Last week we lit the hope candle, reminding us that hope is a period of active waiting for a certain thing to happen. Hope begins as a thought in our head before makes its way down to a desire in our heart – where love is ignited. Today we light our second candle. Love.
When I asked Siri what is love, my phone told me, and I quote “As I understand it, love refers to a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude.” In other words, Love is a feeling that is understood best by the things it makes us do – acts of kindness, being generous and giving of ourselves to others.
Jesus is the perfect example of God’s love for us. And so as we look at this light of hope and love we are reminded of the words of John who wrote, “For God so love the world that he sent his only begotten son” and those who see and do what the Son does will be redeemed back to the everlasting love of our Creator.
Come and let us hold fast to the words of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
It’s easy to laugh at Christmas jokes, but it doesn’t always make the season joyful. For many, this time of year is hard to bear.
It was three years ago, last month, that my family and I made the hard transition of leaving our church, my ministry, and some very dear friends for reasons I will not go into. This was one of those life changing choices Kathleen and I had to make. We relied heavily on God’s guidance to get us through it.
A month later… I was sitting in this room, feeling abandoned by God. My spirit and joy were barely noticeable. I no longer had a ministry or a reason to pursuit one. Needless to say it was a very difficult advent wait – a dark time spent doubting myself and my calling. Everything I had worked hard to achieve and held true in my heart felt like it had been shoved through a wood chipper. I was nothing but an old stump of what I once was.
Have you ever felt that way? Chopped down to nothing, feeling hopeless, worthless or useless at best? Is Christmas hard for you? Are you having trouble mustering the strength to get through the season?
Hopefully, today’s reading will shed some light on your life so you can see that God, out of deep love for you, is hard at work redeeming and restoring you… transforming all of creation into something new and amazing.
Read Isaiah 11:1-6
Two summers ago we put up a new fence around our property. When I read this story I thought of the six huge ficus trees we had to cut down to make room for the fence. The guy who did the work didn’t use a stump grinder to finish the job. Instead he cut giant X’s into the stump with his chainsaw. Then, for safe measure, poured gas into the grooves which apparently kills the tree from the top down. With the trees gone, I removed the sprinklers from the area. And a couple of days later we had a brand-new fence in its place.
But that’s not the end of the story. A year later, these little green sprigs began growing out of those stumps. For a while, I would snip them off. But the more I snipped the stronger and faster they grew. Today, we now have a lovely green hedge in that old space.
Not only did the trees survive being cut down, dosed in gasoline and denied water…but they were also transformed into something new in the process, they went from trees to shrubbery. A perfect illustration of how God’s love works. Out of death comes new life.
We see this when Isaiah pronounced the coming prince of peace. Judah had been defeated and those who were hauled off in captivity believed God had abandoned them. Their life seemed hopeless. And those who remained behind were nothing more than old stumps of what they once were. But Isaiah said, God is up to something.
A green shoot from the House of David will emerge and reign with the Spirit of God’s love and righteousness. A new king will come out of Bethlehem and lead his people with “wisdom and understanding” “counsel and might” and with “knowledge and fear of God.”
And just for good measure, this ruler will be the bearer of God’s Spirit, who will transform a culture of fear into a world of peace. He will judge with justice according to God’s will and righteousness: freed from bias or favoritism.
Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, or left for dead, comes the sign of new life. This is how God’s love surprises the world. Hope emerging as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place. A teenage mom, a dirty stable, a tiny baby born with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a giant target on his back.
I had a professor in seminary who always warned us not to read Jesus into this text no matter how tempting it is to do so. St. Paul has no problem using the stump of Jesse metaphor to argue differently in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 15:12). Either way, Isaiah shows us how to wait for Christ.
For those of us who are fed up with the moral, religious, and political crisis our nation and world are facing today, Isaiah reminds us that God is up to something.
For those of us who are in dark places, and cannot muster the strength to live another day, Isaiah says hold on, God is up to something.
For those of us who are barely getting by, or living in poverty or suffering injustice, Isaiah offers hope that arises out of God’s great love for us.
No one exemplified God’s love better than Jesus, the Christ. When we look to him we see God. Through him we know who God is and who we are to God.
And so Isaiah invites you to ask where are the stumps in your life? Where do you feel chopped down, hopeless, or alone? Can you imagine or believe that even now, in your own dark space, God is nurturing the growth of something new and good? The world can dowse us with gas, and even deny our thirst, but it cannot stop God from doing what God wants to do – creating life out of death.
