Christmas Eve Sermon

Luke 2:1-20

This year, I’ve been paying attention to Nativity scenes. I have several that have been given to me over the years, and what I have found fascinating is this: with the exception of a Nativity scene that I inherited from my grandmother, which has both shepherds and wise men, the rest of my Nativity scenes feature only the wise men surrounding the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and assorted animals. I find this rather odd, because if we read the birth stories in Matthew and compare them to Luke, we’ll find clues that the wise men actually did not show up the night that Jesus was born. And, the church has known that for the thousands of years that there has been a church, and they dealt with that by having two separate feast days: Christmas, to celebrate the night when Jesus was born and the shepherds came, and Epiphany, twelve days later on January 6, which celebrates the arrival of the wise men. Over the many years and the changes in culture that have happened since the church established this, the feast day of Epiphany does not get celebrated anymore unless January 6 falls on a Sunday (which it does next year!), and so we tend to skip over the wise men in Sunday morning worship. My theory is that this is why the stories from Matthew and Luke have been meshed together, so that we crowd in the wise men with the shepherds: to make sure the wise men are not left out of the story. But that doesn’t answer the question of my Nativity scenes with only wise men and no shepherds.  And I’ve been wondering why the wise men generate more fascination for us than the shepherds do. Is it because our society is more fascinated with wealth and privilege than we are with ordinary people? Is it because most of us have no connections to farming anymore and therefore relate better to the wise men than we do to the shepherds? Or is it because we want Jesus to be that person who is due to receive rich gifts and be recognized as a true king at his birth, when he was only mockingly recognized as a king at his death? I think these are all possibilities, and very likely it is a combination of these and other reasons that the wise men are now squeezed in to Christmas with the shepherds.

But the story that the Gospel of Luke tells, that we hear tonight, is not the story of wealthy strangers from a far-off land. We are putting that story aside until January 6th. Tonight, we hear the story that Luke tells: of an ordinary Jewish couple caught up in the machinations of the government, forced to make a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, arriving at their family home to find no room for them, and having to bed down with the animals. It is the story of a very pregnant woman having to give birth to her firstborn among the animals and laying that child in the animals’ feeding trough. And it is the story of ordinary people doing their ordinary job of watching sheep out in the fields at night, when suddenly they see angels in the sky telling them about the newborn Savior, and then quickly going and crowding themselves in to this place with animals, new parents, and a newborn baby to see. There is nothing glamorous about this story at all, except for maybe the army of angels that appears in the sky. And that, I believe, is truly the good news for us, because, in the end, we really do have more in common with those shepherds than we do with the wise men.

Just think about it: the shepherds were ordinary guys, no one special, minding their own business, and watching those pesky sheep in the middle of the night. Remember that sheep are not the brightest of creatures, but they are of great value both for their wool and for their meat. The shepherds were outside of the circles of power. They had no connection with the mighty Roman Emperor Augustus or even this guy named Quirinius who was governor of Syria. And yet: God chose those shepherds to hear the message of the angels that night. Here was God’s Son, born in the home of ordinary peasants and laid to rest in an animal’s feeding trough. Even though Jesus was born of the line of David, David’s family had no more political power in the land of Palestine. Right from the start, God was signaling that God’s kingdom come on earth was not going to be a direct challenge to the reign of Caesar, but that it was going to be a different kind of kingdom: one where the poor and the ordinary were valued above the rich and the powerful, and one where, as Mary had sung earlier in Luke’s story, God was going to throw down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; one where God was going to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. Right from the moment when Jesus was born, God was signaling that God’s kingdom was going to be the reverse of all human expectations for what that kingdom would look like.

Just think about it: the shepherds brought no gifts for Jesus. They probably had nothing that they could give. The sheep that they were watching might not have even belonged to them. So, as Mary lies in the same area with the animals, recovering from having given birth, a bunch of shepherds suddenly crowds into this small area with her, Joseph, and the baby, telling a fantastic story of angels who came and told them that the Messiah had been born and was lying in a manger. To Mary and Joseph’s credit, they did not throw these strangers out, but rather, the Scripture tells us, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Perhaps Mary was thinking about how, in this new kingdom that was being ushered in by her newborn son, those who have nothing to give but themselves, like the shepherds, would be welcomed and loved by her child. And perhaps, just perhaps, Mary allowed these strangers, these rough shepherds, to hold her new baby and coo over him, and wonder at him close up.

