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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Story We Know so Well

Christmas Eve, 2013
Luke 2:1-20

          A friend tells the story of a chauffeur who had driven a chemistry professor to dozens of speaking engagements. He’d heard the same canned speech scores of times. On the way to yet another engagement he said, "Professor, I believe I could give your speech myself; I’ve heard it so often." The professor said, "I’ll bet you $50 you can’t." "You’re on," said the chauffeur.
He stopped the car and the two exchanged clothes. They arrived at the banquet, the chauffeur dressed in a tuxedo. Sitting at the head of the table, he stood up and gave the speech verbatim. There was a standing ovation when he was finished.
The emcee got up and said, "You know, we are so fortunate to have such a fine resource with us tonight, since we have a little extra time, let’s have some questions and answers.” The first question was asked and the chauffeur stood there dumbfounded, clearing his throat in nervousness. Finally he said, "That’s just about the dumbest question I ever heard. In fact it is so dumb I bet even my chauffeur could answer that question."
The gospel we have just read is a story that most of us have probably heard scores of times as well. We even hear it in secular circles, - even Linus in the Charlie Brown’s Christmas movie tells this story of the Nativity. These days, it is often repeated not as a story of faith, but as a sweet sentimental tale incorporated into the myths of many peoples. And so, I wonder what is there that I can say to you tonight that would be any different from what you’ve already heard? After all, many of you have probably told this Nativity tale yourselves many times before. It’s probably pretty safe to say that any of you could probably swap places with me up here and tell this story of the Birth of the Christ Child. Well, I won’t ask you to do that, but I wonder if you’ll help me tell the story – just fill in the blanks, if you will.
The story takes place in (Bethlehem). There was a man named (­Joseph) who had traveled there with his betrothed, (Mary) who was great with child.
We know “great with child” means that Mary was really, really pregnant! As luck would have it, with no room in the inn, tired and hungry as they were, the couple accepted the only place offered to them, where they might rest. Instead of a nice, comfy, clean room in a house or inn in downtown Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary ended up staying in a (stable). And as the timing of any birth tends to be unpredictable, often coming at the very worst, or least convenient of times, as Mary and Joseph are staying there in the stable, the baby (Jesus) is born, wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid in a (manger).
Before long, the new family had company. From the fields came the (shepherds), who had been nearly blinded by the brightness of the glory of an (angel) who had appeared to them in the field. This angel of the Lord announced to them the wonder of the birth of this special child, the Savior, the Messiah. So off went to visit the baby, (Jesus) in the (manger) at (Bethlehem).
I appreciate all the help you’ve given me in the telling of the story. But I wonder, in the telling of it, if we don’t sometimes gloss over the blemishes in the scene. I wonder if we don’t romanticize the details, to make it into what we want it to look like; to make it into what we want it to be. It’s not our fault, really; the story has inspired thousands of drawings, paintings, and sculptures. The scene has been depicted in cards, movies, cartoons, and books. It has been written of in hymns and Christmas carols, sacred and secular songs. Take our crèche here for instance. It’s beautiful! Like most nativity scenes, the characters are clean, neatly dressed, and really quite lovely, sweet and serene. The images imprinted on our minds about this story are probably pretty consistent with the characters as they appear here.
Not long ago, I was shopping in a gift shop, looking for some last minute Christmas gifts, and I came upon the selection of nativity sets for sale. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some were very traditional, others quite contemporary; the nativity sets were from various cultures, and some showed characters with dark, even very black skin. Most, of course, like the ones we find in the majority of stores and catalogs in the Western world, revealed fair skinned characters, and one even displayed a curly blonde-haired blue-eyed baby Jesus.
The truth of the matter is that we love the story of the birth of Jesus, and we tend to make this story, and God, into an image that is comfortable, an image that is like us, when we are at our best, or what we imagine our best to be. We tell the sweet story of the journey this teenage girl, Mary, and her betrothed, Joseph, make into Bethlehem. We’re tempted to ignore their weariness and exhaustion after such a long trip, a trip made mandatory by the oppressive occupying government of their region, and their discouragement when they found “no vacancy” on the tongues of every innkeeper in town.
We overlook the terror that must have seized this innocent young girl, with the first pangs of the labor that would bring her babe into the world; realizing that she would have to birth this child not in the presence and with the help and skill of a midwife or even of the women of her village, with wisdom and knowledge they would share with her, but alone, in this unlikely place, among strangers, with only Joseph to tend her.
We ignore the reality that this child, the Son of God, was born in a mixture of fear and hope, not into a sweet smelling manger of our imaginings, surrounded by the docile, cuddly, freshly scrubbed cattle and sheep of our nativity scenes, but in the dim interior light of a dusty, dank, rustic barn where real animals lived!
And while Mary lay recovering from this birth, preparing to travel again with a newborn infant in tow, the shepherds come a-calling. Shepherds, men who lived in the fields with their sheep, who were themselves considered pretty lowly characters – are their first visitors. 
Now, I’m not trying to steal your Christmas magic. We should cherish Christmas! And I’m not saying that it’s wrong to embrace the story, to pull out those nativities and decorations, even if they include the hopelessly idealistic crèche scenes like the one I have in my own home.
Come as we have tonight, to this Christmas Eve, it’s our tendency to air-brush the blemishes of this story, freshen the air with sweet lullabies and carry on with our holiday.
But let’s not miss the real good news for us this night; the good news that God breaks through the fairy-tale nativity, and gives us Jesus. God breaks through the sin and the grime of the real world and presents us with a miracle - the incarnation of God-with-us, Jesus Christ. God bursts into our fear and sadness, our pain, our failures, our defeat, and the regret that makes us yearn for the fairy-tale and redeems us through the real deal – the birth of our Savior.
The real miracle of Christmas – is that God has chosen to dwell not with the rich or powerful, not with the air-brushed or perfect, and not with the high or mighty. God has chosen to dwell with the lowly, the unexpected, and the broken. God lifts up those who are powerless, and those who find themselves in over their heads and aren’t quite sure how their story will end. God has chosen to enter into the very real, dirty, sinful, scared, confused, chaotic, diverse, and sometimes – let’s face it – often, messy world.  And here, amid the weakness and vulnerability of human birth, God makes God's intentions for humanity fully known. God is love, love made manifest, as God takes human form.
God works in and through a young, innocent woman and grubby shepherds; God also works in and through us. God takes the weak and voiceless and places them right smack dab in the middle of the story of our salvation; God takes the despised of the world and raiss them up for God’s own good purpose. God doesn’t just break into the world, God transforms it, from a place of darkness and despair to a place of healing and hope. God doesn’t erase our blemishes, God uses them. The same God who created the world and everything in it, who loves the whole creation, who blesses and fills the earth, is the same God who overcomes death and the grave through the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ.  
          So tonight, let us sing our sweet Christmas carols. May our “Glorias” fill the air. May we gaze upon this crèche and know deep in our hearts the story it portrays is our story too. May we remember that as God lifted up the lowly and made their own songs glad with the wonders God wrought for them, God lifts us up through the gift in the manger, transforming us through God’s abundant love that makes everything new.
May you know the love made manifest in the Christ Child.  Let us sing, then, of God’s redeeming love until all know that “unto you is born this day the Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord!”
Blessed, Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Sign of a Child

