Friday, January 31, 2020

Psalm 40:1-11 "Playlists"

In North Dakota, there was a clever old preacher who continually amazed his congregation.  You see, no matter how bad the circumstances were, he could always find something to be thankful for.  
One cold December morning when the wind was whipping, bringing the wind chill way below zero, he arrived late to church because his car got stuck in a large snow drift. In addition, the power at the church had gone out sometime in the wee hours of the morning, so there was no heat in the sanctuary.  To top it all off, the organist did not show up.
Needless-to-say, the congregation, most of them still in their winter coats and blowing into their cupped hands to stay warm, nonetheless eagerly waited to hear what the old preacher could possibly come up with to be thankful for on that dismal and frigid morning. 
"Dear God," he earnestly began his prayer. "I thank you that not all days are like this one.”
After all, days like the clever old preacher experienced are enough to give you Spiritual Affective Disorder – which is what we are focusing on here in church during this post-Christmas Epiphany season.  We began this worship series last week, and it will continue until early March when the Season of Lent begins. 
Spiritual Affective Disorder is similar to the better-known and medically- documented Seasonal Affective Disorder when the diminished amount of sunlight (such as we experience here in Maine in the winter) causes a variety of symptoms like sluggishness, low energy, and loss of interest in everyday activities.  Spiritual Affective Disorder is similarly tied to a lack of light, but light of a contrasting sort and from a different source.  
We know we are toying with Spiritual Affective Disorder when our lives seem too chaotic, we are over-committed, and when nothing seems to be going our way – in short, when God seems to have left us out in the cold.  
We are toying with Spiritual Affective Disorder when our everyday activities seem more like burdens than blessings, more like overwhelming tasks or useless sidelights than the spiritual practices they might be. 
 We are toying with Spiritual Affective Disorder when we cannot help but ask the symbolically loaded question:  Did someone forget to turn on the lights in my life?  Or to be more profound: Where is the Light of God shining in me – or is it shining at all?
Surely the Psalmist, traditionally said to be the great Jewish King David himself, raised similar questions as he composed the psalm we just read.  It is a psalm fondly referred to in some circles as ”The Mud Psalm.” 
The author must have wondered where the Light of God was – and if he would ever experience its warmth and radiance again.  When the Psalm begins, we find King David (or whoever the writer was) in the pits – most likely figuratively, but still.  
It was as if he had fallen into a deep and dark well or cistern. He had hit rock bottom – or rather sludge bottom. There he was stuck in the mud and mire of who knows what? Despair?  Adversity?  Hopelessness? Helplessness?  At any rate, he wallowed in darkness, and the Light was nowhere to be seen.  
Perhaps it was as one blogger I read this week wrote using vivid imagery:
Maybe it was a “young David out in the wilderness with his troop of men
hiding from a crazed king (Saul), exploring the land. Suddenly David stumbles into a swamp, sinking into mire, stuck in the mud alone.
He cries out: Help me! Anyone?!  Lord!!? Help!
Then comes the waiting, trying not to struggle, slime rising up his legs, panic rising in his blood.
If you fight the mud, it claims you.  You must fight the fear and keep still.  You have to be patient .  All you can do is cry for help. (Patience?  Hah! When has David, or any of us for that matter, waited patiently?)
And (eventually) help comes.  Friends come running
Stop! careful!
Extracting man from mud requires thought and planning, team work, and tools lest another too is lost.
Slowly, with strength and gentleness, David is pulled up and out.  Feet connect with rock.
He has never been so grateful for solid ground.
And so he sings a song of praise and gratitude, (he sings) a song of praise and gratitude.
         I do not know in what pit you find yourself during this season of low winter light.  I do not know the sludge and mud of your life.  Perhaps your money does not last long enough each month.  Or you may be scared for yourself and your family in this era when even churches are not safe from violence.  Maybe you despair at the lack of civil discourse at all levels of government. Maybe you are despondent and disheartened by the upcoming impeachment trial.
 You could be suffering in an unhealthy relationship – or wish you had some sort of intimate companion. For all one knows, you may be going in a zillion different directions, none of which are your passion. For me, it is watching my elderly mother decline from an injury whose origins remain hidden, knowing that her quality of life turned on a dime due to someone else’s (but we will never know who) someone else’s error in judgment.
