Sunday, December 14, 2014

Great Expectations

1   The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, 
          because the LORD has anointed me; 
     he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, 
          to bind up the brokenhearted, 
     to proclaim liberty to the captives, 
          and release to the prisoners; 
2   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, 
          and the day of vengeance of our God; 
          to comfort all who mourn; 
3   to provide for those who mourn in Zion — 
          to give them a garland instead of ashes, 
     the oil of gladness instead of mourning, 
          the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. 
     They will be called oaks of righteousness, 
          the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. 
4   They shall build up the ancient ruins, 
          they shall raise up the former devastations; 
     they shall repair the ruined cities,  the devastations of many generations.
46b 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.”
Tis the season for great expectations. The decorations are up.  The last pushes of pre-holiday shopping, baking and shipping are taking place. The baby is almost here and the excitement runs high.

All of us have visions in our minds of a perfect Christmas. My own expectations focus upon Christmas Eve—family together, inspiring worship, a dusting of snow and a quiet cup of tea by the lit up tree. I am all about a silent night and some candles.

Christmas comes as a promise, a reassurance that someday all will be right with the world and in our lives.  We love this. We long for this. We need this. But there is a prophetic aspect to Christmas as well.  The Advent readings from Isaiah are promising and hopeful, but they also show us what is wrong with the world.

Isaiah’s great expectations are for a world of peace, where people turn swords into plowshares, where lambs and lions lie down together, where a child can play over a nest of snakes and not be bitten.  Isaiah tells us we can expect the brokenhearted to be comforted and that good news will come for the oppressed. The captives will be set free and there will be release for the prisoners.

This is all wonderful news. It leads us to expect great things from God. But accompanying all of Isaiah’s great expectations, there is another message—a message that when God judges, someone will be be found lacking.  When we lit the Advent wreath, we heard in Isaiah 35:

Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.

Yikes. That doesn't sound very Christmasy! Then the Old Testament reading Isaiah 61 reads:

  The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
          because the LORD has anointed me;
     he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
          to bind up the brokenhearted,
     to proclaim liberty to the captives,
          and release to the prisoners;
2   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, 
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
          to comfort all who mourn;
3   to provide for those who mourn in Zion —

Who wants to hear about vengence this close to Christmas?
Isaiah is declaring a day of peace AND the vengeance of our God. There’s good news for the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive and prisoners. Presumably there’s bad news for those who do the oppressing, heartbreaking, and those who take captives and prisoners.

Fast-forward several hundred years to Mary’s song. I’m sure you remember that in the nativity story Mary, a teenager, has become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Mary, too, has some great expectations. Mary proclaims a message of good news and judgment in Luke 1. Mary expects that God will reverse things. That she and her people will no longer be downtrodden and hungry. Mary’s great expectation is that God will scatter the proud and bring down the rich. She says:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
 but has sent the rich away empty.

Isaiah's and Mary's words leave us with the hard question: Where are we in these stories? Are we the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, humble and hungry? Or are we the oppressors and heartbreakers? Are we the proud and the rich? 

We are used to hearing the words of good news and have great expectations of what God will do in the world and in our lives. So much so that we tune out the not-so-nice bits. But, embedded in this good news is the message that God has great expectations for us. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Isaiah and upon Mary and called them to participate in the work of God. They responded by being obedient and by preaching the gospel.

The Spirit of the Lord has named and claimed you and me, too, in our baptisms. We are God’s anointed. We are God’s prophets. We are vessels of God’s good news. We are called to live into the great expectations God has for us. We are called to be promoters of peace, preservers of dignity and feeders of the hungry in a world that is frightfully broken.

Isaiah and Mary lived in a broken world like ours. God gave them a word and called them to participate. We are expected to participate in the Kingdom of God that Jesus shows us in his words, ministry and life.

Speaking of expectations, this message of God's expectation and judgment might not meet your expectations of what a sermon should be so close to Christmas. You may have expected to something uplifting, not challenging.

You may prefer to hear only the good news that Jesus came for you and died for you—that by God’s grace you experience salvation. You are saved by God, not by your good works. This is true. Hear and believe this good news.

But, remember before Jesus was born, Isaiah preached good news. Mary preached good news.  Jesus preached good news  before he died and was resurrected and before people thought about what that meant. 

Before Jesus died he taught people how to live the good news. We are called to participate in the gospel that Jesus preached with his words and with his life.  The spirit is upon us. We are anointed. God has great expectations.

I know, I know, our lives are hectic and complicated and we just want a little peace.

We want prophets who speak happy news, a silent night, a baby that doesn’t cry and a savior that doesn’t bleed. Our expectation is that Christmas should be well-lit, well-decorated, and the story well-sanitized.

We create Christmases that are about pretty trees, lovely manger scenes and shiny trappings. But just like in our homes, all that Christmas beauty doesn’t just appear out of thin air.

