Brave Enough to be The Light

Photo REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

I’ve been reflecting on the Inaugural Poem, The Hill We Climb, by Amadan Gorman. Gorman, the first person named National Youth Poet Laureate by The Library of Congress finished the poem in the wake of the violent protest at The United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. She is the youngest poet to read at a Presidential inauguration.

Like many who listened, read, and re-listened to her poem, I was struck (but not totally surprised) by the religious language in the poem. She began by asking the question, “Where can we find light?” We might be able to find a high level of agreement that in our country, and our world, that it is challenging to find where “light” is breaking through. Gorman talked about our need for “healing” and “redemption” for our nation and the role we can play in that process.

Just a week ago, we began a serious on The Sermon on the Mount. Following the Beatitudes, Jesus tells the crowd,

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16)

Jesus tells disciples that they are to be the light of the world. The words and actions of Christians are to be a light in the darkness. Christians are to be “salt” in the way we bring flavor and healing through our lives in our community. If there is healing that needs to be done in our families, communities, nation, and our world- it is the calling of followers of Jesus Christ to be the light through our words and actions that allows the healing that God brings to the world. The Church cannot sit back and wait for the world to be the light- we have already been called to be the light.

Gorman ended her poem by saying, “There is always light if we’re brave enough to see it; if we’re brave enough to be it.”

Church, are we brave enough to see the light of Christ that is in the world regardless of how dark it seems? Are we brave enough to live as the light of Christ through our words and deeds? Let us live to shine the light of Christ in the world!

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Seeking The Welfare of Our Nation

Photo by Michael Schofield on Unsplash

Today, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of The United States of America. There are many in our community who will celebrate the incoming President. There are many others who would’ve liked a different outcome. As Americans, we have the opportunity to come together in unity to work towards a better future for all people in our country for future generations.

As Christians, we are “aliens and strangers” in this world (1 Peter 2:11). Our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, which is why we are not beholden to a political party, platform, or leader. But we are called to work and pray for the good of this temporary home where we currently reside.

The prophet Jeremiah was operating in the time that Israel was exiled to Babylon. This meant that much of the population had to make the long journey to Babylon to work (as slaves) for the Babylonian empire. You can probably imagine that the people of Israel would rather have gone home and seen the Babylonian empire fail. But God speaks through Jeremiah saying,

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Jeremiah 29:7

God tells Israel to “seek the welfare of the city.” The city was Babylon. The city was the great enemy of Israel. But the people of God are to seek the welfare of the city of Babylon while living as aliens and strangers there. They are to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” “eat produce,” and “get married,” and “multiply, not decrease. (Jer. 29:5-6).” Why are they to do this? Because if Babylon thrives then the exiles will thrive.

Paul tells Timothy,

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
1 Timothy 2:1-2

Paul’s advice to believers is to pray for our leaders in such a way that their leadership would lead to peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness. This is instructions for us today regardless who our President, governor, mayor, or pastors are. We pray for our leaders that they may lead in such a way that leads to peaceful and quiet lives for all people. We pray that they would lead with godliness and holiness. We pray that as they succeed, so will all the people in our nation succeed.

I ask that you would join me today, and in the days to come, to pray for the welfare of our nation, our leaders, and our church that in their flourishing would lead to flourishing for all people. Where we see those who do not flourish or are left out, let us work as the hands and feet of Christ to lift those up who have been left behind.

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Epiphany | The Revelation

Yesterday marked the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the time when we recognize the revelation that God Incarnate as Jesus. We often think about the star leading the Magi from the East to Bethlehem to worship Jesus as King. Those of us who are Christians have experienced the revelation that Jesus is God-in-flesh.

Yesterday was revealing day, an Epiphany moment, for our country and church. As protestors gathered in Washington D.C., violence broke out as rioters broke into the Capitol building, forcing the evacuation of the Congressmen and women who were gathered there. This is just one incident of many on all sides of the socio-political spectrum. My heart is broken for our nation and our church because of what was revealed yesterday (and has been being revealed over the last several years). We are a broken and divided nation. We do not trust those different from ourselves. We would rather win a fight than seek understanding and reconciliation with those different from ourselves. We are a nation and a church that is divided along socio-economic and racial lines. There is contempt and even hatred for “the other.” Worse, is that the church often reflects the ways of the world more than we reflect Jesus.

Now, more than ever, the church must find our voice to lead. For too long, the church has squandered our authority and integrity by aligning ourselves with power, politicians, and parties rather than aligning ourselves with Christ and the characteristics of the Kingdom of God. We are not called to fight hatred with hate. We defeat hatred with love. We see this love in Jesus who laid down his life for the world (including his enemies). Jesus shows us that whoever wants to be first must become last. Jesus’s love told Peter to put away his sword. Out of love, Jesus ate with and washed the feet of Judas, who betrayed him. It was through love that Jesus forgave those who executed him.

