Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Let It Go, Sermon for Christmas Eve 2020


Christmas Eve 2019, SMHP
First Reading:  Isaiah 9:2-3a
2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David
and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Gospel Reading:            (Please stand as you are able)            Luke 2:1-14
          In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
          6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
               8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
          10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.”

          There is no other night like this one.  No other night with as much meaning, as much tradition, as much superstition. 
          In Finland, they leave out a sheaf of wheat for the birds to eat, then wait inside for the visit of the Christmas Goat.
          In Norway—land of Anna and Elsa and Olaf the Snowman, they light a candle each night from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.  They also hide their brooms, due to an ancient superstition that spirits come looking for brooms to ride on Christmas Eve.
          In Brazil, they leave socks by the window.  If Papai Noel finds them, he exchanges them for a present.  In Estonia, they follow the same tradition, but put the socks out on the first day of Advent, then settle in for a long wait. 
          In Poland, no one can eat or open presents until the first star shines in the night sky.
          In Sweden, they start Christmas Eve with a noontime Julbord filled with cold fish, meatballs, sausages, potatoes, and red cabbage, along with other delicacies like pickled pigs’ feet and lutefisk. Sounded good until then, didn’t it?
          Then on Christmas Eve afternoon, Swedes settle down in the living room…to watch Donald Duck.  At 3 pm every Christmas Eve since 1959, one of the Swedish national stations has broadcast "Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul,” Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.”  An estimated 40-50% of the country stops to watch.
          You probably have your own Christmas Eve traditions.  Family traditions, new traditions, old ones, silly ones, important ones like going to church on Christmas Eve.  And you probably remember what this night was like when you were putting out your socks and waiting for Papa Noel, or Santa…or the Christmas Goat (!).
          There is nothing like being a child on Christmas Eve.  The joy, the innocence, the hope!
          It’s great being an adult on Christmas Eve too…right?  But while we adults enjoy Christmas Eve, we often enjoy it in the midst of things still undone, worries about whether we’ve bought the right presents and all the right food, whether the house looks okay…or we’re dressed okay…
          When I was a kid, I thought it would be so cool to be a grownup and be able to do anything I wanted.  To buy whatever I wanted and be in charge of stuff.
          Anybody else think it was going to be cool to be in charge of stuff?  To buy whatever you want, whenever you want?  Yeah, it doesn’t quite work out that way, does it?
          Adulting isn’t all it seems, is it?  Sometimes being in charge, having all that autonomy and some authority, it’s just kind of exhausting.  Anybody else feel that way?
          Well good news for you!  This night is all about you.  There is, on this night, heaps and heaps of good news for you!
          Tonight we stand on a hillside with people who had very little power, and not much authority.
          But God chose them, as God has chosen us, to hear the most amazing story ever.  “Good news of great joy for all people.”
          Unto us has been born this day in the City a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
          “A child has been born, for us,” Isaiah declares.  “A son has been given to us.”
          “And”…listen carefully, because this is the really important part.  “Authority rests on his shoulders.”
          He may look innocent and helpless, lying in that feeding trough…but no he has power none of you can imagine.  And because of him, you don’t need to imagine it.  You don’t need to possess it.
          The best news of this night is that we don’t have to be in charge.  We can let go.  Try it.  Just clear your mind of anything lurking there and stressing you out.  Here it again:
          “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
          Here’s a new tradition we can all try out tonight, and maybe every year at this time.  Let’s just spend a few minutes realizing that the one called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace has all the authority any of us will ever need resting on his shoulders. 
          And that is a big weight off of our shoulders.  Walk with the child born this night, and you needn’t worry about your own authority.  His is sufficient.  Lay all of your cares on him.  He can carry them.

         

Be Not Afraid, Year A, Fourth Sunday of Advent


Year A, Advent IV, Dec. 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:1-4, 7-17
          In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. 2When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. 
          3Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, 4and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.
          7Therefore thus says the Lord God:  It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.8 For the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.) 9The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.  If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
               10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
          12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.
          13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
                
Matthew 1:18-25
            18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

