Discovering Joy in Hope

The third week of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Or, in English: Joy Sunday. If your church has them, they might use rose colored paraments and vestments instead of blue. At St. Paul’s, we have an Advent wreath with three blue candles and one pink–this is the week we light the pink. The tradition comes from Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. It says that John the Baptist (in Elizabeth’s womb) leaped for joy when Mary arrived. And so we read of this visit in our psalm for the day. My sermon is based somewhat on the psalm, and mostly on our first lesson from Isaiah.

Readings can be found here: Advent 3 readings

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever seen a crocus breaking through the snow? Those tiny, resilient little purple flowers? I always want to tell the poor little thing, “It’s too early! It’s not time for you yet; you need to wait until the snow goes away or you’ll never last.” But crocuses don’t wait. They don’t bide their time until it’s warmer and more welcoming. They burst out, a shock of color against fields of white, regardless of whether the world is ready for them or not.

They are a flower out of place, bringing joy and new life to a desolate winter landscape. In much the same way, our first reading from Isaiah is a word out of place. This beautiful prophecy of what it will be like when the exiled refugees finally return home. Springs rushing up in the desert, crocuses in bloom, deer leaping, people dancing. A road so easy to follow that even the directionally challenged cannot get lost. Can you imagine what this must have sounded like to a weary and war-torn people? To people who had given up on hope?

Only, it’s in the wrong spot. Isaiah is a very long book, one of the longer prophetic books, and it covers lots of years and many things. From before the Babylonians come and take over the land of Israel and exile its people, through the exile itself, and all the way to this joyous return.

And to find this marvelous description of what the return will be like at chapter thirty-five doesn’t make sense. It’s surrounded by prophecies of war, by depictions of desolation and anger and bloodshed. It makes so little sense that some biblical scholars believe our Bibles have it in the wrong spot. Something went wrong thousands of years ago in the copying of this text, they guess, and this prophecy wasn’t mean to be here. It belongs later in the book, after we’ve finished with pain and anguish. It’s a word out of place.

I don’t know when this word was first spoken, but I do think it’s where it is for a reason. Maybe it came later originally, but as this long, long book was being compiled, the Spirit had something to say. The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes. “Put it here,” she breathed, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.” And so here we have it. A word of joy and hope that just can’t wait until it might make more sense.

Isaiah dares to burst into joy with a word that refuses to wait until things have improved. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann has put it this way: “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.” They look at a land that has been scorched by the enemy in war, and instead of seeing the facts of dead and barren places, instead they see the possibilities of new life. Of streams of water and a land renewed and restored. It can’t wait until things are better to be heard; it needs to be said now.

I think the same is true of our psalm for the day, which, did you happen to notice, isn’t from the Book of Psalms at all? It’s from Luke and is actually Mary’s words. She has been told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear and son. Mary, unsure, but trusting the angel’s words, sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the country. At Elizabeth’s greeting, Mary breaks out into this song that today we call the Magnificat. She declares the wondrous things that God has done and will do in the future. She declares that she, Mary, is blessed, and that so are the poor, and the hungry, and the lowly.

It’s a word out of place. Mary was a young girl—although not unusually young to have a child in those days—but she was unmarried. She faces social disgrace and life as an outcast. Everything she was sure of is now up in the air. She doesn’t appear to have any close relatives to go to for help, so she must travel, by herself, to the country to see Elizabeth. Surely, she’s scared. Surely, she’s worried and anxious. Surely, there had to be a better way to go about this Messiah thing than a young girl on her own. But when she speaks, she doesn’t speak a word of fear or confusion. She speaks a word of blessing. A word of hope. A word of justice and deliverance.

God doesn’t wait until the right time to bring a word of rejoicing. God characteristically goes against the data. We know the data. We know the data. We see it every night on the news and every morning on the front page of the paper. And we can add to it the data of our lives: waiting for test results from the doctor, grieving the death of a loved one, wondering if we’ll make it through the next round of lay-offs, hoping the money will stretch to the next paycheck. Maybe this Christmas season isn’t a time of joy for you, but a time of sadness, of remembering loss, of hurt.

But God goes against the data and brings us a word out of place. God shows up even in the desert, in the barren places of life, to await us in renewal, restoration, and salvation. God is not waiting for us to get past our grief or pain, our confusion and doubt. God is there in the midst of all of it with words of hope and promise: I am here, you are not alone, there is a way through the desert. God doesn’t wait until we are ready, but comes in the middle of despair and fear to bring hope and joy. I could think of no better way to close than the Madeline L’Engle poem, “He did not Wait.”

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Amen.

Clear the Way for Hope

John the Baptist is one of those characters that you remember. He eats bugs, and wears ridiculous things. He’s also one of those characters that, as a pastor, you get to preach on every single year. Every Second Sunday of Advent, we have John preaching in the wilderness. John is such a rich character with a deep and nuanced message, there are many ways you take a sermon on him. I choose to do something a little unusual for me this year, and focus in on just a couple words: repentance and judgment.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent can be found here: Advent 2 readings

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

John the Baptist is kind of like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Advent. Just when we’re getting into the spirit of things, lighting candles, singing Advent hymns, here comes John with a bah humbug and a horrifying announcement about burning in an unquenchable fire. John is definitely not the guy you want to invite to the Christmas party. He makes everyone uncomfortable, not just with the way he dresses and what he eats, but with the way he just says things. He tells it like it is and he doesn’t care if it offends people. Don’t ask John if he likes your new haircut or outfit. He’s not going to be nice just to spare your feelings—he’ll tell you if he thinks you look terrible.

