HEAVENLY PEACE, Micah 5:25a; Isaiah 9:6-7a; Luke 1:76-2:14

[Christmas Eve sermon at Jerome United Methodist Church, 2011]

Among the many pieces of “wisdom” floating about in cyber space this gem about being at peace came into my inbox recently:

“If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
If you take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,

Then you probably are the family dog!”

I flunked 5 of those 7, by the way, especially in the hectic days of December.  Does anybody else feel like you’ve been running non-stop since Thanksgiving?  I was reminded again during this busy Advent season of a book I read many years ago by Malcom Boyd.  I’m sorry to say I don’t remember much about the content of the book, but the title has remained with me for decades as a great motto for living.  The title is Are You Running with Me, Jesus? We all know we are more likely to exercise if we have an accountability partner, and who could be a better companion to run life’s extraordinary journey with than the one we call Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

If we are asked what we really, really want for Christmas, deep down, most of us would go beyond the stuff under the tree and ask for real peace – peace of mind, peace with God.  Peace is a goal of all major religions.  In just 24 verses of Scripture tonight from Micah, Isaiah and Luke peace is mentioned five times.  My concordance says there are 392 references to peace in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

If peace is so central to our faith, why is it so illusive?  Do you remember the great Wendy’s Hamburger commercials a few years ago that asked “Where’s the Beef?”  My question this Christmas is “Where’s the Peace?” The Scriptures from Micah and Isaiah promising us the Prince of Peace were written over 2500 years ago.  Even for the U.S. Postal Service, 2500 years is pretty slow service.  It makes me wonder if the problem is not on the sending end, but on the receiving end?  Maybe God’s peace does not come packaged the way we think it should look and we miss it.

Where’s the peace?  Peace is what we say we most want in our lives – and yet our actions are often inconsistent with our words.  We all profess to know that money can’t buy happiness – but we don’t act like we believe it.  In the midst of the worst economic recession in nearly a century, guess how much Americans spent Thanksgiving weekend.   $52 billion.  How much peace will those purchases really bring, especially when the credit card bills come home to roost early in 2012?

We have most of our troops officially out of Iraq one day, and we’re talking about intervening in North Korea the next.  Violence masquerades as entertainment on video and movie screens.  Where’s the Peace?

When baby Jesus grows up he preaches a sermon that says, “Blessed are the Meek.”  Wait a minute, Jesus – maybe we don’t want peace if have to be wimps to get it.  Maybe what we really  want is just law and order to preserve things the way we want them to be?   We keep looking for a superhero who will solve all of our problems, and who do we get?  A puny helpless baby born in a barn.  Isaiah promised, “A Little child shall lead them?”  And we say, huh?   Kids have no power, no influence.   Where’s the peace?

One of characteristics of those who find peace is a willingness to be surprised – to think outside the box – to embrace serendipity and ambiguity and admit we don’t know – to laugh at ourselves instead of others.  The modern innkeeper in our skit tonight saw human potential in a homeless man where her hotel doorman could only see a problem

Could it be that God’s peace is different from ours?   In John 14 where Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples before the crucifixion he says, “My peace I give you – not as the world gives do I give to you.”

We don’t’ get it, and that’s why God persists.  That’s why we need Christmas every year and worship and prayer on a regular basis.  Luke tells us that the Messiah will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”  And even better, God gives us all kinds of road signs to help us stay on that path.  The Scriptures are very clear about the characteristics of peace – forgiveness, mercy, love, faith, hope, humility.  Those are the real gifts of Christmas, and they are never the wrong color or size.  You don’t ever have to return them to the store.   And best of all you can regift them all as often as you like.  In fact it is highly recommended to share the gifts of forgiveness, mercy, love, faith, hope, humility as often as you possibly can.