I was stuck, stuck in mud
up to my knees in it, sinking down
Help! I yelled, Hurry!
and help came, strong hands
pulled me out to safety.
Solid ground never felt so good!
What a great God we serve!
O God, you inspire new songs!
You inspire new songs!
In the Broadway musical, “Camelot”, King Arthur and Guinevere sing a duet when they both know that their relationship has hit the skids, but they are still trying to salvage it.
“What do the simple folk do?” Guinevere asks.  “To help them escape when they’re blue?”
And Arthur replies, “Once, upon the road, I came upon a lad singing in a voice three times his size.  When I asked him why, he told me he was sad and singing always made his spirits rise. And that’s what simple folk do. I surmise.”
“They sing?”
“I surmise.”
There was once a little canary that was such a happy bird. His song would fill the whole house with joy. Every morning he would start singing and would sing until it was bed time.  One day the woman of the house decided to take a shortcut cleaning his cage.  SPOILER ALERT:  This is not going to end well for the bird.  
She got the vacuum cleaner out and proceeded to vacuum up the usual mess. However, the phone rung, and she ran to answer it, leaving the vacuum running. 
All of a sudden, there was an awful sound as the little bird was sucked into the vacuum. The woman ran and opened the vacuum and rescued the little bird, but the trauma was too much.  The bird survived, but never sang again. The moral of the story?  You should never suck up bird droppings with a vacuum cleaner. Or – It is easy to lose your joy and forget how to sing.
Perhaps that is at least part of what the Psalmist is trying to tell us. As worship consultant Marcia McFee suggests:  “Music is known to have a powerful effect on our moods with its ability to literally ‘move’ us.” We all eventually end up in the dark and in the mud.  None of us will escape that! However, “the Psalmist proclaims that God can give us a new song (that has the potential to bring) us out of a ‘miry bog.’”  Consequently, perhaps we ought to pay more attention to our music "playlists" because they can be for us a transformative daily spiritual practice. 
 In other words, music plays an important role in our lives.  Everyday humming might well be a deeply enriching spiritual practice – powerful enough to lift us out of the darkness of the pit and into the Light of God.  Something as simple as singing –  singing a new song - whether it is in the shower, in the car when the windows are rolled up (or rolled down), or here in church – music can help us turn the lights on in our life.
Saint Augustine once said that the woman or man who sings “prays twice.”  More recently, Methodist hymn writer  Carolyn Winfield Gillette commented that: “Sometimes our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs become our ‘thankful prayers’ and at other times they become our desperate prayers, prayers of lament, or prayers of trust and commitment. “  
She goes on to say that “When we come before God in worship, why do we sing rather than merely think or talk with one another? We sing because music is a gift from God. It is a language that God has given us to express our deepest longings, our greatest joys, and our most profound trust in the One who created us and loves us unconditionally. Like all gifts from God, it is one that God calls us to use with gratitude.”
And so David is rescued from the mire and mud of the pit – and sings to God in thanksgiving.  Likewise we might be also find solace in song – here in worship but in our own lives outside of this church as well.  And so, while we are here in worship, I challenge you to sing boldly and to relish to the music that Patrick and Gary are offering.  It tells our story.  It burrows into our emotional lives and brings forth all that lies deep within our hearts and souls.   
Iona Community resource worker John Bell once said in a workshop I attended that we as preachers would be arrogant indeed if we thought that our congregations remembered 10% of what we talked about in a sermon.  They will, however, he continued, remember the songs they sang and how the music they heard made them feel.  
And so I say to you, as a way to disengage yourself from the Spiritual Affective Disorder that may be haunting you on these chilly and dark winter days and nights:  Come out of the mire and into the choir.  Listen intently, and sing boldly – even the songs you do not know.  You will create your own harmony – and that is good.  Besides, at one time or another, every song was a new song.  
A worshipper once said, “Please! NO more new hymns! What’s wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? I go to church to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday’s hymn was particularly unnerving. 
While the text was good, the tune was quite unsingable and the harmonies were quite discordant.” Ever heard that before in a church?