          How many have seen my house?
          If you have, you know it sits up on a hill.  [Slide]  There are two sets of stairs to climb: from the street to the yard and the yard to the front porch.
          So last Monday, when we were home with Dominic enjoying a Snow Day, we were all out in the yard…trying—unsuccessfully—to build a snowman.  And Colleen, my lovely wife, looks down at the very steep hill and says, “I think he could ride his sled down the hill.”
          I don’t remember what I said, but it was basically some version of “Have you lost your mind?!”
          This is a dynamic which plays out occasionally in our life together as, now, a family of three.  She suggests something…and I point out that it is dangerous and crazy. 
          Exhibit B:  Colleen likes fireworks.  The kind you buy in a box and shoot off illegally in the vacant lot across the street.  I think incendiary devices belong in the hands of professionals. 
          For someone who takes some risks in public life, I am kind of a chicken in other parts of life, especially when it comes to Dominic.
          I like to think I am keeping our son safe from things like, you know, smashing into the cars parked at the curb on a sled.  [Slide]
         
          But the truth is that it is good that he has both of us.  Because while some fears keep us safe, living in fear is actually dangerous.  When we are operating out of fear, of, just to pick an example, immigrants…people of color…gay people…reading…
          …we make poor decisions.
          The examples from history are manifold.  As big as the Holocaust and as small as New Coke.  (Look it up.)
          As people of faith, we need look no further than our Bibles, which are full of exhortations to “Fear not!”  It is a phrase first spoken to Abram, even before God renames him and makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their children.
          [Slides] Genesis 15:  Fear not, Abram.  I am your shield; your reward will be great.”
          Exodus 14:  "And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD.’”
          First Kings 17:  “And Eli'jah said to the widow, ‘Fear not; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make for yourself and your son.’”  If you know that story, you know that the widow was preparing a last meal for herself and her son and she then expected them to starve to death.  Elijah asks her to have faith in God and in him, and God provides food for them all until the famine is over.
          “Fear not” is usually a marker for divine intervention in human lives.  An angel, a midwife, a prophet—someone with knowledge of God’s power—declares to a person or a people that when they set their aside their fear and trust in God…peace and goodwill will follow.
          Some form of the exhortation “fear not” occurs over two dozen times in the book of Isaiah, including in the expanded lesson before us this morning.  I added some verses to the lectionary text, because the lesson actually doesn’t make as much sense if you start at verse 10, as the lectionary suggests.
          In the complete form of the lesson before us, God summons the prophet, Isaiah, to go and collect King Ahaz of Judah, the antihero for all of our lessons this Advent, and speak a word of prophecy to him.
          “Say to that Ahaz guy,” God demands, “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands.”
          [Slide]  Quick review: the “smoldering stumps of firebrands” are the kings of Israel and Aram, who are gearing up to attack Ahaz’s kingdom, Judah.  The two of them together make a formidable opponent, so despite God’s reassurances that Judah will be protected, Ahaz is considering ill-advised alliances with nations like Egypt.  Those alliances will weaken, rather than strengthen, Judah, and leave it vulnerable to the Babylonian Empire which is, at this point, just a whisper in the wind.
          So the prophet goes to Ahaz and says what messengers from God say:
          Be Not Afraid. 
          If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”
          See, because fear—not doubt…this is important:  Fear is the opposite of faith.  We can be faithful, or we can be fearful.  It’s almost impossible to be both.  When I refuse to let my wife take our child down the hill in front of our house on a sled, I am displaying clear lack of faith in her judgment of hill angles and stopping distances.
          Now I have a lot of faith in her generally, so this is not a huge barrier in our relationship.
          The conversation Ahaz and Isaiah are having is a bit different.  Because the fear Ahaz is showing has leaked all over his relationship with God.
          Maybe you’ve been there.
          Ahaz is so fearful about the future that he has ceased to trust God at all.  Isaiah offers him the opportunity to trust in God, to ask God for a sign—anything.  And Ahaz declines. 
          If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
          Ahaz is firm in fear, and weak in faith, and that is a problem for him…and an even bigger problem for Judah.  Leaders whose primary motivator is fear are dangerous creatures.
          Because fear strips us of reason.
          Fear strips us of logic.
          Fear strips us of love.
          And that is where I want to finish up, as we consider prophecy about miraculous women and babies, which is what’s at the bottom of this particular exegetical sledding hill.
          This is, after all, the week of love. [Slide]
          Ahaz declines the sign which Isaiah offers, but the prophet gives it to him anyway.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.”
          Scholars have long debated what this particular prophecy means, with not a lot of clarity.  But Matthew inserted it into his telling of the nativity of Jesus, so it is forever connected to that miraculous birth for us.
          And that miraculous birth is all about…love.
          This miraculous week is all about…love.
          In the midst of all of the political intrigue, the interfering foreign powers, the neighbors who used to be our friends but now seem threatening…
          …in the midst of it all is this story, this sign.  “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” 
          And the second time the prophecy is offered, when an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him that his betrothed is to bear a miraculous child, and imploring him to “be not afraid,” … this second story has a different ending, doesn’t it?
          Because Joseph is a righteous man, and when presented with a choice between love and fear, he chooses…
          Love.
          And as this story of miraculous birth, of God’s inbreaking into the world, as this Immanuel Tale comes to us anew again this year, in a world that looks a little too much like Ahaz’s Judah, we too have a choice:  fear or love?
          Will we go careening down the hill toward all of that innocence and light without a care?  Will we pick up that child and carry him within us everywhere we go, living his way, forgiving his way, loving his way?
          Can we carry hope, peace, joy, and love past Advent, into Christmas, and into the new year?
          Of course we can.  We are not afraid, are we?  God is with us.
         