And so, you see, we ourselves are like the shepherds: we have nothing of our own to give Jesus, our Savior, because everything we think we have actually belongs to someone else: God. Even our very selves belong to God. And yet, God wants to be in relationship with us so much that God sent Jesus, God’s son, to be born of a woman into this sinful world, to live among us and to eventually die for us to show us fully what God’s love truly looks like. The baby Jesus looks at us from his manger and says, “It doesn’t matter that you have no rich gifts to give me. I love you as you are, and I invite you to come and look upon me, for I have given myself for you.”

Luke tells us that the shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. I can’t imagine that they glorified and praised God in silence. I imagine that they were loudly talking about this experience both among themselves and anyone they might have met as the new day was dawning. And that’s something that the shepherds have to teach us each Christmas Eve: we should not be silent about praising and glorifying God. Some of you here this evening may not be Lutherans, but for those of you who are: we Lutherans have been too silent about Jesus for way too long. We need to be out there telling people about this Savior who welcomes us just as we are. Our social ministries, such as our community meals and such, are very important as we do what Jesus has taught us to do. But too often, we don’t include telling people explicitly about Jesus as part of these social ministries. And that’s really too bad, because, how could we not? Here is our God, who came down to earth as a human being, in the form of a baby boy, because he loved us so much. Here is our God who asks us not to come with tribute to him, but to come just as we are so we can see and understand how much he loves us. Who among us doesn’t want that kind of love? We should be telling everyone about this Jesus and how much he has done for us and how much he loves each person on this planet, no matter what.

So, come as you are to worship the baby in the manger. Come as you are. It doesn’t matter what sins haunt your life. It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, Hispanic, straight, gay, rich, poor, or somewhere in between all of this. Come and experience the love of God made manifest in this baby in the manger. And then go, and tell everyone about that love and that they, too can experience it for themselves. Glorify and praise God as you go from here back into your everyday lives, just as the shepherds did, but knowing that now everything has changed for the better. Amen.

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Sermon for Advent 3 Narrative

Isaiah 42:1-9

Today we move from the book of Esther, written in a time when the Jewish community was figuring out its identity as they lived in foreign lands, back to the prophet Isaiah. Even though we have only one book named Isaiah in our Holy Scriptures, scholars believe that chapters 1-39 belong to the prophet named Isaiah who lived in the time of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, before the Babylonian exile, and that chapters 40-66 belong to a different prophet who lived at the time that King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Israel and rebuild the temple. They call this unknown prophet Second Isaiah. The reason they believe that it’s two different prophets is because each of these sections in the book speaks to the different situations that the Jewish people found themselves in during two different periods of time. But, because the later chapters were attached onto the scrolls of the book of Isaiah, we don’t know any biographical information about this prophet we call Second Isaiah, other than that he lived during the Jewish return from exile. This unknown prophet’s words start in chapter 40 with, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” In other words, the prophet is announcing that the exile is over, and that God’s people are now free to return to their home.

Today’s text comes two chapters later, and is the first of the “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. There are four passages in Second Isaiah which describe what God’s servant looks like and what that servant will do. We as Christians hear these passages, especially the passages about how the servant suffers, and we automatically think, “Jesus!” And in fact, that is how our Gospel text from Matthew today interprets the Servant Song that we heard from Isaiah 42. But, in our Bible study this past Thursday, we talked about how, when we interpret texts from the Bible, we need to think about how the text’s original audience heard it. And, if you remember from way back when we started talking about prophets this fall, a prophet’s primary task was not to predict the future, but was instead to tell the people what God wanted of them. So, just for a moment, let’s put aside our belief that Isaiah was talking about Jesus and try to imagine how the people who lived in the 530s BCE might have heard this particular prophecy.

Remember, first of all, that the prophet is part of a community that is just returning to their home from exile in a foreign land that lasted roughly 50 years. That’s enough time for the older people in the Jewish community, the ones who had been taken into exile, to die off. The ones who are in their older years now were children when they went into exile, and may or may not remember what it was like in the country of Judah. The young children in the community were born in Babylon and know nothing of what Judah was like. They may be uncertain as to why they have to leave Babylon, other than the stories their parents have told them. This is the situation into which the prophet speaks God’s message. And so, when the people of this Jewish community hear this first servant song, they may be hearing the story of their people. As God’s people, God has called them to be God’s servant: they have God’s spirit upon them; they are called to not quench light that is struggling to burn; they are called to bring forth God’s justice on the earth, and they are called to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, and to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. This is their identity as a Jewish community, and God is calling them to fulfill that identity by giving up their life in a foreign country and returning to their homeland. By so doing, God’s purposes will be fulfilled among them and they will be God’s witness to the rest of the nations of the world.