However, this complaint was registered in 1890! The hymn that elicited the outrage was “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”.  
Sing boldly.  Make music a part of your day – at church but also at home.  Doing so is an everyday activity that can also be a spiritual practice.  
Be careful what you sing though!  Nothing like “I'm Just A Bug on The Windshield of Life?” Or, “I Bought The Boots That Just Walked Out On Me.” Or how about this classic, “The Next Time You Throw That Fryin' Pan, My Face Ain't Gonna Be There?” All real songs by the way – but not particularly good ones to diminish Spiritual Affective Disorder!
And so my challenge to each one of you this week as we try to develop enlightening spiritual practices in the depth of winter is, first, to sing.  For some of you, that might be pretending you are Pavarotti or Taylor Swift.  For others, it might be remembering to hum once in a while.  But however you choose to participate in my challenge, sing songs that bring light – God’s Light - into your life. And they do not have to be religious songs either!
The second part of my challenge to you this week is to make a playlist for yourself.  Seriously:  As you come across music that moves you and lifts you up and lightens your life or music you find yourself singing this week, text me, email me, email the office, or write down the names of those songs and put them in the offering plate next week.  Your name is not necessary. If enough of you choose to participate,  we can make a list of songs of light – to benefit all of us who might be struggling with Spiritual Affective Disorder.
In closing then, I admonish you:  Sing boldly this week.  Make music a part of your day.  Send me your playlist.  But most of all, come out of the mire – and into the choir!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Revelation 2:17 "White Stone Ritual"

Revelation 2:17 
Over 2,000 years ago, when the Apostles Peter, James, and Paul created the first Christian communities, the Roman Empire controlled most of the land where these small faith communities sprung up.  Consequently, they were greatly influenced by Roman law, culture, and tradition. 
Now, in Rome, when someone was released from prison, that person was given a White Stone.  That was ALL you got – no papers, no digital printouts.  You got a simple White Stone and that White Stone signified that you had been released.  All things in your past were forgotten!  You were free to start a new life. 
When the Biblical book of Revelation was written, the author knew that everyone who read his work would understand the symbolism of the White Stone. The words that Martha read earlier as our first Scripture lesson may not – at first glance – mean much to us, but ancient readers and listeners would have clearly understood those words:
“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.  To everyone…I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
For early Christians interpreting those verses, the White Stone signified that you were free to be whom God had called you to be.  By taking on a new name, you took on a new identity – Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Saul became Paul. And so it is for us as well.  Your white stone signifies that you are free to be all that God wants you to be – no limits!
So much for the history of White Stones.  Now, I am going to give you a pencil to go with your white stone.
The old year has passed, and if we have not done so already, we need to consciously give to God all those things that do not serve us anymore…all those things based in fear.
Why?  Listen to this quote from John Selby’s book, Seven Masters, One Path:
“We cannot hold one thing tightly in our grasp, and at the same time reach out and take something new.  We must let go and put aside what we are grasping in order to be able to receive something that we want or need much more. All spiritual and psychological growth requires a letting go of a limited belief in order to open up and receive a more expansive belief.”
And so, before we go any further, I invite you to take a moment to release whatever you hold too tightly in your grasp by saying these words to yourself silently after me… 
I let go and I let God. I am ready to have my beliefs and attitudes changed, so my life can be transformed.
Therefore, I forgive myself for all mistakes I have made. I also forgive and release everyone who may have harmed me in any way.
Now we are ready to fill our lives and thoughts with things that do serve us –things based in love.  And we will begin to do that using the White Stone you are holding in your hand.  
“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.  To everyone…I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
Now, let’s get real.  God is not going to suddenly reach down from above and etch some word on your stone as it sits in your hand.  However, that word or new name might just come to us if we simply listen, if we begin to let go of our limiting beliefs and thoughts.  Only then can we really listen to what the Spirit is saying.  
When that new name or word is written on your stone, it will remind you that your life will be changed because of your new intentions and your new thoughts and beliefs.  In that stone is the potential for a shift in your consciousness.  
