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          “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.  4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;  5 and he shall be the one of peace.” – Micah 5:25
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39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,  40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

          46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,  55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:39-55

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We have arrived at the last and final week of Advent! This morning our Advent candle is the candle of Love, and our Close to Home series focuses on “Seeking Sanctuary”. These two things are related, but a person could easily speak for a half-hour on each subject, and I hope to cover both in less time – so hold onto your hats!

Advent 4

I’m going to start with Love today because I’ve preached on love before so we just need a brief overview. First Corinthians 13 – that great chapter on love – tells us what God’s love is like, and gives us something to aim for in our own relationships. The apostle Paul writes those unforgettable words: “love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; love is not irritable or resentful; love does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails… In the end only three things remain: faith, hope, and love: and the greatest of these is love.”

I believe if we could live out this one chapter – put these words into practice for an entire lifetime – we would fulfill all the requirements of God’s law and then some. Of course this is impossible for imperfect people, but it’s a goal to shoot for. Besides, it’s a lot easier to memorize I Corinthians 13 than the entire book of Deuteronomy!

This morning we want to remember that God loves each one of us like that. And that’s where our faith really begins.

As we turn to look at sanctuary, we immediately see that sanctuary is – or can be – an expression of love. The Close to Home devotional invites us to think of sanctuary as a form of love: sanctuary defined as a place of quiet, of safety, of rest, a safe haven. And as the devotional says, “Sanctuary is not only a place, it is also people who say “here I am – I’m here for you.””

Taking these two words, then – love and sanctuary – let’s turn to our scripture readings. In Luke’s gospel we see Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, welcoming her relative Mary into her home. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” – which was a rare thing before the coming of the Holy Spirit in the second chapter of Acts. This puts Elizabeth in the ranks of the prophets.

As we listen to what Elizabeth is saying, bear in mind she is speaking before Mary speaks, and Mary did not call ahead ­or email ahead to tell Elizabeth she was coming. Elizabeth didn’t even know Mary was pregnant. But in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, the mother of our Lord, and says her own baby John is leaping for joy in her womb at hearing the voice of the Mother of the Messiah. And she blesses Mary for believing and trusting what God told her would happen. Then Elizabeth, who loves Mary dearly, gives sanctuary to her young, unmarried, pregnant relative.

Eliz and Mary

As we listen to this story, we may ask “what can we be doing?” The answer to that varies from person to person. But Mary gives us some suggestions when she says: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” In any time and in any place we have faith in God, we can praise God, and we can rejoice in all that God has done.

Moving now into the concept of sanctuary: where it comes to sanctuary, in the words of CS Lewis, this morning I’d like to take us “further up and further in” – starting with a solid definition of the word ‘sanctuary’ and a short history of how it has been used.

The dictionary offers four definitions of the word ‘sanctuary’:  (1) a place of refuge or safety… (2) a place where one is protected (3) a holy place (4) the… holiest part of a church; the altar or high altar. The word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the Latin word sanctus which means holy… or from the Latin word sanctuariam which means sacred place. So the original meaning of the word sanctuary is deeply rooted in the holiness of God.

Seeking sanctuary is something people have done almost for as long as we have written history. Back in the Middle Ages a church’s sanctuary – just like the room we’re sitting in now – was a sacred place where someone accused of breaking the law could go to request sanctuary and mercy.

This practice had its roots in the book of Leviticus [chapter 26]. Back in ancient Israel, when the Israelites moved into the Promised Land and divided the land up between the twelve tribes, God commanded the Israelites to give the Levites – the priestly tribe – six cities to use as cities of refuge – where, if a person accidentally killed someone, they could run to a city of refuge and be safe from capital punishment (which was the law of the land at the time). Even in ancient Israel, as today, the courts recognized a difference between murder (which is deliberate) and manslaughter (which is accidental).

So God created cities of refuge. And in the Middle Ages the churches picked up on this. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says: “Historically, churches have been places where fugitives could seek at least temporary protection from the law. In Anglo-Saxon England [925AD and earlier] churches and churchyards provided 40 days of immunity, and neither the sheriffs nor the army would enter…”

The United States traditionally has had similar practices, not written into law, but respected as tradition. If someone claims sanctuary in a church, most government authorities in America will not challenge the church’s jurisdiction. For this reason, in the 1800s churches were often stops on the Underground Railroad. In the 1980s churches gave sanctuary to people from Central America who were fleeing the wars there.

And in recent years many churches have given sanctuary to people whose lives are in danger and are seeking asylum but have not yet been legally recognized. Just a few of the churches who provided sanctuary in this year of 2021 – and this list comes from the Washington Post and/or Christianity Today (I only had time to check two sources – there were more available):

  • Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville
  • The First Unitarian Church of Denver
  • Unitarian Society of Northampton (Mass)
  • Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh
  • First English Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio
  • New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia

Flores Sanctuary 1st UMC PHilly.jpg

(and here’s another: First United Methodist Church, Arch St., Philadelphia – credit WHYY)

Please understand: when I talk about churches giving sanctuary, this is not about politics. This is about obeying God’s word to take care of strangers and people in need. The church’s practice of giving sanctuary is ancient and time-honored and has its roots in the Old Testament.

By way of illustration I wanted to share with you something that happened a few years ago not far from here. In fact some of you may be aware of it. [Church member] KS was involved, and I’m sharing this with her knowledge and permission.

There was a family who worked and went to school locally: a mom, dad, and three kids, with a fourth one on the way. They were from Central America, and they were here in the country legally. They were in the process of becoming permanent residents and were working to become citizens. The Dad was self-employed, and the mom worked in the family business, and the kids were doing great in school – the older kids often got their pictures in the local school magazine for their schoolwork. One of the younger kids was in K’s preschool class, and the mother was in my English as a Second Language class, and that’s how we all got to know each other. And the mom used to say to me – she’d point to her belly – and she would say “I have an American citizen!” She was so proud to know that her baby, the child who would be born here, would be American (which by the way is one of my favorite laws in our country: anybody who exits the womb on American soil is automatically an American citizen).