As we enter the season of Epiphany what does yesterday’s events reveal about ourselves? Our Church? Our nation? What do the events in our nation and world, over the year or four years, or 10 years reveal about us and our faith? If there is any way in us that is sinful, hateful, or full of contempt for others, let us repent and turn back to living the Jesus way by loving God and loving our neighbors (and enemies!).

May we shine the light of Christ in a world covered in darkness.

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Hope Gives Us Purpose

[This sermon was given at Avenue United Methodist Church on December 20, 2020. You can listen to the sermon here and watch on our Youtube Channel.]

In 2004, I led a mission trip to Paraguay, where we had the opportunity to assist in constructing a new church that was being built in a small village outside of Asuncion. There are many stories to tell about the entire trip, but there was one conversation with a friend and missionary, Andy Bowen that has always stayed with me. As we sat in his home one night, we asked Andy what the prospects looked like for the children and teens who hung out at the construction site. Andy shared that the prospect was not great. Education was not a priority. Many of the young girls would end up in relationships that would leave them with children. Marriage was not a priority- so the woman would find a partner to assist them financially with no long-term commitment. They would eke out a living doing what they could. Then Andy said, most young people here cannot dream of a different life because they have not seen that a different life is possible. The cycle of poverty would continue.

When I was a child, I had big dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut. That dream ended when the Challenger exploded. I wanted to play baseball in the Major Leagues. That dream ended when my senior season of college ball unsurprisingly came and went without a phone call. I think most of us have dreams for our lives- or did have dreams for our lives. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to accomplish something great or something helpful to humanity. We are taught in our culture to leave our mark. Often, our dreams end up looking like empire-building as we shine a spotlight on ourselves.

I need to dream, and being part of something bigger than ourselves is about purpose. We want to know that our lives have purpose and meaning. We want to know that we are not an accident. We want to know that God has a plan for our lives. We want to do something significant but wonder if we are big enough to do it.

When we read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, it is striking to look at Mary in relation to the story’s grandeur. Mary was a nobody. She was from the backwater town of Nazareth. Nazareth was a small town outside of the larger village of Galilee. It was near a common trade route but not real affluent. Some commentators have said that archeological studies have shown that 200 people may have lived in Nazareth around the time of Jesus. The little town I grew up in had 200 people in the town proper- so I know what a small backwater town looks like.

Mary was engaged to Joseph, a local carpenter. The marriage was likely arranged. She could have been as young as 12, and Joseph may well have been ten years older than her. By all accounts, they were poor. When they took Jesus to be dedicated at the Temple at eight days old, they could not afford a lamb and instead offered a sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons.[1] What sort of dreams might have Mary have had for her life? Perhaps the greatest dream would be to get married and to make out a living with her husband and future children. Nothing wrong with a dream that is grounded in reality.

Then an angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, and Mary’s world was turned upside down. Mary, who was young, poor, a woman- which was not a good combination in ancient times, was said to have found favor with God. Gabriel that Mary would conceive and give birth to a son and who will be named Jesus.

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his Kingdom will never end.” [2]

I imagine that Mary raises an eyebrow at this for several reasons. She is a young and poor girl from a backwater town, and her son will be called the “Son of the Most High” and will have a kingdom that will never end? Then there is the whole “How can this be since I am still a virgin?” Mary is not filled with doubt- she is curious about the divine possibilities presented to her. She knows how biology works. When the angel Gabriel explains how all of this will take place, Mary responds:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” [3]

The Greek word translated as “servant” really means slave. A slave is someone who is completely surrendered to their master’s will. Mary has heard about God’s great plan for her life and surrenders to God’s will. Mary knows that she is God’s servant and will allow God to work in and through her as God wills. Mary, the young girl from Nazareth, will be the mother of the Messiah.

Hope gave Mary Purpose. It was a purpose that was greater than herself. It was a purpose and meaning that Mary could have no way of even dreaming before encountering the angel, Gabriel. Hope took Mary from the backwater town of Nazareth to her name being on the lips of Christians throughout the last 2000 years. There is nothing about Mary’s life that screams that she is a good fit for the calling. But God takes care of whatever limitations that Mary had in order to use Mary for greatness.

God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called. What I mean by that is that if God calls you to do something for the Kingdom, then God will give you the giftings that you need to go and do it. We may have a dream or a calling that we believe is from God to make a Kingdom difference in the world that we live in-, and maybe we are apprehensive. We might be tempted to saying something like, “Who am I to do something like this?” We may think that we are a nobody. But if God calls us to something- God will give us what we need to accomplish it. That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges or hard work. Mary was called to be the Mother of Jesus, and all other people saw was a pregnancy before marriage- which was not socially acceptable. The looks and the whispers had to be challenging. Joseph was going to divorce her if it weren’t for an angelic vision. Mary had challenges. Mary had limitations. But God knew Mary, called Mary and gave Mary everything that she needed for the tasks of raising the Messiah.

