Christmas Through the Eyes of the Prophets (8:30am)
Topic: The true meaning of Christmas Scripture: Isaiah 9:2–9:7, Isaiah 11:1–11:10
Isaiah offers such a multiplicity of powerful images that we are almost overwhelmed. Each image in its own way speaks a word of hope in the midst of despair: light dawning, a messiah appearing, and government upon his shoulders, animals-wild and domestic-dwelling in peace. Isaiah’s word pictures provide an antidote to the brutal oppression that the nation was under. The prophet’s job was to declare, “Hope is on the way.” His challenge was to pierce the darkness of grief and loss. A contemporary example would be the people of Mosul, Iraq. For two years they have suffered the horrors of life under ISIS. Now we pray, their liberation is at hand. I wonder if they can allow themselves to believe it? In Aleppo, Syria, the siege by the government and bombing by their Russian allies has been catastrophic. Who can speak a word of hope to that city?
So Isaiah used all kinds of word pictures to try to break through. If you’ve ever tried to break through to someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t listen, you know the challenge, it can be like talking to a brick wall.
The image that grabbed me in these advent and Christmas texts is from the first verse of chapter 11: “A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” He envisions a tiny fragile life appearing unexpectedly in a place where there seemed no possibility of life. A dead stump puts forth a bit of green and starts growing again. It’s a miracle, a resurrection.
As a child I was privileged to grow up in areas where I had instant access to nature. Out the back door in New Jersey and Connecticut were extensive woods, ponds, and streams. Today many have what’s been called Nature Deficit Disorder. Youngsters often have no experience of the natural world. There we see the reality of “dead” trees and stumps coming back to life when leaves and green shoots appear. We can learn a lot about God, and hope from God’s creation. Waiting for those signs can test us. In the spring, like many of you, we plant some flower seeds in planters. Then we wait. That waiting, especially for a young child who has helped with the planting, can seem to take forever. The day when the first shoot appears is an occasion of rejoicing.
The power of God has the capacity to surprise. Few people looked for the Savior of the world out back behind the inn, in a feeding trough—but there he was. Those who did find him were guided by the Spirit. They didn’t find him on their own. We are told that He was of the house and lineage of David—a dynast long dormant, now to be revived through this fragile little life. Ant newborn can bring the miraculous sense of the divine. When I held our first born and looked into his eyes, I had a distinct sense that he was newly arrived from another, spiritual world. Perhaps it was my overactive imagination. I still believe it.
How much more when we behold the Christ child, sent from above. When we look at him as an infant, or an adult in his teaching and healing ministry, or as the risen living Lord, we see the face of God. It is a face of welcome to all, and of unconditional love. We have hope. “Because he lives, we can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone.”
Maybe our task is to look for the little green shoots in our lives and in our world. I hope I don’t say that simplistically. Just now there are a number of fellow church members who face really heartbreaking situations for themselves or loved ones. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of light dawning or green hope pushing through hard ground. They’re still waiting.
That’s the time when others of us can support, and pray for, and even believe on behalf of those who can’t. We can say, “He or she is passing through a time of doubt right now. I’ll carry her or him, in my mind and in my heart. I’ll do or say what I can to encourage.”
Many artists and creative people have to wrestle with their demons and darkness in order to produce the gold of their creativity—their writing, or their painting, or dancing, or music. New life sprouts because of the struggle. William Styron is an author who has known terrible depression. He wrote, “The pain of this disease in its severest forms is quite unimaginable to those who have not experienced it.” Many have found in his writings true hope, because his honesty reveals to them that they are not alone in what they endure. Our willingness to self-disclose in our journey could be a lifesaver for someone else. “Oh, you’ve been through that too? Wow! That gives me hope.”
Think of some issue or person you’re concerned about. Maybe you’re close to giving up on. Don’t give up. Parents of those dear children at Sandy Hook Elementary have had one setback after another in their efforts at gun safety. They’re not giving up. Do we have the option to give up? I suppose we do. We’re called to press on to the goal and to hold on to hope.
Listen in closing to these words of Rev. Barbara Lundblad, who taught preaching at Yale, Princeton, and Union Seminaries:
“What if we believe this fragile sign is God’s beginning? Perhaps then we will tend the seedling in our hearts, the place where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief. Do not wait for the tree to be full grown. God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to move beyond counting the rings of the past. We may still want to sit on the stump for a while, and God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us: ‘Look! Look -- there on the stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?’”