Now that we have an idea of what this prophecy might have meant to the first people who heard the prophet speak it, let’s fast forward from 539 BCE to around the year 30 CE. Jesus is walking through the land of Galilee, teaching the people and healing them. Just before the lines that we heard read from Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus has disrupted synagogue worship by healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. After he hears that the Pharisees are upset by this, he leaves that place and continues his healing ministry. As Matthew writes down this story somewhere in the 80s of the Common Era, he sees Jesus as fulfilling the prophecy of the servant song that we heard read today in Isaiah. Jesus is God’s servant, whom God has chosen, proclaiming justice to the nations and bringing hope to the world. As Christians, we can see both the Jewish community returning from exile as well as Jesus as fulfillments of the prophecy of second Isaiah.

But, beyond describing both the way the Jewish community was experiencing the return from exile and the work of Jesus, what meaning does this servant song have for us in the 21st century? Well, if we claim to be Christians, that is, followers of Jesus the Christ, then we want to behave as Jesus behaved. If this servant song describes Jesus as faithfully bringing forth justice, then we, too, want to do what we can to bring forth justice on earth. If the coastlands are indeed waiting for the teaching of Jesus, then that means we can speak the teaching of Jesus into a world that desperately needs to hear it. In a society where the church is losing its privileged place, perhaps God is using that disruption to call us back into a renewed covenant with God, so that we too can be a light to the nations, giving sight to the blind and bringing out from their prisons those who sit in darkness.

And how is God calling us to be a light to the nations? Well, let’s review our journey through the prophets this fall. We started out with Micah, who called us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. We talked about how we can advocate for people to have a right to a civil lawyer when they are faced with evictions, and we talked about how we can advocate for a higher minimum wage so that people can actually live on what they earn. Then from first Isaiah we heard the call to be peacemakers, to genuinely listen to one another and make true and lasting peace in our families and communities. From Jeremiah we heard the call to defend the widow, the orphan, and the alien, and we talked about the fact that we can disagree on how to fix our broken immigration system, but how we must treat immigrants as human beings, remembering that we ourselves are descended from immigrants. Then we heard from Habakkuk, who told us to hold a vision of peace in front of us, to work to prevent violence, and to cling to the faith that tells us that God is good, even when everything around us seems to be disintegrating. And then finally, last week we heard from Esther, who told us that now is the time to speak, and to not be afraid, for God has brought us to this time and place in order that we may speak up for God’s justice. All of these ways, and even more than I could name, are ways that we can imitate Christ and be a light to the nations.

In Advent, we focus on hope: hope in Christ, hope in his return, and hope that he will bring God’s justice to earth. We also talk about waiting during Advent, and how waiting is not just sitting around and looking for something to happen, but how we actively wait. While we wait and hope for God’s justice to fully appear on earth, we can participate in bringing that justice about, all the while knowing that our efforts by themselves are not going to bring God’s justice fully to earth. But as we participate in bringing God’s justice to earth, we also participate in shining God’s light to all of those around us—we shine a light in a dark world that so desperately needs to see that light, and that so desperately needs the hope that Christ will come again.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters just finished celebrating Hanukkah, a festival that remembers, in part, how just a little bit of oil kept the candles in the Temple lit for eight days. As our Jewish brothers and sisters light candles in remembrance of this and of the rededication of the Temple, they use one candle to light all of the others, and that candle is called the shamash. When Hanukkah comes around, there is a message that goes around that calls us to be the shamash: to be the candle that lights other candles, to bring that much needed light to the world around us and to cause other people to shine with that light in the darkness. As we are in the last days of Advent and approaching Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus who brought light into the world and continues to do so, let us be imitators of Jesus. Let us be the shamash and shine the light of Jesus into a world of darkness. In so doing, we, too, can be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that God’s servant will be a light to the nations. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2

Esther 4:1-17

Today we are jumping over many years to get from the time of Habakkuk and Jeremiah to the time of Esther. The Babylonians did come in and conquer Jerusalem, destroying the temple, as Jeremiah had said they would, and took the Jewish people into exile. Many years went by, and the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persian Empire. In the year 539 BCE, a Persian king by the name of Cyrus came to power, and he decreed that the Jewish people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, including the temple. If you want to hear more about the story of those who returned to Jerusalem from their exile, you can read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But our story today, the story of Esther, deals with questions that the Jewish people who chose to remain where they were instead of returning from exile, were dealing with: Who are we? How much of our identity as Jewish people do we retain in this foreign culture? And how do we deal with threats to our existence?