Saturday, December 21, 2019

God's Got This--Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 15, 2019


Year C, Advent 3, Dec. 15, 2019, SMHP
Isaiah 35:1-10
          The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
               5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
         
Response       (You are invited to read the text in bold.)                       Luke 1:46-55
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
45who has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
50God’s mercy is for those who fear the Lord, from generation to generation.
51God has shown strength of arm, and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54God has helped the servant Israel, in remembrance of the Lord’s mercy, 55according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever.”

          Gaudete Sunday!  The Sunday of Joy!
          The name of this Sunday—the only Sunday of Advent which has its own name—comes, as these things often do, from the first word of the Introit, or Entrance chant, in mostly Catholic churches. 
          [SLIDE]  That first line comes from the Latin version of Philippians 4:  Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
          As we have talked about other weeks, each Sunday in Advent has a theme.  This is week three, the week of Gaudete!  Rejoice!  Joy!
          And there is lots to be joyful about, right?
          I bet you can all think of at least one joyful thing in your life right now.
          Slight pause
          [SLIDE]  But as I went through this week thinking about what to say about Gaudete Sunday, it occurred to me that there is also a bit of irony in this Sunday, placed where it is, at the point of the year right before the solstice—the longest night of the year, when the trees have gone bare.  This is the view from my front yard.
          We’re not quite in the bleak midwinter, but the landscape is not what I’d call joyful.  And you can hunker down inside, but you might want to avoid the television or the radio, or you will be treated to this [2 SLIDES] depressing spectacle.
          Or this one.  [2 SLIDES]
          There are some pretty NON-joyful things happening out there in the world, am I right?  Some downright depressing things.
          Yeah, I chose Isaiah for a reason. 
          We are spending our Advent with Isaiah, and not just because I’m not a fan of preaching the apocalypse when it feels like we’re living through its advent.
          Isaiah is written for us.  Or for people like us.  For people living in a time and place that feels like it isn’t theirs. 
          Specifically, Isaiah is written for a people who have watched their neighbors give themselves over to a foreign entity, in this case Assyria.  Their leader just basically handed the keys to Tigleth-pileser, the Assyrian king.  Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
          The people of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, held out for a while.  They maintained their independence until the next century, when the kingdom of Babylon, under the evil Nebuchadnezzar, became too much for them to handle. 
          Isaiah is writing to a people who are beginning to understand the inevitability of what is before them.  That things in their country are broken, and it may be a while before it gets back to normal. 
          And Isaiah does that by reminding them of something that bears repeating:  God’s got this.
          It bears repeating, so let’s repeat it:  God’s got this.  God’s got this.
          The word we hear from Isaiah this Advent is a word of hope for a people facing exile.  God can make the desert bloom.  God can make food and water appear in the wilderness.  God is faithful, even when we are not.
          And God is just.  Listen to the word of justice in today’s lesson, the word God gives to Isaiah:  Say to those who are of a fearful heart,” God declares.  “’Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.’”
          God will come and save you.  With vengeance, if necessary, and if you are uncomfortable with that image, join the club.  But we have spent enough time with the Magnificat to understand that God’s justice is real, and strong.  And right now, quite honestly, I take comfort in knowing that our God has both “mercy” and “strength of arm.”  God’s promise is concrete—it is a word for people living under the constant threat of empire.
          It is a promise, that our God can make the desert bloom, and tear a dictator off of the throne.
          God’s got this.  God comes to bring peace, but know that God’s peace comes with justice!  As Dr. King reminds us, true peace is the presence of justice.
          And there are reminders all around us that God is here, God is present.
          Even in the bleak midwinter, life abounds.  The promise comes near.
          [Slide]  This is also my front yard.  We built a tiny raised garden from a kit Colleen bought at Aldi’s.  Got a few plants into it.  Basil, rosemary, tomatoes, parsley.
          When we had the first freeze of the year, I took out everything but the rosemary, because rosemary is pretty hardy.
          [Slide]  And you can see that the rosemary had the last word.  Dead as a doornail, as they say.
          [Slide]  But last week I noticed this.  Flat leaf parsley, poking up through the dead leaves, sending up new shoots from the roots I left behind.
          God’s power is on exhibit, all around us.
          God’s power is on exhibit here inside us.  God’s power shone through Isaiah, the prophet to exiles and to their children, who returned to Jerusalem and made it truly great.
          God’s power shone through a young woman, who heard the news that she would carry the child of God, who knew that the news came with shame and difficulty and trouble…and who said, “the Mighty One has done great things in me, and holy is God’s name.”
          The name of God has knit people together since God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah.  Through bondage, exile, and empire, people have lifted up the name of God and allowed God’s presence—God’s holy, incarnate presence—to flow through them.
          We have a new name on the prayer list.  Anita Williams is the mother of Richard Williams, Valorie and Rick’s son-in-law.  She had a heart attack on Thursday night, and Valorie let me know on Friday.
          Yesterday morning, I sent Richard, who mostly goes by “Rick,” a text, just letting him know I was praying for his mom and his family. 
          Apparently the number I have for him is old.  Yesterday afternoon, I got this response:
Hi Donna,
Sorry this made it to the wrong number.
Adding Rick, his Mom and family to my prayer chain now.
God works in mysterious ways, doesn't he?
Peace and Love to you this holiday season