Hope Gives Us Purpose.

There is one thing that Mary had to offer God. Her availability. Mary had a willing heart. She could have laughed at the angel. She could have said, “No way, God. I’m too insignificant.” She could have run away. Instead, Mary surrendered to God’s will. Mary made herself available to be used for something great.

I believe that since we are created in the image of God, that God has created each of us with a purpose and a calling. Because we have been created with a purpose- life is not meaningless or empty. Hope Gives us a purpose. For some of us, that calling and purpose are clear. For others, it is not always evident what that calling may be. God has given you a purpose. Often, that purpose and calling are aligned with our passions and the things that give us energy. God uses our passion and the things we are interested in to guide us on how we can engage in the work of the Kingdom. God gives us gifts and talents in order to do the purpose and calling that we have been given.

When it comes to fulfilling our purpose and calling- the thing we have to offer most is our availability. When we completely surrender to God’s will and make ourselves available- God uses us in ways that we may have never dreamt of.

We’ve already mentioned that beginning January 3rd that we will enter into a congregation-wide 20 days of Fasting and Prayer. Our focus will be on our purpose and calling as a church- and as individuals. As we hear from God, we will be challenged to surrender ourselves to God’s Will and making ourselves available to God. I want to encourage you to wrestle with what you are passionate about and how that passion can be joined together with your Christian faith. In this time of waiting- we have Hope that God will give us a new/renewed purpose.

If you are wrestling with purpose and meaning in your life- remember that God knew a nobody like Mary. God showed favor in her life and chose her to change the world. God knows you and I and chooses to use us and to use the church to take part in God’s redemptive plans. God uses us in the mess that often accompanies our lives when we make ourselves available. In our availability- we can know and share the love of God through Jesus to the family, our friends, our community, and our world.

Hope Gives Us Purpose. Let us pray.

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COVID, Advent, and Hope

As I sit down to type out this post, the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are said to be made available in Delaware (where I live) and throughout The United States. Over the last nine months, the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged our world into fear and darkness. Many have lived in isolation, only going out of their house for the necessities while others have done their best to live as if nothing has changed. Just the other day, America had it’s single-most deadly day since the start of the pandemic. As numbers increase, so does the heaviness and anxiety about the virus.

We are in the season of Advent. Fleming Rutledge writes that, “Advent begins in the dark.” Rather than a countdown to Christmas, the season of Advent is a time to acknowledge the darkness that surrounds us and to expectantly wait for the dawn to break. The light breaking through the darkness is Jesus. At Advent, we roll up our sleeves and wait, watch, and prepare for the return of Jesus. Even as the darkness is think and heavy, we strain our eyes and our hearts looking for signs of Jesus’ return.

Advent is a season of hope. Jesus already come once and established his kingdom, but it has not yet been fully realized. Sin has already been defeated even as the world has not yet been fully redeemed. At Advent, we live in the already/not yet of God’s Kingdom (reign/rule). The war against sin and Satan has been won even though there are battles to still fight.

The deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine is a reminder of Jesus’ return. For ten month’s we have lived in darkness. We have heard rumors of the vaccines development and how it has progressed through test. Many have been preparing the vaccine- from scientist and researchers to those who will distribute and administer the vaccine. Others have longed for a vaccine so that the effects of the virus can be limited- or even defeated. After a period of darkness- there is hope on the horizon. The vaccine is already here, but it’s effects have not yet been realized. The war against COVID may be won but there are battles still to fight.

I am prayerfully hopeful that the vaccine will be safely, effectively, and effeciently distributed. Like many, I celebrate the work that has gone into the vaccine’s development. For the first time in months, we have hope. Hope to hug one another. Hope to visit friends and families. Hope to re-gather back together for worship in our churches. Hope that we no longer have to fear COVID.

Even more than the hope in the vaccine, we should place our hope in Jesus. In all our longing for the world to be made right, what we are longing for is the return of Jesus. We have hope Jesus will return and that the darkness in the world will be eliminated. Let us put our hope in Jesus.

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Hope for the Broken

[Sermon preached December 13, 2020 at Avenue United Methodist Church. You can listen to the sermon on our website or watch on Youtube.]

One Christmas in the mid-1980’s, my parents got my sister and I a cardboard space shuttle. My memory says it was about six feet long and looked like the Challenger or the Endeavor. In reality, it was a souped-up box that sat on the floor and required a kid to use their imagination that they were flying through space. It was not flashy. It was simple. It was great.

For four days.

We hosted a family New Year’s Eve party at our house where my mom’s family would come over. It was always the highlight of the season to have my cousins and a lot of food at the party. It was the one time of the year where we would rent a VCR in order to watch some movies. (If you don’t understand that, ask your parents). Somehow, over the course of the evening, our cardboard spaceship got wrecked beyond repair. Four days of imagination. Four days of use. Four days of joy. When it was no longer able to be useful, it went in the garbage.