One day K called me to say that the Dad of the family had been arrested and taken away by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). They had cuffed him and perp-walked him out of the house into their car in front of all the children – who were understandably distraught – and they took him to a facility for foreign prisoners four hours away.

I could hardly believe what K was telling me. This family are such good people, and they are better at being citizens than a lot of citizens I know! Of course I asked what happened and what we could do.

As the facts became known over the course of a few days, it became clear that the family’s immigration attorney had dropped a ball. I don’t know if it was criminal or just stupidity, but the bottom line was he had failed to file some required paperwork by a given deadline, and as a result the family – literally overnight – had gone from being here in the country legally to being here illegally. Just like that.

K and I kept asking: What can we do? And the answer came back: write letters to the judge – who would be meeting with the Dad in a few days – asking the judge for leniency, asking for a second chance, explaining what good citizens this family would make, asking to let this family stay in the country, and explaining why.  So K and I got as many people to write letters as we possibly could, saying how much we were hoping this family would become citizens, and how hard-working they were, and how amazingly well the children were doing in school, and asking for the father’s release. Which we did. And then we waited.

I’m pleased to say everything worked out in the family’s favor. The Dad was released, things were straightened out, and the young family is still in America working towards citizenship. I haven’t seen them for a while, but K tells me they visited her last Valentine’s Day and brought her some of the kids’ artwork.

I’m glad things worked out this way. But if they hadn’t, this family could have become one more family seeking sanctuary in a church. In fact Pastor M and I talked about which churches the family might approach if it came to that – it was that close.

Taking sanctuary in churches is not something people plan on doing. It happens because people have nowhere else to turn.

When a church offers sanctuary, we bear witness to the world that God’s law is higher than human laws; that God’s mercy is higher than human justice. And this is just one example out of thousands.

Of course the ultimate sanctuary – the holiest of holies – is the Kingdom of God itself. This is the home God creates for all who love him. This is the mansion Jesus said he was going to prepare for us, and that he would come back to take us to. This is the promise that Mary and Elizabeth were so excited about: that Mary’s baby would turn the power structures of this world on their heads, lift up the lowly, and fill the poor and hungry with good things.

Kingdom

It has already started: Mary’s song is both ‘now’ and ‘future’. We live our lives in Advent time, between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.

But we can be sure of this: our God is a God who not only stands for justice, but whose character defines justice. Our God acts with compassion. Our God not only wipes away our tears but collects every tear in a bottle. Therefore we who love God and follow God are called to go and do the same: to welcome the stranger, and the neighbor, and to say to anyone who needs sanctuary: “in the name of Jesus, I am here for you.” AMEN.

(preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, December 19, 2021

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Advent 3 * Joy: A Home for All

          “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.  16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing  18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.  19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.”Zephaniah 3:14-20 

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          “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,  2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;  6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” – Luke 3:1-18 

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Welcome to Week Three of our Advent series Close to Home!  This week’s focus in our series is “A Home for All” and the theme for the week is Joy. But as we listen to the two scripture readings for today, they almost seem to be saying opposite things: The Old Testament lesson in Zephaniah is full of joy; but John the Baptist’s message in Luke sounds harsh.

John the Baptist

Which of these scriptures is pointing to the truth? And which is more truly “A Home for All”? The answer is… both.  As the British theologian George MacDonald once said, God’s mercy and God’s justice are not opposites, but one and the same. If God’s kingdom, our home, is going to come, then we need to hear John the Baptists’ warnings, because his job is to “prepare the way” for the coming of the King. At the same time, when people are struggling, when day-to-day life isn’t easy, Zephaniah’s words of God’s favor are encouraging and we need to hear them.

Let’s take a closer look. In fact, actually, let me start at the end and work backwards, historically speaking, and start with Luke.

Luke’s gospel gives information on where and when John the Baptist’s ministry and prophecy takes place. (By contrast Matthew’s gospel would seem more peaceful and homelike.) Luke’s gospel almost sounds like we’re hearing the evening news.

As we enter into John the Baptist’s story, Luke begins by telling us this is the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias, which puts us somewhere around the year 29AD. (John the Baptist was preaching and teaching for a few years before Jesus began his public ministry at the age of thirty, which was somewhere in the early 30’s AD.)

Tiberius

The rest of the historical information Luke gives us is like a shorthand that people of the time would have understood. It’s kind of like saying “back when Nixon was President” – which for us would immediately bring to mind Vietnam, Watergate, and so forth. When Luke says “Tiberius was emperor, in the 15th year of his reign” people back then would automatically have thought of a leader who was in trouble. Tiberius had problems with the Senate, and he was paranoid about the possibility of being assassinated, and shortly before John the Baptist came on the scene, Tiberius basically walked away from Rome, leaving a few managers of controversial character in his place. So the political scene in Rome was unstable at best – and it certainly was not a good time to be announcing the coming of a rival king!

Meanwhile, Luke says, Pontius Pilate was the Roman praefect ruling Judea, and Herod Antipas was a puppet king in Galilee. (Just to be clear – because the scriptures mention the various members of the Herod family in the next few chapters and verses, and it gets confusing because the Gospel writers assume we know who they’re talking about.) The Herod who was king when Jesus was born, and who killed all the babies in an attempt to get rid of the Messiah, was ‘Herod the Great’. He died shortly after Jesus was born. When he passed, his kingdom was divided between his four children into what they called a “tetrarchy” (tetra = ‘four’, archy = ‘kingdom’) and we will meet these children in various scripture passages. They were: Herod Antipas in Galilee; Herod Archelaus in Samaria; Philip to the northeast, whose wife Herod Antipas took; and their sister Salome in what is today the West Bank and Gaza.