Many of you are probably not familiar with the story of Esther, or perhaps you may vaguely remember it from Sunday school lessons as children. And since we have a chapter right out of the middle of the story, I will take some time now to summarize what has happened before the chapter that we heard read today. The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, gave a banquet for everyone in the city of Susa. On the seventh day of the banquet, when the king was very drunk, he commanded his queen, Vashti, to come before him, so he could show everyone that he had the most beautiful queen in the world. Vashti refused to come—hooray for an early form of feminism! But her refusal had consequences, because the king deposed Vashti as queen. Well, now he had a problem, because of course a king needs a queen. So, his advisors counseled him to have a beauty contest where all the most beautiful young women in the land were brought to him, and he would decide which one would be his queen. There was in the city of Susa a young Jewish woman by the name of Hadassah, an orphan, who was living with her cousin Mordecai. Hadassah was taken up into the palace as one of the beautiful women that the king could choose from, but on the advice of her cousin Mordecai, she hid the fact that she was Jewish and called herself Esther instead, which at the time did not sound too Jewish. Long story short: the king chose Esther as his queen.

After this, a man named Haman rose high in the favor of the king. When Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman as he passed by in the streets, Haman not only hated Mordecai, but he decided to hate all of the Jewish people, and convinced the king to issue an order to have all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire killed on a certain date. When this edict was proclaimed, there was much confusion and mourning among the Jewish people. And now we arrive at the portion of the story that we have heard read today. When Esther hears that Mordecai is weeping and wearing sackcloth, she sends a messenger to find out what is wrong. When she hears what Haman has done, and that Mordecai is asking her to go to the king to entreat him to call off the genocide, Esther is afraid. If anyone goes into the king’s presence without him first summoning them, the penalty is death, unless the king makes an exception and extends the golden scepter to that person. And for whatever reason, the king has not asked his queen, Esther, to come to him in a month.

Mordecai then makes his final argument to Esther, through the royal messengers. “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” This is what persuades Esther to literally take her life in her own hands and go to the king on behalf of her people. It does not matter if she dies, for she will die in service to God and to God’s people. But it is time to remember who she is and where she comes from, and try to avert disaster on her people’s behalf.

I think this is the message that Esther has for us as Christians today. It is a message to remember who we are, whose we are, and what God has called us to do. So, let’s take a look at those questions of identity today. Who are we? We each have different identities in relation to the people around us in our lives. Martin Luther called these different identities our vocations, or callings. We are Americans, and in that identity, we have certain responsibilities: to pay taxes and to vote in elections, as well as other duties and obligations. We have different identities in our families: we are daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins, etc., and as such, in each of those roles and depending on the customs and traditions of our families, we have certain responsibilities. But, even more than all of this, we are Christians: we are followers of the one known as Jesus, the Messiah, both God and human, and as Christians, we also have responsibilities: those things that Jesus has called us to do. The question that we wrestle with is this: Which of these identities comes first in our lives? If we put our American identity above being Christian and above our family, that is going to shape who we are and how we act. The same thing happens if we put family first, and if we truly do put Jesus first. Each choice that we make in life reflects the identity that we have chosen to put first.

So, as we ask ourselves which identity we choose first, as Christians, we need to start by remembering whose we are. We do not belong to ourselves in any of our identities. But, as Christians, we make the claim that we belong to God. And not just any god, but a God who loved us so much that God sent God’s Son, Jesus, the Messiah, to earth, to be one of us, to truly understand what it means to be human, to teach us about God’s love, and then to show us what God’s love looks like by going to the cross and dying for us. And then, he showed us that death has no power over him by rising from the dead, giving us hope in the promise that God loves us so much that, like Jesus, we too will one day rise again, and we will live with God forever. This is the God that we belong to, and this is the identity that I want to choose above being an American, and above even my family, who I love very much. I want to love God more than all of the rest, because God loves me with an incredibly deep and wondrous love.