Broken things cannot do what they were intended to do.

As parents, we have consumed a large amount of children’s programming over the years. We even have our favorites that we do not mind watching. There are other shows, I’m looking at you Calliou, that are permanently banned in our house. One show that the girls like was the Disney show, Doc McStuffin. Doc was a young girl whose toys came to life for her when no one was around. They had wonderful adventures together. Inevitably, a toy would get broken and Doc would take out her medical kit and repair what was broken. When Doc is around, there was hope for the broken toy.

As you read through the Major Prophets, today’s reading from Isaiah being one, you quickly have the understanding that Israel- as the people of God- are broken. The sin that infiltrated the world in Genesis two has become widespread. In the Book of Judges, we are told that “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The emphasis is on the fact that they did not do what God desires for them to do. Israel talked a good game about worshiping God, but they oppress the poor and take advantage of the fatherless and the widow. The say there are the people of God without living like the people of God.

In chapter one of Isaiah, God brings complaints against Israel. Israel is compared to a prostitute by being unfaithful to God by worshipping other deities. Idolatry, the worship of other things other than the one True God, is a major theme throughout the OT when it comes to Israel. God says that Israel was once full of justice, but that it is now filled with murderers. Lastly, they have failed to defend the fatherless and the widow. God says that Israel has become like a dying oak tree with fading leaves.

Dead. Fruitless. Only good for tinder.

Twenty years into Isaiah’s ministry, Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire and later they were led off into captivity for 70 years in Babylon. These losses for Israel were seen as divine judgment for the nation’s sins as they had lost their way. Israel had forgotten their purpose and calling to worship God and be a blessing to the nations. Like an oak fed to the fire, Israel crumbled and was defeated leaving the people and the nation broken and hopeless.

Over the last several weeks, we have been acknowledging the hopelessness that we feel in the world today. Some of this hopelessness comes from sources outside of ourselves. We see the poverty, the suffering, and the darkness that is in the world. Violence, systemic racism, famine, natural disasters and the list could on. We could easily include the pandemic as we deal with isolation, anxiety, fear, sickness and death of friends and loved ones. We see how sin continues to infect our world and our lives.

Some of our hopelessness and darkness in our lives comes from within us as we choose to live opposed to God. Our own sinful choices plunge us in hopelessness. We live with a sense of darkness and brokenness that comes from our sin and our distance from God. We have been created to live in relationship with God; we have been created with a purpose to be Image Bearers of God to the world, yet our sin keeps us from fully bearing God’s image.

Whether we are talking about Israel in the book of Isaiah or each of us today- we cannot escape the hopelessness and the darkness of the world on our own. There is Hope in Isaiah as God is going to do for Israel what they cannot do for themselves.

The easiest way to understand what happens in Isaiah 61 is that God is making a new way for Israel. God promises One who is anointed by the Spirit to proclaim Good News to the poor; put back together the brokenhearted; freedom for the captives; releasing prisoners; to comfort those who mourn; and turning mourning into joy.

At the end of verse three- God says:

“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”

Isaiah 61:3

At the beginning of Isaiah, God’s complaint against Israel was that they were a dying, worthless, oak tree that was only good for the fire. Here- there is hope for the broken as they will be called an Oak of Righteousness- displaying God’s splendor.

There is a great reversal here. Mourning is turned to joy. Ashes turned into a crown of beauty. It is the night being pushed away by dawn breaking on the horizon. Darkness is turned into hope as God puts back together the things that are broken.

Where does this Hope for the broken come from?

In Luke 4, Jesus went to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and stood up to read the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He unrolled it and read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Because he has anointed me

To proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind,
To set the oppressed free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

Jesus then rolled the scroll up and looked at those who were gathered there. His parent’s friends. The people who had watched him grow up. Those who may have knew of his scandalous birth. He said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Some people were amazed at Jesus’ words while others were furious and tried to kill him.

The Hope in the Darkness; the Hope for the hopelessness; the Joy for the Grieving; the life that is truly life is not a king. It is not a President. It is not a political party. It is not a lifestyle. It is not a philosophy. It is a person. It is Jesus. Jesus is the hope for the broken. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus overcomes our sin. Jesus restores our lives. Jesus brings healing to the broken places.

The Good News that Jesus brings, the healing that Jesus brings is not just for us. This good news is not something that we can keep to ourselves. It is for the world. It is for all people. If it is not good news for ALL PEOPLE then it is not GOOD NEWS.

Jesus Christ is good news for the poor. Jesus is good news for the brokenhearted. Jesus is good news for the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, marginalized, the aged, the young, the immigrant, the criminal, the wrongfully accused, the addict, the confused, the anxious, the grieving, fatherless, and the widow.