Isaiah 7:10-16 ~ Advent IV ~ December 22, 2013
          “Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Where have we heard these words before? Ah! They were in both our First Lesson, from the Old Testament, and in the Gospel message, from the New Testament this morning. Written by Isaiah hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, they were then repeated by Matthew in his gospel.
As we look forward to the coming of Christmas in just a couple of days, we are ready to follow them all the way to Bethlehem, aren’t we? Yet these words had meaning in Isaiah’s time as well as Matthew’s. They have something to say to us today, too, as we await the coming of this child, Immanuel, “God is with us”, because God’s word is a living word which transcends time and place. It points us to signs God sends, even when we do not ask for them, because God’s love and salvation transend the history of mankind. They come to us when we least expect them, when we least deserve them, and when we most need them.
          The original message within these words applied to the events in Isaiah’s own time. Yet when Matthew was writing the words of his gospel, he saw how the events that transpired around the birth of Jesus also served as a fulfillment of prophecy of old, because that is how God works – persistently and freely providing signs of the love that surpass our greatest expectations.
          In the text from Isaiah this morning, Ahaz, the king of Judah, is in a quandary. As king he knows he must make decisions to protect the health and safety of his people but as a king anointed by God he knows he must follow the law God decreed which forbids the making of alliances with foreign powers. For God knows well the dangers for God’s people when foreign powers enter in, with their foreign ways and foreign gods.
          This story takes place during the Syro-Ephraimite War. The kings of Ephraim and Syria have formed a coalition; they want control of the region of Judah to support their rebellion and battle against Assyria. King Ahaz receives word that they plan to conquer Jerusalem and replace him with a puppet king, to do their bidding in their fight against Assyria. Fear seizes Ahaz and his people.
In the verses just before these, the LORD sent Isaiah to speak to Ahaz, and reassure him of the LORD’s favor, encourage his faith that God will deliver God’s people out of danger, and tell him to trust in God’s word - that Ephraim and Syria will flounder and fail. But God’s word of reassurance falls on deaf ears. Fear trumps faith.
Ahaz can’t wait, can’t believe, can’t trust. Instead, Ahaz hatches a plan of his own to enlist the assistance of the king of Assyria to help fight off the coalition forces. But this plan would be like making a pact with the devil. So the LORD continues to speak to Ahaz through Isaiah, and reassure him that God will keep God’s word and will save God’s people. And as God has done before, at Sinai and in Egypt, in the Wilderness and even at creation, God will send a sign. So Isaiah instructs Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  You name it. Ask of God a sign. Can you imagine it? What kind of sign might you ask of the LORD if you were invited to name a sign of God? God is inviting Ahaz to name whatever sign he needs to believe that God will continue to provide security and safety for these people – to reassure him that they will prevail and that these forces that are even now on their way to dismantle his kingdom will themselves fall.
On the surface, Ahaz’s reply might seem to be righteous – after all, we are not to put the LORD God to the test, right? Yet here God is imploring Ahaz, “tell me the sign that you require – let me show you a sign that my word is true.” And Ahaz’s response? Ahaz tells God, “NO!”
Ahaz refuses God’s invitation and then hides behind a show of righteousness. “I will not put the LORD to the test.” We have to ask, what’s going on here? If Ahaz, king of Judah cannot trust in the word of Adonai, the LORD God Almighty, what god does Ahaz believe in? What god does he trust?
Ahaz has a plan and maybe he doesn’t want to believe, because that would require him to change his course. And he doesn’t want to. Perhaps Ahaz has become like us, we who have given up looking for any sign beyond those we can make ourselves. Perhaps Ahaz is more able to trust the power he can see than to trust in the power of the one he cannot see. For Ahaz it seems easier to sell himself to Assyria than to wait for salvation from God.