[Name withheld]
Smithville, MO

          God’s got this, my friends.  Because incarnation is real, and God is working in us…even in those of us who haven’t me yet. 
          And that should bring us all joy.

Amen
HOD #251:  My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness

We Wage Peace--Second Sunday of Advent, Dec. 8, 2019


Year A, Advent II, Dec. 8, 2019, SMHP
Isaiah 11:1-10
          A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
               10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

          [Slide—one at a time] Leopards, bears, lions, cheetahs, crocodiles, cobras, asps, and other vipers.  This is just a sampling of the predatory fauna of the Holy Land.  [Slide, Slide] Because of where Israel sits, on a bridge of land between Eurasia and Africa, along the Mediterranean Sea…and because of the variety of climate zones within the country and nearby…The Holy Land is home to an incredibly diverse array of plants, animals, and poisonous spiders. 
          So there are no shortage of images for a prophet to call upon to inspire a sense of dread and danger, as should be obvious from our lesson today. As all of these lessons in Advent will do, here we see Isaiah creating a portrait of the future Messiah with images drawn from the hopes and dreams—and fears—of his kindred.
          Hopes first:  when the Messiah comes, the prophet declares, he will carry the bloodline of king David and be imbued with the Spirit of the Lord:  “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
          If that language sounded familiar to you it’s because you heard it emanating from over there at the font when we baptized Sam and Dominic and Jean Marie and CeCe.  You may remember those words being pronounced over you some time long ago, or not so long ago.
          In the baptismal liturgy, we’re reminded that the attributes of the Messiah aren’t just spiritual gifts that fell on Jesus and ascended to heaven with him:  they are spiritual gifts which confer to us upon our baptisms.
          When we were baptized, the Spirit of the Lord came upon us too, and we became children of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy in the presence of the Lord.  We have all of those gifts because of all of that water combined with love from the community and from our adoption as children of God.
          And it’s a good thing, too, because as Isaiah reminds us…there is so much scary stuff out there.  In Isaiah’s day, a simple walk down the road could mean an encounter with a lion, a leopard, a bear—oh my! 
          For us, the dangers might be more subtle.  Or just as immediate.  Regardless, we all want a reminder that we are safe, don’t we?
         