And out of this love for God comes a response: I want to show God’s love to the world. Not because I think this will save me; Jesus has already done that. But because I want everyone in the world to understand what this love is truly about. But if I’m going to come close to showing the world what kind of love Jesus has for me, then it’s going to require some hard choices. Love in the Scriptures is not a feeling; love is an action word. There will be times where I will have to put my money where my mouth is, just as Esther does in our story today. There will be times when I will be called upon to live out my identity as a Christian, even when that looks foolish to the world around me. And there will be times when my Christian identity may come into conflict with my other identities, and I will have to choose which action I am going to take which best expresses how God wants me to live out my life.

That means that sometimes a Christian response to some issue is going to be in conflict with something that the government is doing. We are lucky: we live in a country where we have freedom of speech, and speaking up in protest against something the government is doing is not punishable by death. For example, if I believe that God is calling me to speak up against how the government is treating immigrants, or how the government is not stewarding our environment as it should, then I have the ability to write to my legislators and demand action without being thrown into jail. If I feel, however, that God is calling me to do something more than writing, I have the ability to go out on the streets and protest. If I violate laws in the process, I may be thrown into jail. But, I would still have my life. For many of our brother and sister Christians in different areas of the world, following God’s call to proclaim justice may well mean taking their lives in their hands, just as Esther did. So why do we sit silently by when we have it comparatively easy?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, just as Mordecai says to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” God is calling us to the place we are in for just such a time as this. We are sinful human beings, and as such, we have made a mess of things, both locally and throughout the world. But, as Christians, we are called to be the light of the world, as we heard in our Gospel reading today. We are called to shine the light of Christ into a world badly in need of the hope that God’s justice will bring. We are called to shine the light of a love that would sacrifice our very lives and selves so that the world can see what that love looks like. And, most of all, we are called to shine the light of Jesus into a world that desperately needs him.

I encourage you all to read the whole book of Esther; it is a wonderful story. Esther goes before the king, who grants her mercy. She invites him and Haman to a banquet and lays the trap: at the second banquet, she reveals to the king, her husband, that Haman has plotted to kill all of the Jewish people, and that she herself is a Jew. The king is enraged that he has been tricked, and orders Haman to be executed. And in the end, the Jews are saved and Mordecai and Esther become heroes. Because they remembered that they were God’s children and that they belonged to God, they were able to risk their lives in order to save God’s people. If we claim to be God’s children, can we do any less? I pray that God would grant us the courage to speak when necessary, and shine that light of Christ into the world. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Habakkuk (selected chapters and verses)

Today we hear from a prophet who has a hard name for us to pronounce: Habakkuk. And either way you want to pronounce it is okay. We don’t really know anything about who this prophet was. From the context of what he says, when he references the Chaldeans (which is another name for the Babylonians) we can guess that he is a contemporary of Jeremiah, who we heard from last week, which would put him in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE. But other than that, we don’t know anything about who Habakkuk was or where he prophesied, that is, whether he was a prophet in Jerusalem or in the country. But for such limited knowledge about who Habakkuk was, he had a lot of things of profound importance to say, which still resonate with us centuries later in a completely different context. Which is probably why he ended up in our Holy Scriptures.

So, as we look at the first section of our reading today, we see the prophet Habakkuk crying out to the Lord, saying that there is violence all around him in his society. There is an abundance of wrongdoing, of destruction and of violence. The law of the land seems to be doing nothing to curb all of this, and if there is an attempt by the law to do something, justice never wins out. So Habakkuk is asking the Lord how long this is going to keep happening. Can’t God do something about all of this? The answer is more disturbing than we think: God is going to do something about this, but it’s not what we think God should do. Instead of swooping in with a superhero cape, knocking some sense into the evildoers, and putting the good people in charge, God is going to send in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and wipe the slate clean, so to speak. Um, okay God, maybe we’d rather live with things the way they are after all.

Regardless of this answer, Habakkuk continues to wait for God’s answer to his question: how long shall he cry for help, and God will not listen? Or cry to God, “Violence!” and God will not save? Habakkuk stands and keeps watch, and the Lord answers him with a vision. And the vision that God gives is to be patient and wait. OK, well, that’s not much of an answer, either, but God says, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” As Lutherans, this verse should sound familiar to us. The apostle Paul quotes it in his letter to the Romans, and it is the verse that Martin Luther happened upon when he was struggling with how God could love him when he was such a sinful human being. So we’re familiar with the idea that the things we do in this life are not what saves us; but rather it is faith alone that saves us. That idea came from this verse. But I’m going to say here that this idea of salvation by faith alone is not quite what Habakkuk had in mind when he originally received this vision from God.