Peace is not an easy journey, and that’s why we need Jesus to run with us.  The powers of evil never rest and are very creative.  Beware of the prosperity gospel that tries to turn disciples into consumers.  The abundant life Jesus promises is not one of ease and comfort and wealth.  It is a life of abundant faith and peace no matter what our life situation may be.  We want to believe what Fred Craddock calls the “almost Bible” statement that says, when the Messiah comes there will be no more suffering.  That’s almost right, but what the Scriptures really say quite different,  “Where there is suffering, there the Messiah will come.”

That’s what the Christmas story shows us if we don’t miss the irony of where the baby Jesus is born.  He is a helpless, poor, homeless kid revealed to shepherds in a country living under the oppressive rule of a despot like king Herod who kills babies for fun.  The beloved Christmas story is so familiar we forget how radical it is.  It’s so hard to fathom that the Magi, the so called wise ones, went to the wrong town, to King Herod’s palace, the absolute wrong place in search of the Messiah.  Like us, they were looking for peace in all the wrong places.  Where’s the peace?

[At this point I walk over to the Nativity Scene]  Our nativity scene looks so peaceful and serene, but anyone who’s ever been in a barn full of animals know it can be a very noisy, smelly place – but even there surrounded by the most basic reality of life what does  the infant Messiah do?  He “sleeps in heavenly peace.”

[I pick up the doll from the manger and carry him out toward the congregation]
Have you ever held a sleeping infant in your arms?  There is no more peaceful, wonderful feeling in the world.  A sleeping infant is so trusting, so helpless and innocent, even when they have been screaming and driving you up the wall for hours.  The minute he or she falls asleep in your arms the baby becomes a warm, cuddly bundle of pure peace and joy

[The members of the congregation were all given a small piece of a baby blanket with baby powder on it as they came into the service]

I invite you to take the piece of baby blanket you were given tonight and feel its softness.  Hold it to your cheek and smell it.  Close your eyes and feel the joy of knowing that the Prince of Peace still comes into our broken lives and hectic world – and where “meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”  And we too can sleep in heavenly peace.

[Kiss baby and put him back in manger]

Room at the Inn

A Drama for Christmas Eve, 2011, Lighting of the Christ Candle, Jerome UMC

[The four Advent candles are lit before the service begins]

One:    One of the traditional things we do very Christmas Eve is the lighting of the Christ Candle.  Do you ever wonder why we do all the things we do at Christmas?  We sing the same songs, eat the same foods, decorate our homes and our churches with the same lights and ornaments, read the same Scriptures.  I wonder if we really stop to think about why we do those things or what they mean.  Are we just going through the motions? Are all of these traditions just habits—things we do every year, well, because that’s what we do every year?

[Two hurries in late for worship, well dressed, checks his cell phone for messages and puts it away]

One:    Excuse me, sir, maybe you can help me.  I was just trying to figure out why we do all the things we do to celebrate the birth of a simple peasant child who was born over 2000 years ago.  And why do we all these people come to church on a cold dark Saturday night?

Two:    I can’t imagine being anywhere else tonight.

One:    So does that mean that coming to church is just part of the holiday tradition for you – like decorations and holiday parties?  You buy gifts, you send Christmas cards and you go to church?

Two:    No, not at all.  Without Jesus’ birth, none of those other things would happen at all.  Christmas isn’t just about what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.  That’s important history, but what happens in here (points to his heart) that’s what really counts.

One:    What do you mean?

Two:    Let me tell you my story.  I used to be kind of a Bah Humbug guy when it came to Christmas.  I thought I had outgrown all that baby Jesus stuff.  I left home for college, partied hearty, if you know what I mean, flunked out of school and dropped out of church.  My family disowned me.  I couldn’t pay my rent.  I was hungry and cold, walking the streets of Columbus in February.

One:    Well, you look pretty well off now.  What changed?

