Transforming Creation

“Transforming Creation”

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Isaiah 35:1-6, 10 – December 11, 2016

Expectation. Anticipation. Sitting on the edge of one’s seat in excitement. That sounds like we just hardly can wait another minute for a long-expected, awaited event! Can you think of events which were so exciting for you? A long-awaited trip to a far-away place, a well-deserved promotion at work, or finally celebrating a wonderful wedding or a significant anniversary. Can you remember being so excited about these things that you were sitting on the edge of your seat in preparation and anticipation?

“O come, O come, Emmanuel.” This is a familiar hymn we sing in the month of December, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It is an Advent hymn, full of hope, preparation, and expectation about the Messiah’s coming. Are you sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for the arrival of Christmas, of the Baby born in Bethlehem? Or, is this just another ho-hum, not-so-exciting occurrence for you?

We all know the Messiah is long-expected. Time and again in the Hebrew scriptures, we hear the prophets declaring their marvelous news, that the Savior and Redeemer of Israel is coming. The heir to King David’s throne is coming to reign over Israel. But, this week, this passage from the prophet is a little different. We turn to the prophecy from Isaiah 35, starting at verse 1: “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.” Here, the prophet is talking about what will happen in the future.

Here, the prophet talks about all creation: the wilderness, the dry land, and the desert. Large parts of the land of Israel was parched, inhospitable to both humans and animals. Here, in these verses, we hear about what is going to happen to the land, to creation itself.

As Dr. Michael Chan, one of my commentators, said, “The general theme is that desolate, dry places will be transformed into paradise. Those who live in desert environs can appreciate the transformative power of water on the desert. Overnight, even a small amount of rain can change a dry desert into a vibrant landscape. But Isaiah’s poem moves far beyond the natural consequences of water on the desert. Creation itself will “be glad,” “rejoice,” and sing (verses 1-2). Creation’s praise joins human praise, in recognition of God’s marvelous work.” [1]

Death Valley, a large desert area in southern California, has wildflower blooms every year. Once every ten (or so) years, Death Valley receives an unusual amount of rain from storms that are way out of the ordinary. This causes what is known as a “super bloom,” as happened in spring of 2016. For a number of days, the valley was covered in an unusually huge amount of wildflowers. [2] Talk about anticipation for the coming of the Messiah! Thinking of the super-bloom in Death Valley gives us a foretaste of what we read here in Isaiah, certainly.

Looking at verses 3 and 4: “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.” The prophecy not only refers to creation, it also is talking to the people of this world, the people of our God. According to commentator Dr. Chan, “Like so many other texts in Isaiah, Isaiah 35 confronts fear with promise: “Here is your God … He will come with vengeance … He will come and save you.” In switching to the second person, the prophet leaves nothing to chance, making sure that his audience knows that this message is ‘for you.’[3]

But, what was the situation of these people of Israel? A huge group of them were in exile. Israel was occupied territory, and the occupying forces had been the strong, conquering forces. They took a large number of the people as prisoners back with them to Babylon, to force the good behavior of the whole nation of Israel.

So, the prophet encourages his listeners “to be strong and not be afraid no matter how bad things look at the moment because God will come to their rescue.” [4]  Just think of how so many of them felt, being prisoners of war in a foreign country.  As you can imagine, life for them was lousy. The prophet urged the Israelites to be strong because God will always have the last word. It does not matter, not for the people of Israel, not for us, either. God is in the process of overcoming, and the end result will be a wonderful thing.

May I point out that though we are not prisoners of war like the people of Israel, we face lots of really hard situations in our lives. Personally, in my extended family, we are facing a difficult and sad situation right now. Especially hard on my husband and his sisters. Their elderly father is gradually dying; slipping away. Yes, it is particularly tough for me and my whole family right now. And yes, God is a refuge and strength for our family, a very present help in times of our trouble and difficulty.

This is a challenging time of the year for many people. Carolyn Brown so helpfully reminds us that “many congregations have become sensitive to people for whom it is hard to rejoice at this time of year.” [5] Since her ministry focus is on children, she mentions that this group includes children as well as adults. Imagine how difficult, how confusing, even overwhelming the holidays can be for children, sometimes. (And for adults, too.)

