Monday, January 16, 2017

Sermon: Second Guesses and Doubts

Second Guesses and Doubts
Isaiah 49: 1-7; John 1: 29-42
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 15, 2017

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’

But I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.’

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
- Isaiah 49: 1-7

The next day John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.

I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’

He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
- John 1: 29-42

No matter how young or how old we are - uncertainty is a fact of life that always has some effect on us. It usually leaves us questioning things, therefore planting seeds of doubt. I always love when the facts of life come through the eyes of a child. They have a way of transcending our life situations with a light heart and a good laugh.

During snack time, a kindergartner asked the teacher this question: Why are some raisins yellow while others are black? The teacher didn’t know the answer off the cuff, so she walked down the hall and asked her friend if she knew; the friend was a first-grade teacher. “Yellow raisins are made from green grapes, and black raisins are made from red grapes,” her friend explained.

The teacher reported her findings back to her classroom. And you can probably guess that one of her students had something to say about that. One little boy suggested, “Maybe that’s why she teaches first grade, because she’s just a little bit smarter than you.”[1]

Today we are looking into Isaiah’s second Servant Song. Even before the Servant was a witty child – like that kindergartner - having a mouth sharp as a sword – he was chosen by God for the sole purpose of glorifying God. And in doing so, Israel would be drawn back to God.

And yet Isaiah gives us a priceless dimension of the Servant. We are allowed into the Servant’s internal dialogue. The Servant says: I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity (Isaiah 49:4).

Did you hear that? The Servant allows himself to be vulnerable and honest with himself and also with God. The Servant second guesses and doubts his ability to fulfill his God given purpose and mission in life (Working Preacher). His words capture the deep recesses of the human heart when we wrestle with our perceived limitations, inadequacies, and weaknesses. We question ourselves when we are faced with great change, or added stress, or when we sense the expectation of working at a higher performance level.

I sense that John the Baptist had some second guesses related to performance anxiety. John the Baptist grew up with the prophetic calling of preparing God’s people for the coming of the Lord (Luke 1: 13-17). John’s father, Zechariah, was in complete disbelief with this news, saying, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18). I can imagine John’s childhood was filled with stories of his prophetic calling and Zechariah hoping it would all work out as God said.

Always pay attention to repeated words of Scripture. According to John’s Gospel, the Baptizer is quoted two times saying, “I myself did not know him” (John 1: 31, 33). He kept baptizing for the reason of pointing to the Messiah but he did not know exactly who he was looking for. I wonder if John the Baptist questioned his ability to bring about God’s purposes like the Servant did in Isaiah?

The disciples certainly wrestled with their questions and doubts. Nathaniel second-guessed Jesus’ credentials, “Can anything good, much less a Messiah, come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Simon was the third disciple Jesus met and called. He was chosen and claimed with the new name of Peter which means Rock, for Christ would build his church, the body of Christ, through Peter (Matthew 16:18). And yet Peter allowed fear and uncertainty to second guess his calling from Christ. The cock crowed as Peter denied being Jesus’ disciple three times and Peter wrestled with that (John 13:38; 18:17; 18:25-27; 21: 15-19).

Second guesses and doubts are familiar to you and me because they are part of the human story in Scripture. They are a part of our stories. And sometimes it seems that second guesses and doubts get the best of us.

We second guess our effectiveness when our work does not bear fruit.
We doubt our qualifications when God points us in a new direction.
We doubt our uniqueness when we compare ourselves to others.
We second guess our parenting when life gets hard and we are just trying to survive.
We doubt that healing will truly come based on the logic of the situation at hand.
We second guess God’s timing to close the gaps with that opportunity we are praying for.

And yet no matter what direction our questions take us, God is on the move to speak into our internal dialogue.

God spoke to the Servant calling him to remember that above all else God’s steadfast love would equip him for God’s purposes.

God spoke to John the Baptist calling him to keep preparing the people for the Lamb of God; God would open John’s eyes to see God’s timing.

God spoke to the disciples calling them to come and see what God is doing through Jesus Christ.

And God speaks to you and to me calling us to focus on God’s actions over and above our abilities, limitations, and weaknesses.

God’s Word reveals that it is not by our own efficacy to succeed; it is not by our own actions that bring change; it is not by our own merit that we are delivered.

What a reassuring word that God alone is the One who qualifies our calling; God alone is the One who changes the course of history; God alone is the One who saves us from our doubts and despair.

We are to lean into a deeper trust of relying on the source of God’s grace, strength, and transformation. And that source is none other than God’s Servant and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Brian found himself in a spiritual season of second guesses and doubts. He began questioning his life and faith. So Brian called a mentoring friend as he scrambled to hold on.