You see, we can dramatically change and reshape our lives by what we call ourselves, what we believe about ourselves.  If you believe you are spiteful, you will be spiteful.  If you call yourself loving, you will be loving.
In a moment, we are going to take some time to allow the Spirit to give us….what?
·      a new name, 
·      a new thought 
·      a new idea, 
·      a symbol, 
·      a theme, for this coming year. 
Our scripture lesson from Revelation says that this name, this word is known only to the one who receives it. This is between you and God. No one else can be your thoughts.  No one else can interfere.  
Now I invite you to hold the stone in your hands as we prepare to enter a time of silence and meditation.  See the stone as a symbol of your new life. See it as a symbol of who you have become, or of who you are becoming, or of who you would like to become. From now one, anytime you look at your white stone, you will realize that you have the gift of choice; the gift to live differently, to live a more fulfilling life, to begin again, to connect with God and co-create with God.
Holding your stone, get comfortable, close your eyes, and breathe. Try to become relaxed and resting. Know that you are safe and secure here. You are loved and supported by the presence of God. Be still so that the Spirit can express herself through you and as you. 
Listen for what the Spirit is telling you to write on your white stone. What are you hearing or feeling or knowing? What are your intentions? What is it that the Spirit will write? 
Simply ask. Ask what would be the most helpful name, or what would be the most helpful word for you to take into this New Year? 
If the word doesn’t make sense to you, just stay with it. God says, “I will reveal everything in its time.” Stay with it.
And when you get your word….just simply say – “Thank You. I accept.”
If no word comes through to you, just say “Thank You, God. I stay open and receptive.” Because it will come right through – trust in the Spirit.
“Ask and it shall be given to you.  Seek and you shall find.”
Now, as we go into the silence to truly listen, go with this affirmation on your lips:
O God, my heart is open to receiving your healing help or wisdom or peace – whatever you wish to affirm in me.
Slowly bring your attention back to the present and to this place. And when you are ready, write on your white stone your new name or your new intention for this new year. Or simply hold the stone, knowing that the word or name will come later on.
As you hold your white stone from the Holy Land, know that it is a very personal word or important name that you have written (or will write) on your stone, and it will also be written on your heart. 
In closing then, repeat this affirmation silently after me…
This word, this quality, this name shall be my bridge into the new year.  It shall be my bridge into the new year.  And so it shall be.

Isaiah 60:1-6 "Arise! Shine"

         Last weekend, Joe and I took down our Christmas tree and packed away most of our holiday decorations. We swept up the needles off the floor, and now the odor of balsam has vanished for another year.  I left the candles in the windows through January 6th, the Day of Epiphany, to commemorate the coming of the Magi, but those lights too have been placed in a box in one of the upstairs closets.  
Though it is certainly nice to reclaim the space in our living room where the tree once stood, alit with those tiny white lights, I am always a bit sad to close the Christmas closet door, knowing it will not be opened again until next December. For me, the end of Christmas means that it is time to hunker down for winter – bracing myself for a cold house when I get up in the morning, aware of how tired I will be of my winter sweaters before long, envying Patrick who I know is going to Florida during February school vacation.  Though logic and rationality tell me that the days are getting longer – and have been since the winter solstice on December 21st – it does not really seem like they are.
It is all enough to make you feel like you have caught the winter blues along with your inevitable January cold that seems to hang on and on – or in more extreme cases, that you have contracted seasonal affective disorder with its symptoms of sluggishness, low energy, and loss of interest in everyday activities.  
A diminished amount of sunlight is said to cause seasonal affective disorder.  It affects 1-2% of the population while the milder form of simply winter blues targets 10-20%.  One article I read this week said that “since the amount of winter daylight you receive changes the farther you are from the equator, SAD is most common in people who live at least 30 degrees latitude north or south (north of places such as Jacksonville, Florida, Austin, Texas, Cairo, Egypt, and Hangzhou, China, or south of Perth, Australia, Durban, South Africa, and Cordoba, Argentina). Ah – to live in Maine in the winter! 
