Whew! I post this sermon to document my journey in ministry. My journey this week took me somewhere new. I was still with the good people of Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea, bidding farewell after five months together in transition– they to a new pastor, and me to a new… what? I’m not sure yet.
But what was new this Sunday was the blessing/opportunity/challenge to lead worship with my kids… unsupervised. Donny was traveling, and I wanted them with me, and thus, our adventure together.
Have you ever preached with a three year-old running up and down the chancel steps to hug your leg or ask a question? It is not for the faint of heart. But it was beautiful, and the congregation was gracious, lovely, patient, patient, and patient. We had a good time, I think.
“Restoration and Joy, Joy, Joy”
Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea
The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin
December 14, 2014 (3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B)
This week, the biblical themes are those of restoration and joy.
Last week we sat in the darkness, aware, as ever, how hard things are. This week, those things are still hard. God knows things are hard. God knows.
God also promises to bind up the brokenhearted, to turn tears of sorrow into tears of joy, to replace injustice with justice; chaos with peace; to replace fear with love.
So we are going to celebrate with Isaiah and the Psalmist today. We are going to rejoice always, as the Psalm and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians exhort us to do.
And we are going to do all of this as part as our Advent and Christmas preparation.
I want to read the Psalm and the prophet again, because I every time my eyes fell on those texts, I thought of this church. More than that, I thought of anyone and any community who has ever been through a time of great suffering. My patients at the hospital, in particular.
I met a young woman on Thursday in the Infusion who has a chronic blood disease that requires her to receive infusions every two weeks. She’s had surgery on her spleen; she had a pacemaker installed in her heart.
But she is a whippersnapper. Her only concession to her illness has been taking the blue handicapped sign for her car, but only for the parking benefits. Her friends wonder why she bothers working, rather than living off of the disability benefits she’s eligible for.
She told them, Are you crazy? What am I going to do? Sit around the house all day and collect? No, I’m going to live. I’m going to get up at 6am every morning and then complain about getting up so early, like everybody else. I’m going to spoil my nieces and nephews. I’m going to help my dad out at his diner over the summers as the cashier and be the therapist to all the customers who come in with their complaints.
My job gives me the day off every time I have to come here, and I make it like a vacation! I sleep in; I run my errands; I cook dinner.
Her energy is uncontainable. Her vitality unmatched by most of us who have never experience chronic, debilitating illness. She was just draped in garlands and mantles of praise, anointed with the oils of gladness. There wasn’t an ash in sight, nor sadness.
The prophet Isaiah is speaking to the community who were exiled to Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed. They never thought they’d see their home again. And then, by God, there they were. Not in the Jerusalem they remembered. No, it was still in ruins. But there they were. And there was God, promising to help them rebuild and restore.
Out of the chaos of destruction and exile, the LORD will create something new.
New. Not perfect. I’m not sure I got that distinction until I met this young woman on Thursday. She will have this disease for the rest of her life, but she is constantly re-newing. Becoming new each day as she chooses to live as if her fortunes have been restored to her, and they have. Kind of. In her refusal to be exiled by her diagnosis; her refusal to live in the ruins of her body’s fraility.
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. Pray without ceasing, giving thanks to God in ALL circumstances.
I remember having coffee with my seminary friends in January after our first semester together. We had all gone home for the holidays, and each of us had been asked, at the last possible second, to offer grace or a prayer for a family or gathering. Well, we’d only been in seminary for three months, and so each of us told our embarrassing story. And my friend, Katie (that’s her real name), told us this.
She was at potluck dinner with immediate and extended family- some whom she knew well, some she hardly knew. Some of her shared her religious and political leanings, other who did not. Frozen with anxiety at their invitation to her to offer a spontaneous prayer, Katie started to rhyme her prayers. She prayed about the ‘reason for the season’ and the importance of having an ‘attitude of gratitude.’ She was mortified. I still laugh when I think of that story, about how timid we were to express our faith out loud. I mean, I think I still feel that way, most of the time.
But my reason for sharing Katie’s embarrassment is because her rhymes, silly they may be, reveal what is really going on during Advent. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is the only way we’ll be able to rejoice and give thanks to God in all circumstances. If we cannot be grateful; we cannot be joyful. And if we cannot be joyful in this season, for something, whatever it is, then we are not understanding the reason for the season.
God was at work in the lives of the exiled community whom Isaiah addresses. If God had been absent, they would have cared less about what the prophet had to say about all this. If God did not still have power over their lives, this proclamation of restoration would not be recorded for us to read these thousands of years later.
The promise of newness comes to them as they look around their beloved city and see no signs of a rebuilt temple. This promise of freedom, comfort, restoration, and praise likely seemed far off — yet it was spoken. God was at work in their midst. God was at work through them. God, the Isaiah, and the people are wrapped together even as the work of salvation, the fulfillment of this promise, would be fulfilled in fits and starts.
We can feel as if God is distant; we can live in what feels like terrible darkness. But distance and darkness are illusions, for the darkest night is like the light of day to God. And joy is there, waiting for us, whenever we are ready to receive it.
So, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to read the Scripture passages again, because I want you to hear them in light of these themes of restoration and joy.
And then, because I may not see you for a while, and because it’s almost Christmas, and because my kids are here today, I am going to read my favorite Christmas story.
But first, let’s hear the Word of God once more.