          So when Isaiah wanted to paint a picture of the glorious kingdom which would be ushered in by the shoot of Jesse, the branch of King David’s tree—God’s Messiah—Isaiah drew a world in which even little children were safe from the vipers and the asps hiding under every rock.  In which lambs and wolves set up housekeeping together, lions and bears were no threat to the cattle, and, most importantly, the ruler over everything was righteous and just.
          Isaiah was speaking to a people who had been living under the rule of the foolish King Ahaz, [Slide—rare black and white photo of Ahaz]  who became a vassal of the Assyrian Empire—remember them from last week. The book of Second Kings records that Ahaz “did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done,” instead pleading for help from the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser, and sending gold and precious artifacts from the temple in Jerusalem to the King in Damascus. 
          Ahaz even went to Damascus to swear allegiance to Tiglath-Pileser, falling down before the gods of Assyria.  According to Second Kings, Ahaz “even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations.”  Ahaz had an altar built in the temple to match the one he had seen in Damascus, and moved the altar of the Lord out of the center of the temple.  He then commanded that the priests make offerings to Moloch and the other gods of Assyria daily.
          So it was not a great time for Isaiah’s people—facing dangers all around them, and being betrayed by their own leaders. 
          In times of poor leadership, we must remember God’s promise.  We must lean in to a word of hope and peace.  [Slide]  Peace is our theme for the second week of Advent, but like hope, the theme for the first week, the Word of peace casts its light over every week of Advent, as we are reminded that the Messiah brings a world in which people, and beasts, live and prosper together without animosity.
          Bad kings come, and bad kings go.  Jesus is forever.  And because Jesus is forever, and because we have been washed in the waters of baptism and received the same promise Isaiah laid on his people before the birth of the Messiah—we are people of peace.  When the world around us feels threatening and unsafe, we wage peace.
          We wage peace!  Because we are an Advent people—a people comfortable in good old Lutheran paradox—and we know the Messiah has come…and is yet to come.  And in the time between, the time in which we live, the fearful time of uneven leadership, we must actively seek out peace.
          Peace is not passive.  It’s not the absence of war and conflict.  Dr. King said it well, borrowing most of his quote from Jane Addams:  “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
          True peace comes when we remember that we are led by a little child, sent by God, born in Bethlehem.  Because we are led by him, we are actively at work in the world waging peace.  Calling justice into being.
          A woman was stuck in the airport, having just been told that her flight was delayed four hours.  She was making her way through security when a voice came over the loudspeaker:  “if anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 speaks Arabic, please come to the gate now.”
          She looked at her boarding pass and realized that A-4 was her gate.  When she got there, moments later, she saw an older woman sitting on the floor, crying uncontrollably.  She told the agents she spoke some Arabic, and she sat down on the floor with the woman.  She discovered that the woman thought their flight was cancelled, and she was on the way to El Paso for an important medical procedure.  She explained that they were just delayed, and the woman calmed down.  They called the woman’s son, who calmed her even further.
          Then the younger woman called her father, who spoke to the older woman in Arabic for a while. It turned out they knew some of the same people. Then, just for the heck of it, she called some poets she knew in Palestine.  They spoke on the phone for a while longer.  Then the woman pulled out some mamool cookies—crumbly cookies stuffed with dates and nuts and covered in powdered sugar.  She offered them to the women at the gate, and every one accepted a cookie with thanks.  The airline brought drinks, and two little girls waiting for the flight passed them out.
          The afternoon passed quickly, and no one who was there will ever forget it.
          Peace doesn’t just happen.  We make it happen.  We act justly, with “wisdom and understanding, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.”  We sit on the floor and eat the cookies and recognize the humanity in one another.
          And perhaps you are thinking now, “Well sure, but I don’t speak Arabic, so I couldn’t be the hero of that story.” 
          But only one person in that airport spoke English, and there are a lot of heroes in the story.
          I am telling you this morning that you will have an opportunity in the next few days to be a peacemaker, a bringer of justice.  I don’t know what the moment will look like—but you will know when it appears.  And then you will decide.  Will I act in fear, or will I wage peace?  Will I welcome, bless, affirm another person, and thus introduce a word of justice.
          I believe you will.  Because I know that you are children of “wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy in the presence of the Lord.”  And we are people of hope and peace.  It’s not just a name.
Amen 
         


Finding Our Hope--First Sunday of Advent, Dec. 1, 2019


Year C, Advent 1, Dec. 1, 2019, SMHP
Sermon Reading                                                                                      Isaiah 2:1-5
          The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
          2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us the ways of the Lord, and we may walk in God’s paths.”
          For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4The Lord shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
         
Response       (You are invited to read the text in bold.)                           Psalm 122
1I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
8For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