All that information is packed into – or at least assumed – in the first few verses in Luke!

Then Luke starts telling the story: John the Baptist came into the wilderness, and was preaching to the people about their need to repent and get ready for the coming of the Lord. As always, the word ‘repent’ doesn’t mean ‘you sinner you’ – it means ‘change course’ or ‘change direction’. Turn away from selfish actions and motives, and turn toward God, and be baptized as a symbol of repentance and the washing away of sins.

So the people came from all areas around: Galilee, Judea, the coastal regions; and they would come and confess their sins to John and be baptized in the Jordan River.

Jordan Baptisms today

(photo: Baptisms in the Jordan today)

John also did some preaching in between the baptisms. I have to confess I have never heard any preacher begin a sermon with the words “you brood of vipers”! I’m not sure how that would go over on a Sunday – but somehow John got away with it. It got peoples’ attention.

John was preaching that (a) the Lord is coming, and the Lord is not happy with the way people are running things here on earth; (b) God’s people need to bear spiritual fruit; and (c) we need to not rest on our religious laurels. Just because the people of Israel were descendants of Abraham did not mean they were automatically on God’s good side – any more than, today, going to church makes a person a Christian. We need to bear fruit that shows who we belong to.

When John talks about ‘bearing good fruit’ he isn’t necessarily talking about being successful or accomplishing things. Spiritual fruit can come with success or accomplishments; but the fruit of the Spirit has little to do with the things of this world. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so forth – are not material things. In fact they’re not even necessarily practical. They won’t get you anywhere, they won’t land you a job, or get you a house, or win friends or influence people. But to bear good fruit is to do what we were created to do, and to be who God created us to be.

As John preaches these things the crowds begin to ask him, “what should we do then?” and John gives them some examples: if you have two of something – like a coat or a sweater – give one to someone who doesn’t have any. If you have more food than someone else, share it. He said to the tax collectors (and, I assume, anybody else whose job it is to collect money) – collect no more than what’s owed. Don’t charge extras. And John said to the soldiers (and, I assume, any others in power such as police, lawyers, judges) don’t take money from people by false accusation or by threats; be content with your wages. Bottom line, whoever we are, and wherever we are, we’re not to grasp for “more” at the expense of others. This includes even those who might say “but I’m not rich” – the point is, no matter what we have, we need to share what we have.

The Close to Home study for this week takes this teaching a little further. It says: “Instead of accumulating, share with others what you have. Instead of being indifferent or selfish, show consideration and compassion. Instead of taking advantage or preying on the vulnerable, be satisfied with what you have and treat others fairly and with dignity. . . even if you work for the empire.” (Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri)

So pretty much across the board, John the Baptist is saying share as much as possible of whatever we have that’s extra. And when we get down to it, God has blessed us very richly. If we do all these things, we are helping to create a place that feels like home for all: a place that is a reflection of, and has the nature of, our heavenly home that is to come.

When John taught all these things, it filled the people who were listening with a sense of expectation. They felt in their hearts something BIG was about to happen. In spite of the fact that John’s words sounded a little  rough and his camel-hair outfit was rough, the people received his words as Good News.

And John gives the people even more good news. He tells the people about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Most likely most of the people listening to John would not have heard of the Holy Spirit, or would not have thought much about the Holy Spirit, because at that point in time the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost hadn’t yet happened. In order for God’s Spirit to be poured out on all God’s people, Jesus would have to go through the crucifixion and resurrection. So we’re pre-Pentecost here. In Old Testament times only certain people were ‘filled with God’s Spirit’ – usually prophets – but John is prophesying that the Holy Spirit will now come to all of God’s people – that we would all know the Spirit, and we would all be able to commune with God directly and hear God’s voice directly.

Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is often symbolized by a dove

The Holy Spirit would work in us, John said, just like fire – purging and cleaning out all the old stuff and making room where God could work in us and live with us.

The apostle Peter gives more detail about this in his letter to the early believers. He says in I Peter 1:7 that as we pass through various difficulties in life, our faith, combined with the Holy Spirit, will be “refined as if by fire” and “will result in praise, and glory, and honor when Jesus is revealed”. When he says this, Peter means praise and glory and honor for us when Jesus is revealed. God will use every difficulty, every negative thing in our lives, to get all the gunk out of our souls so we can shine in glory.  Our job is to trust and to encourage each other with these words.

As the folks from Close to Home say: “John the Baptist’s good news sounds harsh, but… ultimately John’s message is one of joy.”

Which brings us to Zephaniah’s prophecy. This prophecy is a message of total joy!  “Rejoice and exult” he says “with all your heart – the Lord has taken away the judgements against you. Fear disaster no more.”

“Fear disaster no more.” – imagine the effect those words would have on the women of Afghanistan… on the people of Myanmar… on the people of Haiti… or the Ukraine… or the peoples of Africa… or the peoples of color in our own country… or even the people downcast and deeply saddened by this pandemic.

Zephaniah says: “The Lord has turned away your enemies… the Lord gives you victory… the Lord exults over you with singing!” This kind of joy is not quiet or dignified – it is heartfelt and free.

How often do we think of God as rejoicing? How often do we picture God singing? (Leonard Bernstein, the late great conductor, once said he didn’t believe that God said ‘let there be light’ – he believes God sang it.)

He rejoices

God is not, as the old song says, “watching us from a distance”. God is, as the old prophet says, “rejoicing over us the way a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.” And we rejoice together in our God.

This is our home – and it truly is a home for all, a home where all are invited and all are welcome.

God doesn’t stop there. As Zephaniah continues, God says to us: “I will make you renowned” – that is famous! – and I will make you praised among all the peoples of the earth… and I will restore your fortunes,” says the Lord.