“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” As I read these words, it makes me wonder: why does God persist? Why does God continue to pursue the recalcitrant people? But God does continue to love and reach out to the faithless ones. Isaiah then states, “Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign.”
God lays out a timeline of sorts. In the time it will take a young woman’s pregnancy to ripen and for the child to be born, and weaned, and begin to know right from wrong - those two kings – the ones who instill such fear in you that you would turn to your own devices rather than trust in the deliverance of the LORD your God – they will have fallen, they will be no more than smoldering stumps. It began with the sign of a child, and it came to pass that within three years, the kings of Ephraim and Syria indeed, had fallen.
Life is full of tensions. A king must seek the welfare of his people. We must look after our own welfare and that of our loved ones. A king must make political judgments that lead to health and life and security. We must look after our financial and future security, and the protection of our family and our property. The king has responsibility to learn and keep God’s law, as passed down from Deuteronomy. To be faithful, we must read the scriptures and study and learn the word of God. We’re not so very different from Ahaz, are we?
In the age of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, God promised the house of David an eternal dynasty as long as his descendants remained faithful to God’s covenant and teaching. In this age, inaugurated by the birth of a babe in Bethlehem, God gave to us a new covenant, through the promise of a child. This child, Jesus the Christ, would be God’s continued sign of love and faithfulness, because in Jesus, God is with us and will continue to be with us eternally. God is with us so that we might believe. God is with us so that we might live. God is with us, because sometimes, it is hard to believe, and God knows it and will accompany us as we face the tensions of each day.
The proclamation of the birth of Christ reveals the persistence of our God who knows how we struggle with faith and will give any sign, any grace, to help us believe and live. God gives even when we will not ask. Even when we decide that we can go it on our own, that we are far better at solving our own problems than we are at waiting for God to act, God gives us signs of God’s love and mercy. God gives even when we are afraid that the threats around us are too great to bear. God gives even when our fear trumps our faith. The sign of a child for us reveals God’s own vulnerability to the pain and distress of mortal life, and demonstrates God’s willingness to bear that suffering with us and for us.
The sign of a child who grew and lived among us, and lives with us still, a child born under surprising conditions, is a sign from God that we didn’t ask for. The child Jesus, born to a virgin, is a sign to us; the sign of Immanuel, God with us is the everlasting sign of God’s salvation for us; the sign of a child, God with us, is the sign of God’s power to save; Immanuel, God with us, brings new life so that we too might live eternally in the new covenant with God. The sign of a child, God with us, is a sign of security for every promise of God even when faith fails.
God’s signs take on many shapes. The sign of God with us may come in the form of a simple word of encouragement or a sudden revelation when things seem to be going horribly wrong in our lives. The sign of God with us may take the shape of assistance that comes when we least expect it and most need it. The sign of God with us may take the shape of a rainbow in the sky or new life bursting forth in the desert or a word of hope dropped into the maelstrom of our confusion and despair.
For the poor, the sign of God with us may come in the form of those who are inspired to lend a helping hand, or to provide a holiday meal, or to extend the love of Christ through the giving of gifts to perfect strangers to brighten their days. For the lonely, the sign of God with us might be something as simple as receiving a greeting card, a phone call, or a caring visit. Signs of God with us abound in our world, and sometimes, God’s sign is born out through the loving witness of people like you and me in our daily walk of faith.
In the cradle, we see the sign of a child, Immanuel, God’s word that comes to us as a living word that transcends time and place. In the cradle, we see the sign of a child, Immanuel, God’s living word that points us to faith, even when we do not ask, because God’s love and salvation persistently come to us when we least expect them, when we least deserve them, and when we most need them. Thanks be to God!


