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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  • Affirmations of Faith

    On the last Sunday of October, ‘Mission Sunday,’ many of you helped us pack more than two hundred bags for a local school food distribution program.  Those bags of food went out to local schoolchildren, who live in food insecure settings, to keep their bellies full. The food we provided has the potential to ensure the schoolchildren are more successful in life and in their education.  In worship we sometimes use the phrase ‘Affirmation of Faith’ and then repeat a longstanding confession of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Brief Statement of Faith. I value reciting these affirmations, because they remind us of the core values we hold as Christians. But as I was thinking about this over the last few months, I believe that such mission work to the community around us is an even deeper affirmation of our faith by acknowledging Jesus’ call upon our lives, and then living out that ministry.

    I want to share information with you this month about another ministry which I believe is an affirmation of our faith. You have heard us talk about it quite a bit but may not know the details. For years now the Deacon’s Fund at First Presbyterian Church has provided financial assistance to those in our community facing immediate financial need that impacts their ability to live a healthy and productive life.

    There are social services around town, which provide supportive and meaningful resources, but there can be qualifications and restrictions associated with the access of those services. The Deacon’s Fund strives to offer judgment-free ministry to those who are facing financial challenges in life and helps people access these services.

    Barbara Troisi and Beth MacDonald are currently our two Deacon’s Fund facilitators.  They spend time each month looking at applications for assistance, and then distribute funds, which may involve multiple phone calls, trips to the store for Smith’s gift cards (useful for food or fuel), and various other tasks.  Prior to Beth and Barbara, other wonderful people contributed their efforts to this ministry: Linda Roberts, Tina Purintun, Kelly Rhea, Terry Brennand, Barbara Lutz (I am sure I have left a name or two off, please forgive me). Pam Riffe also makes contributions and supports people applying for these funds in her role as our office administrator.

    These are some of the ‘saints’ of the church. These are angels among us – superheroes, one might say – who make time in their lives to help others.

    The Deacon’s Fund recently received a large contribution from a couple in our community.  They are not part of our church, but they learned of our efforts to help local people through some friends who are church members.  They made this contribution to help those who are struggling to find sustainable and affordable housing. They wanted to make a significant contribution to help with housing issues and knew that First Presbyterian Church would be a wonderful avenue for those efforts. I am thankful for everyone who makes contributions to the Deacon’s Fund, small or large (most offerings to this ministry come in $10, $20, or $100 increments). Over the decades these dollars have helped hundreds of people in our community in moments of great need. This is truly part of the mission of the church, and one of the callings Jesus has placed upon us.

    Beth MacDonald is transitioning out of her role as a Deacon’s Fund facilitator at the end of the year (she will be plenty busy helping to organize and lead the Westminster Bell Choir). Thank you, Beth, for your efforts. This means we are looking for a new Deacon’s Fund coordinator to work alongside Barbara Troisi. If any of you would like to help, please let me know. If you have questions about this ministry, please talk to Beth, Barbara, or me. Beth has set up a nice spreadsheet to help keep track of funds received and funds dispersed. You don’t need to be a financial expert or math whiz to fill this role, only to have a caring heart.

    The ministry efforts of Mission Sunday and through the Deacon’s Fund are two of the wonderful aspects of First Presbyterian Church. Our calling as a faith community is certainly to worship and praise the Lord, but also to share the good news and make helpful, life-affirming contributions to the community and world around us. I pray that our ministry together continues to be vigorous.

    May the grace and peace of Christ be with you all,

    Pastor Derek

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