"My faith in God has been like a walk on the beach. I’ve taken off my shoes, and as I stand at the water’s edge, the tide rolls across my feet. It feels wonderful. Up to this point, my spiritual journey has been incredible but in the last six months doubt has begun to paralyze me.

It’s like when the water goes back out to the ocean. It is washing away the sand beneath me and my feet keep sinking lower and lower and lower. If this keeps up there won’t be anything left to stand on."

Without hesitation the mentor replied:

"Brian, I have stood where you are standing. I’ve felt the water cascading across my feet. And it is wonderful as you say. But I’ve also had the water go back out to sea and I have felt the sand getting washed out from my feet. But listen to me when I say this. When it feels like the last grain of sand is finally gone, you’re going to discover that you are standing on a rock."[2]

No matter what you may be second guessing – no matter what you may be doubting today – I want you to consider this.

There are two things in life that guide us during the times when we are the most vulnerable. Fear or trust.

Fear will tempt us to believe that our life situations hold us captive. Fear will paralyze us with our second guesses and doubts. It is like we are sinking down into a pit and everything is closing in on us. Fear makes it seem there is no escape, there is no way out.

But trust is different. Trust will guide us to a broad place where we gain a new perspective by naming our fears. Trust allows us to explore and discover the source of our strength. The source is not in our ability to rise above our vulnerabilities. The source of our strength is God in Jesus Christ – our rock and our refuge, our strong tower and deliverer.

When Christ’s strength works through our vulnerability then our questions and doubts become spiritual spaces for us to grow through the changes, the challenges, and the trials of life. Our second guesses and doubts are not the problem - it is what guides them. If God is for us and with us in Jesus Christ then what can be against us (Romans 8:31)?

Trust becomes a spiritual map that encourages us to press on even when we do not see God’s plans. As the Spirit moves us to trust God’s guidance then that broad space will open to God’s possibilities. God’s timing will allow us to see past the crest of our insecurities. We will see God connecting pieces of our lives to reveal God’s plans for the well-being of ourselves and others secured by a future with hope.

When we trust that we can do all things through the One who strengthens us - it will bring glory to God.

May it be so for you and for me.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:
[1] “Those Kids Said What? Twenty-Eight Hilarious Real-Life Teachers’ Stories,” by Readers’ Digest Editors
[2] Brian Jones, “Second Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can’t See His Plan” (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2006), p. 15.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Prayer: Be Still and Know

"Be Still and Know"

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am your refuge and strength.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that I help you in troubled times.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that you have no reason to fear because I am with you.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words
when you cannot pray.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that I am for you so who or what can truly be against you?
Be still and know.

Be still and know that even as My Word perplexes you, nothing is impossible for Me.
Be still and know.

Be still in My Word.
Be still and let it be.

Be still.

CMO 1/9/17 (Psalm 46: 1-3, 10; Romans 8: 26-28, 31; Luke 1:29, 37-38)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sermon: Finding Our New Thing

"Finding Our New Thing"
Isaiah 42: 1-9; Matthew 3: 13-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
Baptism of the Lord
January 8, 2017

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
- Isaiah 42: 1-9

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ - Matthew 3: 13-17

It was another new beginning. The gospel stories really capture the adage that life passes in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, that sweet little Jesus boy is all grown up and ready to embark upon the next leg of God’s adventure in faith.

As Jesus stood in the Jordan River with John the Baptist, the waters of baptism flowed over God’s Beloved Servant. The waters of new life and God’s Holy Spirit anointed Jesus for the beginnings of his ministry. It is here that Jesus Christ is claimed to bring about the holy work in which the prophet Isaiah spoke of. In this moment, Jesus knew (with his heart and mind) his purposes to bring about God’s new things with Isaiah’s vision of mercy and justice.

Christ was called in God’s righteousness to restore the brokenness of humanity and creation. The work of “Jesus’ ministry takes great care with the bruised reed.”[1] He lives in solidarity with the weary ones in order to shine his light in the darkness. For those whose hearts are but a dimly burning wick, Jesus serves with great compassion to rekindle and strengthen the flame of faith. Jesus walks through the streets seeking to break the chains that bind individuals and communities so that they may experience the freedom found in God’s merciful love.

Standing in the Jordan River, Jesus is affirmed that as God’s Beloved Servant he would not fail in his mission because the One who calls and sustains him is the Creator and Sustainer of the world.

There is something so incredibly powerful that is revealed to us through God’s Word today. That truth is this: in order for us to know our greater purpose in life we must first come to know that we are God’s beloved. It was certainly true for Jesus.

The miracle of Jesus’ birth underscores the divine affirmation that we are made in God’s image. We too are considered God’s beloved for God loves us unconditionally. As a result, we are called to live in a particular response to our identity as a child of God. “Jesus’ whole life was a passionate response to God’s call for this new way of living.”[2] Therefore we are to live for the purpose of caring and cultivating and even advocating for that image of God in one another. This was incredibly important for Isaiah and for the sake of the gospel.