Somebody has to do the unglamorous job of carrying the tree into the house, sweeping up the pine needles and wrapping the lights around it. Someone has to wash all the bowls and cookie sheets that produced the beautiful tray of cookies.  Christmas, like Christianity, is a participatory act.  

Have you been in a house where  one person expected help at Christmas, but feels like they are doing all the shopping, cooking, decorating and wrapping for Christmas? I can tell you it does not create goodwill toward men! Christmas requires that we all come together to get things done. Christ expected his disciples to participate in ministry.

In our scriptures today, the Jewish community had great expectations. They were expecting a messiah to come and restore their fortune. Many of them were sure that the new King of the Jews would be a literal King like David. He would increase the military might and lead them to independence and prosperity. The mighty arm of God would sweep away the Babylonians or Assyrians or Romans restore Israel. Israel would finally be at peace.

But the messiah didn’t meet their expectations. He wasn’t a warrior.  He didn’t have an army. He didn’t even defeat the Romans. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first recorded teaching begins when he unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…
Then Jesus began to say to them, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Note that Jesus “began” to say to them. The fact that he fulfilled the scriptures isn’t the last word, but the first word of his ministry. He created expectations with that reading. His whole life shows what the fulfillment of the scriptures looks like.  It doesn’t look like a warrior king. It doesn’t look like the mighty arm of the LORD sweeping swaths of people out of the way so that the Israelites can feel powerful again.

Instead, that fulfillment looks like a baby born to teenager who feels blessed by God. It looks like a teacher who feeds thousands of people on a hillside or maybe a school teacher who slips $5 to the kid from subsidized housing so that she can eat lunch.

The fulfillment of the scripture looks like a leader who gets over his revulsion and touches lepers or a nurse who works with Ebola patients.  It looks like a man who eats with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners or helps out at the food bank or takes a casserole to a grieving family or provides medical care to the homeless.

The fulfillment of scripture is a savior who shows us how to live.  It looks like the God of the universe becoming vulnerable as a baby. It looks like the most powerful person on earth being humble, empty and obedient on a cross.  It looks like Jesus calling you and me to participate in the promise of good news.

My husband Matt takes the Parkway East to work every day. After many years of commuting, he says he’s learned an important lesson about traffic. 

You don’t get STUCK in traffic. You ARE the traffic. 

I wonder if the same could be said of us as Christians. 

We aren’t just called to HEAR good news. We ARE good news. 

We are called to the hope of a better world. We are called to the manger to see a baby. We are called away to be the good news of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world. The spirit of the Lord is upon us. We have been anointed to bring good news to the poor, healing to the hurting and freedom to the captives. This is a great expectation indeed.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Power and Poetry

1   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.

This week we light the candle of peace for Advent. Honestly, it’s been one of the least peaceful weeks in a long time for me. Anyone else had a challenging week? Have you heard sad news?  Have you watched the news? Have you faced health challenges? Have you felt like things are fall apart and there is nothing you could do about it? Can I get an amen?

I know some of you have had difficult a week because I’ve talked to you and prayed with and for you. Your concerns are life altering and have been heavy on my heart. And I know that many of you have prayed for me as well. I’m always amazed at the power of spoken prayer. Words of prayer that articulate our pain and give us comfort in times of distress. Words matter.

We use our words and God’s Word to remind us that there is more to life than that which we see in front of us. The words in the Bible reminds us over and over again that God hears us. Words of prayer can remind us that we are not alone. 

The God of creation hears our words and our cries. God responds with comfort. This is the interactive poetry of life with God.

As we make our way through Advent, we read a lot of words from the prophet Isaiah. He describes the journey out of darkness into light. Isaiah tells the story of the ups and downs of the human experience, our experience.

The comfort Isaiah talks about is not the comfort of prosperity or false cheer. It is true peace. God’s shalom.

He uses words of poetry to describe both the valleys and shadows of sadness and the mountaintops of joy and peace. He tells the story of harsh judgment and loving forgiveness. We name our Advent candles to symbolize this journey Isaiah writes about so powerfully. A journey from despair to hope. War to peace. Sadness to Joy. Enmity to Love. Without Christ to with Christ.

Our Advent journey began last week with the people worried that God had abandoned them. They were crying out to God to tear open the heavens and come down. Today, Isaiah offers comfort and reminds us that in our ups and downs, we are God’s people. In poetry like Isaiah’s, even small words can have a big impact.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Isaiah uses the tiny words my and your remind us of our relationship to God.  He brings to mind age-old covenant from the time of Moses:

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. (Ex. 6:7)
I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Lev. 26:12)

We are reminded that the relationship we have with God is eternal, despite the hardships we face in life—and the mistakes we make.

Our problems may be different from the people in Isaiah’s time, but we still face bodies that decay, have thoughts that betray us, do things we wish we didn’t. We find ourselves in situations that leave us crying for comfort. But, God doesn’t leave us to face the storms of life alone. God remains in relationship with us even though we make mistakes.

