps us with— a straight path that Jesus is leveling out of the mixed desires we carry into this community.
Jesus comes as the one promised to the Jews, but for the benefit of the Gentiles as well. He comes for all people- to form among all of us collectively a way for God to work in this world. Maybe John the Baptist’s words for us would be – prepare to be prepared! And prepare to be surprised- the work of God through Jesus doesn’t always match our expectations or perceived needs.
The big thing to remember this Advent is that the best preparation you can do is to set aside all expectations other than that God is coming into your life and is going to shake things up! Your vision and your expectations aren’t likely to match God’s. But God’s is so much better.
As we prepare for Christmas in our homes, we often carry a vision of what it will be like, or what it should be like: smiling family and friends, all getting along; a table spread with delicious food; perfect presents; and decorations that look like your house belongs in Martha Stewart or Country Living or any number of blogs you’ve found through Pinterest.
It’s this expectation that causes so much stress over the holidays. We think we know what will make us happy. So we set unrealistic expectations on ourselves – and even try to control our guests and family members- to achieve this vision of Christmas perfection.
God invites you to let go of the expectation that it’s up to you to create the best Christmas or even the best Christian community. Let go of the stress that comes from trying to control the outcome of your work and the way other people will be. Live in the joy and freedom that Jesus is building in our midst. The way Jesus is leveling among us is a path that rejoices in God’s presence.
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: advent, Christmas, Christmas lights, darkness, fear, Isaiah 11:1-10, Jesus, Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
I’ve been thinking about fear lately. More specifically, about when we learn to fear and how we come to decide what is scary and what is not. Helping a two-year old navigate her world brings up these kinds of questions. As evening falls, her little, insistent voice is just beginning to say things like, “It’s dark, Mommy, I’m scared.”
There is something within us and something perfectly rational about being afraid of the dark. Shadows obscure the reality of things. Darkness prevents us from seeing and avoiding dangers. What would otherwise be useful tools: knives, scissors, garden hoes, even coffee tables, can all become quite harmful when we blindly stumble into them. If we can’t see or know what’s right in front of us, we have reason to fear, because approaching them improperly could be dangerous.
We’ve been traveling deeper into a season of fewer and fewer hours of natural daylight. Without the help of street, yard, or car lights, it can feel blinding to be out in the dark. We might wonder what dangers are out there, just beyond our sight.
We put lights around our homes and towns to keep us safe. I think of those automatic motion detector lights, designed to scare away intruders. They work not only to protect against things outside me. They also help illumine the way from my car to the door as I try to balance bags of Christmas goodies.
During hours of darkness, we keep lights lit as we live our days vigilant, looking out, for the things we fear. This is the kind of vigilance Jesus seems to speak of at the end of our reading from Matthew. Keep awake! The homeowner wouldn’t have broken vigilance and gone to bed if he knew a thief was coming to rob him. So keep the security lights on! Lock your doors! Don’t leave your car running unlocked as you try to defrost it before heading to work or school! Look out for danger!
I think many of us know the vigilance that comes from fear. As I think of parents sending their children off to college, I remember my own mother’s forwarded emails of the various things to be afraid of- scams and kidnappers and other dangers. Smart phones and social networking make sharing these warnings even easier today. With a simple click, we can share another’s advice to look out for the next danger.
Our gospel has some scary and confusing images: a reminder of the deadly flood, a vision of people being swept away, a thief coming in the night. These images are juxtaposed with the sense that God is doing something really big and unexpected in sending the messiah. Jesus wants us to be on the alert for this action — but I don’t think we need to fear this work of God. Instead, Jesus is inviting us to transfer our state of high alert and our willingness to share warnings of danger into a way of anticipating and proclaiming God’s life-giving action.
What would it be like if we were vigilant for works of joy? How would our lives, our community, be different if we were always on the lookout to spot the first signs of joy- or of love- or of life-giving transformation breaking into our world? What would it be like if we spent half as much time sharing news of God working in our lives and communities as we spend sharing news of fear?
On Thanksgiving morning, I took a little drive to get out of a house consumed with last minute packing, toddler bathing, and general house scrubbing, as I prepared for a time of worship. Sometimes I like silence in the car when I’m alone, but that morning I flipped on Wisconsin Public Radio. The call in program asked people to share about the best gifts they’ve received or given. People shared amazing stories of generosity and relational turning points. Some shared of organs donated or received in life-giving surgeries. One woman spoke of an unexpected embrace from a brother who rarely showed his love, and his offer to do the family’s dishes so she could play a game with her niece. For a whole hour, people called in to share news of joy, love, and generosity– selfless acts that I believe God makes possible in our lives. This was broadcast all over the state and available online.
It made me wonder- where and how are we sharing news of the ways we reflect and experience reflections of God’s love? Jesus came into our world, into human life, to declare God’s love and welcome for all people. Jesus makes possible a change of heart, an act of selfless generosity, and hope even in the face of despair.
With Thanksgiving over and Advent begun, many people are starting to transform their homes for Christmas. The mini transformations that are occurring are a sign to point us towards the transformation God is working in our world. God has come to us as Jesus, the incarnate one, the baby in the manger. But Jesus’ coming is not the only work of God we celebrate during Advent. This is a time to expect that God is still at work to break into our lives and bring a life-giving change.
In this season of increased darkness, we use lights to push back the darkness and reveal what is in front of us. The lights of candles and Christmas lights remind us to look into the darkness with hope.
One of my favorite things to do in this season is to drive around neighborhoods to see everyone’s decorations. It gives me the sense of the whole community becoming aware of the joy of this season. In a way, it reminds me of our reading from Isaiah.
Isaiah speaks the word that God shows to him. God offers a vision of a changed world, in which all the nations will recognize God’s presence and wisdom. The world will be so changed that war and weapons will no longer be useful. Isaiah offers this vision after acknowledging the destruction that is a part of his world. We know that destruction and danger are a part of our world today, but God invites us to also look forward with hope- hope and trust- for a new future of peace and joy for all peoples and nations.
Among all the choices for decorations, from inflatable santas to elegant wreaths, the one thing featured in most homes will be lights. Instead of serving as increased security, they are meant for increased awareness of joy and hope- a celebration of God’s coming into our lives. The next time you notice Christmas lights, I pray that you also take a moment to notice one way God is working in your life and our world. Use the opening this season provides in conversation to share your own experience of God’s coming- God’s Advent. Invite someone else into this joy.
God has come to exchange your fear for joy. Rejoice! Share the good news.