Jesus takes the sin and the brokenness in our lives because of our own choices, and takes the brokenness in our lives because of the decisions of others and begins to heal them through the Cross and the resurrection. Jesus came to earth anointed to bring Hope to the hopeless and to heal the broken. God’s love for each of us through Jesus restores and heals what is broken in us and in the world. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

This is where you and I have been called. As Image Bearers, we are to do the work of Jesus in the world. We are to bring Hope to the Hopeless. We are to work to bind up with brokenhearted. We are to feed the hungry and visit the sick. Why? Because Jesus did that for us. The Hope that Jesus brings must be hope for everyone or else it is not good news. When do do this, we will be like Mighty Oaks because God will work through us. A failure to do so will leave us as dying trees with fading leaves.

There is a lot of brokenness in our community. There are wounds that need healing and scars that tell the stories of brokenness of ourselves and our neighbors. Each place of brokenness we see and know of is an opportunity to share the Hope that we have in Jesus. In January, we will be have a 20 Day Fast and Prayer Time to lift up our church and our community as we ask God to help us see the brokenness and to hear how Avenue is being called to stand in the gap. There will be opportunities to pray together, share vision together, and to organize around our passions and callings of how we can take Jesus to Milford and the world. On Sunday, January 24th– we will gather in-person or virtually for worship and a time of visioning for the church. While Jesus is the one who heals, Jesus calls you and I to be active in the world as agents of healing. Even though we are in a pandemic, we have hope that the end is near. It is time to engage, to train, to disciple, and to release a church filled with the Spirit out into the world. I will be providing more information as the time draws near.

This week, and in the weeks to come, what opportunities do you have to share the Hope of Jesus? Are there ways that you can offer Christ to those who are broken? Have you invited Christ to heal the brokenness in our own life?

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Hope in the Darkness

First Avenue Mission Trip to Tennessee before caving.

When I was the youth pastor here at Avenue in the early 2000’s I had the privilege of leading a mission trip to Jellico, Tennessee for a week of home repair. We worked hard during the week and ended the week with a caving expedition. We hiked into the woods to the mouth of the cave and donned our flashlights and sweatshirts. As we walked through the cave, we came to what our guides called the “birth canal.” It was a narrow passage that I’m not sure was larger than 24 inches. We got on our bellies, crawled, sucked in our stomachs, and made our way through the passage into a huge Great Room with expansive ceilings.

Inside the Great Room, our guides had us turn off all our lights and encouraged us to five minutes of silent in a pitch-black room. It was the deepest darkness that I had ever experienced. If your hand wasn’t attached to your arm, you would have no clue it was waving in front of your face. The darkness was unsettling to think about people who get lost in caves and lose their lights! They would be walking around, groping in the darkness with no sense of direction and no ability to know the correct way out.

After five minutes of complete darkness in the cave, our guide struck a match and lit a candle. A single candle began to push back the darkness in the cave. We could see the features of the cave. We could see the rocks and other dangers around us. We could see our friends who were right beside us the whole time. As our group began to light their candles, the darkness was scattered away. The discomfort of the darkness dissapated and there was hope that we would not be left alone in the dark.

We are in the second week of our series, A Thrill of Hope, where we are looking for and living into the HOPE of Jesus Christ during the season of Advent. Last week, we shared how will keep us awake and cause us to roll up our sleeves to join the redemptive work that God is already doing in the world while we wait for Jesus’ return. This week, I want to continue to look at the idea of experiencing HOPE IN THE DARKNESS.

In the Prophet of Isaiah, the nation of Israel is in deep trouble. A darkness has covered the land. The sun has not stopped shining nor has the stars lost their light. Isaiah tells us that that the nation of Israel has been walking in darkness, a deep darkness. This darkness is the result of Israel choosing their own instead of following the ways of God. They have trusted human wisdom and glory rather than trusting in God. By turning away from God, the nation of Israel is plunged into darkness.

The depth of the darkness is seen in the Assyrian assault and destruction through Israel. The richest and most skilled were taken off to captivity. For Israel, it became a crisis of faith because if you believe that your God, the One True God, has allowed you to be carried off to captivity, what does this say about your faith? Darkness has covered the land. Death has become pervasive. Hopelessness is the feeling of the day.

In Chapter Nine of Isaiah, God provides Hope in the Darkness for Israel. In verse 2, God says,

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Isaiah 9:2

Isaiah proclaims that though the darkness covers the land that dawn is on the horizon. God will enlarge the nation and increase their joy. The yoke that burdens them will be shattered. This is good news for Israel. This is good news for the people. After years of oppression and occupation God is bring new life to Israel. After years of silence, God is again on the move.

God is bigger than the Assyrians.

Imagine yourself listening to Isaiah. You hear the news about the light that is coming. You listen as Isaiah declares that the yoke will be shattered and that Israel will celebrate once again like they would when the harvest would be gathered. You would probably imagine that God was raising up a rebel-King to inspire the people to revolt. Maybe you’d think God was going to use a military leader who could out maneuver, outmatch, and outwit the Assyrians. Perhaps God would send a natural disaster to decimate Assyria and turn the tables of Israel’s predicament.