As the parent of a young adult and a teenager, I’m learning how hard it is to watch them make their own mistakes.

For example when my oldest daughter applied to college she applied to the art school—she is a visionary and a wonderfully talented artist. Then right before classes started she decided she wanted to major in astrophysics. Even though she hadn’t had a math class since her sophomore year of high school. Even though she didn’t like math. Even though she took no joy in doing her math homework.

Needless to say, it was a not a good year for her.  She learned to cope with the stress of failure. So did her parents.

But did it change the things that really matter? Did it change my desire for her to be at peace and comfortable with who she is? Did it change the fact that we are bonded by love? No.

I will be your God, and you shall be my people, God told the Israelites. I can say with authority that I will be her mother and she shall be my daughter.  The circumstances don't change the relationship.  Over the summer, I comforted her, helped her lick her wounds and sent her back this year as an art major. So far, so good.

Comfort, comfort my people says your God.

Isaiah’s poetic repetition emphasizes God’s desire that we be comforted. God cares about what is happening in our lives, but God doesn’t always control it. I don’t believe God causes our illnesses nor is God responsible for the bad behavior of others. God doesn’t make our stupid decisions for us. We have the freedom to do that all on our own.

But God is there to embrace us and offer us comfort. God will “gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom.” In the storms of life we can look for the loving embrace of God.

Comfort, comfort my people says your God.

This doesn’t just come as a supernatural hug from heaven, but from our family, friends and neighbors. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” is a command to someone else. It doesn’t say that only God does the comforting. We too offer comfort through our presence and our words. We are to be givers and receivers of comfort in God.

Comfort, comfort my people says your God.

In these six words, Isaiah reminds us of God’s steadfast love and invites into the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to participate in the Living Word with our own meager words and actions. We are called to be active in the poetry of God’s creation. To lift our voices, sing praises and offer comfort. Our lives matter. Our voices matter.

Isaiah sounds like a preschool mom, telling us over and over again: Use your words.

Speak tenderly
Cry out
Lift up your voice
Say to the cities

Isaiah tells us to speak of God. To cry out about the coming of the Lord. He does this because he believed that speaking was a creative act. Remember in Genesis, God spoke creation into being. We certainly don't have that power. But when we speak, we change the reality that is around us. And maybe, just maybe, we use our words to reveal a new reality, a God reality. The Kingdom of Heaven that is at hand.  

Think about it. When we speak words of anger, what do we get as a response? More anger. When we speak words of love, what do we get in return? More love.  What we say is important.

Words matter. They help give shape to the world. If I say cat, what kind of cat do you imagine?  

Your might be calico or black or orange. You might imagine a panther or a house cat. You might think of a beloved pet or a creature that causes you to sneeze.  But chances are there the creature you imagined had for legs, fur and a feline quality. One little word has the power create an image in your mind. The words I speak call forth a response. They have power. Your little words have that power, too. That’s why we read God's Word. That's why we preach the Word. The big Word of God gives us guidance for our lives. It creates a reality and calls us to action. 

Words also endure. We remember the names of people who have died long ago. Their names tell us what they stood for—George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr.  Elvis all have a legacy. Words allow concepts like God or peace or justice or salvation or Jesus to be passed along from generation to generation. Words tell the story of Jesus and God’s enduring love. The words we say at communion --This is my body give for you-- connect us to Christ and Christians in history.

Many of us know the words of one of Isaiah’s best loved passages

The grass withers, the flower fades;
         but the word of our God will stand forever.

There are things in this life that are like flowers—they bloom and grow in beauty and wither and fade. But, flowers leave a legacy, a seed or root or bulb that grows the next spring.

In our earthly lives we will wither and fade, none of us escape that. But we can leave behind seeds of hope and promise and comfort for the next generation. The seeds that we leave are our words. Our little words and the big Word of God will grow and bloom in the coming generations. Imagine how beautiful the world would be if the words we say, the legacies we leave were words of Advent.

Remember the power of words to create? Remember the cat you imagined? As I slowly read the words of Advent, what do these words call forth in you?






When I imagine those words, I visualize ribbons of purple and red and blue and pink intertwining together and lifting up toward the a bright blue sky. They are glittery and dancing in soft wind.

I see people of all races and nations living in love and in God’s creation and abundance. I see people at peace providing for one another, not hoarding their resources and shooting one another in the streets. I see a world without despair, war, sadness and enmity. I see people living in communion with each other and with God. This is what I want to call forth with my words. These Advent words are the words I want to live out with my life.

Isaiah's words are meant to prepare us for Christmas. They prepare us for the in-breaking of God to a world that uses words as weapons berate, destroy and divide. He is a timeless poet helping us to prepare for a new reality. 

A reality ushered in by a baby, 
     starting life without words, 
     only a cry. 
A baby and his bewildered parents.
     Crying, he heard their words.
     Crying, he received their comfort.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.