However, I find it interesting that here in the church, when half the world is coping with winter darkness, we find ourselves in the season of Epiphany, the season of light.  Bookended between the Light of the Star that brought the Magi to the Christ Child and the Transfiguration when Jesus himself was lit up like Christmas Tree before his disciples Peter, James, and John, we celebrate this man as the Light of the World and his ministry as the force that has the potential to awaken the Light of God in each one of us.
And yet, each January, as we launch ourselves into this season of light, we cannot help wonder…Did someone forget to turn on the lights in my life? 
 With that question looming over us, during this Epiphany season which will last until the beginning of the season of Lent in early March, we are going to reflect – not on Seasonal Affective Disorder – but rather on Spiritual Affective Disorder.   We will explore spiritual practices that may help us get out of the metaphorical darkness of winter and into the light of our lives. We will see how experiencing some of the everyday activities of our lives as blessings – filled with God’s radiance – can offer us a chance to be filled with God’s Light as well. 
We will reflect on how Spiritual Affective Disorder can become more pronounced as we lead lives that are too crowded, busy, overcommitted, and sometimes disturbing and uncertain. At the turn of this new year, we will highlight everyday life activities that can become spiritual practices – and in doing so can deepen our experience of a meaningful life and make us more “light-hearted”.
Sometimes we can feel as if we are the only ones who have ever lived in a darkened world.  No one has it quite as bad as we do – with vitriolic tweets spewing darkness as they flood cyberspace, the threat of war one minute and the voice of conciliation the next. 
However, come back with me for a moment to a time hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus – in the 6th century BCE, when the prophet Isaiah and his school of disciples were speaking out to the Israelites, God/Yahweh’s chosen people, who sought to cope with their dark and changing world.  Nazarene pastor Chris Naftis wrote that Isaiah was “addressing those who have returned to the land of Israel after seventy years in exile (in the backwaters of the Babylonian Empire). 
The return has not been quite as glorious as the people likely envisioned. A generation removed, few of those returning to the land of Israel would have direct memory of it. Memories would have been passed down from parents and grandparents, and it seems safe to assume that they would have remembered the good old days with a little extra romance”.
The reality in Jerusalem was that living conditions were lousy, and the temple had not been rebuilt.  In fact, much of the city was still a pile of rubble.  No wonder the Israelites themselves were divided and in conflict. 
Presbyterian pastor Christine Roy Yoder remarks in her blog that “those days are cast easily in hues of grey -- the city of Jerusalem and its temple yet in ruins, the community rag-tag and divided, the once proud monarchy now a small colony on the fringe of the Persian Empire…..One imagines worry, like a wet chill, settling deep in the bones, and hope struggling in darkness.
It is enough to bring on, at best, the winter blues – or, more likely, Seasonal (and Spiritual) Affective Disorder!  However, into that darkness – when the sunlight of redemption seemed so far away and out-of-reach –Isaiah made his proclamation in which the hope of the ancient Israelites – and perhaps our hope as well – rested – and might rest:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, even though darkness covers the earth,
and deep darkness the people;
the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
Then you shall see and shine like the sun.
What a glorious announcement to anyone who has ever experienced darkness!  Not just the darkness of a winter’s night, but the darkness of being without hope.  Isaiah is spreading the world that the Israelites (and us) do not have to live a life of doom and gloom.  We need not experience  the dark night of the soul.
You see, that is what Epiphany is all about – reminding us of, as Christine Yoder comments, “in-breaking, world-inverting power of God's glory, the radiant light, that by no effort of human will or ingenuity, has come for the sake of everyone. That light enables the forgotten and hopeless to rise to their feet. That light prompts nations and kings to pay homage. It is to that light we make our way in midwinter, bringing all that we have to kneel before God.”
A blogger minister I read this week wrote about an experience he had outside of a restaurant while waiting for a friend.  A man came up to him, and he heard him say, "Do you have the light?"
Hmmm, our blogger thought, do I have the light? Clearly he was thinking about his Epiphany sermon and those verses from Isaiah we just read.  
He thought to himself, “I’m not sure.  Is that a philosophical – or theological - question?”  Or was it simpler?  Was there something on the menu there called ‘the light?’  Was this some new slang phrase he did not know?  
He was about to ask the man what he meant, when he saw him pull out a cigarette and realized he had not asked if I had the light; he was just asking for a light.” 