For all of God’s people everywhere, Zephaniah says: “God will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.” Picture that, imagine that. God will rejoice over you. God will lavish his love all over you. Can you think of anything better than that?

This is our joy. This is our forever-home. It’s a home for everyone who says ‘yes’ to God. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/12/21

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1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?  10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.  12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36

[Jesus said:] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.  28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;  30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.  33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.  36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

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The leadership of the South Hills Partnership have come up with something a little different for Advent and Christmas this year. Our Advent series is not the usual book study or thematic teaching, but rather rests on an overarching concept: Close To Home.

Close to Home is a an appropriate concept for this time of year because so many people think about home over the Christmas holidays.  For some of us ‘home’ brings warm thoughts and memories; but for others ‘home’ brings painful memories. And for some, the holidays might mean being alone when we would rather not be. Advent and Christmas bring us into times and traditions that can be tender and vulnerable.

Home

Advent and Christmas also touch on the “already-but-not-yet-ness” of our faith. We believe that Jesus has come; we believe that God’s kingdom is here; but this earth is not yet what God has designed it to be.

With all these things in mind, the authors of Close to Home have come up with some house-related and home-related discussion topics for the next few Sundays. This week we start with the concept of Homesickness. It’s a dark place to start a holiday season, but it’s appropriate for the season and for the scriptures of the day.

The season of Advent begins in darkness: we have the darkness of the shortest days of the year; and we have the darkness of the world before the Light of Christ comes. You know the old saying: it’s always darkest just before dawn. That’s where we’re starting this week.

As we head into Advent, we do so in a world that is not as it should be.  So when we feel homesick, what are we longing for? Isn’t it the hope of what Jesus’ return will bring? Isn’t it the love that the apostle Paul describes in the reading from Thessalonians, when he says “how can we thank God enough for you”?  Isn’t it God that we’re longing for – because where God is, is home?

It may not seem like that to us though, at least not at first. It might seem like home is a place we miss; or home may be a person or a group of people we miss. But we come from God – we were created by God – and we are restless until we are with God, because God knows us and loves us. As St. Augustine said around 1600 years ago, “Lord, Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in Thee.”

But it may not seem like that to us here on this earth right this very minute. We may still feel homesick for any number of reasons and for any number of things.

Personally I was feeling homesick around five or six years ago. I came down with a really bad case of homesickness for my hometown of Philadelphia. Mind you, I am a Pittsburgher. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1976 and I am a native in all the ways that matter. But I was remembering my childhood back in the 1960s, when Mom used to take us kids to downtown Philly. We would get dressed up – because one never wore jeans into the city back then – and we would take a train into Reading Terminal.

The Old Reading Terminal

Mom would hold our hands really tight because there were so many people around: it was shoulder-to-shoulder, packed, noisy, grimy, smelly, exciting! We might go shopping at Wanamaker’s (Philly’s answer to Kaufmann’s) or get food from a street vendor. And the city was just buzzing: wall-to-wall people, wall-to-wall traffic!

And I wanted so badly to be in that crowd just one more time.

So I took a train into the city from Dad’s place out in the suburbs. I discovered the trains don’t go to Reading Terminal anymore – Reading Terminal has been made into a convention center with an open-air market on the street level. So I took a taxi to Wanamaker’s – and the store was almost empty. There was, thank goodness, a street vendor outside the store who was selling cheesesteaks, and I bought one.

Philly Cheesesteak

I walked east to the old Reading Terminal building – stunned at how easily miles of train tracks could be made to disappear. I walked a little further, down to the old Lit Brothers (Philly’s answer to Horne’s) and like Horne’s the building was still there, designated a historic landmark, but with other tenants now. And like Horne’s, the store’s original brass signs were still on the outside walls. One of them over the door (which I had never noticed before) read “Hats Trimmed Free of Charge” – which made me ponder: how does one “trim” a hat?  (One of the great mysteries of life, I suppose.)

Hats Trimmed

As I was thinking about this, I suddenly noticed I was only one of maybe three or four people on the entire city block. And the blocks around me weren’t any busier. In fact the street was quiet. And even though I knew I was only a few blocks away from the groups of tourists around the Liberty Bell, I got nervous and turned around and walked back to the Reading Terminal Market as fast as I could, and found a safe place to sit down and eat my cheesesteak.

Reading Term Market

The cheesesteak was good. But what on earth had happened to my city?

Time.

I don’t think of this as nostalgia. I wasn’t looking for a ‘blast from the past’. What I wanted was a touch of home – and I discovered that home as I remember it isn’t there any more. (Except for the cheesesteaks.)

When people here in Pittsburgh talk about “meeting under the Kaufmann’s clock”… or the wooden escalators in the department stores… or Jenkins Arcade and all the wonderful people who used to work there… it’s not that we want to turn the clock back, it’s that we would like, just for a moment, to go home.

The thing is, as Christians, as people of God, home doesn’t lie behind us. Home lies ahead of us.

I do hope God in His mercy will allow us to carry a few memories of our earthly homes with us. But ultimately we are not ‘going back home,’ we are going forward home.

In the meantime we live our lives in a season of Advent. We wait together: sometimes in silence, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in sharing, sometimes in working. We walk together through life’s storms and we share life’s joys. We watch children grow; we watch the pages on the calendar flip by faster with every passing year. And we remark to each other how fast time is flying.

My old pastor used to say that the fact that we’re amazed at how fast the years go by is proof that we were created for eternity. I believe that.

Jesus’ prophecy that we read in Luke’s gospel has the effect of making us homesick for heaven. We already see people in our world fainting from fear; we already see signs in the heavens and distresses on the earth. We wonder if the time might be drawing near. We wonder just how close eternity is.