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Trickles to Gushes to Joy

Isaiah 35:1-10 ~ Advent III, December 15, 2013
I pray that your Advent journey this year has been blessed thus far, and that despite the busy-ness of the season you have found some time to sit a while and catch your breath, appreciating an oasis of calm amidst the frenetic activity of your days. I hope that you’ve found time away from all that shopping, decorating, cooking, or planning of menus and cleaning, interspersed among the normal everyday activities, work, schedules and appointments of our lives, which can make us all just a little bit crazy come mid-December. Throw in a snow day here or a nasty virus there, and this season of joy can quickly turn into one we just wish were over already.

I hope as you prepared to come to church this morning, that you felt a stirring of anticipation at what God’s Word would have to say to you today.

This Advent season, we have been looking at the Isaiah texts that this year’s lectionary cycle of readings has brought us. In the past couple of weeks, Isaiah has led us to imagine what transformed lives and a transformed world might look like, if peace and hope were to reign. We were invited into these texts to see what Isaiah saw in the visions God gave him of the creation that will one day be restored through divine love. And we were invited to imagine with him, what our transformed lives and world might look like, when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s creation is brought to its fullness as the glory of the Lord breaks upon us. And we were surprised to see that there are signs of God’s in-breaking transformation all around us already – signs of God-like love spun as a silky web in the most unlikely of places.

Today our turn to Isaiah’s texts continues, in this truly beautiful passage that we heard just a short while ago, when (our lector) read these words, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” Words like these just make me want to dance. The sense of joy that leaps off the page is just that vibrant. Isaiah is describing bursting-at-the-seams joy in this passage. He is describing not just a reversal, but a transformation that will come when God comes to reign, and with God’s coming the health and wholeness of the creation will be restored. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

This passage seems to flow naturally, following the texts that we have contemplated the past two weeks which lifted up peace and hope. But if you pick up your bible and read through Isaiah you’ll find that quite a lot has transpired between chapter 11, where we left off last week, and chapter 35, where we find ourselves this morning. And if you were to have read through those chapters, you will have found that in these words before us this morning, Isaiah speaks what Barbara Lundblad refers to as “a word out of place,” because they follow an indictment against the nations that have brought devastation to Israel and have taken her people off into exile and destroyed the temple and caused the people of God such despair and heartache and desolation. Now, in these verses, the text moves, without any real transition, from describing the judgment against Edom and the ecological disaster that follows, to these verses, where the wilderness and dry land are filled with gladness and rejoicing and rejuvenation.

Lundblad writes, “Isaiah speaks a word out of place. Amid chaos and destruction, against despair and apathy, Isaiah speaks a word of restoration. Against a deep, dark, soul-grating thirst, Isaiah describes water – not a trickle appearing in the midst of a lush forest, either, but water appearing as if a dam had burst, sending water gushing into a parched, dry, cracked, desolate landscape of our souls. Perhaps it was, at first, a trickle. Then a stream. Then a full-on gushing flood of life-changing water.”

I wonder if you can think of a time when you were really, truly thirsty. For most of us I imagine that we can conjure up a time when we really wanted a drink – maybe we had been sick, running a fever; maybe you found yourself on an outing and no one and thought to pack enough beverages to take along; maybe you went for an unexpected hike and realized too late that you hadn’t thought of that little necessity.  A few of us might have experienced serious thirst or been caught in situations a little more dangerous, without sufficient water.

I know that in times when I have been really truly thirsty, finding water became an obsession. Our physical need for water is so great and constant. Imagine that you were in the middle of the desert or in the wilderness and you had no access to clean water-it wouldn’t take long for thirst to overwhelm.

I read a book, Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand earlier this year. It’s is the true story of Louis Zamperini, a WWII bombardier whose plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1943. The three survivors of the crash spent weeks on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Thirst was indescribable and brutal and even the slightest, briefest relief of it brought unimaginable joy. Parched, at times delirious, the men longed for, ached for and even dreamed of refreshing life-giving water to replace the death-dealing water that surrounded them day after day.