It is through our baptisms that we share this common calling in Jesus Christ to serve God and one another. This calling claims us as individuals, but it also claims us as a community of faith.

As we begin this New Year and remember how Jesus’ ministry began, we too have received the gift of a new beginning. We trust God will once again be doing a new thing within us, among us, and through us. But how do we tap into that? How do we come to find our purposes in life that intersects God’s will?

The first day of this New Year I was completely captivated by the Scripture my devotional book began with. This verse will not leave me. It is finding a way into my heart and mind every day, like a life verse for this year. I share it with you because Scripture informs Scripture. The verse is from Jeremiah 29:11:

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

We all have questions about the future of our lives - what this year holds for our own well-being, for our families, for our community, and beyond. Fear, uncertainty, and change surround us. And that makes looking into the future scary.

The beauty of God’s words in Jeremiah (and also in Isaiah and Matthew) is that they surround us in an intimate relationship that gives each of us value. Remember God’s love conquers our fears. God promises to uphold us because God has chosen us. God delights in you and in me because we are loved just as we are.

God’s steadfast love moves us to trust God’s plans of a future with hope that will bring light into the darkness; healing where there is pain; comfort where there is grief and loss; peace where there is turmoil; reassurance where there is anxiety; calm where there is chaos.

As we pray for God’s plans for our well-being to come about, then we find renewed strength from God mending our hearts a little more – stitch by stitch and day by day. But we must remember that God’s plans for a future with hope are not for our sole benefit.

The hope is that God’s radical and steadfast love would touch our lives in such a way that we are moved to love and serve others. God’s hope is that you and I are shaped as instruments of grace to help others find their new beginnings.

As a young adult David had to find his own way in life. He had no father figure and his mother struggled with addiction. In his youth David had a great love for sports. When David realized that he was drawn to helping other youth who experienced broken homes he took a leap of faith. David got involved in a sports ministry with youth.

Jamie was the youth director where David plugged in. Jamie took David under his mentoring wing. Soon David began to help coach the youth basketball team. His eyes lit up when he was with those kids. And in turn the youth really looked up to David. On the court they all learned how to work together.

But something amazing happened when they were off the court. The youth began sharing their stories with David and Jamie; stories of the difficulties they had at home. It was sacred space for David as he began to feel like he was a part of something greater in his budding faith. And before every youth gathering ended, Jamie and David would read a devotional with the youth and pray for them. They also helped the youth to focus on their education and opportunities to have a better future.

Years later David met with Jamie. David now has a solid job and is married with two children. David shared a card he had received from a youth he had coached. David was surprised at how the youth thanked David for helping him.

David said, “Jamie, I should be thanking those youth. They helped me to see that I could do something positive with my life; I became a better person. It’s where my faith began to grow. Those youth gave me such purpose in my life. And your mentoring, Jamie, well, it has made me a better father too.”

Consider God’s purposes in your life. What is that new thing that God desires to bring about through your particular gifts that intersect the world’s needs? As our life situations change, God opens new opportunities to put our faith into meaningful action.

These are some helpful questions to be in prayer about:

1. Listen to your life. What past experiences have given you a sense of purpose and meaning?
2. Think about the talents or gifts God is honing within you which help others: a few are gifts of wisdom, discernment, mercy, empathy, sharing faith, missional service, and caring for others to foster healing.
3. What would you like to learn to discover yourself more fully?
3. As you look at the community and world around you, what situations is God’s Spirit breaking your heart over? What is God opening your eyes to see that breaks God’s heart?
4. What segment of the population are you drawn to help?
5. What do you hope to experience through God’s purposes in your life? [3]

As we think about God’s purposes in our lives and in the life of this church community, let us remember the truth that God has called us a beloved child of God; it matters. Each of us is valued and embraced by the intimacy of God; we see this truth in Emmanuel for God is with us. God delights in us. God calls us to jump into a new adventure of faith with Jesus. And whenever we feel inadequate God is our ever-present help and champions us on.

It is for that very reason that we must do nothing less than care, cultivate, and advocate for the image of God in one another. Let’s go and find our new thing that God desires to do in us so that others may experience a new beginning.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume IV (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 222 Pastoral Perspective by Stephanie Paulsell.
[2] Feasting on the Word, p. 222.
[3] Adapted from Julia Mateer,Christianity Today, "Finding Your God-Given Calling," February 7, 2013.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: A Promise between Heaven and Sheol

The Holy Places of Advent: A Promise between Heaven and Sheol
Isaiah 7: 10-16; Luke 2: 25-33 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 18, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 'Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.'

But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.

Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
- Isaiah 7: 10-16

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
- Luke 2: 25-33

The watch word for this fourth Sunday of Advent is LOVE. Today we draw ever closer to God’s promise that inaugurates God’s eternal kingdom. It was a promise of steadfast love in that the young woman (virgin) is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel, meaning God with us (Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1: 31-33). Our texts today reveal Ahaz and Simeon gave two different responses to God’s promise. Their responses bear weight into our lives today.

Ahaz was Judah’s king and was in the line of David. He was to serve God and God’s people with faith and integrity. Isaiah’s first encounter with Ahaz was to reassure him. The king of Israel (Northern Kingdom) and the king of Aram conspired to remove Ahaz and end the Davidic dynasty; a threat to God's promise. Israel and Aram did not want any chance for Judah (Southern Kingdom) to prevail against them. This plan gripped Ahaz and the people with great fear (Isaiah 7:1-2).

Isaiah tried to guide Ahaz in trusting God, saying “If you do not stand firm in faith then you shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). God is the only one who can peel back the layers of our hearts to reveal what blocks the passages of faith to flow towards obedience to God. Fear and pride blocked Ahaz’s heart. And God saw the dire risk and affects this would pose to Ahaz’s ability to serve God and the people.

So God spoke to Ahaz. God wanted Ahaz to look to God for help. Ahaz would need it to navigate through this real threat to his life and the goodwill of the people. The Lord said, “Ask for a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as the heavens” (Isaiah 7:11).

Ask for God’s pledge or promise of what God will do. Ask for it to reach either deep into the fears that risk cutting you off, or ask for it to reach as high as the greatest hope and glory God may bring. But Ahaz refused. He hid behind pious rhetoric and empty words.

Simeon was a prophet and priest in the temple long after Isaiah’s words were proclaimed. But Simeon had the privilege of opening Isaiah’s scroll. Simeon heard God’s Spirit whisper words of reassurance that Simeon would indeed see this Messiah before he died (Luke 2: 26). He spent his entire life looking high and low for the Messiah – this pledge of God’s steadfast love – to come and console and ultimately deliver God’s people.

Simeon was willing to allow the promise of the Messiah to inform his life. And God honored Simeon’s faithfulness. Mary and Joseph walked into the temple and Simeon held this sweet little Jesus boy (8 days old). As Simeon cradled baby Jesus in his arms, he knew this was the promised One. What a gift to hold the culmination of God’s promise in your own arms!

But God did something amazing in Ahaz’s life as well. Even as Ahaz refused to ask for a sign of God’s steadfast love to help him and his people, God did not turn away from Ahaz. God gave the sign of his divine promise anyway. Ahaz heard the promise that claimed God’s people, that guided Simeon’s life and still illumines our lives today.

But even though Ahaz heard the promise, he did not see his need for God’s help. He missed the blessing. It is the most precious gift that you and I could ever receive and yet we are at risk of missing it too.

A few weeks ago twenty four year old Isaac McCord was helping in the clean-up efforts from the wildfires in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. He and a coworker were raking up debris at one of the affected resorts. As Isaac was raking underneath a park bench, his eye caught a glimpse of a piece of paper in a puddle of water. He got down on the ground and noticed it was actually a page of the Bible. Curious to see what it said, he lifted the vulnerable page from the water. It was torn and the edges were singed black.

Isaac and his coworker looked at the verses that were legible. It said, “O Lord, to thee will I cry: For the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field," (Joel 1:19). The verse completely reflected the tragedy that claimed the town Isaac loved so much.

Isaac never considered himself a deeply religious person. He had not gone to church every Sunday nor had he read much of the Bible. But finding this Bible page did something within Isaac. It had moved him to tears. Isaac now has a desire to reflect upon the role of faith in his life. What a sign of God’s presence in the midst of turmoil. Isaac’s story has given many hope as this sign reveals God is with us, even in our darkest hour.

God’s gift is nothing less than extraordinary. God’s holy covenant love for humanity and creation is revealed in ordinary and even painful circumstances. In a time when fear, uncertainty, pride, injustice, and tragedy cast long shadows of dismay, the light of God’s hope shines the way forward. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together (Isaiah 40:5).

God’s gift of divine love is a miracle because we have the opportunity to experience it in unexpected places. Even as unexpected as finding baby Jesus in a manger. It was a feeding trough that cradled the King.

Listen to these words by Ann Weems:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
God’s mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.

The Lord gave the peoples of the earth a garden,
And the people said, “That’s very nice, God, but that’s not enough.
We’d like a little knowledge, please.”

The Lord gave them knowledge,
And the people said, “Now that we have knowledge, we’d like things.”
The Lord God gave the people things,
But they always said, “That’s not quite enough.”

So the Lord God gave them gifts unequaled:
The sun
Lightning and thunder
Rain and flowers
Animals and birds and fish
Trees and stars and the moon.
God gave them the rainbow.