And this is why I say that: in our last section from Habakkuk today, he talks about what living by faith looks like. When the crops fail, in Habakkuk’s case, the fig tree does not produce fruit nor does the olive tree, and when there are no animals to help feed the people, and when all hope seems to be lost, yet Habakkuk will still rejoice in the Lord and will trust in God. It’s the kind of faith that looks around at the world and sees all of the problems: the violence, the people going hungry, the people who are homeless, the immigrant families being shot at with tear gas, the corrupt politicians, and all the rest of it and says, “Even in spite of this, I still believe that God is good, and I will trust that God will one day bring peace and cause everyone to live well, with adequate food, shelter, and love from one another. I don’t know when that day will come, but I believe and trust that God will one day bring it about.” What Habakkuk was talking about what slightly different from how the Apostle Paul and later, Martin Luther, interpreted him.

Usually on the first Sunday of Advent, in the Revised Common Lectionary, we would have heard a text from Matthew, Mark, or Luke where Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple and the signs to watch for when it is time for him to return to earth. That is a good text to hear for Advent. But more than that, Advent is about waiting, and hopeful anticipation of what is to come. And I think Habakkuk captures that spirit just as well as any of Jesus’ end times talks. In Habakkuk, God promises a vision, but God tells the prophet to wait for it. And Habakkuk describes the life of faith as one of waiting for God’s promised future to arrive. And that’s what Advent is about: waiting. Not so much about waiting for Jesus to be born, because Jesus has already been born, lived, died, and risen from death. Advent is rather about anticipating God’s promised future and waiting for that promised future to arrive. And it is about trusting that God will fulfill God’s promises in spite of all of the violence, death, and destruction around us.

So, how do we wait for that promised vision from God to arrive in the flesh? Well, we don’t twiddle our thumbs and stand around staring up at the sky. Our waiting is an active waiting, and that means that we live with hope so that those around us can see what we are doing. While we wait for the vision of peace and justice to come and violence to end, we live as though it were already here. Now, I know that’s a little confusing, so I’m going to repeat it: While we wait for God to bring about the vision of peace and justice on earth, with violence ending, we live as though that vision were already here. And that means that, while we know that vision won’t fully come until Christ returns, we have that vision in front of us and we participate in making that vision come to reality. This means, for example, that instead of hunkering down in place and living in fear that someone could come into this space of worship on a Sunday and start shooting, we instead go out boldly into the community and work to prevent such violence in the first place. And that may mean advocating for sensible gun control laws. But, it also may mean working to understand what those mental health issues might be that may cause people to commit violence. And it may mean advocating for better access to mental health care services.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News ran an article on November 20th saying that waits for access to mental health care in Pennsylvania can be up to a year or more. The problem seems to have begun with the closure of state hospitals to treat those who are mentally ill, and rulings by the courts that said a mental illness or intellectual disability is not enough to keep someone in an institution. In theory, this is a good idea, as people who are mentally ill need community around them just as much as those who are not. But in practice, some people need greater supervision than what their families can handle, and funding for community living for the mentally ill falls short. For those people who need long-term residential care, the wait can be over a year. And what happens while they are waiting? Their families struggle to care for them, and they don’t receive the care that they need, and they slip through the cracks of our system.

As a church, we are called to have no fear, but to boldly proclaim to the world that those with mental illness and intellectual disabilities are God’s children as well. As a church and as people of faith, we are called to live in the hope that one day all of God’s children will have all that they need, and we are called to work towards that hope. That means speaking to our legislators about finding more funding and creating other ways for people who need access to mental health services to get it. It means finding out what the needs are for mental health services in our community and partnering with other local organizations who may be better equipped than we are to get people to those mental health services. It means hard work, and it may seem like what we do won’t make much difference. But that’s what hope is: it is anticipation of that vision where all human beings are loved, wanted, and treated as God’s children, no matter what their situation is in society, and it is working towards that hope even as we wait for its final fulfillment in Jesus’ return.

Theologians call this time that we’re living in “now and not yet”. We know the kingdom of God has come in Jesus’ first coming to earth, and we also know that the kingdom of God has not yet come to complete fulfillment, and won’t until Jesus returns. Living in this paradox requires waiting and patience. It requires that faith that Habakkuk describes as trusting in God even when everything around us seems to be violence, destruction, and ruin. It requires the faith that holds the vision of new life in front of us even when we are faced with death. That is what the season of Advent is about. I pray that in these four weeks, you would join me in this paradox of waiting and working, holding that vision of God’s love and peace for all in front of us. Amen.