“Children face the same problems that daunt the adults, but do so with different twists.  For one thing, they lack the experience of many Christmases that the adults can draw on to keep a sense of balance.  For another, they feel that as a child they should be totally into the season.  It feels even more unfair to them than to the adults that they are not going to have special gifts or fun family gatherings or decorations.” [6]

I am going to our sister church, Epiphany United Church of Christ, to assist for their Blue Christmas service this coming Wednesday. And, Pastor Kevin will assist me here at St. Luke’s Church for our Blue Christmas service a week from tomorrow, on Monday, Dec. 19th. Often- times, people get overwhelmed by the holidays. Perhaps they have lost a loved one during the past year, and this is the first Christmas with that empty chair. Perhaps there has been some other significant change or major move in their lives. No matter what the event or grief or situation, sometimes people need a refuge, they need a quiet gathering for support in this very busy time.

May I say that Isaiah’s promise is for us—all of us. No matter how hard things seem at the moment, we know that God will eventually win and God’s peace will come to the whole world. God will send joy to us all, despite the difficulties we all go through, on a daily basis. Knowing that, we can be strong and patient.

We can praise God for the witness of the prophet: “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;” Do you hear? Creation will be transformed, both the world and the people therein.

We can look forward to that, when Christ comes again in His glory. Soon and very soon, we will see Him face to face. We can sit on the edge of our seats as we await this wonderful, marvelous event. Praise God! The Messiah, the King is coming. We all can sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and really mean it, truly wait with anticipation and excitement.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Michael J. Chan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3118 

[2] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160302-death-valley-super-bloom-wildflowers-weather/

[3] hael J. Chan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3118 

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-of-advent-december-15.html

[5] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-of-advent-december-15.html

[6] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-o

f-advent-december-15.html 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

 

Preach the Word!

“Preach the Word!”

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2 Timothy 4:2 – October 16, 2016

For those who have had a mentor relationship—either as a mentor or a ment-ee—this kind of relationship can be so rewarding. This is the kind of relationship I had with Pastor Gordon, when we worked together years ago for almost a year at another UCC church. He was the mentor, I was the ment-ee. Paul and Timothy had this kind of relationship. Close, nurturing, and a blessing to both parties. In their case, this relationship was especially close. Paul even called Timothy “my true son in the faith.”

We get glimpses of the deep, nurturing relationship between Paul and Timothy in several of the New Testament letters. However, perhaps the deepest, most personal window into their relationship comes from this letter, the second letter to Timothy recorded in the New Testament.

Some backstory. Paul is in prison in Rome. This is nothing new for Paul. He had been imprisoned multiple times throughout his time as a follower of Jesus Christ. What is the most urgent thing on Paul’s mind? His direct command, his charge to his son in the faith: “Preach the Word! In season and out of season.” (In other words, all the time.)

Yes, Timothy was a pastor, and a preacher. We can take this command as something that Paul only meant for Timothy. Or, expand it a little further, and consider it a command for any pastor, for any preacher.

I would like to let everyone here know that I always—always—start with the Word of God. When I start preparing my sermons, I pray over the text. I ask God what the message is that God wants me to deliver to the congregation. I research the pertinent passage, and sometimes other, related passages from the Bible. Sometimes I take a closer look at the original languages, and at the nuances and the shades of meaning in the translations. Then, after all that, I write the sermon. And, I hope and pray I may faithfully proclaim God’s Word to the congregation. Always.

That is what I—personally—do as I bring the Word of God to you, each week. But, I believe Paul is talking to more than just his son in the faith. I believe Paul’s message can be taken to heart by all believers. Not only by me, or Pastor Gordon, or Pastor Kevin from Epiphany UCC, or Pastor Vertie Powers from the Chicago Metropolitan Association. But, Paul’s message is for all of us. Each of us, individually. At this church, and any every church.

