St. Paul’s Congregational Church
December 1, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
How does your time look between now and Christmas?
Is your calendar for the next four weeks a jumble of “musts”?
There’s shopping, wrapping, shipping, delivering. There are the Christmas cards. There’s the tree to be bought, trimmed and watered every day. There’s the outside decorating. There’s whatever baking we might do. There’s a “Messiah” concert and a family gathering. There’s an Advent wreath-making dinner and a caroling party in two weeks. There’s the school holiday program and the office Christmas party. Don’t forget the gifts for the folks who help us get through: the person who cuts our hair, the letter carrier, in some places the doorman and the super. There are people to pick up the airport, perhaps. Maybe there are some December birthdays, for good measure.
It’s all there on your calendar, be it paper or digital, and it’s all your time.
And then there’s God’s time. It’s all contained within the circle of the Advent wreath, the wreath with the first candle lit this morning. It’s the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the church year, that big wheel of time that every year turns us from the waiting of Advent to the joy of Christmas, to the waiting of Lent to the joy of Easter, to the waiting of Eastertide to the joy of Pentecost, to the joy of life in ordinary time and back again.
So here is the span of God’s time we enter this morning. This candle marks the beginning of the time we will spend with the prophet Isaiah, that prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures known and trusted and quoted by the writers of the New Testament.
The light of this candle infuses today’s readings. Isaiah calls his listeners to walk in the light of the Lord into the kingdom where people do not learn how to make war but instead turn their energies toward cultivating the earth and not destroying it. We hold on to this dream, don’t we – even as we follow news of another terrorist attack in London this weekend.
Paul echoes Isaiah’s vision when he urges his listeners to wake up, to leave the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. Paul also echoes what he had heard that Jesus said to his disciples, the words that Matthew attributes to him: “Keep awake therefore.”
Next Sunday we will light both the first and the second candles, and Isaiah will remind us what happens in the light: growth, a green shoot from a dead stump. Paul will remind us of Isaiah’s prediction about that dead stump of David’s line bearing new fruit in the person of Jesus. John the Baptist, the one Isaiah predicted would come, will appear in the blinding sunlight of the desert, telling us to prepare the way for the one who will use water and fire to make us his own.
On the third Sunday when we light three candles, Isaiah will tell us about deserts that bloom, the blind who see and the lame who leap. James will remind us in his letter that it takes time for the earth to bloom. He will use the prophets as examples of those who waited patiently for their faith to bear fruit. Jesus will confirm John the Baptist’s suspicions about him: indeed, he is the one whom Isaiah predicted. Through him the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the people hear the good news of the coming of the kingdom.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, four candles will burn in this wheel and the promises will soon be fulfilled. Isaiah will tell us about a young woman who will give birth to a son and name him Immanuel, “God with us.” Matthew will set Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph in the light of Isaiah’s prediction. Paul will tell the Romans that Jesus fulfills everything the prophets promised us.
Finally, we will light this central light on Christmas Eve and we will hear John begin his gospel with those mysterious and powerful words: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.”
And so the circle of Advent time comes around again. But Advent is not a time when we go through the motions of remembering a story whose ending we already know. It’s worth remembering that we begin our journey around this wheel this morning with Jesus’ own prediction of how he will come to us again. Advent is about Jesus coming once and promising to come again. This time of Advent is about the light shining in the darkness but not obliterating the darkness. It is about the kingdom having already come near to us but not yet having been fulfilled.
There is much work left to be done – and not just all we face these next four weeks. But you know what? Christmas always comes whether we get it all done – perfectly – or not.
Will the kingdom come in a similar inevitable way? What will we have done to hasten its coming? Will we recognize it when it comes? Who are we? Which farmer in the field? Which woman grinding meal? Will we go about our pre-Christmas tasks, marking out our time, and forget about the Advent stories of God’s time?
Or, maybe, can we overlay these two arcs of time, taking good care of the tasks that will make for a special holiday season and staying awake for the signs of the kingdom – of God’s time – breaking into our time?
Because it is not that we shouldn’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of the secular season of “X-number of days until Christmas” – even though some preachers are known to guilt us into thinking it is less-than-Christian to fall for this month’s commercialism. Last year about this time, J. Mary Luti, a United Church of Christ pastor and a wonderful woman I’ve known since my seminary days, wrote in her blog that she was “simply getting tired of listening to sermons in Advent that draw a sharp line between the bad world of getting and spending which barely acknowledges or even notices the reason for the season, and another good world in which none of that goes on and into which Jesus is born properly, cleanly, to the sound of angels singing, not cash registers ringing.”
That second world, she said, doesn’t exist. We only have one world – this world we live in, the one in which God finds us and loves us because of our longing for something beyond ourselves. Jesus never asked us not to be human, Mary pointed out. Jesus became human and came into the chaos of our world to show us how to navigate our way through it using love and compassion as our touchstones.
Advent is a time of waiting and watching. Ann Weems has written a poem entitled “The Coming of God” – may these words inspire our Advent observance:
Our God is the One who comes to us
In a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child.
Our God is the One who cannot be found
Locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary.
Our God will be where God will be
With no constraints, no predictability.
Our God lives where our God lives.
And destruction has no power
and even death cannot stop the living.
Our God will be born where God will be born,
But there is no place to look for the One who comes to us.
When God is ready
God will come even to a godforsaken place, like a stable in Bethlehem.
Watch….for you know not when God comes.
Watch, that you might be found whenever….wherever…God comes.
So may it be for each of us. Amen.