You listen and you hear Isaiah declare:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called,
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah 9:6

The hope in the darkness is a child. Not a king. Not a military leader. Not a revolutionary or a celebrity. A child.

If you read Isaiah, you know this prophecy speaks specifically about a child that was born at this time who would lead Israel, but most Biblical prophecy is multi-layered because the child to be born is called “Mighty God” and will reign on David’s throne forever. No king in Israel was ever called “Mighty God.” The peace that The Child will bring will be an eternal peace. This is more than a child. This is The Child. The Messiah.

This child, The Child, will turn darkness into light. The Child will be a King to establish an everlasting Kingdom. The Child will take Israel’s conflict and turn it into peace. The Child will turn Israel’s loss into abundance and their despair into joy.

Like Israel in the book of Isaiah, we can easily find ourselves walking in darkness. We can choose to go our own way rather than following the ways of God. Things happen in life that cause us to doubt God or, perhaps, God’s silence causes us to go our own way. There are those in our community who struggle with drug abuse, alcoholism, marriage problems, financial shortfalls, and injustices that turn them away from the light. And we walk in darkness.

When we find ourselves in darkness, we can ask: Where is God? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why hasn’t God taken COVID away? Why did God allow my loved one to die? Will I ever get out of the cycle of debt? How can I stop feeling so hopeless?

These are Advent Questions. The Church has been asking them from the beginning. We do not know why God is silent. We do not know why God allows pain and suffering with such little meaning evident through the process. But what we do know is that there is a rumor, a hope, and an expectation that the night is nearly over. That the light is coming. God is working behind the scenes even when it doesn’t feel like it. God is at work in the darkness even when we cannot see it.

Where we began is not where God wants us to finish.

This Advent, Darkness may be where we start, but it not where God wants to leave us. Where we began in confusion, God brings us wisdom. Where we walk in sin, Jesus forgives us. Where we walk in despair, God brings comfort. We began with fear but God wants to bring us peace. We begin with mourning, God will bring us joy. God is working even when we cannot see it. There is hope in the darkness.

Our hope?

A child who is crown King over the universe. A Child who gives his life for us. A child whose kingdom will be filled with peace. This child is Immanuel, God with Us. This Hope is Jesus- who is the light of the world- who died on the Cross for our sins and was raised from the dead and who will return again- a light to disperse the darkness in the world.

As people of Hope, our lives should shine the light of Christ to the world. This could mean wearing a mask or staying home to slow down the transmission of a virus. This could mean making a handful of phone calls to those who are immune-compromised each week to check-in and help them stay connected. It could mean buying groceries or picking up prescriptions. We have the opportunity to be a light to those who are walking in darkness.

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Have we allowed the child-King to take over the government of our heart and lives? Will we surrender our lives to God? Will we align ourselves with our kingdom or will we continue to mop and grope in the darkness?

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Hope Keeps Us Awake

1st Sunday of Advent at Avenue Church

[Sermon preached on November 29th, 2020 at Avenue United Methodist Church. First sermon in our series, “A Thrill of Hope.”]

Our family stayed home on Thanksgiving and while we missed seeing our extended family, we had a lot fun together as we cooked, watched a movie, and took advantage of the amazing weather we had. We had our Thanksgiving meal as a late lunch and then went outside for a family game of three-on-three basketball. We also started a fire in the fire pit and those who didn’t want pumpkin pie had s’mores. As we sat around the fire, it felt like it was 10:00 p.m. I looked at my watch and it was 5:17 p.m. The darkness was profound and had a deep affect in our lives. There was a tiredness at 5:00 p.m. that we usually feel at 10:00 p.m.

We live in a weary world. We are weary of COVID and the COVID restrictions. We are weary of our lives being negatively impacted by the virus. We are weary of our loved ones being sick or even dying because of the virus. We become weary with the corruption we see in high places. The darkness that is in our world is profound and has a deep effect on our lives.

When our skies become dark early, it reminds us of the darkness that is in our world. Even as we can already see Christmas lights and decorations, it seems like a short-term fix when we see the vastness of the darkness. The world is telling us to celebrate the civil holiday of Christmas while the church offers another option.

It is ADVENT- a time to name the darkness in our world and to wait expectantly for the light.

I had a candy ADVENT calendar when I was a child. My sister and I would wake up every morning to get a piece of candy on our way to school. On the last day of Advent was a $5 bill. While there is nothing wrong with the countdown, it did reinforce that the view that ADVENT is a countdown to Christmas. Advent is a season of recognizing the darkness that surrounds us, of “looking straight into our own heart and finding there- the absence of God.”[1] Advent is a season where we name the darkness in our world and we wait expectantly and hopefully, for the light to come.