When I thought my ministry was done, God was up to something – transforming my faith and leading me to a new kind of church that uses technology to reach people who, for whatever reason, aren’t hearing the Good News.
Today, New Church Sherman Oaks, along with our sister church The Phoenix Congregational Fellowship, are literally reaching the furthest corners of the world to share Jesus’ story of love and redemption. As long as we have the internet, we have mission and ministry...because God is always up to something.
No matter what you might be going through, I pray Isaiah speaks to your heart and gives you hope in your head. Because God is not only faithful, but God is hard at work. Through Christ, God is taking your pain, your fears and worries, and making something new. A new life, and new light, and new everlasting love.
The peace of God that is inaugurated with the incarnation is one where all things will be transformed. Humans, animals, and the land itself will be filled with the knowledge of God. And be reconciled and restored into God’s glory, where the kingship of Christ will reign with justice and fairness.
But here’s the kicker. All we can do is wait it out. Yet in this time of wait, I invite you to look within yourself. And ask how can you use this Advent time to spiritually mature?
How can you bear the fruits of God’s love, through acts of mercy, forgiveness, and justice?
How can you see and do what Jesus does, so others can see and do the same. Our hope, and our love, are the first fruits that God uses to bring divine peace into a world that desperately needs it. In Jesus, God came to be with us, to show us how to be the shining lights in the darkness, to show how God is at work in the most ordinary and unusual of ways.
As you leave here today, how you might live out this light of hope and this light of love in such a way so the wolf and lamb can live in harmony? Here’s a hint: follow the little child who leads the way back to God’s glory?
Let us pray:
Lord Christ, shine in us and through us today so that we might illuminate the darkest corners of our life and the life of others in this season of advent wait. Help us to see what you do, and a to accept the call to go and do the same…so your name can be glorified, now and forever, Amen.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Bartlett, David. L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press: 2010) pp. 26-31.
Last year, I kicked off the first Sunday of Advent with a quote from Julie Polter who described this season before Christmas as “the ending that is the beginning ...when we ponder the second coming of Jesus before we celebrate the first.”
I feel like we’ve spent the last few weeks pondering this beginning and ending as we looked through the lens of hope. And not just any hope, but hope that was born in the Bethlehem stable. A kind of Hope that not even death could defeat.
By definition, hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen...a wish, an ambition, or goal. Hope is experienced in many different ways. Fiona hopes she gets into the college of her dreams. Sean hopes to get a Nintendo Switch for Christmas. And Colleen hopes I won’tuse her as a sermon illustration. I don’t even want to know what my wife is hoping I will do today, because I was hoping to take a nap later on.
Which leads us to today’s scripture. Whenever we hope, we can assume that there will be a period of waiting. But what exactly are we waiting for? And how will we fill that time? These are questions to ponder as we look at Matthew 24:36-44.
Nothing like starting off the Christmas season with a story about the end of the world, and the end of humankind. But if we look at it honestly, we might see Jesus’ words are no different than a Hallmark Christmas movie, where something good always happens no matter how bad the situation might seem.
Recently we’ve talked about how prophetic and apocalyptic text are warnings for us. They are the flashing red lights and sirens that get our attention, designed to keep us on our toes. Matthew uses this technique to awaken us from our slumber.
He tells us that one day Jesus might appear like a thief in the night. We don’t know when that day or hour will come. We can’t mark it on our calendar or prepare for it beforehand. We just have to stay awake. For those who like to nap, this is a bit disconcerting.
So why does Jesus bring it up? Does he want us to be feel unsettled and anxious? Personally, I think that the fact Jesus isn’t telling us when that day will come, is actually very telling. Just as we overlook advent to get to Christmas, it’s easy to jump ahead and make faith only about the end goal- getting into heaven. We become so enamored with talking about spending eternity in the Kingdom of God that they forget Jesus said the kingdom of God has come.
Advent is not a time to simply wait for Christ to be born, or the resurrection to happen. Instead it’s a time to “Stay awake.” To be present and live intentionally, to see and do what Jesus does as if Jesus meant what he said. It’s a time, not just to ponder the first and second coming of Christ, but to be fully engaged with the Christ within us all until that day comes.
I love to tell the story of a Buddhist monk who is being chased by a very hungry tiger. Running as fast as he can the monk realizes he’s running straight towards a cliff. As the tiger gets closer and closer, the monk searches for an escape. He sees a long vine dangling from a tree over the cliff. The monk jumps and grabs hold of the vine and begins to shimmy down just before the tiger can pounce.