Imagine being in that raft in the middle of the ocean or on your hike or in your sickbed in a state of real, dire thirst and suddenly, receiving that first trickle of relief – that first trickle of water. And then the water flows more freely and you go from sipping to slurping to gulping it down, great torrents of cool refreshment and relief from the agony of thirst. What does it feel like to go from suffering real thirst to sudden refreshment and relief of cool, fresh, flowing water?

When our kids were little, they loved getting a quarter from us to use in vending machines – like old fashioned bubblegum machines, but when you cranked the handle on these machines, a prize would fall out below. I don’t even know if they make them anymore, but I remember that one of the prizes that might be delivered would be a tiny compressed piece of material, so small that it fit into a vitamin-sized capsule.

You would put this capsule in water and instantly the plastic covering would melt away, and the piece of material inside would begin to swell. It would absorb more and more water until it would double and then triple and quadruple in size until it became I don’t know how many times the size of the original piece. It was often the shape of a dinosaur or some other animal. This little blob of – whatever – was totally transformed by the water into something the kids could then enjoy.
I think of God’s promised restoration and transformation in this way.

God’s coming transforms that which is dried and shriveled and shrunken in on itself in utter lifelessness, and suddenly it comes to life, it will swells and grows and takes on shape and form.

Isaiah provides assurance that God’s coming will result not in the people’s destruction but in their salvation and renewal, health and wholeness – in their swelling and taking on the shape and form of the creator. What’s more, like the parched and dry land, like the burning sand, the weakest and most vulnerable will be not only restored but utterly transformed; “eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”. They will go from being nearly invisible, shapeless, worthless scraps of material to being completely refreshed, rejuvenated, and transformed into the beautiful, ransomed people of God’s redeeming love.

God’s work among humanity is nothing short of radical, transformative, and restorative. When the LORD appears, strange and marvelous things happen, and like a word out of place, it instantly changes the world into which it h as come. The wilderness becomes a flourishing path with streams of water flowing abundantly. Dangerous highways become holy paths upon which the redeemed can walk with assurance. The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame not only walk but leap for joy. The exiles return home. And there is unbridled rejoicing from the ransomed people of God.
This word is good news today for all those who languish in exile in this in-between time of waiting and watching. It is good news for those who wait in cancer wards and prisons; good news for the homeless and the voiceless. God’s bubbling, streaming, flowing word is good news for those who truly thirst in our world, for those who hunger in ways that we cannot even fathom, for those who find themselves with feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts. God’s refreshing word is good news for the depressed, for those who long for love and acceptance, those who hear voices that set them apart, those who, in their isolation hear no voices at all; for those who suffer addictions that control and destroy their lives, and for anyone who feels disillusioned and disenfranchised.
When the fullness of God comes among us, all of us, all of creation, and all of humanity will be transformed. In the meantime, God is already at work, and God’s word out of place is a balm for those who hear this word and seek to follow God’s mission, faithful to God’s command to love, and to build faith along the Way of peace and joy and hope.
God’s word out of place comes in the form of the outpouring of generosity from individuals, churches and organizations who come together to provide Christmas joy for families who would otherwise “have no” Christmas. God’s word out of place comes when we give to organizations that help provide clean sustainable water supply for a village in Columbia or Central America. God’s word out of place comes from food drives and blood drives and strangers helping strangers in their hour of need.
As we continue our Advent journey, may we be blessed by the images that God sends all around us to guide our way, to speak a word out of place and to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord Jesus Christ on Christmas. May we find trickles of God’s life-giving water turning to streams, washing and refreshing the people of God, reminding us of the great cleansing and new birth of our baptism. And may we be reminded of the words of the prophet, “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” May such joy accompany you on your journey to Bethlehem.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Expect the Unexpected

Isaiah 11:1-10 ~ Advent II ~ December 8, 2013
 “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
The Lord sent to Isaiah a vision. And in this vision, what Isaiah saw was a stump - a dead, decaying stump, or perhaps a hardened, petrified stump, but either way, once a glorious tree, this stump has lain for years, hard, utterly dead, utterly lifeless – for a generation, in fact. Once, this stump formed the trunk and foundation for a huge, beautiful and strong tree. The tree was powerful. It provided shelter and food and pleasures for the people who rested under it, who lived under it, and depended on it. Under kings like David and Solomon this tree had thrived.