Throughout the ADVENT Season, we want to highlight HOPE. When we live with HOPE- a weary world can rejoice. In general, we have taken the power out of the word hope. We hope for short lines or a good diagnosis. These are passive things. We can often think of hope as a grown-up wish. In fact, we talk about wishful thinking our hopes are too extravagant. Christian hope is not wishful thinking. Christian hope is expectant. It anticipates what God has promised to do. It makes us leap forward. It moves us to action. Hope puts our life in motion.

Let’s look at our text from Mark and see what it teaches us about hope.

  1. Hope Keeps Us Awake

There is a parable in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells about a man of a great house who goes away on a trip with an indefinite return date. He puts his servants in charge of the house, the property, and the business. Each servant has an assigned task that they are to tend to while the man is away. One of those servants is assigned to stand at the door and keep watch. They would stand at the gate of the house or a watchman would stand at the gate of the city and let everyone know when someone was coming so they could be ready for friend or foe.

A doorkeeper or a watchman would stay awake during the deepest darkness of the night, straining their eyes towards the horizons looking for any signs of the master’s arrival. They stayed awake and watched because they believed that the master would return.

Hope works in the same way. We have hope, and belief, that Jesus will return. The darkness is deep and Jesus has been physically been away for a long time. However, HOPE keeps us awake, looking at towards the horizon. Hope keeps us watching for signs of Jesus’ return: signs of redemption, signs of love, grace, and mercy even in the midst of the overwhelming darkness. We are doorkeepers and watchmen looking out for the return of Jesus. Hope Keeps us awake.

2. Hope Rolls Up Its Sleeves

The servants do not know whether the man will be gone for a day, a week, a month, a year, or 2,000 years. Jesus says in vs. 32 that “No one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor that Son, but only the Father.” They are to do their assigned tasks with the same vigor and readiness on Day 10,000 as on Day 1. You don’t want to be caught sleeping on the job or hosting a part at the Master’s house when he returns. You want to be sure you have completed your tasks. They are be ready for action.

In 1 Peter 1:13, Peter writes

“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.”

The Greek word that is translated “Alert” in the passage is a term describing physical preparation. It is visualized as people gathering up their long outer garment and tucking it into their belts in order to do something physical. The same word is used by John to tell the story of Peter “wrapping his outer garments around him…and jumped in the water” when he saw the resurrected Jesus on the shores of Galilee. Peter invites the early Christians to “be ready” and to “Be alert” in the hope they have for Jesus’ return.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates the 1 Peter 1:13 this way:

“So roll up your sleeves.”

Christian hope is about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. It is not wishful thinking. It is not passive. It moves us to action.  Just like the passage in Mark, we have been given a tasks and a mission while Jesus is gone. We believe Jesus will return. We do not know when. This hope calls us to be alert. To Stay awake and to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing the things that Jesus did.[2]

The HOPE of Jesus’ return motivates and drives the work and mission we live into as Christians. But we also do not know when Jesus will return. We must continue to remind ourselves to: STAY ALERT. STAY AWAKE. GET TO WORK. Do not let the master find us asleep on the job. Hope keeps us awake so we can roll up our sleeves.

Like most kids, my sister and I were overflowing with excitement on Christmas Eve. We would have gone to our church’s candlelight service and when we came home we would open up one gift and read The Night Before Christmas. Then it was off to bed. We lived in a three-bedroom ranch at the time with all of the bedrooms at the same end of the house. My sister and I were so excited for Santa that we kept waking up and attempted to sneak out of our bedrooms to see if Santa came. Because my parent’s bedroom was right there with ours, Dad always hollered for us to get back in bed. Which we did…until we tried again.

In the middle of the night, when the darkness was deepest, my sister and I waited for Santa’s arrival with great anticipation. We hoped to catch a glimpse of the Big Guy and perhaps share a cookie with him. Hope kept us awake.

As Christians, we recognize that the world around us is full of darkness. We see it all around us. Through a pandemic, racial tensions, social distancing and masks, virtual schooling, a heated election season, misinformation and so much more, it is easy to see why suicides, domestic abuse, and drug abuse are sky rocketing. Amidst the darkness it is easy to become accustomed to it. We pay lip service to the idea of Jesus returning and setting the world right, but if we’re honest we can easily think this is wishful thinking.

Jesus warns us to be ready and to stay awake. Peter tells us to be alert and ready to act. Hope is more than wishful thinking- it is a call to action. A call to roll up our sleeves in order to prepare for the Master’s return. This means that we, as Christians and as the church, must roll up our sleeves to ensure that we are prepared, but to help other people prepare for Jesus’ return as well.

First, the hope we share for Jesus’ return should lead us to repentance for the times we have been sleepwalking through our faith, going through the motions. We must repent for the ways in which we live that is contrary to the gospel.

