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Posts Tagged ‘Hope’

.          “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
.          4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant  5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
            8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” – I Corinthians 13:1-13

love give away

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Today we’re only a week away from Valentine’s Day, and this morning we have for our reading I Corinthians 13 – the “Love Chapter”. This is probably one of the best-known passages in scripture if not the best-known. It’s often heard at weddings, and it’s one of my favorite passages of scripture – probably in the Top Five.

I fell in love with I Corinthians 13 when I was around 12 or 13 years old. At that age I had a gazillion questions about love and falling in love. What is love? What’s it’s like to fall in love? How can you tell when you’re in love? (I can still hear my mother saying, “when it happens, you’ll know.”)

It didn’t take me too long to figure out there’s a difference between being in love and love itself. And it didn’t take long to figure out that the love songs on the radio were about being in love. But finding a definition of love was a challenge. Not too many people want to have a serious conversation with a thirteen-year-old on the subject of “what is love?” When I finally tripped over I Corinthians 13 I thought: “Yesssss!!! A definition of love that I can work with!”

But my excitement faded quickly when I realized just how difficult it is to do the things Paul is talking about. What Paul describes in I Corinthians 13 is not humanly possible, because Paul is describing the character of God. We, as human beings, are made in God’s image: so these words describe what we were created to be; and they also show us how far humanity has fallen from God’s perfection. Wrestling with this text is not for the faint-hearted. I do recommend it though, with caution and care, because Paul’s words bring us closer to the reality of who God is, and to God’s purpose for our lives.

One other side note before I dive into the text. I love the old movie The Wizard of Oz – but there’s a line towards the end that always makes me cringe. It comes after Dorothy and her friends have returned to the Wizard with the witch’s broomstick, and the wizard is handing out the gifts. He says to the Tin Man, as he gives him a heart: “a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

This is NOT the kind of love Paul is talking about: just the opposite. Paul says love is self-giving and in some cases self-sacrificing. We see examples of self-giving love in people who risk their lives to save others, like firefighters and health care workers. We see self-giving love – if we’re lucky – in our parents and grandparents as they raise us. When we see this kind of love we look up to the people who give it, and we often take them as role models.

This kind of self-giving love is much closer what Paul is talking about.

love what is it

All that said, let’s dive into this passage. By way of background: Paul is writing to the church in the city of Corinth, Greece. And the Corinthian church is divided against itself (something many churches today can relate to). In this case the church is fighting over which spiritual gifts are the greatest – or to put it another way, which of them is the most spiritual.

Paul answers their questions about spiritual gifts in I Corinthians chapter twelve, where he talks about how the church is like a body, and it needs all its different parts. He says the hand can’t say to the foot ‘I don’t need you’. And the foot can’t say ‘because I’m a foot and not an eye, I don’t belong here’. The different parts of the body are all needed, and they are supposed to be different. Love is what makes it possible for the different parts to do what they’re designed to do, without being offended by or jealous of the other body parts. Love makes it possible to be different without being divisive.

Then at the end of the discussion on gifts, Paul says in the last verse of chapter twelve: “…and now I will show you a more excellent way” – and he launches into this beautiful poem about love.

I invite you to grab your Bibles if you have one nearby and follow with me, because I’m going to read the chapter a little differently this morning. There are three parts or sections to this chapter: Part 1 (vss 1-3); Part 2 (vss 4-7); and Part 3 (vss 8-13). This past week as I was studying this passage I discovered some new things thanks to a theologian who suggested reading it in the original Greek. She was right. Comparing the English to the Greek, the words are similar but the parts of speech are different. So I’d like you to be looking at the published translation as I dig into these differences.

Starting in Part 1 vss 1-3 (just a quick summary): Paul basically says: if I give away everything I have, if I sell all that I own and give the money to the poor, and if I even give up my life and die as a martyr – if I don’t love I gain nothing. If I’m able to move crowds to action with my words; if I’m the best teacher in the world; if I know everything there is to know; if I have all the power in the world; if I can even predict the future – without love I am nothing. Generosity and giving and self-sacrifice must be rooted in love or they are meaningless – mere self-promotion.

