There are times in our lives, both vocationally and personally, when we know we’ve invested a bit more of ourselves into some action or project, and feel a degree of satisfaction with a job well done. Although I do my best each week to draft and share Biblically sound and inspirational messages, the truth is that some seasons I’m able to invest more into the sermons.
Advent, 2008, was one of those times, and so here I would like to re-share a series of sermon stories that I shared with my congregation. You can read the stories directly, moving from one part to the other, or return to this page for some biblical background before each tale.
I hope you enjoy, and perhaps that these may give you some inspiration for your season of anticipation. Blessings,
Click here to skip to Part 1, or continue reading for that week’s introduction.
Introduction to Week 1
We now begin the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas that serve as a time of preparation, a time of waiting. As we do so, we are invited by the prophet Isaiah to consider an important question: “Where is God?” And, perhaps more poignantly, “Why does God allow evil things to happen?”
The Israelites – the Hebrew people – of Isaiah’s day likely asked the very same question: Where is God?
Isaiah had prophesied that Israel would be invaded, Jerusalem overrun, and the people taken into Exile. Isaiah foretold the pain Israel would experience, but he also shared with the people God’s promise of hope: that they would know a Savior, a servant-king of the line of David, who was coming to save the people.
And yet near the end of his recorded prophesies, Isaiah lifts a prayer on behalf of the Israelites that is not a prayer of trust in God’s promise; rather, it is almost a challenge to a God who appears quiet and invisible during Israel’s trials. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,” Isaiah prays, remembering that in days past God “did awesome things that we did not expect.”
Isaiah knew the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He remembered the story of God’s mighty act to free the people from Egypt, and how God had led them through the wilderness. In his own life, Isaiah had even had a direct and supernatural encounter with God in the Temple in the year King Uzziah died. But now, in these dark days of Israel’s history, when the people most seemed to need God, where was he?
So the prophet Isaiah, who himself had once experienced a powerful, direct, life-transforming encounter with the living God, lifts a prayer of yearning for God. It is with this yearning for God’s presence that our season of Advent begins.
Introduction to Week 2
There is a recurring image of God that emerges in Old Testament poetry and literature, the image of a “divine warrior” that champions the righteous and devastates the evil. In Exodus 15, Moses and his sister Miriam sing praises of the Lord as a divine warrior who has interceded for his people, bringing them out of Egypt by the strength of his arm.
In fact, in these images of God, the phrase “arm of the lord” is associated with an image of our Creator God in all his power and might. The “arm of the Lord” is used to describe strength and power…
This morning, though, we hear a different image of God presented by the prophet Isaiah. He begins to share bout God coming with power, his reward and recompense accompanying him. But the prophet then goes on to describe God in a different way. Rather than a warrior bringing victory in the strength of his arm, Isaiah describes God as a shepherd who gently gathers the lambs in his arms.
Introduction to Week 3
It is intriguing to me that on this third Sunday of Advent the scripture reading is a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus himself once quoted. Jesus was in the synagogue on a Sabbath, and as was the custom when a visiting rabbi was present, he was invited to read the day’s Scripture and share a reflection upon it. So Jesus stood and was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, from which he read a portion of the passage we’ve just heard.
Only, Jesus didn’t read the whole thing. He began to read verses 1 and 2, but stopped before the end of two, after the part where he said he has come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The people, who were likely familiar with the passage, would have expected him to continue with the next phrase, “and the day of vengeance of our God,” but Jesus didn’t. He rolled up the scroll, sat down, and said, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
I tried this week to imagine what a modern equivalent of this would be, a point where people expected to hear something and didn’t. I imagine it would be a bit like ending the pledge of allegiance by saying, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” At first people might not notice that you left out a part of it, “under God,” but some would.
It seems that, initially, those in the synagogue were not aware of what Jesus left out. They spoke proudly of him, wondering at him; but then a ripple began. They began to notice that he had left out the part about the day of vengeance, something the Jews looked forward to. They longed for God to return and justify their faith, bringing vengeance on those they deemed to be enemies or unfaithful.
Yet, even as the people longed for vengeance and justice, Jesus was about so much more. Throughout the gospels of Mark and Matthew he says to his disciples, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” There was something decidedly different about Jesus. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, when God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, his ministry and impact were more about mercy, grace, and forgiveness than about justice and vengeance.
The Word of God came into the world, Emmanuel, God With Us, that we might know light in our darkness. He came, preaching good news, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for captives and those imprisoned in darkness; announcing that the time of the Lord’s favor had come…
Introduction to Week 4
Some years ago I read a book about youth ministry, focusing on the role of those who work with youth to help them develop a relationship with God. Called The Godbearing Life, the book drew its title from the Eastern Orthodox term for the mother of Jesus, Mary, the Theotokos – or “God-bearer.” When approached by the angel Gabriel, and told that she would give birth to the Messiah, Mary’s affirmative answer was a response to the work of God, but was, in some ways, a work of God in itself.
This final Sunday of Advent focuses on Mary, on her courageous “yes” to God, her earth-changing reply “may it be with me as you have said.” But Mary is not alone in the story. Oh, we remember and recall all of the players of that first Christmas, those that appear in Scripture – Joseph, Gabriel, the shepherds, the angels – and those that we imagine – the donkey, the inn keeper, drummer boys and littlest angels. But working behind the scene, quietly pronounced by Gabriel, is God’s Holy Spirit.
God’s Spirit makes appearances throughout Scripture, and we continue to talk about how the Spirit inspires us, works within us, moves us. What we see in the story of Mary this morning is the Spirit at transforming Mary’s life, leading to her song of praise, motivating her humble and courageous obedience, and ultimately bringing new life. The Spirit continues to work in our lives with much the same results: though we may not hear angels speak to us, the promise of the Spirit is that God is with us.