Once, the people for whom Isaiah writes, the people of Israel, were a proud, strong, vital people. They were people of promise. They were powerful, confident, and sheltered under the mighty arm of their king. That was a glorious time. But that was before. That was before the mighty tree faltered and was infected by disease that grew from within, disease that corrupted it and weakened it, leaving it vulnerable to assaults from without. And then it had been cut down; and now all that remains is this useless piece of wood – this old stump, and those glorious years and stories of grandeur are but rings upon its surface.

Isaiah writes of the stump, all that is left of Israel, the former envy of the nations, now lifeless. Its temple lies in ruin, the best and the brightest of its people exiled to Babylon where they languish, the rest in slavery from the occupying forces. Her people live in despair and darkness and hopelessness. But this is not the end of Isaiah’s image; Isaiah brings a new word, sent by God, that this is not the end of Israel’s story. Look!

The prophet describes a vision in which the unimaginable happens. Out of that lifeless stump sprouts the unexpected, unmistakable sign of new life - a green shoot appears. Out of the hopelessly bound roots, a branch springs forth and it grows. “How can it be?” we ask.
Can you see it? Can you see the green shoot coming from the stump where nothing could have been expected to come? Where nothing should have grown??

This shoot is small. It is surprising. And with the news of its advent, Isaiah gives us a new image, the image of a kingdom in which death and hopelessness and despair are transformed by hope, through the promise of a messiah who is powerful and steadfast, who will usher in a new reality for God’s creation.

Here is another image, like the first. It is the photo of a hard, impenetrable, cold rock face. From the angle of the picture, it looks like it might be the side of a mountain or cliff, surely an inhospitable place. Surely, this rock, wherever it is, is not a place for life of any kind to take root and grow. And yet look at what has not only sprung forth, but has even thrived, obviously existing and growing for many seasons out of ­­­that rock, because it is more than just a sapling. Surely, the first shoot, then the branch, and now that tree should not have been able to grow there.

I’m sure there are scientific explanations for how it might be that something like a tree can possibly grow in this place where it should not, or a shoot spring forth from a long-dead stump. But it doesn’t matter. It is still a miraculous thing that has happened. What Isaiah saw and the reality he names is that while you would never expect such a thing to happen, it indeed does happen. Isaiah receives this vision from God and he tells those people who have been living and dying and waiting in exile for oh so long, “God has spoken” - expect the unexpected; expect new life to spring up where you never would have thought that could happen.

It seems to me that these are words that mean something to us today as well, we who are still waiting for peace, who are still waiting for relief from sorrow and pain and warfare, we who are still waiting for the glory of the Lord to appear - “expect the unexpected” – for new life will come for you as well. And suddenly, there is reason to hope, because if we take a look around us, we find sign-posts of God doing the unexpected, the surprising, the inexplicable.

We all probably have stories that we could relate here. I wonder where have you seen new life springing from unexpected seemingly impossible places?