However, still, it is a terrific question, especially for this morning:  Do you have the light? 
That answer, of course, is yes.  The light – God’s light – is an ember within each one of us - and is there, ready to ignite and burn brightly.  Isaiah says it all in his hope-filled proclamation, right?
…your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, even though darkness covers the earth,
and deep darkness the people;
the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you….
you shall see and shine like the sun.
A customer called the customer service line  - maybe at Central Maine Power - to complain about a power outage after a big storm.  He stopped raging long enough to ask, “How will I know when my lights are back on?”
The customer service agent remained silent for a second, debating about the best way to answer such an obvious, even ridiculous, question. How will you know when your lights are back on? Finally, she just said, “Um, it’ll be brighter than it is now.” The customer hung up on her.
“Your light has come,” proclaims the old wizened prophet who had been broadcasting the truth for a long time now.  However, there is a caveat to what he declares – and he puts it out there right at the beginning of his hope-filled announcement.  
“Arise!  Shine!” he says.  Sounds simple, but too often we focus on the second part of the prophet’s directive – Shine!  However, before you can shine, you have to “Arise!”.  
And that, I think is a most important message for you in this congregation as we begin a time of transition together.  To receive the gift of God’s Light, you first must arise –lift yourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually – to begin the work that God has set before you and before this church.  
Only after arising can you shine – can you reflect the light of God both inside and outside of this faith community.  Only when you bear witness to the Light – only when you first arise can you shine out of the darkness that everyone – everyone – finds him or herself in the midst of in this crazy, jaded, cynical world we live in, only when you arise long enough to shine out of the darkness so that others are drawn to your light will your lives be enriched in the way you hope they will be enriched in a church community.  Shining does not just happen  It is not like the lights coming on after a power outage.  Shining only happens when first you arise.
In order to shine in the darkened world that many of you feel has become this church, it is not enough to simply come to worship on Sunday.  You need to be active.  You need to be involved.  You need to stand up and be counted.  You need to live all that Jesus stood for – particularly the giving part.
 There is an Arabic story I read this week about a Muslim who died and left his seventeen camels to be divided among his three sons.  One was to receive one-ninth of the camels; one was to get half; and the third son was to inherit one-third. 
If you do the math, however, you will find that seventeen camels are not evenly divisible by three.  Consequently, the three sons argued long and loud about what to do. Finally, in desperation they agreed to let a certain wise man decide the matter for them. The old man was seated in front of his tent with his own camel staked out back.  
After hearing the case, the wise man took his own camel and added it to the other seventeen camels.  He then took one-ninth of the eighteen, or two camels, and gave them to the first brother.  To the next brother he gave half, or nine camels. To the third brother he gave one-third, or six camels, distributing seventeen camels to the brothers which left one camel, which was his own.
This story powerfully illustrates the truth that, as Presbyterian pastor Michelle Fincher wrote, “while we’re trying to find God and solve the problems of life by logical, calculating schemes that insure that we ‘get our fair share,’ we’re missing God.  
Because God is to be found not in claiming our rights but in giving; not in grasping but in (first arising, first) opening our hearts and hands to receive from God’s storehouse of grace and mercy” – to receive God’s light in our darkness.
So – in this coming week, I challenge each of you to arise, so that you can shine.  You need to care about what happens in the Middle East.  You need to care about refugees and asylum seekers.  You need to care about the upcoming Presidential primaries – no matter who you hope will win the election come November.  
You need to care about what happens to this church in the weeks and months to come.  You need to care enough to come to the Annual Meeting next week.  You need to do all you can – with God’s help - to arise – so that your light – and the light of God within this church – can shine.  
And to remind you of that challenge, as we sing the next song, I am going to give you a small candle – perhaps to light at home this week – or simply to look at - to remind you that even a single small candle can make a difference in the dark.  “Shine!  For your light has come”, the prophet Isaiah says.  But first, you have to arise.

