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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  • Patience–for the Lord is Near

    I don’t often read from the book of James in the New Testament.  It’s a relatively short book, with instructions for Christians ranging from words about poverty and riches to warnings against judgment upon others, and finally to instruction on patience in the midst of suffering.

    Patience in the midst of suffering…  I confess that doesn’t sound very appealing.

    Suffering comes in so many forms, and all of them are significant and legitimate. Suffering varies, of course, and as a person living in the United States of America, I’m often reluctant to claim that I suffer from anything egregious. I have food, shelter, companionship, and various freedoms. But we do suffer. We suffer from lots of things. Isolation, job loss, self-doubt, economic uncertainty, criticisms or judgments from others. Criticisms or judgments from ourselves. There is no doubt that in one way or another we are even suffering from this COVID-19 pandemic. I miss you all. Meg and I are your pastors. We should be seeing you each week and praying with you, rejoicing at the good things in life, and comforting each other amidst the difficult time in life.

    It’s impossible to determine when we might get to the end of this, but I feel like we are about to turn a corner thanks to the hard work and miraculous creativity of scientists who are making COVID-19 vaccinations possible. I was in Colorado for a few days at the end of January to visit my father again, and it was such a blessing to drive him to a hospital where we received his first vaccination shot. The next one will be available in a few more weeks, and only then will I feel more secure about him, and the rest of us, making it through this.

    While reading James recently I came across this passage in the fifth and final chapter.

    Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

    James is writing to a group of people in first century Palestine who are wondering when Christ will return. He suggests they be patient for the coming of the Lord. I hope they were able to be so, because here we are two thousand years later…awaiting that same return. But in the midst of our ‘waiting’ we’ve learned something else about the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t have to wait for the return of Christ for Christ to be present in our lives and across this world. The Kingdom of God is at hand. We help bring it about. We help bring about that kingdom of love and grace and comfort.

    James goes on to suggest that just as a farmer waits for his or her crop to sprout up and grow with the rains and flourish for time of harvest, we too must be patient. He then instructs them to strengthen their hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Patience. It’s been a long time, but I hope and pray we are doing well with patience during this pandemic.

    I am still in shock that around 3-4,000 Americans are dying each day from COVID-19 or related complications. It is staggering. The number is higher around the world. How do we mourn such a time? I’m not exactly sure, but perhaps the season of Lent which begins on February 17th will give us some room to do just that.

    This all brings me back to one of the central purposes of us as a congregation—the faithful worship gathering that we hold each week. I thank you for your patience and support while we worship on YouTube and occasionally via Zoom. I’d rather be in person with you, but not at the risk of anyone’s health or life. It’s a bit strange to me, being the church in this ‘digital age’ forced upon us by quarantine and social distancing. We’re doing our best, and I hope we’re doing it well. But I’m having a struggle with patience as I dream about seeing you all again in person. Session continues to discuss future plans; we will continue with our current setup for now and pray for a day when vaccinations are widespread and transmission rates approach zero. Not only for the sake of our worship, but also because of the value we place upon the health and well-being of each person.

    I’d like to also thank you for the love and support you have extended to my family as we’ve grieved my mom’s death on December 28th. My father received many cards from you, and he sends his thanks; they were all very meaningful. As you know my parents regularly visited Logan and enjoyed worshiping the Lord with us. Dad says when we’re back in person for church you can be sure he’ll be around to worship with us again. He, along with all of us, can’t wait to hear the Praise Band, Chancel Choir, and Westminster Bell Choir live and in person. Once again, thank you all.

    As James pleaded to those early Christians living in very uncertain times, may we strengthen our hearts, for indeed the Lord is near.

    Peace be with you all,  

    Derek

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