Jesus tells us it’s like watching a fig tree sprout leaves. When the leaves appear you know summer is near! And every gardener knows the joy of that sight because it means fresh fruit won’t be far behind.

In the same way, when we see Jesus’ words coming true, we lift up our heads because redemption is near.

Jesus tells us: stay awake, stay alert. Don’t get weighed down by the cares of this life.

Homesickness for things of this earth can weigh us down if we let them. They can leave us depressed, sad, and worried; and they can lower our defenses, both emotionally and physically. When I was wandering around Philadelphia that day, by myself, with no place to go and nobody knowing where I was, that was not safe.

In the same way, wandering through life with no particular goal in mind is not a safe thing. We need to stay focused. Like the people Paul was writing to, we need to stay close to others who are heading in the same direction. We need the fellowship, we need the support, we need love from fellow believers. We need what Paul is talking about. We need people who encourage us to be our best, to do our best, to keep on keeping on with God.

As God’s people, we have a home. We have a future.

Going Home 2

I want to close with this hopeful quotation from a pastor in Minnesota (David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, Minn MN) He wrote:

“From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can “stand up and raise [our] heads” because we have heard Jesus’ promise that our “redemption draws near.”

Advent is here… and we are on our way home.

AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/28/21

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Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,  2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  3 Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”

     4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:  5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.  7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”  8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;  9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.  10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,  11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. […] Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. – II Samuel 7:1-11, 16

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And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,  55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55

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In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 ¶ And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38

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The story is so simple.

And yet it’s so profound.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary, tells her she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, Mary says OK, and the angel departs.

It’s that simple.

And yet… it’s anything but simple.

This brief conversation is the focal point of history. It is the focal point of the history of Israel, and it is the focal point of human history. Everything that has come before has been leading up to this.

Which means that to begin with the story of Mary and Gabriel is to start in the middle of the story. We don’t have time today to go back to the very beginning and tell the whole story over again, but we can touch on the highlights. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” – and everything that was in them, including human beings – and everything that God created was good.

Until it wasn’t. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and God had some hard words for them, but God also spoke of hope: that one day, the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (and the serpent would nip his heel, but that’s the Easter story – for now we’re talking Christmas).  So today we hear the angel telling Mary that her son will be the one who will crush the head of the serpent, as God had promised.

Also leading up to this day is our Old Testament reading from II Samuel. King David says to the prophet Nathan that it’s not right for the king of Israel to live in a house of cedar while Israel’s God lives in a tent. It’s David’s way of saying “I’d like to build God a house.” And the prophet says “God is with you; do whatever is on your mind.”

But God says to David through Nathan “No – David, I will build YOU a house.” The house God describes will be a safe place for all the people of Israel: a place of peace, free from those who would harm them. God says, “I will give you a name and I will provide you a place…”

In Israel today there is a museum to the Holocaust called Yad Vashem – which literally means “a place and a name”. It was built in memory of the millions who died without a place or a name, in order to give them both. In this passage in Samuel, God promises the descendants of David will always have a place and a name – yad va’shem.

More than that, God says David’s house – David’s kingdom and David’s throne – will stand forever.

Two generations later David’s kingdom was divided, and about 300 years after that the temple was destroyed. It seemed like God’s word had somehow failed. But God had a plan from the very beginning. And God kept that plan moving forward through the Babylonian Captivity, and the rebuilding of the temple, and then through hundreds of years when there were no prophets at all and it seemed like God was silent.

And now, in this moment with Mary, God’s plan is moving forward in a big way.

We notice that God, in choosing Mary, chooses not to deal with kings, priests, philosophers, Caesars, the rich, or the centers of earthly power. God chooses instead a young girl of around thirteen or fourteen, without formal education, from a poor family, from a rough town called Nazareth in the backwater of an insignificant nation that had been overrun by Roman legions.

God sends his angel to her.

The angel Gabriel greets Mary with the words:

“Rejoice, highly favored one! The Lord is with you!”

I want to stop there just for a moment because the phrase the Lord is with you is not a throwaway phrase. It’s a phrase heard in other places in scripture, always meaningful, and usually spoken in times of crisis or trouble. To give a few examples: in the book of Genesis says “the Lord was with Joseph” in Potiphar’s house and when Joseph was in jail. In the book of Joshua, God says to Joshua as he is about to take over leadership of Israel, “as I was with Moses so I will be with you.” The Lord was with Samuel as he served as prophet in the tabernacle under corrupt leadership. God protected Samuel and eventually led him to anoint David as king over Israel. The Lord was with David too… and with King Solomon and King Hezekiah because these kings honored God.

And now the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says to her, “the Lord is with you” – and with these words Gabriel places the young teenager squarely in the company of the Old Testament prophets. And when we hear Mary’s words in the Magnificat, which we heard a moment ago, we find she is indeed a prophet, speaking God’s word and God’s truth into human society.

So who was this young lady named Mary? Scripture tells us very little about her, but we can piece together a few things from the history of the time. Growing up where she did, Mary would have spoken Aramaic but would also have known Hebrew and a few phrases in Greek and Latin as well. She was economically lower class. People in those days – if they weren’t the top 10% – were either farmers or artisans, and Mary’s family were carpenters. Farmers were slightly better off than carpenters economically, but all of the working classes suffered under triple taxation: paying taxes to Rome, to Herod (the king of Israel), and to the Temple.

Mary, like most people in her community, had to work hard physically: carrying water into the home, doing all the household labor. She was probably physically strong, tan, and athletic. And she knew something about God. She probably went to synagogue and certainly would have heard her parents talk about God. And she had faith… but until the angel showed up nobody knew just how much faith she had.

Mary has the kind of faith that sets an example for everyone around her, as well as those of us who come after her.