I saw it this week in the story of Harrison Odjegba Okene, where new life came at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Okene was a cook on a tugboat serving the Nigerian oil-fields when suddenly, without warning, the tugboat flipped over, trapping Okene in a small air pocket of the submerged vessel in 100 feet of water. The other 11 seamen aboard the boat died, and indeed it was believed that all had perished. So it was that three days later divers were recovering the bodies of the seamen, when suddenly, as one of those divers grabbed the hand of one of the victims, the hand grabbed him back! Okene had been waiting for three long days, hoping and praying for a miracle, expecting and waiting for death. He never really expected to be rescued and the divers certainly never expected to find anyone alive. How could anyone survive in that frigid, unforgiving water, trapped in that watery tomb, 100 feet under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, quickly running out of oxygen? And yet, it happened.
This week the world observed the passing of Nelson Mandela, a man who believed in this vision of a peaceable kingdom, even in his homeland, which bore the inhospitable stump of racism, poverty and inequality under the policies of apartheid. During 27 long, desert years of imprisonment, Mandela clung to the shoot of hope for a better future for his country. And after he was freed he worked tirelessly to bring about positive change in his country, and he taught the world something about giving peace a chance.
It has long been understood that people cannot live without hope. Words and visions of hope held the people of Israel up through the long, long years of captivity and slavery. Today, now, in this season of Advent, these words from Isaiah urge us not only to expect the unexpected, but they serve as an invitation for us to hope, as well.
The seed of hope that sprouted from the stump began as something small. It was hidden within the stump where it germinated and grew until it burst forth out of that dead stump. It was surprising to see it coming forth from a place seemingly devoid of life. It began as something fragile, but it was tenacious and stubborn and it grew and as it grew it got stronger and stronger.
That is how God’s Advent word comes to us in this text today. It reminds us that our God is a hope-inducing God who has promised great things for us, because God delights in taking that which is broken and lifeless and breathing new life into it. This same God delights also in surprising us.
These words reveal the good news of a future where eternal life-giving things, like love, and peace, and justice, and reconciliation, and healing, and joy will be a reality for all of us, breaking through the hardness of our disbelief where faith sits, germinating within our hearts. We need this word of hope, we need to see what Isaiah saw in these seemingly impossible pairings – the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, all at peace with one another and led by a little child.
There are times when an accident or diagnosis turns our world upside down and leaves us gasping for air. When hope seems cut off. Relationships falter and fail. There may be times when work concerns or family concerns overwhelm us. There may be times when we yearn for the age a long time ago when the tree flourished, and we despair of ever realizing the promise of Isaiah for the coming of the peaceable kingdom, where these beautiful words express more than images on a page but instead describe the reality of peace, equity, justice, harmony, and mercy.
Isaiah’s image of the stump and our image of the rock invite us to embrace the hope of Advent. God sent Isaiah a vision, with images that brought hope and comfort to a people in exile. God sent to us a savior, through whose life, death and resurrection God defeated death once and for all and through whom we receive grace upon grace upon grace, ensuring our hope is not in vain. Hope inspired Mary and Joseph to believe that God’s plan included them in a way that was unexpected, unimaginable, and demanded trust and faith that in God what was seemingly impossible would come to pass.
By the power of the spirit, hope grows in the hearts of people who are told that they can never be “good enough”; or that no one could survive three days in a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean; or that a life sentence in prison is sure to silence one who imagines a better world and speaks out against the powers of oppression and injustice.
Hope grows in every circumstance where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief and makes room for a future where expecting the unexpected is the norm, where God will prevail in all the earth, and where God’s vision of peace and harmony in all creation is a reality.  
Let us pray. God grant us the vision to see your spirit at work all around us, granting us hope, strengthening our faith, and causing new life to spring forth in the most unexpected of places, especially the dead places all around. Open our eyes, soften our hearts, and instill in us the knowledge of the Lord that brings peace, harmony, justice and mercy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Can You See them Now?