Isaiah 2:1-5 "Advent Hope"

         Welcome to Advent!  Thanksgiving is over, and the race to Christmas has begun here in the church – what with special services and Advent brunches and community meals and decorating. In the secular world, of course, the race officially started on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving with lines outside of Walmart at midnight (Doors open at 12:01 A.M.), the usual barrage of sales, and customers scrambling to take advantage of them.  Then yesterday was Small Business Saturday (Buy local!), and tomorrow it will be Cyber Monday (Promo code is Cyberdeals 2019), followed by Giving Tuesday (Don’t buy but give instead) – with everyone – from small non-profits to big box stores getting into the act.  
Of course, the race to Christmas really began earlier – and we all know that.  It began sometime in late October or early November when Lowe’s and Home Depot  and Walgreen’s ushered in the season with their Christmas tree displays and the stuffed animals that sing and dance to “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”. 
         However,  here in church this year, we are going to do what we can to not allow this season of Advent to become a race to Christmas – because that is not at all what Advent is about.  Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan put it this way:  Advent is about hope, rooted in something new God did in human history two thousand years ago in Bethlehem and, at the same time, looking ahead to the future in which God will continue to act lovingly, creatively, redemptively. 
The world (he goes on) is impatient to get on with Christmas, to recall the story briefly, and then to be immersed in the year-end festivities… But the church, in its liturgies and hymnody and scripture, invites us to pause; to sit in the darkness for a while before the light is here in all its beauty and brightness; to look both backward into history and into our personal histories and forward to the human future and our personal futures; and to prepare for the newness of God’s gift of love.”
And so for these four weeks leading up to Christmas, we are going to pause and sit in the darkness for a while, waiting, reflecting, yearning for the coming of the Light of the World.  We are going to rest by the River of Joy about which that the ancient prophet Isaiah spoke. We are going to pause and sit and rest within the context of the beloved Christmas carol, “Joy to the World”, which Isaac Watts, who was one of our most prolific hymn writers, composed 300 years ago.
 “Joy to the World” is Watts’ interpretation of Psalm 98, and in it he invites us to sing a new song, just as the Psalmist did.  As we reflect on the words of the carol, we will discover that “joy” is more than just another word for happiness.  We will determine that true joy will be found in works of justice and compassion, those elements lying at the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, elements that the world so desperately still needs these 2000+ years later. We will ascertain that joy is expressed in our lives through hope and peace, through a special kind of Advent joy, and through love.
And so today, we begin by seeking the joy that is embedded in Advent hope, the kind of hope about which the Prophet Isaiah spoke in the passage we just read, the kind of hope that seemed so distant and unattainable in Isaiah’s time, a time not so different from what we experience today. His was a violent world (for us, think mass shootings and a complete lack of gun control); it was conflictive (think impeachment hearings and a President whom Rick Perry has said was sent by God).  In many ways, both Isaiah’s world and ours has spun out-of-control, leaving people in a constant and deeply stressful state of fear.  
In addition, as Presbyterian pastor Stephen Montgomery wrote, “human life was qualified on the basis of material possessions (Think the 1%). ‘I got mine, you get yours!’….The neediest of the needy, orphans and widows, were neglected. What's worse, many people didn't seem to care. ‘I might as well just go with the current. That's just the way it is...always has been...always will be. Nothing I can do about it.’”  Where was the River of Joy?
Now, Isaiah was no Pollyanna in his preaching.  In fact, the first half of the Biblical Book of Isaiah is dark and foreboding, emphasizing where God’s chosen people had fallen short and what they could expect in return for their indifference toward the Almighty – and it would not be a pretty sight.  
Historically, in Isaiah’s time, the military and political powerhouse, Assyria, had been threatening Judah for years, gradually moving closer and closer, enslaving inhabitants and trampling the countryside along the way as only a massive army can do.  Syria and Phoenicia had fallen.  Samaria, the capital city of the Northern Kingdom, lay in rubble, leaving a clear path to Jerusalem.
In fact, the enemy was practically at the gates of the Holy City.  Siege followed by capture seemed inevitable.  As Presbyterian pastor Roger Allen mused, the Assyrians will “block any supplies from reaching Jerusalem, and the food will gradually run out and the people will become weak, and the Assyrians will break down the city wall and kill the king and take the people into slavery. The days of Israel as an independent nation will be over.”  In short, the end was about to come. 