Mary is called “blessed” not only because she is the mother of Jesus, but because she is a woman of great faith. During the ministry of Jesus a woman in the crowd once said to him, “blessed is the womb that bore you!” But Jesus replied, “blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it.”  That’s what Mary did, and that’s what makes her ‘blessed’. Her kinswoman Elizabeth confirms this, saying, “blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord!”

So back to the scene at hand. The angel Gabriel told Mary a number of things. He starts off by saying (1) Don’t be afraid. Gabriel could see that his presence and his words were turning Mary inward; she was debating within herself, struggling to understand. (2) You have found favor with God. (3) You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and name him Jesus. (4) This child will be great, the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David (which is the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken to David by God through the prophet Nathan in our Old Testament lesson). (5) Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Mary knew enough about the history of her people and her family (since she was from the house of David) to understand what the angel was saying. Mary understood she was being honored by God, and chosen by God, to give birth to the Messiah – the one who would rescue her people and who would reign forever.

We can’t help wondering what we might have said or done if we had been in Mary’s shoes. Pondering this question we realize Mary really was one in a million. God knew her heart and God knew that she could do this.

Mary only had one question. She’s not doubting God’s word. Even though men and women twice her age have fainted dead away at the appearance of an angel, Mary is standing on her own two feet. She’s not self-conscious and she doesn’t worry about being from the wrong side of the tracks. She knows it’s God’s opinion of her that matters. Just one snag: “how will this happen, since I don’t have a man?” (Did I mention she’s practical?)

Gabriel responds:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cast a shadow over you, so the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And by the way” – Gabriel says – “your elderly relative Elizabeth who was barren is now in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary’s answer is one that is worthy of being spoken in a throne room before a king: “I am the Lord’s servant. Be it to me according to your word.”

This is a faith that risks all: risks being cut off from family, being shamed, being divorced, being seen as a sinner – or as a crazy person when she tells people the baby daddy is God. Mary doesn’t worry about that. She just believes and says ‘yes’.

As one theologian puts it, “Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be.” Mary invites us to have the same kind of faith: a faith that moves us from Advent into Christmas. A faith that can sing along with Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…

He who is mighty has done great things for me…

He has scattered the proud… he has brought down the mighty… and exalted the humble…

he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…

This is a song our world needs to hear – and needs to learn how to sing.

If we look at ourselves this Christmas – if we look at our neighborhoods, our families, our churches – and we see nothing powerful, nothing big, nothing of particular value in the eyes of the world – then we’re in the same place Mary was. And that’s a good place to be. We are the ones who can join in with Mary’s song. We are the ones who can say, “nothing is impossible with God.”

“Look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near.” (Luke 21:28) AMEN.

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Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.Isaiah 40:1-11

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The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”  4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”Mark 1:1-8

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Advent II – God’s love

Last week, the first week of Advent, we talked about Hope: the hope that the Messiah would enter into our troubled world and meet us where we are. In last week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah talked about Israel’s return from exile to find their land devastated and their temple in ruins. The exile had happened because the Israelites had left God and started worshipping idols – and because they worshipped false gods, they learned to live lies.

And in last week’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus talking about the last days, about wars and rumors of wars, and all the hardships that would happen right before Jesus returns. So the first week of Advent meets us where we are in our world: in darkness and in grief, longing for peace, longing for light, longing for God. And in the first week of Advent we begin to see a glimmer of light in the darkness.

This week, in the second week of Advent, that light grows stronger. Isaiah says, “the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” Our second candle on the Advent wreath represents Love: the love God has for us, which is a love strong enough to pay our debts, set us free, and bring new life and new light to our world.

The message this week is about God’s love – which is also God’s glory. God loves us like parents love their children. God longs to gather us in his arms like parents do their children. God wants us in heaven’s family. God is about to send love into the world in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. Jesus is often called the “King of Love” – there’s an old song that goes “the king of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”

So the second week of Advent is about love.

Love is in short supply in our world. And loneliness is epidemic. We’re all very much aware of the COVID epidemic and how deadly it is, but the epidemic of loneliness is just as deadly. Earlier this year the US government’s Health Resources and Services Administration published a document that said:

“Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day” … “the problem is particularly acute among seniors, and especially during holidays… Two in five Americans [say] they sometimes… feel their… relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely…. The lack of connection can have life threatening consequences…”

I share this with you today because more and more I’m coming to believe our churches need to be in the front lines of fighting this pandemic of loneliness. That’s what the Messiah does, and we follow Him.  It’s difficult to do right this minute, with social distancing in effect, but we can make plans now for when the world opens up again. We can begin to think about how better to keep in touch with our seniors, and how to reach out to people in our neighborhoods and communities, and even how to reach the younger generation and teach them how not to be lonely.  Young people especially are at risk these days: the suicide rate for people ages 10-34 has been going up for 20 years and that curve is not flattening.

Along these lines I wanted to share with you a conversation I had a couple months ago on the way home from Philadelphia. I always stop at the last rest stop before Pittsburgh because they have the most wonderful farmers market. My good friend Denise and I love their baked goods and fresh peaches! So the last time I was there, I walked up to the stand and called Denise on speakerphone and said “Ok here’s what they have…” and I described everything to her. They were out of peaches but they had five kinds of fresh-picked apples, so I asked the salesgirl to join our conversation and describe the different kinds of apples so we’d know what to buy.

For Denise and me this was just an everyday conversation: what would you like, want some of this? – but when I hung up and pulled out my credit card, the salesgirl (who was probably in her early 20s) looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “that was the most amazing conversation. People don’t talk like that any more.” What she meant was that people don’t talk to their neighbors any more – they don’t call just to touch base about everyday mundane things. My conversation with Denise had given her a window on a world that is disappearing.

What our young people are missing, though they probably wouldn’t put it this way, is a sense of community. They don’t know what it is to belong to a group of friends and extended family and be able to say “this is us”. And this lack has created an epidemic of loneliness.