God parted the Red Sea and gave them manna.
God gave them prophets
And children and each other,
But still the people said, “That’s not quite enough.”

God loved the people,
And out of ultimate merciful goodness
God gave them the Gift of Gifts,
A Christmas present never to be forgotten.
God gave them love
In the form of God’s Son,
Even Jesus Christ.

There are some that do not open their eyes or their ears
Or their hearts
And they still say, that’s not quite enough.
They wander through the stores looking for Christmas.

But others open their whole being to the Lord,
Bending their knees to praise God,
Carrying Christmas with them every day.
For these the whole world is a gift!

As we journey to the manger of Christmas Eve, may we remember our need for a Savior by asking God once again to reveal his pledge of steadfast love to us in new ways. It reaches as far down to the Sheols of our worst fears and deepest pain to bring comfort. It stretches as high as the glories of heaven to proclaim that God’s majesty is redeeming our stories. God pledges to be with us through it all!

And as you go - look for the promise of God’s love in the unexpected places, for you never know where the Messiah will cry out.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Advent Thematic Series title "The Holy Places of Advent: A Promise between Heaven and Sheol" adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series", (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 7, "Advent 4: Somewhere between Heaven and Hell."

Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980 ), p. 70.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sermon: A Highway to God

"The Holy Places of Advent: A Highway to God"
Isaiah 35: 1-10; James 5: 7-10 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 11, 2015
Third Sunday of Advent

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
- Isaiah 35: 1-10

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. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. - James 5: 7-10

This season of Advent we have been singing the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” each Sunday. The first stanza is so very poignant to Isaiah’s poetic words we hear today:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel, Shall come to you, O Israel.

As we sing these words we remember God’s people were held captive by Assyria and they were mourning in exile. Judah had a deep longing to return home to Mount Zion where the capital city of Jerusalem was. Exile caused the people to walk through another wilderness experience like their ancestors who were exiled in Egypt.

God allowed Assyria to capture Judah because the people of God had forgotten God’s ways. As a result the people of Judah were physically, emotionally, and spiritually parched like a desert. Life felt empty and barren for miles and miles. If you have traveled to a desert, then you know this arid climate goes for long stretches of time without water.

And suddenly Isaiah’s words reveal God’s timing will provide what the people need when they need it the most. Isaiah’s words come as a divine interruption. Isaiah prophesies of the day when the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom because God will bring life giving water in abundance (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6). Not only would the desert’s thirst be quenched, but also the weakness and fragileness of humanity would be strengthened and renewed (Isaiah 35:3-6). Out of the wilderness God would fashion a highway to lead the ransomed people of God home (Isaiah 35:8, 10).

Can you imagine the sense of renewed hope the people heard in this good news? It not only strengthened the people’s hearts but it renewed their confidence in God. A blooming desert is quite a visual image to connote the ways God’s grace provides for our souls to flourish.

This text from Isaiah always reminds me of a dear friend and former mentor, The Rev. Dr. Richard Cromie.

Dr. C., as I affectionately called him, was a retired Presbyterian pastor with over 40 years of ordained ministry. When my daughters were in preschool I had the privilege of working part-time with him as an Administrative Assistant for his faith-based non-profit ministry called Desert Ministries. Dr. C. and many other pastoral contributors wrote pastoral care literature for individuals enduring the desert times of life. While Dr. C. entered the Church Triumphant three years ago, his story of founding Desert Ministries remains with me.

Dr. C. was on a trip in Carefree, Arizona. He was with a group of friends playing golf. And the golf course was situated in the Sonoran desert. As the group reached the eighth tee it began to rain. Now this was not a drizzle but a heavy downpour. They waited more than an hour to pick up the clubs when they witnessed the most amazing sight before their eyes. The desert burst into bloom.

“Seeds that had been waiting beneath the surface, waiting for water, began to sprout and blossom. It was a miracle. Within minutes the flowers were there. That is what Isaiah must have seen when he wrote our little verse, twenty-eight hundred years ago.”

Dr. C. went on to say, “In the matters of the spirit, in friendship, love and relationships and healing, the same miracle can return again and again and again. From the dry, worrisome, worn-out little deserts of our lives, the miracle will come when the living water of our Lord comes down. Believe it. The desert shall rejoice and blossom…when the living waters come.”[1]

Consider where you are standing along the path of faith in this particular season of your life. Close your eyes just for a moment and look back through the days, months, and years. Allow God’s Spirit to give you the courage to revisit those little deserts you have experienced or may be experiencing today. Places of spiritual dryness; stretches of wilderness where you felt lost or lonely; seasons when weak hands and feeble knees disoriented life.

Now consider the moment your spirit tasted God’s abundant life-giving water in that time. Or maybe you’re waiting patiently for it today. For you and I all have a story where we have glimpsed the miracle of our little deserts blooming with new life. God’s grace interrupts our lives with hope filled words, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God! He will come and save!” (Isaiah 35:4).

