Advent, Advent Wreath, Liturgy

Advent Wreath Lighting – Revised Common Lectionary, Year A

Lighting the Candle of Hope        Advent 1A           November 27, 2016

candleReader One: Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it…He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Reader Two: Our hope is in God, who will bring all nations together.

Reader One: As we wait faithfully for God’s time, we light the candle of Hope.

Reader Two: Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

(Respond with verse 1 of “Now It’s Time to Light the Candle.”)


Lighting the Candle of Peace       Advent 2A           December 4, 2016

Reader One: Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

Reader Two: Our peace comes from God, who became one of us in Jesus.

Reader One: As we wait faithfully for God’s time, we light the candles of Hope and Peace.

Reader Two: Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

(Respond with verse 2 of “Now It’s Time to Light the Candle.”)


Lighting the Candle of Joy            Advent 3A           December 11, 2016

Reader One: Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”

Reader Two: In God’s time of joy, all sorrow and sighing will leave us.

Reader One: As we wait faithfully for God’s time, we light the candles of Hope, Peace, and Joy.

Reader Two: Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

(Respond with verse 3 of “Now It’s Time to Light the Candle.”)


Lighting the Candle of Love         Advent 4A           December 18, 2010

Reader One: Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Reader Two: In God’s time of love, we will learn to choose what is good.

Reader One: As we wait faithfully for God’s time, we light the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

Reader Two: Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

(Respond with verse 4 of “Now It’s Time to Light the Candle.”)


Lighting the Christ Candle             Christmas Eve Year A      December 24, 2016

Reader One: Hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Reader Two: “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

Reader One: Tonight we stand on the brink of God’s time.  Faithfully, we light the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Reader Two: Tonight we enter God’s time. Faithfully, we light the Christ Candle, to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus, the Light coming into the world.

All: Come, let us walk with the Light of the LORD!

(Respond with a carol, such as “Angels From the Realms of Glory.”)

Sermons

The House of Joy

Even though I moved from Maine to Pennsylvania for the very good reason of joy and love, and even though my mostly grown-up children were happy for me, this life-changing adjustment came with some mixed feelings. In a way, I went into exile, which may sound weird to you if this is the place that has always been home. My kids, you see, all grew up in Maine. One arrived there as a toddler; the other two were born in Portland.

Their first visits here had a tentative quality. My oldest teared up when he saw the Lobster license plates on a shelf instead of on the back of my car. I remember saying to Kathryn that I would understand it if they didn’t come here for Christmas, and when the middle child told me he had figured out how they could all get to my new house on December 23rd, I was beside myself. I made elaborate plans for the menu and the things we would all do together. But I remained afraid that it would feel entirely different, and they would never want to come again. What could I offer them here? I didn’t even have the right kind of dog anymore. Home didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right, it didn’t smell right.

The people who came together in chapter 3 of Ezra came from two different parts of a divided community. The Babylonian Captivity came to an end when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and scripture tells us God stirred up his heart to send the people of Judah home, and not only that, to rebuild the House of the Lord previously flattened by the Babylonians.
Some of the people who gathered for the laying of the foundation represented the great deportations to Babylon. There were three of them over 20 years or so, the last one around the time of a great siege and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. Those exiles to Babylon were the upper-class families, the educated, the religiously powerful, the gifted among the artists and scholars.

The other group of people are those who had stayed behind; as I mentioned last week, they were folks of a lower social class, people who were not as impressive or important, people less useful to the culture and economy of Babylon. These people stayed behind in Jerusalem they lived through two sieges. They lived in occupation, and they lived in the grief of having no religious gathering place.

Second Temple - By Berthold Werner (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Berthold Werner (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There may have been a few very old people among them who remembered Solomon’s temple, but as Ezra’s story begins, 65 or 70 years had gone by since the Babylonian forces destroyed it, and more like 90 since the first exiles left Jerusalem, so the chances are slim there were a lot of people who had first-hand memories of the old Temple.

And I would imagine there was some resentment or suspicion of the more socially prominent people whose families had spent at least 65 years in Babylon, and who returned carrying gold and silver and 100 priestly robes, already dressed for success to make new lives in Jerusalem. All we know about the people who wept is that they were older, and they were from the priestly families. Whether they were descended from the remnant left behind to serve or those who left and came back again, the story does not tell us. But it’s a classic human story, isn’t it? First the people let the Temple go to rack and ruin under wicked kings, and then Josiah refurbished it, and when they were threatened by enemies they came to care about it, and when it was gone they grieved for it as if it had always been held in the highest esteem.

65 years is a little longer than this church has been around. I’ve heard some stories from people who grew up here about what it was like when they were young, where they sat, and who was kind to them. Don went to Sunday school in the train room. Jane remembers folding chairs in the sanctuary. Maybe some of you remember when the additions were built and old spaces were put to new use in the life of the church. These stories are within the lifetime of people still among us, but go back another decade to the group that met in the Fire Hall, and the people who know the stories are mostly gone.