Into this lonely time God speaks words of love. God says: “comfort, comfort my people… speak tenderly to them and tell them that the battle is over and all is forgiven.” God invites us to work with him in bringing this comfort to the world.

God loves each one of us. God’s power shines in care and tenderness. There’s just one problem: God and sin can’t exist in the same space. It’s kind of like putting matter and anti-matter in the same space – it produces undesirable results (to put it mildly). So along with love God also brings forgiveness.

This isn’t cheap grace. In our reading from Isaiah, the people have been worshipping idols and God doesn’t ignore that. God confronts the people about their idolatry, and the way they’re always putting trust in what is not God, and the way this causes people to see the world inside out and upside down. God says: “you… call evil good and good evil, you put darkness for light and light for darkness…”(Isaiah 5:20) The peoples’ perceptions are literally upside down and backward because they’ve abandoned God.

In Isaiah God compares human faithfulness to a flower: it quickly fades and withers away. God knows what we’re made of. God knows we have feet of clay. God loves us anyway. The Psalmist tells us God’s salvation is at hand – a salvation that requires from us faithfulness, steadfast love, and righteousness. And God makes that possible.

God tells the prophet to get up to the highest hill and shout the good news: your God is here!  He is coming with power to make good his promises; and God will care for His own, gathering us together and leading us into His kingdom.  And God’s promise is not just for us – it was for the people of Israel back then, and it’s for our children’s children’s children.

Comfort my people, says your God.

How much we need that comfort!  As a nation we have been through a tough year. We have kept our chins up, we have Zoomed our Zooms… but this year has been hard. Even those things we would typically depend on to help us keep our sanity –  our extended families, our churches, our local coffee shops – have all had limited access.

But Isaiah tells us we’re not alone. We’re not the first people to feel this way. And of course we know that other people and nations have lived through hardships; and not that we would ever want to see other people suffer, but knowing we’re not alone is helpful.

From Isaiah we also learn we need to do something about sin. The word ‘sin’ is an old fashioned word and it sounds kind of judgmental, so let me put it another way. If there’s anything in our lives more important than God, or that we love more than God, we need to tell God about it and be willing to let God re-set our priorities. If we do this, God promises to forgive.

And with this we come back full circle to the hope that Advent brings, which is God’s love for God’s people.

So what can we be doing during this time of Advent that can help bring us closer to God, and prepare us for the coming of the Lord?

Both Isaiah and John the Baptist tell us: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” But what does it mean, to prepare the way of the Lord? Google offers some interesting answers. Here’s a sampling of what some people have said:

  • To prepare the way of the Lord means to make a positive impact on those around us — seeking justice, creating peace.

I think that’s pretty good. I think it’s important to remember that in the big picture, justice and peace are God’s work, and if we don’t let God lead things get rough and we get discouraged. God can and does work through people but the game plan is God’s. It’s kind of like a Steelers game: every team member is essential, but everyone needs to be following the coach’s direction. With God as our Coach we can have a season like the Steelers are having!

Another person said…

  • Remove Santa Claus from your decorations and celebrations

The author said this because Christmas is about Jesus and not about a fictional character. To this person I wish I could say: teach your children about the real St. Nicholas, about the bishop who lived years ago. He loved God so much he gave to the poor and visited the sick, and the people who knew him said he actually performed miracles. Share this with your children and let St. Nicholas inspire the whole family at Christmas time.

Another person said…

  • We must… remove all obstacles which stand in the Lord’s way preventing him from coming. All the crooked ways in our life, and in the life of our society need to be straightened out.

I think whoever said this had good intentions but the focus is too much on us and not enough on God – because nothing can ever prevent the Lord’s coming. Nowhere does God say, “Tell the people to get ready and when they’ve set everything right, I’ll be back.” God says, “I am coming, get ready!” The apostle Peter reminds us that the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. God’s arrival does not in any way depend on us.

Another person said…

  • We can get off track in our Christian lives… There are many temptations… It is good to make straight the path in our own hearts by examining our lives… to see where our choices and actions have not been in harmony with the Gospel… [and to bring these things to the Lord]

I think this person is a bit closer to the truth. As we turn our hearts to God, sharing with God our weaknesses and our desire to be more like Him, the path is made straight.

So the first week of Advent brings hope. The second week of Advent is all about the glory of God, who loves us, and who is sending us Jesus, to be our deliverer and our savior. May God’s hope and love be with you this week. AMEN.

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“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence —  2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”Isaiah 64:1-9

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Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth  2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!  3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.  4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?  5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.  6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.  7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved […] 17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.  18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.  19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

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[Jesus said] “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 

 

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

 

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  35 Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,  36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”Mark 13:24-37

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Well here we are… at the beginning of Advent once again, in what is probably the strangest and most troubling year I can remember. And the scripture readings for this morning don’t take away any of that sense of strangeness or trouble.

I don’t think they’re supposed to.

I think God’s words for us today are meant to meet us where we are.

Even in so-called ‘normal’ years, by this time in the year we would find ourselves surrounded by expectations that we shop on Black Friday and do our part for the nation’s economy. Even in so-called ‘normal’ years we would find ourselves hip-deep in solicitations for ‘Giving Tuesday’. Even in so-called ‘normal’ years we’d be rushing through Thanksgiving weekend to dive into a commercialized Christmas and then fall exhausted into New Years just to start the whole process over again.