LoveBears

Part two, vss 4-7: This section is a description of what love is and isn’t, and this is where the biggest difference between English and Greek comes in. The English version has a lot of adjectives but the Greek version has a lot of verbs; so in English we hear a description of love, but in Greek we hear action. Here’s a rough translation from the Greek:

“(4) love has patience; love has kindness and shows mercy; love is not filled with jealousy or envy; love isn’t about showing off; love isn’t conceited, it doesn’t put on airs (5) love does not behave disgracefully or dishonorably; love does not seek itself; love is not easily angered; love does not reckon evil of others; (6) love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices with (alongside) the truth. (7) Love endures all (panta), believes all, hopes all, remains (hangs in there) with all. (8) Love never falls/collapses/is never destroyed; never fails.”

Then in part three (vss 8-13) Paul says so much of what we invest our time and energy on in this life won’t last. Prophecies will come to pass (or not). Tongues and languages will pass. Even knowledge itself will be used up, set aside, brought to an end. What we know now is only partial, and how we think about the future – either here on earth or the future in God’s kingdom – is sketchy at best. When the perfect comes the imperfect will lose its meaning.

In a way I think it’s like expecting a child. We can know a lot about a child before the child is born: we can do ultrasounds, we can run tests, we can figure out the gender. But things like the personality, the characteristics, who this baby takes after – we won’t know these things until the child is born. And when the child is born, everything we knew before the birth looks so incomplete it’s irrelevant – because the kid is finally here!

It’s the same way with life in God’s kingdom. We can talk about heaven, we can talk about going to live with God, but we won’t really know what we’re talking about until we get there – and when we get there, anything we knew now is a mere shadow of the reality.

Verse 11 – this verse basically just tells us that as we grow we mature. And verse 12 speaks of ancient mirrors which were not made the way mirrors are made today – they were rough and uneven and only gave a person a general idea of what they looked like. This is what our vision and understanding of life and heaven are like right now.

If all this is true, and what we have and know in this life is sketchy at best, then what matters? What do we have and what can we do that will have any meaning? Paul will tell us in chapter 14 that God gives us spiritual gifts to bring good into God’s kingdom and into the life of God’s people; but here at the end of chapter 13, Paul says there are only three things that have any real lasting meaning:

  • Faith: which is not a fuzzy feeling but a rock-solid trust: ‘a knowledge of things hoped for’
  • Hope: faith in action; acting on what we believe
  • Love: the greatest of all

love these three remain

On a practical level, then, what would Paul have us do? I think he would have us think deeply on his words, about the kind of love he’s been describing. I think he would have us work on love: experiment, learn, try things, practice. Practice loving God, practice loving each other, practice enjoying the variety in God’s creation – not only in nature, but in the differences within the Body of Christ. Practice patience and kindness and mercy and generosity of spirit and hope and faith.

Paul is asking a lot here!! In fact what he describes in I Corinthians 13 really is impossible; so I think the very first thing is to not get discouraged by this passage. I Corinthians 13 drives us to the realization that we are not able to meet God’s gold standard of love. We must trust God’s love – we must trust that God will make up the difference – there’s no other way. What Jesus did for us here on earth, in living and teaching and caring and healing and dying and rising again, makes it possible for our imperfect love to be perfected. And as we grow in love, we grow in our ability to build a Christian community, the family of God, the body of Christ.

Let’s pray.

Lord, thank you for loving us. Thank you for sending Jesus into our world to show us how love is brought to life, and to take on himself all the things we’ve failed to do. Forgive us when we fall short. Help us to grow in love for you and for each other. Build us into the church that you have in mind, so we can share Your love with others, and so that others can come to know your love. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/6/22

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“There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.  2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD.  4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;  5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.  6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.  7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.  8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD.  10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.  11 She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

12  As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth.  13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.  14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”  15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.  16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”  18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her.” – 1 Samuel 1:1-19

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Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.  2 “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.  3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.  4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.  6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.  8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.  9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.  10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” – 1 Samuel 2:1-10

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Today we have two readings from I Samuel: the first tells the story of Hannah, a woman who was feeling distraught and hopeless in her life circumstances; and the reading is Hannah’s song of joy and victory when God finally hears her prayer and she finds hope.

