Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

[A variety of tools, power and otherwise, are placed in the middle of the chancel area]

Warning, Friends, these are things you want me to stay away from, especially the ones that have sharp edges and that you plug in. These do happen to be from the Heins’ family tool chest, and well, most of them haven’t seen the light of day for a long time. Home maintenance: not exactly my forté.

But the reason that I bring them here for you to see this morning is because tools are what this text from Isaiah is about. It is about building, and rebuilding.

First off, this is one of those texts. Though we encounter the divine over and over again in Scripture, this is one set of verses that gives us deep insight into the very heart of God. It lets us peek behind the curtain to see what this mysterious God that we follow is all about. In this season of Advent, as we prepare ourselves for and eagerly await the coming of Jesus, God’s son, we can read this text if we want to know what this coming is all about, what lies at its heart. When Jesus himself tells everyone what his ministry is all about, in his first sermon in Luke’s gospel (his inaugural address, so to speak), he quotes these very verses from the prophet Isaiah. This is one of those texts.

These words from Isaiah are spoken to exiles who are returning home. In 578 BCE, Israel was overrun by the Babylonian Empire, and the cream of Israel’s society was carted off to far away Babylon where they spent 40 years or so weeping and wondering about why God did not save them. Eventually, God did deliver them and bring them home, but the home they return to is in ruins. As they gaze over the ruins of their once proud land, God sends these returning exiles this good news from Isaiah: it is time to rebuild, and I will be there to make it possible. It was a word for their day.

Much later, in Jesus’ day, in that foundational sermon in Luke’s gospel, Jesus looked at his church family (his hometown synagogue) and said (after he had read these verses of rebuilding from Isaiah), “Today, this scripture is fulfilled.” It was also a word for their day.

Now it is 2008, and the promise is not ended. It is not a thing of the past. As a living Word, these verses are spoken to us, who believe that Jesus did not only come 2000 years ago, he is coming today, in your life and in mine. As he has done in every day of every age, God is coming to our world, to the places of our ruin, and, he places tools in our hands.

“It is time to turn things around. This is the year of the Lord’s favor, when the injustices, and the hurts, and the listlessness, and the avoidance, and the sadness, when all these things that hold us captive are ended. I hate these things,” the Lord says. That little baby in a manger is coming and he will grow up, and he will wield a hammer the likes of which you have never seen. He will end up on a cross, and on that cross, the hold of evil on us is broken, and we are called to rebuild.

“They’ll rebuild the old ruins; raise a new city out of the wreckage. They’ll start over on the ruined cities, take the rubble left behind and make it new.” (Isaiah 61:4 MESSAGE)

God sent Jesus into the world not just to make us feel better. God didn’t send Jesus into the world just to save our spiritual souls so that when we die will go to heaven (don’t get me wrong, eternal life as in John 3:16 is central, but it is not the whole story). God sent his Son, the anointed one, the Messiah, to build, and to rebuild. Not only that, but God sent his Son to give us the tools and the anointing, and the strength, to rebuild our lives in the places and times when they fall into ruin.

The Season of Advent gives us the chance to pause and notice that there is ruin. Just look at the news. We are very much like the exiles who return to their home and see that the once grand structures, the once mighty walls, the once beautiful and bustling streets are not what they once were.

Advent too, gives us pause to examine our own lives–to look at the very personal parts of our lives where life and relationships, where disappointment, guilt and grief, where circumstances and challenges–have wreaked havoc.

When we see these areas of ruin in our lives and world, there are two very popular responses. One is that we run and hide from the ruins. We close off that area of town and we just simply pretend as if the ruins don’t exist. There’s no racism or sexism anymore. There is no prejudice any more. Rampant inequality? What inequality. We’ve all got an equal shot. We’re just one happy human family!

Rubble? What rubble? There’s no rubble in my life. {There it is, right there, don’t you see it?} See what? The pain. {The destruction. The powerlessness.} Oh that, Shhh! I don’t want anyone to know about that, let alone help. I just ignore it. It’s ok.

The second kind of response is to run and rebuild on our own. To grab whatever tools we have and just buck up–pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are raised and trained to take care of things ourselves. We don’t need any help. We can draw up the plans, get the supplies, and organize the tools. We wake up early in the morning and get to work. When someone comes and asks if they can help, we look up with hammer in hand and smile, “Oh everything is fine. I’ve got it covered. No problem. I’ll have this built up in no time. No trouble at all really. Really.”

It’s Advent, my friends. Emmanuel, God with us, is coming. Jesus is coming not to simply help us feel better. He is not the kind to sit on the sideline simply cheering us on. He is coming to rebuild and renew. Jesus is coming with hammer, and saw, with pressure treated lumber, and he is coming with a plan.