But as fate would have it, the vine wasn’t as long as the monk had hoped. And when he looked down there were sharp, jagged rocks about 1,500 feet below. Letting go of the rope would be certain death. As would climbing back up.
So the monk looked for another escape plan. And that’s when he saw a small ledge on the side of the cliff. On that small ledge was a patch of soft, dewy grass. Growing from a crag in the rocks was a small strawberry bush. And on that bush rested a fresh red, ripe strawberry.
The monk reached out and plucked the strawberry off its branch, and brought it up to his nose and inhaled its goodness. It was the best thing he had ever smelled. He savored that moment before he took a bite and enjoyed its sweetness.
There was something about that strawberry that made heart sang with joy. In that moment he was fully alive. Had he only focused on what was to come, the sharp jagged rocks below, or on his past where the tiger waited, he never would have seen the gift God had placed in his path to savor. Jesus says, “stay alert.”
“When we are too focused on heaven as the only place of beauty and goodness,” writes Jazzy Bostock, “we run the risk of not only ignoring the beauty and goodness of the world but also our responsibility to it.”
A life of faith need not be focused on the world to come but on how to remain faithful in this one – the one God gave as our mandate to love and care for. It’s here in this world, in this place and in this time that we find that red ripe strawberry to savor.
If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my blog, you know that I spent each day of November getting to know someone new. Afterward I quickly wrote about the experience. What you may not know is I didn’t take notes, or record the conversations. Instead I listened to what they had to say. In doing so, I learned something new about myself: I could remembered their story, their quotes, and the small facts about who they were and where they were from, simply because we shared a moment. Their story became a part of my own story.
Moreover, I discovered this simple act allowed a young man named Matt to cry with a total stranger. It helped Dan to confess something before going home to make amends to his wife. It gave Bill, an elderly vet who I continue to run into, a friend to talk to in the park. And it helped Gerry and Victoria to take sting out of a bad situation.
We may not know the day or hour, but we do know that at any given second Jesus will appear around the corner, suddenly like a hungry person, or a neighbor in need of help, or a friend who is sick, or someone we love who is in a broken or toxic relationship. People around us are suffering in many different ways. They are worrying about climate change, gun violence, and fearing what is to come out of this political mess we’re in.
Jesus doesn’t tell us when the day is coming, because today there is work to be done. When we focus only on the world to come, we lose sight of the task God has called us to do right now.
“Jesus is offering us an invitation into the world we are already in – an invitation to this world, to this time and place” (Bostock). As messy as this place might seem, it’s precisely in this space we find our hope, our strength, our grace, our salvation.
Here’s the best part about it all. We don’t need to be perfect, just present. We don’t need to hide from our messiness to participate in this season. John Pavlovitz calls us to,“bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. This is where we notice beauty, move with compassion, and have grace revealed.” Jesus calls us to ready ourselves to leave this world by truly living in it, by soaking up every grace-filled moment and savoring its sweetness. To actively wait for both the birth and rebirth of Christ that is happening all around us, right now.
If you’re only sitting around waiting for God’s kingdom to come, then you’re missing what God’s Kingdom is all about - a kingdom where Heaven and Earth are one. In the race to get to Christmas morning, the season of Advent can come and go without notice. So I invite you to take the time to be in a spirit of wakefulness and watchfulness. And to make yourself God’s Christmas gift for those around you.
Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour – it might be in this moment or it might be on Christmas Eve, we don’t know. But what we do know is what we can do while we wait. And that’s to make heaven happen for someone today. It might be in the most outstanding act of charity or the simplest act of compassion. It may be in our our daily busyness or in our quiet moments.
As we kick off advent, we do so with gratitude that Jesus makes us sit and ponder what is to come. In doing so, Jesus is giving us the time we need to simply be in the moment where life is happening in real time. He is giving us this day to see Christ in our midst, in the stories of strangers and friends alike…and he’s giving us the time to love them as if we were loving Jesus himself.
Not knowing when the day or hour will come is a gift for us. It’s the time we need to look around and see those red ripe strawberries that are growing wildly all around us, to pick them and to savor every bite of goodness, as we wait the goodness and the greatness that is to come.
Let us pray.
Loving and generous God, you have given us so many great reasons to be alive in the moment. As we move forward in our day, take our burdens into your heart and redeem them; take our fears and transform them, and make this step we are taking to be in line with the steps of Christ who walks before us, behind us, and beside us until the day your full glory is revealed. For it is in his name we pray. Amen.
Bostock, Jazzy. No One Knows. episcopalchurch.org. (Accessed Nov. 27, 2019).
Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. (Chalice Press: 2019) Kindle edition.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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