Two:    Things changed on a very cold, dark night like tonight.  I slipped into the Hyatt downtown, just to get in out of the cold and wind for a little while.  I sneaked in when the doorman was busy with someone else.   But he saw me and immediately came over to tell me only paying guests were welcome in the lobby.  He began to escort me back out onto the street, and I was at the end of my rope.

One:    I’m so sorry. [pause]  But you’re here now.  Something major must have happened to turn things around?

Two:    Sure did, and not just some thing but some one.  Just as I was being kicked out of the Hyatt, this well-dressed woman with a brief case was leaving.  Turns out she was the hotel manager and was leaving for the night.  She stopped and asked the doorman what was going on.  When the doorman said he was just following company policy and removing someone out who would scare off paying customers, the manager thanked him for doing his job.  But I guess she could see how desperate I was.  I’m sure she had family waiting for her at home, but for some reason she took pity on me.  She invited me back into the hotel restaurant and bought me a steak dinner.   It was fantastic.  I hadn’t eaten for days.  But what blew my mind was that she sat down at the table and talked to me.  She treated me like she would a paying guest or a business partner.  I couldn’t believe it.  And then, it got even crazier.

One:  How could it get any crazier than that?

Two:  When she learned I was homeless and had no job, she asked if I’d like to work for the hotel.  She gave me a job on the spot, and then she told me I could stay in one of the hotel rooms until I could find a place of my own.  I thought I was dreaming, but I wasn’t.

When I tried to thank her, she said something I have never forgotten.  It turned my life around.

One:    What did she say that could have that much impact on you?

Two:  She said, “Don’t thank me.  Give God the Glory and thank Jesus for leading me to you.”  [pause]   That’s why tonight is so special – because Christ lives in the hearts of people who share his love and peace with others.

One:   [pause]  Thank you so much for sharing your witness about the true meaning of Christmas.  Merry Christmas.  [They shake hands and Two goes to take his/her seat in the congregation.

One:  [Goes to Advent Wreath]  As we light the Christ Candle this Christmas eve, our prayer is that  the Peace and Love of Christ will shine brightly in all of our hearts, this night and always.  [lights the Christ candle]

Joseph: Lessons of Love

[Note:  This is the brief drama for lighting the 4th Advent candle at Jerome UMC]

[First 3 Advent candles are lit at the beginning of the service]

Interviewer:    Can you feel the anticipation, church, as our extraordinary journey draws so close to the big day?  Three candles are already glowing on our Advent Wreath.  Along the way we have talked with Zechariah about Hope, with Mary about Faith, and last week with an angel about Joy.  On this 4th and final Sunday of Advent our special guest is a carpenter from Nazareth.

[Joseph enters dressed in contemporary work clothes wearing a tool belt, pencil behind his ear]

Interviewer:    Thank you for coming to share your story with us, Joseph.  How would you describe your experience of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth?

Joseph:    My journey began with our prearranged marriage.  Our parents certainly picked well for me.  Mary was so beautiful and she has such a strong faith.  I was truly blessed to have a wife of such noble character.  The custom for us is to wait an entire year after we were engaged before the marriage vows are finalized.  That year of being apart and waiting seemed like forever.  But Mary was worth the wait because I loved her.

Interviewer:    But I understand that your waiting turned out to be much harder than you expected.

Joseph:    That’s an understatement!  There was a night that left me feeling so cold and alone, in total shock.  Mary’s news broke my heart when she told me she was pregnant.  My head was spinning and my heart pounding.  I knew I wasn’t the father?   I was so hurt and angry and confused.  I wrestled with my decision all night long.  How could I marry her now?  I wanted to just divorce her quietly.   But I knew the punishment for adultery was death by stoning.  I couldn’t let that happen to my dear Mary.

Interviewer:    What a terrible dilemma!  How did you ever decide what to do?

Joseph:    The answer came to me in a dream.  An angel appeared to me and said, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is the result of a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit.”  The angel said, “You will name the baby Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.”  When I woke up I knew what I should do.  The stars were brighter and my heart lighter as I ran to tell Mary my decision.  I decided I would be the best husband and father I could possibly be.