Unwelcome guest though he may be, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene every year on the Second Sunday of Advent to give us some difficult truths that we need to hear. To tell it like it is. Jesus’ cousin, John is a prophet who understands his purpose: to prepare the way of the Lord. To prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. He does not use his platform to promote himself, but rather to point to Jesus, to get the people ready for God’s chosen one.

And so here John is, in the wilderness, that great testing ground of God’s people, getting people ready by preaching judgment and repentance. I want to really dig in to both of those words, because they both carry a lot of baggage and assumptions. And the two are very much tied together for John. Jesus is coming to judge the world, says John, and so we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Often, we think repentance means feeling sorry, or feeling guilty, or feeling ashamed.  And sometimes church, religion, has been used to make us feel that way, to make us feel like we’re not worthy, or we’re broken, that we need to be ashamed. And then, once we feel repentance, we confess, we ask for forgiveness, and we move on.

But repentance actually has very little to do with what our feelings are, and much more to do with what our actions are. Repentance doesn’t mean to feel sorry or to feel guilty. The word that John the Baptist uses for repentance is metanoia, which means to turn around. To turn around. To reorient ourselves. Repentance is not feelings of regret or guilt, repentance is making changes, doing things differently moving forward. Confession is a part of that, but it is just the first part. Confession is acknowledging the ways we haven’t been living as God wants. Repentance is honestly trying to do something different in the future.

Think about, for a silly example, if you’ve stepped on someone’s foot. You can apologize for that, but unless you pick your foot up, that apology doesn’t mean very much. Repentance isn’t just saying sorry. It’s picking up your foot and trying not to step on that person again.

And John the Baptist calls all people to repentance. No one is exempt. What do we need to repent from? What things in our lives, in our world, are not life-giving? What things are not aligned with Christ? What stops us from being the people God created us to be? The people God so wants us to be?

Perhaps sometimes the things we need to repent from are our feelings of guilt and shame that keep us from living life fully. Our own self-doubt, that nagging voice that tells us we’re not good enough: that keeps us from being the wonderful, beloved person that God created. Our fears and our anxieties that keep us from fully embracing life.

Our prejudices, our self-righteousness that keep us from fully experiencing the community God intends for us. Our greed. Our self-centeredness. Our apathy. These are things that we need to repent from, not only because they hurt others in our lives and in our community—and they do—but also because they hurt us. They keep us from experiencing life the way that God intends.

John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by repenting of all the things that get in God’s way. To prepare for Christ’s reign among us by turning away from all these things that impede God’s love and justice and hope in our lives.

But then there’s that scary, disconcerting piece about judgment. The bad trees will be cut down and the chaff will burn in the unquenchable fire. Judgment, just like repentance, is another loaded word. We hear it, and we think: condemnation, wrath, punishment. Words we don’t like to think about when we think of God.

To judge something, though, in its most basic sense, is to see it clearly. To discern the truth about it. What if John the Baptist is promising us that Jesus is a Messiah who will really see us? Who will know us clearly? What if being judged is a good thing?

Jesus sees us, God sees us, and sees the truth about ourselves. Truth that we sometimes like to hide, even from ourselves. God sees the wonderful fruit that we bear, the lives we touch, the love we share, the justice we work for in the world. And God also sees the ways we sometimes bear bad fruit, through words we shouldn’t have said, times when we didn’t speak up when we needed to, things we wish we could do over.

We are none of us all wheat or all chaff. We bear within ourselves a mix of beauty and brokenness. Can we imagine that Jesus’ winnowing fork is an instrument of love? That Jesus sees, and wants to free us from, the things that keep us from being God’s people? The parts of ourselves that we know are hurtful, that only give pain? That, in separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus is seeking to burn away the parts of ourselves that hurt us? That hurt the world.

Repentance isn’t something we do alone. Repentance is trusting in God’s power to see us, to love us, and to reshape us. To guide us to new ways of being. To bring us from hatred to love. From prejudice to inclusion. From fear to trust. From despair to hope. No wonder John preaches in the wilderness. That place where God’s people first learned how to be God’s people.

God rescues the Israelites from Egypt, but even after that, after God has claimed them and saved them, they still need to learn how to be God’s people. In the wilderness, the people are changed. They learn God’s ways and God’s hopes and dreams for them. They didn’t do it so that God might love them—that was already evident—but because God loved them. And they didn’t do it alone. God guided them all their way.

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying: Prepare the way of the Lord. God is calling us to be shaped and molded by the love of Christ. To be reformed and renewed as God’s people, bearing good fruit to a weary world. Prepare the way of the Lord, that God’s love and justice may enter in. Amen.