More and more I hear people say “we’re not doing Christmas any more.” While I understand, I think that’s sad. So just out of curiosity I googled the phrase “alternatives to Christmas”. I was presented with a selection of over 92 million websites full of ideas! Suggestions included things like “stop doing gifts”… “volunteer over the holidays”… “eat Chinese food” (this I could do)…  “host a movie marathon at your house” (this was obviously written pre-pandemic)… “go Christmas caroling”… “write a personal, heartfelt letter to each person on your gift list.” One website suggested “celebrate all 12 days of Christmas” – and I liked what they said so much I wanted to share it with you. The website lifehack.org said:

“Ironically, today we consider the most traditional thing – celebrating the 12 days after Christmas – to be non-traditional and quaint. In most Christian cultures Christmas used to be celebrated in a [completely] opposite fashion to what we see today. Instead of pre-holiday hype lasting for most of November and the entire month of December, people quietly waited for the coming of the Christ, with the 12-day period after December 25 as the centerpiece. Why not try to do things the old-fashioned way…?” – https://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/8-fun-yet-non-traditional-ways-celebrate-christmas-this-year.html

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

“The entire month of December waiting for the coming of the Christ” – that’s the definition of Advent. There’s a reason why people used to do that, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. We need to step away from the world’s celebration of “sparkle season” because quite honestly it has no meaning. Doing things the world’s way, by December 26 all the noise is over and the celebration is forgotten and the Valentines are in the stores already. But if we wait patiently in Advent through December, and then start celebrating Christmas on the 25th, we will still be celebrating Jesus’ arrival on January 5 – and what a way to start a new year, refreshed and rejoicing!

Especially this pandemic year Advent makes sense to me. And I find it jarring – to put it gently – when people are trying to conjure up a feeling of ‘a holly jolly Christmas’ while so many people around us are ill or losing their jobs or living in fear. Facing the reality of our situation in 2020 doesn’t lead to celebration – but if we face it with God we don’t face it alone.

The whole message of Advent is that our world is sick. It is sick with COVID, and it is sick with sin. Our world is sick with division and fear and loneliness and pain and longing.

Advent meets us in that darkness. Advent begins in sorrow but ends in joy. The scriptures for Advent, many of them, take us back to the Old Testament when the people of Israel were in captivity in a foreign land. And that’s basically where we are today: in captivity to a pandemic; in captivity to economic forces that we can’t change or control; in captivity to political and media leadership that’s more interested in self-promotion than in service. Advent meets us where we are – and if we are patient and stay with it, Advent doesn’t just meet us in the darkness, it leads us out of the darkness and into God’s glory.

In the darkness a light begins to shine: distant at first, but day by day, week by week, it gets a little closer. And we hear the word of God echo through the ages: “come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”

The word ‘advent’ is an ancient word meaning ‘arrival’ – specifically, the arrival of Christ – both the for first time and for the second time.

The hope of the world is about to arrive.

That’s the backdrop against which we hear God’s words this morning.

Both of our scripture readings today speak of exile: separation from God and God’s goodness. Both readings grieve over this separation and long for a revival of faith in the nation and in the world. Both of them cry out to God to hear us and restore us.

Isaiah cries out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” He grieves that his nation is facing all kinds of difficulties from within and from without. He also grieves that the people of God aren’t doing well – that the nations around them look at them and wonder what’s happened to God’s people. Not unlike us today, as the world looks at our churches growing smaller and appearing to fail. Isaiah doesn’t focus on the difficulties; instead he focuses on God. He says: “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Isaiah doesn’t give up hope, because in spite of all he sees around him, he knows God. As we enter into Advent we share Isaiah’s experience: the world around us is a mess, and the light of God’s people seems to be fading, but we focus on God, on God’s faithfulness, on God’s promises, and knowing God gives us hope.

God meets us here. God hears the prayer of the psalmist, saying: “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth… Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

As we turn to the reading from Mark, Jesus tells us what that ultimate salvation will look like. Jesus is speaking these words to his disciples just a few days before his death. Palm Sunday has already taken place, and now he and the disciples are waiting on the Mount of Olives for Passover to begin. Jesus is telling his disciples what’s about to happen, and what they should be doing while he’s gone. And Jesus promises he will return – which will give them hope during difficult times ahead. Jesus’ words describe what we call today the ‘second coming,’ and we read this today because Advent is about both Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ return.

Jesus tells us very straightforwardly that the days before his return will be more full of trouble than any the world has ever seen. The last days before his arrival will be filled with “wars and rumors of wars… nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes… famines…” persecution of God’s people… hatred and death… false messiahs… and a desolating sacrilege in Judea. Also the gospel will be proclaimed to all nations. Jesus says if these days hadn’t been cut short no one would survive. (Mark 13:5-23 edited)

After all these things happen, the Son of Man will come in great power and glory. And all God’s people will be gathered from every place on earth where they have hidden or have been scattered. Jesus promises these words are true; he says: “heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away” (v 31).

The darker our world becomes, the brighter Jesus shines.

Today many Christians are tempted to think, “Since we don’t know when Jesus is coming, we don’t need to be thinking about that.” The apostle Mark disagrees. In fact he says just the opposite: because we don’t know, we should be thinking about it all the time! The second coming of Jesus is a reality that has meaning for our daily lives. Everything we see on TV or on our computers, everything we hear, everything we read, needs to be seen and heard and understood in light of Jesus’ return. What will matter on that great day? And what won’t? Advent delivers us from the emptiness of our time, so that we can spend our energies on things that matter: things that will last.

There is no shame in looking forward to the return of our king!  One seminary professor writes: “The season of Advent invites us to wait impatiently for the consummation of hope, longing to know God as fully as we have been known… to love as we have been loved; to experience Jesus Christ as he is, and in so doing, to become like him.” (Mark Allan Powell, Trinity Lutheran Seminary)

This is the hope of Advent.

The duty of Advent is to be watching and ready. We don’t know the time. But we do know the Lord. Jesus tells us: Stay awake, keep watch, and while we wait, be doing what God commands – as faithful servants of God’s household.

In Advent we remember that God meets us where we are… so that one day we can meet Him where He is.  This is our Advent Hope. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/29/20

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