          Advent is the greatest season of the church year, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.  Just kidding—I’m a pacifist. 
          But it is.  In Advent, we consider the whole world, the arc of human history, the strange specter of the “end times.”
          And most importantly, the promise of God. 
          [Slide] Each of the four weeks of Advent comes with its own theme: 
·       Hope
·       Peace
·       Joy
·       Love
          Advent is an opportunity, to relax into the more contemplative winter season and tend to our spiritual lives, in anticipation of the first of the two great festivals of the year:  The Feast of the Nativity…Christ Mass.
          We will be spending our Advent with the prophet Isaiah.  The lectionary offers us wonderful texts from Isaiah for each of the four Sundays in Advent, so I want to spend just a moment this morning setting the stage for our time with this amazing prophet.
          The book of Isaiah is the third longest of the prophetic books, but the most important to us as Christians, because of its focus on God’s promise and the coming of the Messiah.  You will see in the coming weeks that Isaiah paints a vivid picture of the future savior whom God will send to ransom a people gone astray.
          The context of the whole book is a bit tricky.  Scholars now (mostly) agree that this book is likely the work of more than one writer, writing in more than one time period.  Whether there are two or three distinct time periods is now a matter of debate, but this much is pretty settled:  the first 39 chapters of the book are written by the prophet Isaiah, who introduces himself in the first chapter and begins to outline his vision in Chapter Two, beginning with our lesson for this morning.
          [Slide] All of our lessons this Advent will come from that book, which was compiled during the long service of a prophet appointed to serve the kings of the southern kingdom of Judah.  Isaiah served from the second half of the eight century BCE until approximately a quarter of the way through the seventh.
          It was a time of division and upheaval.  [Slide] Israel, had been united under the first of the great kings, Saul, then David, then Solomon.  But things kind of fell apart after that.  Under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the kingdom was divided.  The Northern Kingdom retained the name, Israel, while the Southern Kingdom became known as Judah.
          Isaiah was a prophet in Judah, which was more stable during that time, the time of the first great conquest.  [Slide] The Empire of Assyria was in the process of conquering the Northern Kingdom, a conquest in which they were eventually successful.  Assyria took over the north, moving many Israelites to its stronghold in present-day Iran, and moving Gentiles into the Northern Kingdom to dilute the bloodlines and allegiances. Israel tried to get its southern neighbors to help it, but Isaiah counseled his king to stay out of the conflict.  This king actually listened to his prophet, and the southern kingdom remained intact until the time of Second Isaiah, during the Babylonian conquest.
          Things were still rough in that Southern Kingdom.  At one point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel invaded Judah, trying to get it to form an alliance.  Assyria mostly played nice with Judah, but they were a constant threat.  And then a renewed monarchy in Egypt began to threaten from the south.
          People began to divide into alliance—let’s call them political parties—each with a different answer to the great problems of the day.  One party urged strong borders and racial purity.  Another promoted openness, diversity, and state-funded social programs. 
          Imagine it, if you can.
          Imagine trying to find a word of hope for those people, fairly safe in their own country, but concerned about attacks of all kinds from outside their borders, and division in their own land.
          Imagine, being a prophet to those people.  What word of hope would you bring, could you bring.
          Let’s do that—imagine together.  Find another person or two, and talk about this, just for a couple of minutes.  What word of hope would you offer to a people who feel divided and threatened?

--Collect answers

          It is fair to say that this Advent, as God’s prophetic people, a people who have accepted a mission to build hope and proclaim peace, we are searching for a word of hope to offer our neighbors.  I believe we will find it in a couple of places.  First, in each other—in the wisdom collected in this very place, this beautiful, beautiful, warm and toasty place.
          Second, this Advent, we will find a word of hope by listening carefully to the great prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah’s first word of promise, before us this morning, is a recipe for hope.  Isaiah speaks of the days to come, which is both a promise and a challenge.  The “days to come” will arrive when we decide to venture up to the mountain of the Lord’s house, which is more a mindset than a place.
          The mountain of the Lord’s house is where we go when we realize that our ways ain’t working, and perhaps we should try a different way.  When we are willing to place ourselves in God’s hands, beat our swords into plowshares, and be people of peace.
          People of hope and people of peace.  That is who we are.  And our task for this Advent is to seek and find the ways that God is drawing us into hope.  And peace. 
          Then to step into the shoes of the great prophet Isaiah and share that word with our neighbors.  Our neighbors are struggling to find hope. Our neighbors are struggling to find peace.
          Let us find it ourselves this Advent, people of God.  And then let us share it widely.