As is so often the case with the Apostle Paul, he crammed a ton of ideas into a very small space. Let’s read his directions to Timothy, again, starting at 3:14: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it.” Paul had already praised Timothy for his careful learning from his grandmother and mother, Lois and Eunice, at the beginning of this letter. Here, he expands this idea.

Here, Paul ”refers to the people from whom Timothy has learned. (And it is ’people,’ more than Paul alone, but a collection of people, since the ‘whom’ in 3:14 is plural.)” [1] We know that Timothy learned from his mother and grandmother, because Paul said so. Perhaps Timothy also went to Hebrew school, or Torah classes, or studied with some rabbinic scholar as a teen. But, Paul said Timothy learned from a number of people. Mentors. Teachers. Coaches. Elders in the faith, people who had thorough, lived-or-demonstrated faith. Their faithfulness, which made Timothy who he was as an adult.

Go back in your mind and memory. Can you remember one or two special people who instructed you in the faith? People who lived out their Christian faith each day, every day?

I can remember one dear woman when I was in elementary school on the northwest side of Chicago at the Lutheran church. I vividly remember a senior, Mrs. Pabst (who died many years ago). She was faithful. She was kind. She had the spiritual gifts of helps and mercy and service to others in abundance. She was unfailingly loving and giving to others. Each day. Every day. She lived out the Christian life in front of me. I learned practical theology from Mrs. Pabst: how to make theology part of everyday life and apply it to the nuts and bolts of everyday living. She demonstrated the Christian faith as part of who she was.

That’s what Paul is talking about here. He praises Timothy for having absorbed practical theology from mentors, teachers, coaches. The Christian faith was part of who Timothy was.

Who have we learned from? Who showed us how to make practical theology part of our everyday lives? Great question! I’ll let us all ponder that for today.

Let’s get back to talking about the Word. Yes, Paul commanded Timothy to preach the Word. What else does Paul say about the Word? About Scripture? These verses are rich with meaning. Paul says that Timothy learned Scripture from the time he was very small. From his infancy Timothy had been exposed to God’s Word, which was—which is able to make all of us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

How about for us, today? Does that mean learning about Scripture in Sunday school? Memorizing verses in Confirmation classes? Sharing at bible study or at prayer time? Yes, yes, and yes. All of those, and so much more. What about decorating the sanctuary for Christmas? What about getting the fellowship hall ready for the Spaghetti Dinner or the Not-So-Lent Fish Fry? What about working at the Car Wash? Or praying for others with the email Prayer Chain?

Can those be times when we learn from each other how to be of service, and how to live Godly lives in a cheerful, faithful way? How to DO practical theology?

Just letting you all know: this final letter is bittersweet. More than sad. Paul is coming to the end of the road; he knows it. This time, he knew he had very little time left before he was executed. Beheaded. He has lost the final appeal, before the Emperor in Rome. Time is short—Paul desperately needs to give Timothy a final charge: “Preach the Word!”

We can all point to preachers on street corners or on television, or on the Internet. Preachers who give us lessons in how NOT to preach the Word. Preachers who use a boom box or a bullhorn, using guilt and shame as weapons to browbeat passersby into their “churches.” False preachers like these have no regard for those hearing the message. They do not deliver the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. God’s Word that transforms the life of every person who truly believes.

Communicating the transforming Word of God is the ministry of the Church. The main job of each and every believer. Just as Paul praised Timothy for having absorbed practical theology from mentors, teachers, coaches, just as Paul recognized that the Christian faith was part of who Timothy was, so each of us can live out the Christian faith each day. Every day. We can make theology part of our everyday lives, too.

We can have confidence and faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord, our Savior. We all can live lives that let everyone know we are Christians because we have love for one another. We can strive to be unfailingly loving and giving to others. Many others. Each day. Every day. And when we finally stand before Jesus Christ in glory, we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

St. Francis of Assisi made theology part of his everyday life, making the Christian faith part of who he was. He reminded us, “Preach the Gospel at all times. And when necessary, use words.” Let those with ears to hear, let them hear. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1836 ; Commentary, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Matt Skinner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)