[Blue Prints for the present construction and renovation are brought out]

When we see that areas of waste and ruin, we can despair, or we can ignore, or we can try to handle everything by ourselves, but Advent tells us that God has a plan–for you, for this church, for this community, and for this entire creation.

For tools we have prayer and Scripture, fellowship and faith, and (look around you) brother and sister; in these things Jesus stands right next to us, showing us where to clear away the rubble, and where to pile the lumber, and where to pour the concrete. And when we need it, he will place the hammer in our hand, and lift them up, and show us where to strike, and give us the strength to take the needed swings.

This morning we celebrate the wonderful sacrament of baptism. You may want to run when I pick up that circular saw over there, but come running when I grab this pitcher, because God is doing something wonderful, something miraculous. It has nothing to do with me; God is gently pouring love and grace into little Natalie and John [Coleman]. He is pouring enough to last a lifetime, an eternal lifetime.

But something even more is happening. God is promising that, as they grow, the Spirit will be with them, putting tools in their hands. As they grow stronger, the tools will become a little heavier and more complex. Right now a tape measure. Later, when they’re old enough, maybe that power drill over there, and so on and so forth. Each tool will match their unique set of gifts and circumstances. Today, God is claiming them as God’s own and declaring: here are my newest builders.

You all are promising making promises too, on behalf of the church universal. You are promising to be there to help them grow into master builders. For through Natalie and John, and you and me, God has plans for the world.

This is Advent hope. This is Advent faith. It leads, my brothers and sisters, to Advent joy. Amen.

December 14, 2008

Rev. Paul Heins

First Presbyterian Church

Logan, Utah

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  • Breakfast Encounter

    Last Friday morning, I stopped by my GP’s office to let them draw some blood for a test and to get my flu vaccine for the year. Because of the blood test, I had to ‘fast,’ arriving for the blood draw without having any food that morning. When the phlebotomist had drawn the blood and given me the shot, I went to a nearby diner to get some breakfast. Little did I know I was about to witness something extraordinary.

    While I was eating my pancake, egg, and piece of sausage and reading a book about Oscar Romero, a young man went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t notice any of this, of course (occupied as I was with not only Oscar Romero’s life and ministry to the poor of El Salvador, but also all that butter and syrup…) until the young man started yelling at the woman behind the counter.

    “Swipe it again!” is what drew my attention.

    She did, and the card must have been denied a second time. She ran it again, and the look on her face told me the same thing happened. Denied.

    The young man was getting more agitated and saying things to her under his breath. I was paying more attention now, and she asked if he had another card she could try.

    “No! I don’t have another bleeping card!” he yelled at her. Except he didn’t say bleeping.

    Now I’m not a stranger to harsh words. I’ve said them myself. Usually when I’m trying to get a rusted bolt off an old machine and it finally comes loose, taking some of my knuckle skin with it. And I think I quietly swore under my breath in January of 1988 when the Washington football team beat my beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 42-10. There have been other times too. But never, ever at a person.

    Upon being sworn at, the young woman stared at the man like she didn’t know what to do (how could she?). Tears were about to appear. And the air in the room went real still. Like in the movies. I’m sure the background music was still playing, but it seemed deathly quiet at that moment.

    I was about to get up and walk over to the counter—not exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there—when another man who had been eating nearby wandered up real slow, eyes staring at the young man. He was a tall guy, with white hair under his old IFA ball cap, probably in his sixties. He asked the young woman, “What seems to be the problem here?”

    And that’s when the young man made what I thought was a fatal mistake: he answered when he hadn’t been spoken to. “It’s nothin’. My card won’t work,” he spat back.

    I thought a fight was about to break out, but the older man, his eyes searing into the young disgruntled one’s face, reached for his wallet and said to the cashier, “Aubrey, I’d like to pay for this young man’s meal, if that’s okay with him.” And after getting out some cash, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, not one of those friendly pats on the shoulder, but one of those firm grips that, well, made me think he was making sure the lesson was going to stick.

    I’ve had those kinds of hands on my shoulders a few times over the years. Perhaps from a coach, maybe from my dad once or twice; they happen when a boy or young man really needs to start paying attention.

    And after staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, the old guy said, “Be kind.” And then walked away.

    The young man left the restaurant and climbed into an oversize truck that was parked right out front, cranked up the volume on his radio, and left some rubber on the road as he departed.

    I went into the church office sometime later to finish my sermon, but I kept thinking about angry people and hurt people and kind people and people who teach lessons to those who could use them. I also thought about people who have a head full of kind words who refuse to tolerate ugliness.

    I hope I can be someone like that.

    I have a feeling Aubrey earned a whole lot of tips that morning. She deserved them.

    Be kind.

    That’s all for now.

    —Pastor Derek

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