Isaiah 2:1-5 ~ Advent I, December 1, 2013
Blessed Advent to you all, my friends.                  
With the singing of these beautiful hymns, reflecting themes of hopeful watching and waiting, the lighting of the first candle on our Advent wreath just a few moments ago, and the changes within our sanctuary, we truly know that the season of Advent has begun.
The blue paraments that now adorn our pulpit, and lectern and the beautiful new banners, gifts from another congregation, and the quilt depicting the coming of the angel to Mary all provide visual cues that alert us to the fact that we have entered this holy season. But not all is happy and holy, is it? Did you hear the Old Testament reading?
During Advent this year, all the Old Testament texts are pregnant with hope and expectation, and come from the prophet whose writings are often used to prepare for the coming of Christmas. But it’s not an easy pregnancy. These texts are chosen for the poetic way that this prophet spoke about the house of God that would one day come, bringing with it deliverance for the people of God. They are used for the ways they invite us into imagining a future where fully God reigns, where the world is transformed, where suffering is stripped away, where unity and peace will be more than a dream but instead are a reality. Where all peoples are part of the peaceable kingdom.
Because these readings from Isaiah contain some of the most vivid imagery we have, I thought that for these four weeks of Advent, I would preach a sermon series, “The Things Isaiah Saw.” Together, let’s discover the link between these precious texts written by the prophet centuries before the coming of Christ, and our lives today.
What do we know about the prophets, like Isaiah? We know that they were not popular in their own time. We also know that prophets rose up during times of great distress and tribulation and lament. They all have one particular thing in common. Their central message went something like this: things are bad, they are really bad, and they are going to get worse (hence the unpopularity business). But, they continue, take heart. Repent! Because something is coming that will astound you; God has heard your pleas, and be assured, there will be a grand reversal, the likes of which you cannot even imagine. God will bring this about, and although there will be judgment, there will also be great vindication for God’s faithful ones, and what will follow is going to knock your socks off. There will be salvation in a kingdom that is beyond anything you can imagine. So, wait for it. Look for it. Prepare for it.
Just before the text we have before us this morning, in the first chapter of the book, Isaiah has just described the reality of what he observed around him. And it was bad. It was really, really bad. What did Isaiah see? He saw violence and devastation, destroyed cities; he saw officials selling their constituents out and taking bribes; he saw the people living unfaithfully; Isaiah saw treachery and he saw people trampling on the poor and vulnerable. He saw wickedness, children corrupted by the evil all around them. He witnessed rebels and sinners intent on destroying what God had built up. Yet he declares that “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” (1:27)
Then comes today’s reading and Isaiah moves to a different vision – one that comes out of the future. He describes a glorious vision of what he saw coming for Judah and Jerusalem. And what were the things Isaiah saw? He saw God’s house established as the highest of mountains – a position of dominance and authority; and he saw all peoples, all nations streaming to it (even enemy nations, no longer at war). God will judge between them, and they shall war no more.
God shall teach all these people the ways of the LORD, Isaiah prophesizes. They will learn from the great teacher and judge how to live in God’s ways, so that they could “walk in his paths” – that is, so that they could be transformed into righteous ones, doing godlike work for the future glorious kingdom of God. And “they shall beat swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Killing fields will be transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty. Can you see it?
What an image! Can you see the hammer of the blacksmith or the metal worker or a soldier or a king coming down on the sword and spear, pounding again and again, beating the tool of warfare into an implements used to plow the field and harvest good food?
If I could have found one and managed to get it in here this morning, I would have set an old plow up, right in front of the altar, right in front of the table of the Lord. Because I think the visual might help us to see and imagine what this text is saying to us today. And we need to see and hear what this word of God is saying for us today.
Instead, you’ll find an image of a plow like the one Isaiah spoke of right there on the front of your bulletin. Imagine this farming implement, this tool for planting the life-giving grain and vegetables and fruit that are so necessary for life and for strong bodies, and imagine that it was once a weapon of war, once used for cutting off life. Imagine it has been transformed. I wonder, where have you seen killing fields transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty?
In contemplating this question, Barbara Lundblad, a Lutheran pastor, author and teacher, relates this image: Can you see Christian and Muslim women all dressed in white? In 2003, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, organized by social worker Leymah Gbowee, started praying and singing for peace in the fish markets of their towns and cities, places that were for years torn apart by a horrible, tragic, devastating civil war. They organized nonviolent protests. And at one point, they lay down on the ground, side by side, on their bellies near the main highway in Monrovia, Liberia, where everyone could see them. It was a huge embarrassment to Liberian President Charles Taylor. They protested until he finally agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana. When those talks faltered, the women came to Ghana. Can you see them? They linked arms around the government building until the talks started up again. The tragic civil war in Liberia finally came to an end. Things aren’t perfect in Liberia, but they are not at war any more. Can you see the women dancing in the streets?
Can you see the young black woman holding on to her seat on the bus? Today is the anniversary of the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, an action that spurred a boycott. Things didn’t turn around right away, but Rosa Parks became an icon for social change and the end of segregation and beginning of a new reality for civil rights in this country. Can you see her later working with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. bringing a new kind of freedom for many Americans? Things aren’t perfect yet. Racial tensions still exist and devastate communities. But laws were changed, lives and visions for a future were transformed, and the doors of opportunity were opened through the peaceful protest of Parks and so many others like her.
“They shall beat swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Killing fields will be transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty. Can you see it?
This summer, several churches in Talbot County, Grace among them, participated in the Migrant Worker Ministries, providing basic provisions for migrant workers in the area. Because of the outpouring of generosity of members of Grace, one Monday in August, two cars pulled right up alongside the church, right here on Hanson Street, where they were filled to the brim with necessary supplies and clothing and other items which were then delivered to the residents of three different migrant worker camps just up the road. Many of the residents there are alien workers. Many are working here to provide for families in countries devastated by poverty and drug wars.
There I literally witnessed tears of joy from men who live and work in harsh conditions, far from home, toiling in poverty for meager wages and no benefits. “They shall beat swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword again nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Killing fields of poverty transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty through the generosity of strangers. Can you see it?
In the text, Isaiah admonishes the people to come and to learn God’s way. It is more than an invitation, it is a summons to walk in the Lord’s light and glory, to follow God’s instruction, to eventually cross the bridge of truth and justice for all people, and arrive at a place of peace. Isaiah tells us that people will be transformed by this teaching. It won’t be easy; it will take courage and obedience and justice – and patience! But this text offers affirmation that history will one day reach its goal – and the full reign of God will come. And God’s kingdom requires radical transformation of existing conditions.
At the beginning of the journey there is yearning, but take heart; expect the unexpected, where tanks for warring are transformed into tractors; where minefields designed for destruction are transformed into soccer fields; where stories of a future, where hope burns for justice, and peace and plenty will be appreciated by all peoples.
As we prepare this Advent for the coming of Christ, may we find in this living Word of God a word that speaks to us today, calling us to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and urging us to transform killing fields into life-giving fields of peace and plenty, through repentance, through courageous love and action, and through hope-filled expectation at the coming of Emmanuel, the final judge and ransom of the world. Amen.