Secondly, we must call people to salvation. We believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. Believing that, we must share the good news of salvation through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to as many people as we can. We do this, not just be telling people, but by walking along side of the them as a guide and discipling them in the process. Will we take a chance and pray with a neighbor? Will we share the story of salvation with someone who has not heard?

Finally, we must roll up our sleeves and do the work God has called us to. Calling people to salvation is one way we do this, but it must be coupled with caring for the poor, giving sight to the blind, caring for the sick, and seeking justice for the oppressed, forgiving someone who has wronged us, and reconciling with an enemy. This is not wishful thinking for when Jesus returns, but the tasks and mission that we have been given now. 

This Advent, as Avenue Church, are we willing to repent of our sin and our shortcomings. Are we ready to share the hope we have in Jesus with those around us. This isn’t just from our building or the pulpit, but telling people about the difference that Jesus has made in our lives? Are we ready to be people of HOPE who roll up our sleeves to stand with those who experience injustice in our community? Will we be a church who stands in the gap for the voiceless and the marginalized in our community?

As we begin Advent, we live in the tension between Jesus’ birth and Jesus’s Return. We have been tasks with preparing ourselves and preparing others for Jesus’ return. We are watchmen and watchwomen. We are doorkeepers. We stand in the deepest darkness of hopelessness and stay awake because we believe that hope is coming. In the midst of hopelessness, despair, and sin our mission is to point to the coming light.  There is hope. There is light.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. Come! Amen.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. 264.

[2] I’m indebted to Jay Y. Kim for his article, Hope: An Expectant Leap in the November 2020 issue of Christianity Today for some of these thoughts on 1 Peter 1:13.

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Advent and The Clone Wars

Sunday is the beginning of Advent. Advent is the beginning of the year of the Christian calendar. Where the world sees Advent as a countdown to Christmas the Church sees Advent, as Fleming Rutledge writes as “a seas of the shadows, the season of ‘the works of darkness,’ the season in which the church looks straight down into its own heart and finds there- the absence of God.” During the darkness of the times, we are called to stay awake, to keep alert, and to do the work that we have been given to do.

In Star Wars: Episode II Attack of The Clones, Obi-Wan goes to the planet of Kamino. It is a planet that has been wiped out of the databanks in the Jedi Temple. No one has heard of it. When Obi-Wan arrives, he finds that the Prime Minister of Kamino is expecting him. What Obi-Wan discovers is that a Jedi Master named Syfo Dyas had previously visited and commissioned the creation of a Clone army. Master Syfo Dyas has been dead for ten years and the installation on Kamino has had no contact with anyone about the mission. Yet, they have continued on their mission knowing that someone could show up at any moment to see their progress.

In Mark 13:33-37, Jesus tells a parable of a man with a large household. He has family members and servants, each with a tasks and responsibility that they are to take care fo each day to ensure the success of the family. The man goes away for a long time with the expectation of returning and finding that the household is working at a high level. The man tells the servants to “Be alert” and to “stay awake” for no one knows the day or hour of his return.

As Christians, we recognize the darkness of the world we live in. We been given a mission to complete in the world. We are to be like the beings on Kamino who are completely focused on their mission even though it has been a decade since the last communication. They worked, hoping that a Jedi Master would return and find them awake, alert, and ready. Our hope is that though the world is dark, the light of Christ will return. We are called to “stay awake” and to stay focused on our mission in order to be ready for the day that Jesus returns. Hope keeps us awake.

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Trading Our Birthright

Photo by Steve Tsang on Unsplash

Do you remember the story of Esau and Jacob in the book of Exodus? They were twin brothers and could not be more different. Isaac became a skilled hunter and Jacob stayed at home with his mother. Isaac, as a man who loved wild game, loved his son Esau. Rebekah, spending time with Jacob at home, loved Jacob.

There was a time when Jacob was home cooking stew and his brother came in from open country and demanded some of the stew because he said he was starving. Jacob offered a deal. I’ll trade you some stew for your birthright as the eldest son. The birthright meant that Esau was next in line to carry on his father’s property and livelihood. A birthright was the father’s blessing.

Esau is so famished that he says he was about to die and makes the deal to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup. Esau gave up the longterm benefits of the birthright for the short-benefits of a bowl of soup.

I think this is a good picture of Christians who have aligned themselves with political parties in search of political power. We have traded in the birthright (our witness and kingdom effectiveness) for a bowl of soup (political power and influence). The soup may taste good while we’re eating it. But the bowl of soup will go away and the witness of Christians will be diminished because they’ve chosen political power and influence as a means to achieve kingdom goals (I’m trying to think best case scenario here.)

The Bible does not direct us to pursue political power as a way to bring about God’s Kingdom. In fact, it is God who builds the Kingdom. We are invited to participate in what God is building. We should be wary of aligning ourselves with any political party or politician because when we choose a side, we do so at the expense of those on the other side. We trade our birthright for a bowl of soup.

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