Interviewer:    What was the most important thing you learned from this amazing journey?

Joseph:    Oh we learned a lot through some very turbulent times.  I got another message from God when Jesus was very tiny warning us that Herod was going to kill all the baby boys, and we had to flee to Egypt to save Jesus’ life.  Being a father to such an unusual boy wasn’t easy, but through it all God has taught us so much about love – love for each other and God’s love for us and ours for Him.  The real miracle was that God’s son became my son too.  He was bonded into my life by love.

Interviewer:    What an incredible story.  [Lighting the 4th candle]   As we light this 4th Advent candle, may the love Joseph showed for Jesus grow in each of our hearts as well.

Messengers of Joy

[Note:  This is the 3rd in a series of Advent Dramas for lighting the candles of Advent at Jerome United Methodist  Church this Advent.]

Interviewer:    Good morning, church, and welcome to the 3rd Sunday of Advent.  Our Advent journey is moving closer to Bethlehem.  The spirit of Christmas is in the air, and today our Advent guest is one of the messengers of God’s joy to the world.

[Angel enters to some kind of musical fanfare (“Angels We Have Heard on High”).  Angel is  dressed in contemporary clothes and looks like any typical member of the congregation.]

[Interviewer looks around for someone else, looking very confused and surprised]

Angel:    Peace and joy to you my friend.  You look surprised to see me.  [She checks a date book or map]  This is Jerome UMC isn’t it?  That’s where I’m supposed to be today.

Interviewer:     Yes, it is, but … I was expecting an angel……  And, well, I’m sorry, but you don’t look like an angel.

Angel:    I get that a lot.  We try to fit in, you know, so people don’t freak out.  It makes it a lot easier to get our message heard if people aren’t in shock.

Interviewer:    That makes sense.  I hadn’t thought about it that way.  So, tell us about the message the angels delivered that first Christmas.  Angels show up quiet often in that story.

Angel:    We really do, don’t we!   First Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the temple to tell him that his prayers for a son had been heard and would be answered.  And then Gabe was back again 6 months later to tell Mary that God was with her in a very special way.  And that dear girl responded with such amazing faith and became the mother of God’s Messiah.

Interviewer:    It must be wonderful to bring such messages of joy to people.

Angel:    Oh, it’s incredible fun, but there’s more.  Angels spoke to Joseph several times in his dreams.  We really carried him through that whole process.

Interviewer:    So do angels always work so quietly, behind the scenes?

Angel:    Oh, Heavens No!  At Bethlehem we all turned out in full force to deliver our biggest message of all.  We told the shepherds where to find the newborn king and broadcast good news to the entire world.

Interviewer:    Wow.  So as we anticipate that marvelous event in just two weeks, would you help me light the candle of  joy?

Angel:    I would love to.

Interviewer:    Joy to the World, the Savior Reigns!

[They light the candle together and exit the stage as congregation sings “Angels We Have Heard on High” or “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”]

Advent Drama: Mary’s journey from fear to faith

Note: This is the second of a series of brief dramas for lighting the candles of Advent written for Jerome UMC.

Interviewer:     On this second Sunday of Advent we continue our journey toward Christmas.  Last Sunday we heard about Zechariah’s transition from doubt to hope, and we lit the first Advent candle representing Hope.  [he/she lights the candle]

Today we turn our attention to Faith, and our guest from biblical times is a woman of tremendous Faith, Mary the mother of Jesus.

[Mary enters in biblical costume]

Interviewer:     Welcome Mary.  Please share with us how you felt when you first learned you were to be the mother of God’s Son.

Mary:   I was totally shocked when an angel showed up out of nowhere and told me I was to be the mother of the Messiah!  Me!  A poor young woman engaged to a carpenter.  Why would God choose us to raise his son?  I was scared to death!