Today, in our modern times, we do not know why God allows us to experience the wilderness and desert places of life. They do point to the brokenness of life which God is working to redeem. Maybe God uses the wilderness and desert to cause us to lean into a deeper trust of God.

For out of our desert experiences God not only provides sustenance, but God also provides a path for our feet and faith to follow. “In God, wilderness becomes not a journey of struggle but of hope, and the Advent season rekindles this hope for a way through the wilderness anew each year .”[2]

The season of Advent actually becomes a highway to God. It is a time to walk this path more slowly even through the wilderness. It is a time to walk with intentional focus lest we miss the landscape of God’s grace being revealed before us. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist reassured God’s people to trust this highway:

“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley – every low place covered with darkness and shadows– shall be lifted up [into the light].
Every mountain and hill – those obstacles of life – will be made low.
The uneven ground – the spaces which cause us to lose our footing – shall become level.
The rough spaces – the areas of life which cause us pain – shall be made smooth.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all the people shall see it together’” (Isaiah 40: 3-5; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23).

This highway to God is leading us to the fulfillment of God’s promises. And that fulfillment is found in Bethlehem as we remember the birth of the coming Christ Child. With each step we take on this Advent journey the joy of the Lord is being rekindled within us.

We are singing, O come, O come Emmanuel and redeem all that holds us captive. O Come, O come Emmanuel and return to us the joy of your salvation. O Come, O come Emmanuel and turn our mourning into dancing for we have something to rejoice about!

As we strive to focus our eyes a little further down the highway of God, across the crest of the Advent’s hill towards Christmas, we can trust Isaiah’s words of hope-filled joy:

“Be strong and do not fear! Here comes your God! He will come and save again, and again, and again!” That is good news to be joyful about.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1]Richard M. Cromie, “Christ Will See You Through” (Palm Beach: Desert Ministries, Inc., 1999), p. 31.

[2]Bruce Birch (Exegetical Perspective), “Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 53.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon: A Tangible Hope

"The Holy Places of Advent: A Tangible Hope"
Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 4, 2015
Second Sunday of Advent

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
- Isaiah 11: 1-10

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel for Jews and Gentiles Alike

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;

and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Romans 15: 4-13

Encouragement is found in the most unexpected places.

A few weeks ago my friend Diane was about to step into her business when a young African American woman walked up to her. The woman asked how to get to the Work Force Office on Jordan Lane. Diane asked the woman if she had a car since her destination was miles away. The woman had used the light rail and she was afraid she would miss an important appointment. Listening to the woman’s anxious voice, Diane offered to take the woman where she needed to go.

As soon as the seat belts clicked the two women began to talk. Diane was struck with how much they had in common: they both had a love for babies, they had both been single mothers struggling to support themselves and their children, and they both had family connections to Jamaica.

And then the woman opened up about the situation she was striving to overcome. The woman’s husband had been incarcerated for domestic violence. The abuse she incurred had been so oppressive the woman nearly lost their baby, a little girl who is now fourteen months old. The woman was on her way to the Work Force Office to apply for a job that her pastor was helping her to get. As she talked about her faith in God, Diane was inspired by the hope resounding in this young woman’s voice.

Right before the woman got out of the car she looked at Diane and said, “When I take the light rail to downtown, I usually exit out the tunnel the other way, but God sent me a different way today.”

Out of a dead end situation God provided a tangible hope to both of these women.

As Isaiah prophesied to God’s people, they were at a great loss. Assyria had invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah, turning against King Ahaz’s corrupt deal to form an alliance. As a result God’s people had no one to turn to in hopes of leading them out of this oppression.

Authoritative leaders could not be trusted. The Syro-Ephraimite war devastated the people. Widows, orphans, and the poor were neglected. Everything seemed like a dead end. Where or who would the people of God turn to for encouragement and the hope of peace?

Isaiah’s words convey a resurrection promise from an unexpected place. From this dead end situation a tangible hope will rise up with the promise of new life from the stump of Jesse. What was left of the Davidic kingdom looked like a lifeless stump. But God wanted the people to look back into her roots for the divine encouragement promised in David’s lineage.

Not a lot is written about Jesse, the father of King David. But Jesse was a humble man. He was a farmer and a sheep herder. He was from Bethlehem and a descendent from the tribe of Judah (1 Samuel 16:1; 1 Chronicles 2:12). He was the grandson of Ruth and Boaz and within the promised lineage of God’s eternal kingdom (Ruth 4:12, 17-22). And from Jesse’s humble roots God’s promise is revealed as a divine gift.