Hannah

I think these passages fit us well today, because there are a lot of things these days that can make us feel hopeless. The pandemic, for one, has us all on edge. Many of our communities are full of old structures and old institutions that need renewing if not replacing. Our society is full of violence and apathy. And our churches – all of them, of any kind – are struggling and have seen better days. We wonder how to reach out with God’s message to our communities, how to share the good news of Jesus, when people don’t seem to even want to hear it any more.

What does one do when it seems like hope is dead and the future looks bleak? Hannah was a woman in that same spot, who managed to find God and find hope. So I want to share her story this morning.

Hannah was a young woman of the people of Israel. She was married to a wealthy man who believed in God whose name was Elkanah. Hannah’s name means “favor of God” or “grace of God,” but she didn’t feel very favored by God. After many years of marriage, to a husband who loved her very much, they had no children. Back then, in a world where there were no retirement homes or supermarkets or home health aides, the only way to eat was to farm, and a person’s senior years depended on having children who would be able to take care of the farm and the parents as they aged. And things would be even worse for Hannah if Elkanah died before she did. To be a widow or an orphan in those times was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to a person – it was literally life-threatening.

So Elkanah did what many men in those days did in that situation: he took a second wife with whom to have children. We see this happen, with some variations, with Abraham and Sarah, and with Jacob and Rachel, and with other couples in the Bible. Having a second wife was not illegal back then, and it was not against the Law of Moses either. Generally speaking in those days men who had more than one wife were either wealthy (which Elkanah was) or desperate for children (which Elkanah also was). Not an ideal situation, but not unusual.

Elkanah’s second wife, Peninah, was prolific!  She had baby after baby after baby.

Every year, Elkanah, who was a devout man, took his family to Shiloh to worship. Worship back then included sacrificing animals: the fat would be burned on the altar as an offering to God, and then the meat would be shared between the family and the priests. So each member of the family would receive a slice of the roast (so to speak) – one for Peninnah, one for each child, and two portions were given to Hannah because Elkanah loved her.

Peninnah, the mother of all these children, saw that she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, and it rankled. So she did everything she could to rub Hannah’s face in the fact she had no children.

Hannah n Other Family

There is nothing in this world more catty than women comparing their children: how many they’ve got, what gender they are, what they’ve accomplished, what they do for a living…  I have actually heard real live women say things to other women like: “oh how wonderful – another girl! Are you guys going to try for a boy next?” Or this: “Thirty-two and not married? Don’t worry, you still have lots of time.”

So I can just imagine Peninnah: “hey Hannah, I’m going to run into town to buy some clothes for the kids, wanna come?” Or at the sacrifice: “Don’t forget, Elkanah honey, I’m gonna need seven portions this year!”

The author of Samuel says that Peninnah “provoked Hannah severely”.  Translation: she really dug her claws in. Hannah’s lack of kids wasn’t for lack of trying, but nothing they tried worked. Year after year she was shamed and ridiculed and driven to tears by a woman the author of Samuel calls “her rival”.

The dictionary defines a ‘rival’ as “a person competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.”  That’s exactly what Peninnah was doing. If she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, she was going to see to it that she got his attention, and lots of it, through those kids.

Hannah meanwhile was feeling like all hope was gone and her future was grim. I’d like us to consider this question today: where in life do we feel like hope is gone? Do we have health problems? Financial problems? Family problems? As church members, do we fear for the future of our church? Do we fear for the future of our community? Whatever our minds are focused on these days, I’d like to suggest holding that thing in mind as we move into Hannah’s story.