Interviewer:     So you and Joseph were engaged but not married yet?

Mary:   That’s right, and you can’t imagine what my family and the townspeople would say about that.  And what could I tell Joseph?  He’d never believe God was the father of my baby!  Nobody would.   Joseph would assume I had been unfaithful to him.  That was considered adultery, and the punishment for that was death by stoning!  I was really scared!

Interviewer:     I can’t imagine how terrified you must have been.  How did you ever handle it?

Mary:   It was really strange.  The angel told me that God was with me.  He said, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and being a devout Jewish girl, I knew this was true.  My faith came over me and calmed my fear.  I suddenly just knew that I could trust God completely.  And from a place deep inside me I said, “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.”

Interviewer:     All of us are called to be such faithful servants who know that with God all things are possible.  [Mary lights candle as Interviewer speaks]  As we light the second Candle of Advent may it light the way on our journey from fear to faith.

Comfort, Isaiah 40:1-11

I looked at my calendar about 14 days ago with a start.  I should have known – there was plenty of evidence–frost on the pumpkin, darkness at 5 pm, another notch on my senior citizen belt with an October birthday, the wonderful sound of silence when the political ads stopped, and the smart alek neighbors who got their Christmas decorations up during Indian summer.  The evidence was way beyond a reasonable doubt that we are well into fall – stewardship campaigns, non-stop Christmas advertising – and yet, still in denial about the waning days of 2011, I was surprised to realize that Advent was approaching like a runaway freight train!  Yikes, I’d better get ready.  As an old boy scout, I’m supposed to always be prepared, but somehow Advent and Christmas always get here before I’m ready.

That’s rather appropriate actually.  God has a way of sneaking up on us and surprising us when we least expect it, and yet we are also ironically very impatient.  Stores open earlier and earlier every year for black Friday shoppers, creeping further and further into black Thursday, as in Thanksgiving Day.  Is nothing sacred?

I was on a retreat many years ago about this time of year at a beautiful camp in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania.  I woke up early on the Sunday morning I was there and decided to drive to a spot where I was told I could witness a beautiful sunrise.  Not being a morning person, sunrises are rare occurrences for me, and they are always better in the mountains or on the sea shore; so I hopped into my car and drove a short distance to the designated scenic overlook.  It was very chilly in the pre-dawn darkness, and I had not had my morning caffeine fix; so I began to shiver and grow impatient.  I didn’t know what time sunrise was supposed to happen, but it wasn’t happening fast enough to suit me.   I soon grew weary of waiting and decided to forego the sunrise and head back to a warm lodge and a hot breakfast.  As I drove down the mountain road, of course, I caught the first glimpse of the fiery red ball of the sun peaking through the leafless trees in my rear view mirror.  I turned around at the first opportunity and drove quickly back up to the lookout point.  Of course, the sun had already crested the horizon by the time I got back there.   I missed the most beautiful part of the sunrise.  I was too impatient – couldn’t wait a few minutes for something I knew was going to happen because it had happened every day since the beginning of time.  I was disappointed – and then I laughed as I remembered what day it was.  It was the first Sunday of Advent – the season of waiting and preparation.

How hard it is to wait – even for things we know are guaranteed to come. How hard it is to hope for things to be better when there is so little sign of change or improvement in a bad situation.  We take years and decades to dig ourselves into difficult situations and expect instant gratification or solutions.

“Comfort, comfort my people” say these familiar words from Isaiah 40.  I don’t know about you, but when I hear these words read or sung in Handel’s great oratorio, “Messiah,” my attention is drawn immediately to the word “comfort.”  Don’t we all like comfort?  We like to be in our comfort zones.  We indulge in comfort food when we are stressed – when the teen-age driver is out later than curfew, or our team falls behind in a big game – bring on those nachos and chocolate chip cookies.  When we are sad or lonely or grieving, we long for a comforting word,  an understanding smile or a warm hug.    Comfort is good – and God knows there is much in these difficult economic times of uncertainty that we need and want to be comforted about.