Isaiah, realist that he was, envisioned all that. His word pictures in Chapter 1 are graphic with an evening news sort of quality about them:
Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire…
And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
         And yet, into this all-consuming darkness and gloom, Isaiah sends forth a beacon of light.  “In the days to come”, he says….
         “In the days to come, what?” his listeners surely asked.
         “In the days to come….the prophet replied….People will stream to Zion, the mountain of God.” They will flow like a mighty river – a River of Joy.  Because God built it, they will come.  
Because in the beginning God fashioned a dream for the world – a dream of hope, a dream of peace and joy and love – they will come.  They will come to dream the same dream and to learn to walk in the path God has created for them.  And when they begin to dream God’s dream, swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  
Come, House of Jacob, (Isaiah implores,) come and walk in the light of God’s dream for the world and sit by the River of Joy.  Come build a community, come build a church with a courageous vision that reflects the dream of God. Come build a community, come build a church that reflects the joy that only living that dream will bring. 
“In the days to come….” Isaiah says, “It shall be so.”
And therein lies the hope of Advent. Simple as that! Heaven knows that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.  Heaven knows that we surely need the assurance of  “In the days to come…” 
And so in the great high hope – in the “days to come” kind of hope - that only Advent can bring, we walk toward the light of God, seeking the River of Joy.  
Why?  Because “in the days to come”, we trust – in spite of all the jadedness and cynicism that the world spews forth, in spite of all the secularism that encroaches on our spirituality – we trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled.  “In the days to come,” we trust that our swords will be beaten into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  We trust that assault rifles will become obsolete, that civil discourse rather than wars of words will define us once more, that we will cease to fear for our children’s lives – or for our own.  
Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in our lifetimes either, but in the days to come, Isaiah tells us.  And for now, that needs to be enough.  And so, in this in-between time, God challenges us to live as if these sacred promises have been fulfilled.  God invites us to live as if compassion is our calling, as if seeking justice is who we are, as if the world is worth saving.
 I know at least some young people today question whether bringing children into this world plagued by conflict and climate change and fueled by fear is morally right. And somedays I can almost agree with them.  However, then I remember a quote by Carl Sandburg that was embroidered on a pillow Heather received as a baby gift quite a few years ago.  “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” 
With my daughter-in-law pregnant and me preparing to be a grandmother come May, that quote is especially meaningful.  It makes me think a lot about this Advent hope and the River of Joy.
And so another year passes, and another Advent begins.  As a preacher, I have faced December in the church for a lot of years now, and I know that I run a serious risk of saying the same things I have said previously.  And yet, today, once more, I am called to preach about hope in a world that too often seems more hopeless than ever. 
But then, again, you keep coming to hear that message.  You could be shopping.  You could be decorating.  You could be baking Christmas cookies.  However, you chose to be here - to listen to me preach once again about Advent hope – and the challenges and opportunities such hope brings. 
You come to hear me remind you that hope was born in a stable in Bethlehem and that hope, in ways we shall never understand, is being fulfilled now.  You come because, in spite of so many signs to the contrary, you still trust deep down inside that the world is about to turn, that the coming of Jesus – God with us, God among us – has the power to transform this crazy world we live in.   
You come because you know that for us as Christians, he is the foundation of our Advent hope – and deserves our dedication and commitment. In the days to come, in the days to come – and so Isaiah speaks of hope and the River of Joy that touches the very deepest part of us.  As theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote, “I think it is hope that lies at our hearts and hope that finally brings us all here (to church). Hope that in spite of all the devastating evidence to the contrary, the ground we stand on is holy ground because Christ walked here and walks here still. Hope that we are known, each one of us, by name, and that out of the burning moments of our lives he will call us by our names to the lives he would have us live and the selves he would have us become. Hope that into the secret grief and pain and bewilderment of each of us and of our world he will come at last to heal and to save.”
Maybe not today, maybe not this year, but in the days to come…And for me – that phrase that I simply cannot let go of and a grand-daughter arriving in May – must be enough – and my prayer is that this Advent it will be enough for you too.  For it is in such Advent hope that we will discover true joy.  “Joy to the world.  The Lord is come.”