This gift is none other than the Messiah whom we know as Jesus Christ. The Messiah is a tangible hope like no other. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him for he is anointed with divine credentials to redirect the course of all humanity and creation. The Messiah’s reign is an honorable one with divine strategy and discernment, sound advice and the valor of a warrior, as well displaying God’s truth and reverence.

The Messiah is who the people of God needed then and still need today for he does not make decisions based on the appearance of individuals, situations, or selfish desires. The Messiah lifts up the poor, the lowly, and the meek with right relationships and equity.

The greatest gift of the Messiah’s reign is peace where fear and violence are redirected by the hope of steadfast relationships. The predators and the prey within creation will lie down together in harmony. Humanity is encouraged by a keener awareness of God’s grace and hospitality to be one another’s keeper. This gift of peace not only rewrites the livelihood of the oppressed into a just and hope-filled reality. This gift of peace is a divine invitation for all creation and humanity to participate in revealing.

When you and I think of peace we often consider hardships and struggles will be resolved with an absence of conflict. But if we dig into the language of the Scriptures that is not how peace is described.

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. It means God’s actions are bringing about wholeness, completeness, and welfare from brokenness and oppression. Shalom is also a hope-filled word in which an individual bestows God’s best upon another as we wait for all things to be reconciled in God’s timing .The Greek from the Romans’ text describes peace as tranquilly awaiting the return of Christ for all things to be transformed.

Despite all the hard things we face in the world today, the season of Advent reveals that God is sending us a different way. We are not to get caught up in the tunnels that lead to dead ends and hopelessness. Rather we are to walk in the ways of the Messiahs’ Kingdom for Christ is among us as a tangible hope to lead us in the ways of peace. Therefore Christ is calling us to be a tangible hope to others to pray and work together for God’s shalom.

This past week we have heard so many people and places crying out for peace. When the cries are coming from places close to home we cannot help but listen to their stories and look for hope rising.

The latest addition to the south east forest fires has been in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It has been amazing to hear of fire departments coming from as far as Washington State to restore peace from a fiery chaos. I have been touched by the local stories of ordinary people doing their part as well.

Ric Morgan is a longtime resident of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. As the wildfires Monday night quickly spread to his neck of the woods, Morgan saw rivers of fire. His home was on Ski Mountain and it was blazing red. Morgan waited for two hours without luck for authorities to rescue him. Morgan escaped the wildfire with the help of a neighbor who spotted him waving a flashlight in his window as flames raced down Ski Mountain toward his apartment.

Morgan, 66, has two prosthetic legs and uses a motorized wheelchair. He also holds doctorates in theology and world religion and has served as a chaplain. This past week he has been living in the Red Cross shelter with hundreds of others who are displaced from the wildfires. And Morgan has been allowing his faith to guide him by offering a kind ear for anyone at the shelter who needs to talk.

“There has to be hope,” Morgan said. “It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.[1]

Morgan’s comment sounds a lot like God’s shalom, doesn’t it? That is what working for peace looks like.

It is working with God as a tangible hope to put the pieces back together so that God’s Kingdom will transform all things. We may not know how to be agents of peace to end world hunger, to end the wars that seize innocent women and children in the world, or to bring complete healing to tragedies close to home. But it does not excuse us from this holy work either.

Advent reframes the places of hopelessness into holy places where the light of Christ illumines the broken fragments of humanity and creation with the hope of God’s wholeness and welfare for all.

We all long for God’s peace through our prayers. And as humanity and creation groan, hope will rise. For the steadfastness and encouragement of our Messiah lead you and me to be a tangible hope to others in seemingly small ways.

Giving a ride to that woman in need.
Being that listening ear when another hurts.
Releasing a grudge to bring repairs to a relationship.
Preparing hygiene kits for the homeless.

Each small act of love and encouragement works to mend the bonds of humanity and creation a little more until Jesus Christ brings God’s shalom to completion. May it be so for each of us as we wait for the Messiah again this Advent season.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Advent Thematic Series title "The Holy Places of Advent: A Tangible Hope" adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series"(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 5-6.

[1] Hayes Hickman, “Evacuee Recalls Rivers of Fire,” Knoxville News Sentinel, November 30, 2016.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Sermon: A Holy Invitation

The Holy Places of Advent: A Holy Invitation
Isaiah 2: 1-5; Romans 13: 11-14 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 27, 2015
First Sunday of Advent

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
- Isaiah 2: 1-5

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. - Romans 13: 11-14

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was America’s poet in the nineteenth century. He had the gift of crafting words to reveal what was held in the heart of the nation and within his own. It was in 1861 that Abraham Lincoln had served as President for one year and the Civil War began. As the war weighed upon the country, Longfellow felt the weight of it all compounded with personal hardships.

As months turned into years, Longfellow wondered if Christmas still changed the world. On December 25, 1863 Longfellow felt his faith reframing his emotions with incredible hope. He put his pen to paper and wrote the famous poem which was later put to music, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day.
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet their words repeat
Of peace on earth good-will to men.