But there’s another little word in that opening verse of Isaiah 40 that caught my eye as I studied this familiar text this time—the tiny little two letter word, ‘my.’  ‘My’ or ‘mine’ can be a negative word when used to express selfish or greedy feelings.  We all know that right after ‘no’ one of the first words young toddlers learn is ‘mine.’   But ‘my’ can also be a word of extreme comfort and love.  To talk about my spouse or my children or my family or my church or my country implies a bond of affection – and that’s the way Isaiah uses the word in this text.  “Comfort, O comfort MY people, says your God.”  God is claiming and reclaiming the children of Israel after a long and difficult period of estrangement, alienation and rebellion.

Anyone else have any estrangement and alienation in your family?  Any siblings or in-laws or children who aren’t speaking to any or all members of the family?  We talk alot about dysfunctional families, but my experience is that term is redundant.  Families are made up of fallible human beings who are by definition somewhat dysfunctional.  And that includes God’s family too.  But that doesn’t mean we still don’t belong to our families.  My uncle may have been an unreasonable, arrogant, immature jerk who got mad over how my grandmother’s estate got parceled out and pouted till the day he died – but he was still part of the family.

“Comfort, MY people, says your God.”  God’s children have been rebellious.  They have ignored God’s will and God’s laws.  They put their faith in earthly kings and worldly power in the days of King David and Solomon, and the once great kingdom of Israel went downhill faster than an out-of-control bobsled.  The kingdom was split into two weaker states by political infighting and jealousy and in that weakened state had been overrun by the more powerful nations of Assyria and Babylon.  The northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria first, in 720 BCE, and 130 years later in 588 BCE, the southern kingdom of Judah, which had Jerusalem as its proud capital, was destroyed and overrun by the Babylonians.  The leaders and any people of influence were carted off to Babylon as prisoners and lived there for decades while entire generations forgot their homeland, their roots, and their God.

Imagine conquering armies invading the Buckeye state from that state up north and forcing us to live in exile in Detroit or even Ann Arbor!!!!  The people of Israel were suffering; they were in need of comfort.  They felt forgotten and abandoned by their God.  How could God allow this horrible thing to happen to God’s chosen people!!!  Surely the gods of Babylon must be better and stronger than Yahweh or this tragedy would never have happened.  Many of the exiles bowed down and worshipped the gods of Babylon and became quite comfortable in their new surroundings, having lost hope of ever returning to Jerusalem.  They turned their backs on Yahweh.

And yet, God calls them “MY people.”  We may forget who we are and whose we are, but God does not forget.  And that’s the message of Hope as we live into the Advent season again.  We may be poorer than we were a year ago or grieving the loss of health or a loved one. We may be carrying a heavy load of guilt for mistakes and poor choices we’ve made that led to bad consequences, but we are not disowned by our God. God still recognizes us and calls us to him – “comfort MY people.”

That reminds us of another great story in the Hebrew Scriptures when God’s children were in a different foreign land as slaves in Egypt.  They had been there for 400 long hard years and many had forgotten their ancestors and their God.  After 4 centuries I’m sure many of them were convinced that God had long since forgotten them.  But God has a memory and a heart for his people that is greater than anything we can imageine.  And God called Moses to go down to Egypt with a message for Pharaoh, king of Egypt.  That message was not “let those poor slaves go,” or “let those Hebrew people go free,” No, God’s message through Moses was very specific and clear.  God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of MY people who are in Egypt… I will send you to Pharaoh to bring MY people out of Egypt.”  (Exodus 3:7 & 10)  God claims and comforts his own.   God never forgets who we are and whose we are, even when we do.  And that’s reason for Hope.

