Sunday, December 21, 2014

Waiting With Love (Advent 4, Isaiah 9:2-7)

Waiting With Love from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Luke 1:26-38
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house and lineage of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angle said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Isaiah 9:2-7
2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.
3you have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Every Wednesday, as many of y'all know, a handful of Presbyterian Pastors gather at Panera Bread over on Franklin. That group allows us to share our burdens with our colleagues, and we bring both joys and struggles to the table as we break our fasts together. We gather in the name of Christ, and in love for one another, so that we can build up Christ's body together. One of that group, a man named Len Bergman, observed this past week that “In a secularized Christmas there are too many warm-fuzzies.”

Between the made-for-TV Christmas movies and the music that's been playing in stories since before Halloween, one would think that the whole world is wrapped up in fluffy snow and silver bells, with good cheer and fraternal love all around. Every stories ends on a happy note, and the traditions continue with everyone having learned something! It's comforting, it's warm, it's fuzzy, and it's hollow. Holiday sentimentality merely masks the darkness, colors over it with pleasantness. “The child whose birth we attend [at Christmas] was born into a world painted not in pastels but in dust and blood.

For we are a people who walked in darkness. Especially this time of year, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ struggle with grief and depression. Part of it is the short days, literally leaving us in a dark place sooner, and for longer. But much of it is also the grief of Christmas without loved ones. Isaiah speaks of a people who "lived in a land of deep darkness,..." a darkness of death, where we peer in and the void reflects back at us, and it frightens us.

The dwindling days are dwarfed by lengthening nights of winter, and the world in which we dwell is increasingly dark in more ways than one. The tendrils of violence that we once were able to keep at arms length in another part of the world have tended to find their way back to us. We are a people who walked in darkness, and it is tempting to ignore how real that darkness is so that we can pretend everything is okay. We're worried we don't have the resilience to grieve, so we cover up the grief of others, and mask them with sentimentality. That looks a lot like love, but it feels a lot like fear.

Perhaps we join ancient Israel in fear of political disaster. In this part of Isaiah, invading armies were threatening to crush the Northern Kingdom, and Judah, to the south, was next. The yoke of their burden was heavy, the bar across their shoulders kept them from imagining a future beyond the impending crisis. Our worries are a little different, particular to our time, but we can find ourselves in the same story of a never-ending parade of crises.

The darkness is not nothing, and we struggle with it daily. Ignoring it just sands all the edges off of our experience, leaving something smooth and polished, but also without anything to hold on to when we find our selves among those who lived in a land of deep darkness.

One of the lunch bunch pointed out that all the verbs in this passage are past-tense. As an English-major-type-person, I was really excited to talk about grammar! But then, I'm a nerd.

If this passage is in the past tense, what does that mean for the people to whom Isaiah preached, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ? Who is the child who has been born to them, the son given to them? They were promised "...there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” That didn’t happen for the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom, and it didn’t happen in the way the people who walked in darkness expected. How can we believe this passage, then, if the darkness is still part of our experience?

We face it with a great deal more than a naughty and nice list. We approach the darkness with more than just holiday sentiment. Our hope is in the promise of God, given in the poetry and artistry of the prophet Isaiah. By using the past tense, Isaiah is making a theological claim that even though these things have not happened yet, God has decided it, and declared that it will be. Therefore it is as good as done. With the assurance of God’s promise, we can hope in the great light seen by the people who have walked in darkness. “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

Jolly laughter and sentimental scenery can distract us, but they cannot give us the truth we need to live in hope and love. Can't beat the possibility afforded to us by hope. Except by the prophetic energizing we have in the Love of God in Christ Jesus. Knowing, truly knowing, that we are loved can motivate us to do things that our own internalized darkness would straight up prohibit us from doing. We can face the prophetic promise with energy, resilience and imagination because we know that we are waiting with love: both God’s love and our love within this community. God’s love intervenes in the world and gives us the love for one another that sustains us as we wait, as we walk, in darkness.

Even though the sentence begins with darkness, deep darkness, burdens, a bar, a rod, the boots of trampling warriors and the garments rolled in blood, look where it ends:
"The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined."

The beauteous heavenly light breaks forth and ushers in the morning. God is not content to abandon us to darkness, God's love intervenes in the world, so that where once their was only darkness and despair, God's glory can once again shine.

“The incarnation does not simply affirm Jesus’s body; it helps us see that our bodies and actions matter.” They don't just matter to us, they matter to God. Our bodies and actions are claimed by God every bit as much as our souls. God could simply take us out of the world, start anew on a creation built from scratch. Instead, God's love intervenes in this world, in this life, assuming all facets of what it means to be truly human, like us in every respect except sin.

The incarnation is a miracle of God’s loving presence with us, among us, and as one of us. It’s not a warm fuzzy feeling, it’s a world changing event, shining a light into the darkness and reminding the people that beyond the darkness is God, who will not let us go. God’s love intervenes in the world, and reaches out to be with us no matter where we are, in darkness, under the rod of the oppressor,  beneath the boots of trampling warriors and wrapped in garments rolled in blood, God loves us still and redeems us by becoming human, rescuing us and claiming us for all time.

The sign we have of this is Isaiah’s promise in the prophetic past: “For a child has been born to us, a son is given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.” The name is both a promise and a testimony to the hope we all have in God, and in the promise of God-with-us.

Therefore we are waiting with love, praying in a still dark world, “Come Lord Jesus.” We are waiting still for the fulfillment of the promise. We know that God’s love intervenes in the world. We are able, therefore, to wait with love because God’s light sines in the darkness. Though we walked in darkness, we have seen a great light. The light of the world is the Word made Flesh, and is laid in a manger at Christmas time.

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