That’s just a few years less than the length of time that passed from the year the temple was destroyed until they began to lay the foundation for the new one. Many shouted for joy, so loudly the sound traveled far away, while others wept, just as loudly. In the midst of the emotion of the day they represented a longing for the way things used to be, a nostalgia for the past, and a wistfulness for missed opportunities.

Why is this a story for Advent? We can make the connection to joy, which is our word for the day. The people are on the whole joyful about beginning to rebuild the temple. The very beginning of Ezra is also the very end of Second Chronicles, which some people call the Fox News of the Old Testament: a bit sensational in its storytelling. If you were to look at the Bible in the order that the Jewish people put it together, you would find Second Chronicles not nestled here right before Ezra but at the very end of the book. It holds the promise that the people have returned to the land where they were meant to live. They have returned to the place where they believe they have the best chance of finding God again.

But we don’t just get the happy ending of Second Chronicles here. it’s a little more complicated than that. When they laid the foundation for the new Temple, to some of the people, it just felt like a building, nothing special. The Ark of the Covenant had gone missing. (In the universe of Indiana Jones, it’s carefully lost in a giant warehouse.) More seriously, how do you reconstruct a space known as the Holy of Holies, the mystical core of the Temple where the most revered and respected priests came as close as any human beings could to the presence of God? Can you build a Temple of dreams and simply hope that God will come? At the same time many shouted for joy, so loudly the sound traveled far away, others wept, just as loudly.

The New Temple just didn’t feel like the Old One.

It didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right, it didn’t smell right.

Or maybe I’m confusing it with any other new space human beings come to inhabit.

That first Christmas my kids spent here in Pennsylvania had its tense moments. We had to get used to cooking in a different kitchen. We deliberately added new items to the Christmas dinner menu so that it wouldn’t be too much like the things we had always done in Maine. We worshipped in a church where we had never all been together before, and the weirdest thing of all for them may have been that their mom was not the pastor.

I watched them learn to make Swedish meatballs, a dish that reminded us of their Swedish grandmother, but one we had never made together before. I watched them master cranberry balsamic glazed brussels sprouts and whiskey-glazed carrots like the Pioneer Woman cooks. I watched them snuggle up with the step-dogs they were just coming to know and love.

A rousing game of Pounce
A rousing game of Pounce

By the time they came for a second Christmas last year, Kathryn and I had moved to the manse behind Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church, a house that had been a rental for many years. When we first got there, it didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right, and believe me, it didn’t smell right.

Again I wondered how it would go, and again they all arrived to make Christmas with us. We found our way around another kitchen, repeating some new favorite recipes and adding back some others. I taught them a two-handed solitaire I knew in childhood, and soon we were playing it six-handed with the little kid who is now a brother to them, showing him no mercy and teaching him their – well, my – fierce will to win.

We bounced back and forth between two churches and had a wonderful time just being together. The little manse took on a glow of love and joy. There’s still a little wistfulness for some things we lost, but as a wise friend of mine says, “we have to find joy where it is.”

The Second Temple was never the same as the First Temple. It never came to feel right. People were waiting for what they used to have, but the Holy of Holies remained empty. God never did return to dwell among them in that same form.

God came to them in the person of Jesus Christ.

And maybe that’s what makes this a good Advent story. The people wanted a Temple, and they shouted for joy to see it being built again, but they wept because they knew something was missing. They needed something more. Like us, they lived in a world full of hard experiences, and like us they had a long wait for the next coming of God-with-us.

Joy may be the hardest of the Advent words to live into in times of struggle. But think of those people going to the Temple with joy and proclaiming God’s never-ending love. Think of them proclaiming it even though that Temple was just not right.

Joy is not a sugar-coated happiness like Christmas cookies.
It’s not the “ooh” and “aah” we hear when we open presents and find a new iPhone.
It’s not the superficial display of a dramatically choreographed light show.

Joy is a claim we make, a truth we declare: no matter how our lives change, no matter what we lose or gain, no matter what we build or see slipping away, we rejoice because God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Sermons

The Promise of Peace

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The straight path
My straight highway

Wednesday night I came over here from Mechanicsburg to pick up a few things I needed to get ready for the Sunday School class this morning. I’d been vaguely monitoring the shooting in California all afternoon, but hadn’t heard a full report. It was business news on NPR, so I switched to AM and hit the button over and over until a station came in clearly. An anchor and reporters were giving play-by-play, in essence, of the search through a neighborhood for a suspect. The anchor referred to images on the screen, so I deduced that I was listening to a radio stream of cable TV news, Fox as it turned out.

Lots of assumptions were being made, as is typical in the early hours of a breaking news story, and communications were dropped and picked up again, and a second anchor came on and the two disputed each other’s interpretations, and finally a reporter on the ground said a word or two, but his mic went dead, and they broke for a commercial.

The strains of cheery holiday background music filled the car as a man’s voice exhorted me to buy a Sig Sauer pistol for Christmas. Surely someone in my family needs a new weapon!