But notice in this text that we don’t just get to sit back and wait passively for God’s comfort and deliverance to come.  Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (40:3) We are called to partner with God in our own liberation.  And that’s not easy work.  God doesn’t send us to some cushy spa or tropical paradise or comfortable suburb to do God’s work. The preparation of God’s way needs to be done in the places where God’s presence and comfort are most needed – in the wilderness – in the desert.  Where the lost and the least are, that’s where the way of the Lord needs to be prepared.   Because the comfort of God is like the children’s song about “The Magic Penny.” Remember what it says – ‘hold it tight and you won’t have any, but if you lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor.”

Isaiah 40:5 gives us the clue about where God’s highway goes with another very small easily over-looked word.  This one is slightly bigger than ‘my,’ it has three letters instead of two, but it’s a very powerful important word.  It’s the word ‘ALL.’ The text says that if we prepare the way of the Lord, “then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and ALL people shall see it together.”   That’s a pivotal and important move in this text.  This section of Isaiah expands our understanding of who God’s people are in a most dramatic fashion.

Scholars believe that the last half of the book of Isaiah was written at a later date and by a different anonymous author than the first 39 chapters.  The historical context and the tone of the message shift dramatically at the beginning of chapter 40 from one of judgment and dire prediction of impending doom leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, to words of hope and restoration in chapters 40-55 as the period of exile and banishment are coming to an end.  And part of that shift of viewpoint includes the realization that when God says MY people, the circle of God’s concern and love is universal and inclusive, not parochial and exclusive.  The realization has dawned that if God is the creator of the entire universe, then God is also the Lord and lover of all creation and cannot be limited to one tribe or segment of the human family.

In chapter 49 Isaiah says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). God’s kingdom and God’s people know no geographic or political or ideological boundaries.  ALL means all, as in “All people shall see the glory of God together”  (40:5).

Human understanding about the nature of God is an evolving process.  While some early Hebrews understood God as vengeful and to be feared, Jesus came to show us the tender, loving, merciful nature of God; and both images of God are evident in this text from Isaiah.  “The Lord comes with might,” it says in verse 10, and then in the next verse goes on to say, “he will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Those are words of comfort.  They give us hope because we see clearly the loving, merciful nature of our God who never forgets that we are God’s people – loved, forgiven, and redeemed, if we choose to return to him like the prodigal children we all are from time to time.  God calls us to partnership, to prepare the way of the Lord, and we begin “Where meek souls will receive him, still the Christ child enters in.”

But our partnership with God means we don’t have to and cannot prepare the way for God alone.  We are all mortal – we are like grass that withers and fades – but “the word of our God will stand forever.” (40:8)   Our broken world more than ever needs God’s challenging, expansive and inclusive word of hope.  As Einstein said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that created them in the first place.”  We need God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, of a peaceable kingdom.  That word is in God’s word, and it’s a word of Hope.  Advent and Christmas come in the darkest, coldest time of the year – and that’s no accident.  At the times when we most need words of comfort and hope, God knows our needs.  God hears our cries, and sends messengers in most unusual and unexpected forms to say, “Comfort, my people,” “let my people go” — set them free from doubt and fear and hopelessness.
Moses was an exile – on the lam because he had killed an Egyptian.  He was not articulate or powerful or influential –and yet God chose him and empowered him to be God’s messenger of hope.

In the return of the Exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem – God again chose a most unexpected servant to set God’s people free.  King Cyrus of Persia had no idea he was acting as God’s messenger.  He was just out to expand his own power and kingdom by knocking Babylon off as king of the hill.  But God chose this pagan ruler as the agent of liberation for God’s people.  Persia, if you are a fan of God’s irony and surprise, was where modern day Iran now sits.  God continuously sends words and acts of hope in most unexpected shapes and forms and places

And by the way, that’s exactly what God has in store for anyone who’s ready in about 21 days in a little one-horse town called Bethlehem.

Hope doesn’t always come in the way we expect.  So be ready – and prepare your hearts for the coming of the Lord.