Hannah had tried everything. Nothing worked. She felt like even God was against her. In fact the writer of Samuel says twice “the Lord had closed her womb”. I’m sure that’s how it felt to Hannah. And Jewish scholars point out that Hannah wasn’t wrong: the Lord had closed her womb.

God had put Hannah in exactly this situation at exactly this time because God wanted to do something BIG through her. God wanted to bring someone special into the world: a man who would lead his people from being scattered tribes to a united kingdom under the leadership of David.

Whatever difficulty or hard place we find ourselves in right now, consider the possibility (it’s not always the case, but it may be) we’re in these situations because God wants us to reach out to him with the passion and conviction and daring that Hannah did.

Listen to how Hannah talks to God! She says in her prayer: “Lord! If you would only look at me! If you would only see the pain in my heart! If you would only remember me! If you would give me a male child – I promise I will give him back to you as a Nazirite…”

I need to break into the story just for a moment to explain what Hannah is promising. A Nazirite was a special order of holy men back then (Samson was a Nazirite). Nazirites never touched alcohol and never cut their hair, as a sign of their lifelong commitment to God. They often had charismatic gifts; they were men in whom the Spirit of the Lord dwelled with power. And they were set aside as Nazirites by their parents at birth.

So basically what Hannah is saying is that if God will only give her a son, she will give him back to God – which will be extremely painful for Hannah as the boy grows up. But at this point Hannah is beyond caring about herself. She is not asking for a child to take care of her in old age. She is not asking for relief against her rival. She is not asking for a son she can raise. She is asking probably the hardest thing in the world: to give birth to a child so she can give him away. She would see him once a year when they sacrificed at the temple, and that would be all.

So this is her promise: “I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Hannah praying

This was exactly the prayer God had been waiting for. This prayer sets God’s plan in motion. All the trouble and all the pain had been leading up to this. God had a plan, and God wanted to include Hannah in that plan.

Whatever difficulties are going on in our lives right now, in life or in the church or in the community, what would happen if we did what Hannah did? If we gave up all personal interest and simply said, “Lord please hear me. Lord please remember me. This situation right here needs to change, and I want what you want. Please hear me.”

The minute Hannah prayed this prayer – she was immediately attacked! She was so passionate in her prayer, the high priest Eli thought she was drunk! But she stood up for herself (which is not always easy when one is talking to high-ranking clergy) and she said, “no sir, I’m not drunk. I’m just very upset and deeply troubled. I have been pouring out my heart and my vexation to God.”

And Eli gave her God’s answer: “Go in peace; and may God grant your petition.”

For the first time in years, Hannah felt like she’d been heard. Her spirits rose, her heart was glad, and she went back to her family a new woman, and ate and drank and enjoying her husband’s company. Nothing had changed – yet – but she knew the change was coming.

Our reading in Samuel ends here but the story goes on. God remembered Hannah, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to Samuel, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. As soon as Samuel was weaned Hannah brought him to Eli for service in the temple just as she had promised God. Later on, God remembered Hannah again – and ultimately she ended up having two more sons and three daughters. God gave her what she needed as well.

But before all this happened, Hannah sang the song we read in the second reading today: a song about victory in the Lord, in a God who sees and a God who knows, who builds up the weak but destroys the mighty, who feeds the hungry and lets those who are full go without, who raises up the lowly and raises up the poor, but cuts off the wicked – a God who will judge the earth, who will give power to his anointed (and the word ‘anointed’ here means Messiah.)

If you have a moment this week, put Hannah’s song next to the Song of Mary found in Luke chapter one. It’s amazing how similar they are. Hannah, through her suffering and through her prayers, caught a glimpse of the Messiah – and she became a prophetess whose actions changed the course of history and whose words described Jesus a thousand years before he was born.

Bold Prayers

As we face into our own difficulties, whatever they may be – be courageous and bold like Hannah. Be persistent in prayer. Ask God to remember his people. And keep ears open for answers.

May God hear our prayers and, as Hannah experienced, may God send us out in the confidence and peace of knowing we have been heard. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/14/21

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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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