As the words flowed he came to the sixth stanza and wrestled with God’s promise of peace in the face of the Battle of Gettysburg. But his honest faith moved him to press on through the darkness:

And in despair I bowed my head.
There is no peace on earth I said.
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth good-will to men.

And then like a choir singing, Longfellow heard the most profound message speak into his heart. He became acutely aware of God’s eternal promise breaking in as he wrote the last stanza:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
"God is not dead; nor does he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"[1]

It is a hope that had sounded nearly impossible to Longfellow in the nineteenth century. It is also a hope that sounded nearly impossible to those hearing Isaiah’s prophet words.

In Isaiah’s time God’s people were torn into the Northern state of Israel and the Southern state of Judah. God heard the longing of humanity to be rescued from dark and difficult times. Corruption pulsed among the powerful. Oppression seized the most vulnerable. As the fibers of the states, communities and families unraveled between the tensions of judgment and grace, despair seemed to have the last word for many years.

But Isaiah spoke into the darkness with a light of hope. God could be trusted to establish the Lord’s house on the highest of the mountains. God’s dwelling would be recognized as a place where peoples of every nation will gather to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s faithfulness. God’s eternal promise will embrace humanity in such a way that swords and spears would be turned into instruments to cultivate the peace which only God provides.

O, to see a world where unity is the anthem of the people and the seeds of hope grow in a bountiful harvest to satisfy every need is quite an image, is it not? And as lofty as this dream sounds, it is God’s vision for all humanity and creation.

Isaiah’s words are a beginning point for you and me to navigate through the Advent journey this year. God invites us to look upwards to see where God’s promises are breaking into our lives. When we hear the word ‘Advent’ we know what time it is, for we are waiting for God’s actions to be revealed in the Christ Child once again.

Our human reality, no matter how bleak or broken it may seem, is cradled in the womb of God’s deliverance. Salvation is drawing near to us in this season of waiting. Faith is pregnant with hope. And we are to actively wait for God’s grace to be born again with great expectation.

Jesus Christ is the reason for the season but as we prepare for Christmas we easily forget to call on God’s name. This season brings excitement and joy to the ears and eyes of young ones, but there is often a sense of stress and tension for us adults. We carry burdens of loss and strained relationships. Finances get tighter. Divisions weigh us down. The forecast for world peace looks bleak. And some of us fight against the temptation of just being cynical about it all.

We try to put aside the unresolved parts of our lives in order to pursue the ideal story we wish we could live. It is easier to get caught up in the story we imagine for ourselves than the story that is trying to break in and change our lives. We confess our human need is to fill the empty despair residing in our hearts and minds. But our human nature reaches towards the comforts of the culture instead of the hope of God’s coming kingdom.

And yet God invites us to mark this time of Christmas preparation differently this year. We are called to see glimmers of hope unfolding among us today. “The future belongs to God and the first step towards that future belongs to those who have glimpsed God’s light and are willing to trust that enough light lies ahead.”[2]

Our Lord and Savior is the source of this light. Jesus Christ himself says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The light of the promised Christ Child shines along Advent’s path to lead the way ahead for us.

Notice that as a candle shines into the darkness its flame wildly reaches out in many directions to illumine all that surrounds it. In the same way, God’s promise of hope longs to shine into every corner of our darkness and into every situation of impossibility. It is a promise that is already here but not yet completely fulfilled.

As the light of Christ shines, it reveals the next steps we are to take to learn from God’s ways and to walk in the paths of God’s faithfulness. With each step we take on this Advent journey, we encounter holy places where hope breaks into the broken spaces of life. We are to make room in our hearts and minds to pause each day to take in the landscape of God’s steadfast love.

And maybe – just maybe in these still small moments - we will experience something amazing. Hope will break in like a choir singing, for in our hearts we will hear a profound message that reframes life’s impossibilities. Like bells ringing more loud and deep, we are reminded that God is present with us. God’s faithful presence is still at work to bring about the hope of redemption for you and I are still in need of a Savior. His reign upon God’s mountain will make the wrong fail, and the righteous prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men. Even if this hope is a glimmer of light, it is nothing short of God’s grace.

Does Christmas still change the world? Over the course of these next four weeks we have the opportunity to ponder this question. As we walk along the holy places of Advent we are listening and watching for God’s promises of hope, peace, joy, and love to reframe our lives.

May we lift up our countenances towards God’s dwelling place. Let us walk in the light of the Lord for we know what time it is!

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Advent Thematic Series "The Holy Places of Advent: A Holy Invitation" adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series"(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 3-5.

[1] The Christian Post, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Greg Laurie Dec 21, 2013.
[2] Stacey Simpson Duke, “Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). p. 6.