And don’t I want ammo? They have lots of it, and it’s “cheap, cheap, cheap!”

I turned off the radio, convinced of the total depravity of humanity. This is America in 2015, a place where we let the unthinkable go by day in and day out.

This time three years ago I was trying to help a congregation make sense of the shooting in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school. We had a high proportion of both active and retired teachers, and they were distraught and despairing. One after another they came to me and told me how they treasured their students, how there was no worse nightmare for a teacher than being unable to protect the children in his or her charge.

A week after, we marked the time of the attack at a memorial service in our sanctuary. We rang our church bell with grave solemnity. We read the names of the dead. Then we stood in a silence broken only by muffled sobs, watching each other light candles. As I closed the service in prayer, we thought, we *all* thought, “Things have to change. This will be the event, the tragedy, that makes our country take gun control seriously. This will be the one.”

It was not the one.

A voice cries out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, 

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Over the past month we’ve read stories about the many ways the people of Israel and Judah ignored their relationship with God, not only by worshiping false idols but by treating one another with violent disregard, shedding the blood of the innocents.The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. The Southern Kingdom, after a brief attempt at getting its act together under Josiah, lost its power to the forces from Babylon, and over time two great deportations took place.

God let the terrible inevitable happen.

We’ve taken a jump in their history here of almost 100 years, to a time when the exile in Babylon will soon be over and Isaiah the prophet brings the exiles a reassuring message:

Take comfort, people of Israel. You broke your relationship with God, but you have served your time and paid your debt. You are going home. God is going to straighten things out, and the images are of leveling – valleys lifted up and mountains and hills made low and uneven ground smoothed out and rough places made plain. People come and go, but God is eternal and will get you home again, like a shepherd leading his flock.

God promised an easy path on the journey to restoration of their community.

NY Daily News
The Daily News

It’s a promise of peace, peace of mind and peace of heart.

I wish we could go there, too. Perhaps someday. But as I look around at our world, I see us two steps behind the restored community, fighting in such terrible ways and harming so many innocent people. As the New York Daily News headline read the other day, “God is Not Fixing This.”

We are living our own terrible inevitable.

+++++

My friend Wendy Lamb is Worship Associate at First Presbyterian in San Bernardino. When her kids were released from a school lockdown on Wednesday, they didn’t say much at first, but she writes:

As the afternoon went on, my children talked more and more about what their day was like. My daughter was in Chinese enrichment class and her class was goofing around as in a drill until her regular teacher returned as quickly as she could. And said the words: This is not a drill. They read books and ate lunch under their desks. The kids who brought lunch were ready to share with the kids who get cafeteria lunch and they were holding some back in case they needed it for dinner. She said it was hard to remember that the day had started normally with Math quizzes and early English class.

It was hard to remember that the day had started normally with a staff meeting and angry emails from part time staff member.

It was hard to remember that the day had started normally.

And I fear that because the suspect is who he is, our culture of violence won’t be blamed, but his religion will be.

Not only was this my city, but he was a student at the school where I taught when I taught there many years ago. I opened a yearbook and found his class picture and his picture in the Friday Night Live club.

It was hard to remember that the day had started normally.

+++

This is not what we want for our kids, to imagine them hidden under their desks, waiting to be sure it is safe to come out again.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

The word translated “cry out” can also be rendered as “preach.”

A voice says, “Preach!” And I said, “What shall I preach?”

I’m telling you the truth, it’s hard to preach about peace in a world that seems to specialize in violence and cruelty. If we’re tempted to blame it on someone else’s religion, we need to remind ourselves of those little children in Newtown, a slaughter of the innocents that had no motivation related to faith or politics. We need to question other Christians who support more guns and more killing as a way to keep their favored portions of the population safe. We need to ask ourselves, and be honest in our answers, “What can we do to change the direction the world seems to be going?”

And we need to acknowledge that the world has felt like this before. Jesus began his ministry in a community occupied by violent forces, at a time when people didn’t know who to trust or what to believe. The first sign that something might change was a man in the wilderness, offering baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. John reminded the people of images 600 years old, of a valley lifted up and hills brought low, of a great flat spirit land that allows everyone to see God’s glory clearly.

The voice crying, whether Isaiah or John – that voice is not crying out to God. That voice is crying out to us. Prepare for God to come. Get ready to follow God’s way. Get ready for a new viewpoint on what it all means. For God’s sake, get ready.

Schoolchildren are ready. Alongside their fire drills, they have lockdown drills.

We don’t want to think of our children, knowing exactly what to do, huddled under their desks. It isn’t what we want for them.

But there is something in my friend’s story that we do want, very much, and I believe it’s something God wants, too: the children who had food broke bread with those who had none; then they kept something back for later, so that everyone would have enough.

Maybe that’s our promise of peace in the midst of the terrible inevitable, a picture of a world where the valleys are exalted and the lunch is shared and the glory of the Lord will be revealed for all to see.

In the name of the One who is coming, Jesus Christ. Amen.