The Source of Hope

This Advent, we’re doing a series called “All Earth is Hopeful.” The first Sunday’s sermon topic was: The Source of Hope. Even though I’m the one who picked this series, I had to shake my head a little bit. “The source of hope?” Don’t they know that Advent 1 is filled with apocalyptic texts? But perhaps that is in fact where we find the source of our hope.

Readings can be found here: Advent 1 lectionary texts

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christmas seems to come a little bit earlier every year. You know what I mean. I didn’t even manage to scoop up any cheap leftover Halloween candy this year, because by the time I got to the store—the very next day—Christmas displays were out instead. There were wreaths up at the King of Prussia mall before Halloween even!

Something, I’m not sure exactly what, is pushing us to start the Christmas spirit earlier and earlier every year. Except, at church, it’s not Christmas yet, but Advent. I’m reminded of a quote from the British show Call the Midwife, the true story of a young woman goes to work as a midwife in 1950s London. She lives at Nonnatus House, a convent of nuns who are also nurses.

She remembers back, saying: “My first Christmas in Poplar was unlike any other I had known. The streets, like all streets, were strung with colored lights, and children drew up lists, like children everywhere. As the days ticked down, it seemed as though the district was fizzing with delight. But at Nonnatus House, a different magic was at work. The sisters spent Advent in prayer and meditation, and the atmosphere was not one of excitement, but of expectant, joyous calm. I wasn’t entirely sure what I should make of it.”

A lot of us aren’t entirely sure what to make of Advent. All around us, the party spirit is in full swing already, but the season of Advent asks us to wait. Advent is focused, not on celebration, but on expectation. On longing. On hope—which is our theme for this Advent’s sermon series: All Earth is Hopeful.

But what exactly are we hoping for? As a child, I always thought that Advent was about waiting and hoping for baby Jesus to be born—that’s what happened at Christmas, after all. Is that what we are hoping for? Not really. We don’t have to hope and wait for Jesus to be born, because that already happened.

The word “Advent” means coming, or arrival. The first arrival of Jesus, as a baby in a manger, is certainly part of that, as we explore what it means for our lives. But so is the future arrival of Jesus, in what is often called the Second Coming. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is always an apocalyptic reading, always Jesus describing what the end of the world will be like.

Some years he talks in grand visions, with stars falling from the sky, but this year we read of two people working in the field, and one will be taken, and one will be left. Two people will be together grinding grain, and one will be taken, and one will be left. So stay awake! Because you don’t know when it’s going to happen.

So, is this what we’re hoping for? I think many, if not most of us, would say that we are in fact not hoping for the end of the world. Hope is found not in hoping for the end of the world to come right now, but in knowing God’s promised future which gives us hope for the present. What does that promised future, that consummation of God’s kingdom look like?

Isaiah offers us this vision, this promise of what God has in store for God’s people and the world. This vision comes from the second chapter of Isaiah. When things are terrible, when the people are about to destroyed as a nation and go into exile. And in the middle of this, Isaiah proclaims the impossible possibility. Destroyed and despairing, Jerusalem shall become a place of pilgrimage and hope, of those seeking to create and not destroy. Strangers will find a home in the holy city. Refugees will experience safety once more. War will be abolished, and nations will no longer plan on destroying one another. Laughter and joy will fill the city streets. The days of mourning will be a thing of the past as God’s future beckons us forward.

We can look forward to our future—to God’s future—in hope, because we look back at what God has done for us and what God has promised us. We look to Isaiah to see God’s vision of the future and it gives us hope for our present time. Hope because we get to flip to the last chapter of the book and know the end of the story. We know the future God has promised, so we look forward, not with anxiety or apathy, but with hopeful expectation.

Advent is not just about the future arrival of Christ and the consummation of God’s kingdom, just as it is not just about the past arrival of Christ in Bethlehem. I somewhere heard it described as the “Three Advents of Christ”: in history, in mystery, and in majesty. The history is the baby in the manger, the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Majesty is what I’ve been talking about, that final triumphant arrival to usher in God’s reign of peace and justice.

But mystery is what we have right now. Because God has not abandoned this world to its own devices, but continues to come to us, even now. In the meal of Holy Communion, Christ comes to us in bread and wine, and we get to take God’s promise into ourselves. To let it feed us and sustain us. The promise of the future, the promise of God’s grace and forgiveness and love, the promise of communion—of community—with each other, becomes embodied within us as we share in this meal.

And it opens our eyes to the ways that God is at work in the world. Stay awake! Jesus tells his followers. Because you do not know when the Son of Man is coming. Stay awake! Or you might miss it.  Stay awake to the ways that God is active in our world, right now. Holy moments may catch you by surprise, so pay attention. Pay attention to what God is doing, to the people God is putting in your path, to the glimpses of God’s promised future breaking through into the present.

Jesus’ words challenge us to live faithfully, to live in expectant hope, right now. To live in God’s kingdom, right now. To be awake and attentive to God’s presence among us. So even as we cry out, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, come, Lord Jesus to this world in need of healing and peace and renewal, we live as people of hope. So come, Lord Jesus. Come to your people this Advent. Awaken us to your presence in the world. Give us your hope, we pray. Amen.