Based on Isaiah 61: 1-4; 8-11 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Psalm 126 We’ll sing the song of joy, and John, verses 6-8; 19-28 John testified to the light
Offered to the people of Knox United Church, Vancouver, B.C.
Opening Prayer: God of grace and God of glory, may our reflection on your holy word for us restore our souls to your abiding presence. At the same time, may it help us to attend to the something new that is emerging here in our midst. Amen.
Once again, our readings this week remind us of God’s promise to be faithfully present in the midst of crisis (as in the reading from Isaiah). This is offset by the call from John’s gospel to testify to the coming ‘Light, Son of Man, and Lamb of God’, whose revelation we anticipate again each year as the weeks of the Advent season unfold. In just a couple of weeks’ time, these stories will seguay into the season of Christmas beginning with the story of Jesus’ revelation to the world as a tiny, vulnerable baby born somewhere in the hinterlands of First Century Palestine.
Here, this morning, our readings from scripture also remind us of this: While we are called to remember and celebrate that we are a restored community, one able to look back with pride on the long road travelled as faithful ones, we are also called to keep focus on what is emerging as we look forward to a new day and new expressions of ministry here at Knox. Further to that, we do all of this in the middle of dealing with what’s right in front of our noses. You know, things like Sunday worship and bulletin preparation, choir practice, team meetings, website posting and minding, pastoral visiting, and so on and so on and so on. And in the midst of the reality of the stuff of everyday life, which is always full of challenge and difficulty, we go about the business of rejoicing, that is affirming confidence; confidence in God’s abundant presence at the same time as dreaming of what God is calling us into. I think the apostle Paul said it well when he said:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say ‘REJOICE!’
In our first reading from Isaiah, the Jewish people have returned to Jerusalem from exile to rebuild their temple and their lives. Despite their best efforts, however, things have changed, and they discover their dreams of restoration blocked. This is the context of Isaiah’s message of hope this morning delivered to the members of an impoverished and broken hearted community held hostage by their fears. Proclaiming the good news of deliverance and blessing, Isaiah encourages them to let go their fears and hold fast to their dreams for new beginnings.
Just what might their fears have been? And their longings and dreams?
Were their longings for the good ‘ole days or that things would return to the way that they had been in times now long past?
Were they dreams of being rewarded and recognized for all the hard work of getting things back in order?
Or, were they dreaming some new and completely different dreams (as a number of you here at Knox have done) during the interim period of these last two or three years?
One thing that’s certain is this-Try as we might, we can never go back to the way things were.
We can, however, move forward, restored, renewed, and affirmed in confidence that the same God who accompanied us in the past, is with us now in our doing and in our being, and will be with us as new ministries emerge and unfold in the days yet to come.
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say ‘REJOICE!”
Then we have our responsive psalm reading, Psalm 126 echoing a similar message of hope for a future also directed at a wandering community seeking restoration and renewal. Thought to be Travelers’ Psalm, this sung prayer is another one of those both/and readings. Its a prayer about being and becoming at the same time; a psalm of people praying together that God will restore God’s people to good fortune and new life and importantly, this promise:
Seeds planted in sorrow will yield a harvest of joy. Seeds planted in sorrow will yield a harvest of joy!
That joy might grow from sorrow and sadness birth laughter might be a hard sell, both in lives of those returning exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and perhaps for us sitting here as well. Unless, that is, unless you have experienced and weathered life threatening challenges in your own life, felt comforted and supported by a community of faith in that journey, and then felt restored and renewed for the work of being human. The both/and of being and becoming is alive and well here at Knox.
How do I know that? I know that from the holy stories you have shared with each other and with me about your being and about your becoming.
In your stories I see you being restored and renewed and hope-filled for the ministries emerging. Most certainly there will be fears and tears, there will be sorrow, and there will also be joy emerging.
I particularly take hope in these words offered by Frederick Buechner as he describes the journey from sorrow to joy:
“Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but, more often than not, God is speaking to you through them (your tears) of the mystery of where you have come from and in summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”
Again, I am reminded of the crisis that led you into a time of interim ministry here at Knox, and I wonder and pray without ceasing on this question and invite you to do the same: What will the harvesting of the sheaves of your sorrow look like for you when the time is ripe and your tears turn to joy?
Then we have our powerful reading from John’s gospel and John the Baptist’s hope-filled message of the need to witness to the coming of one whose sandals he, himself, feels he is not fit to untie.
Might we imagine these words from John to indicate something of an ego crisis? Or is he, in fact, just very clear of his own call as a faithful one that the revelation of God incarnate is not about him but another?
This makes me think of our tendency in most churches to think that the business of being the church is about us and not about God. From there, I wonder: What is the business of being the church?
To my way of thinking, the business of being the church is about being and becoming. It’s about liberating ourselves from a foundational past that does not require repeating but rather, instead, will serve to undergird our dreams for the movement forward to a new day and new expressions of ministry here at Knox.
And so it is, I strongly encourage you to keep dreaming your dreams, keep entering into deep and engaging conversations with one another about things that matter, and remember this: We are not here to proclaim “us”, we are here to proclaim God’s steadfast and abiding presence!
In all the seasons of the church year, we are called to see and point to the presence of God in the middle of waiting.
Especially at Advent, we are called to the ministries of being and becoming, seeing and testifying to God’s presence in the midst of waiting on the story of God incarnate to be made real once again at Christmas. We wait in hope and in awe for the Christmas story: The birth of the baby Jesus born somewhere out back in the hinterlands of Palestine.
May it be so, amen.