Weekly Words of Wisdom 12-30-20

Sermon 12-27-20  –  Elder, Peter Lanigan                   

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the starhad stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

And the Wise Men came a callin’

Will you pray with me? “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.”

If my memory serves me correctly, and most times it does NOT, it seems like the Sunday after every major celebration in the Christian calendar at First Presbyterian Church, my phone rings and….well, it’s like I’m relaxing in the Bull Pen and now I need to warm up and get ready… I’m going to be out on the mound to do some MOP UP DUTY.  Now, some pitchers (guest ministers), might be upset to get this call.  You know, they’re thinking, “you’re wasting this good arm on a game whose outcome is no longer in doubt.”

Not ME…My belief is…(at least according to this sermon) they are all big games and they’re all big Sundays as well.  I know this Sunday might not the BIGGEST Sunday in all our Christian lives, but it is a Sunday none-the-less, and there are people who need the church, just like the church needs you, and me, and all of us.  I get it that just 48 hours ago we celebrated one of the top 2 Christian holidays – Christmas – and most of us are coming down from that “high”, but this year is different.  I worry about that because of some of the necessary and unnecessary restrictions in place. Some of us are having a hard time finding any cause for celebration; some of us were not even able to travel or visit with loved ones or be together with family or be together for Christmas Eve services.  It has certainly made it more difficult to feel joy, especially at time when a lot of us are used to feeling joy.

On that note, I really worry about the C and E-ers…you know, the Christians who come to church most only on Christmas and Easter.  No judgement – in my young adulthood, I too was one of them, but I can’t recall EVER missing Christmas Eve service and especially gathering with my family for a Christmas celebration at my mom and dad’s house.  Not so this year!  In fact 2020 will be the first time in my history and I’m sure in many of yours, where you were not able to be in the pews to take in the celebration of Jesus’ birth OR his resurrection.  Now, the scripture lesson read by Cat this morning (or whenever you are watching this), taken from Matthew 2 verses 1- 12 is a familiar story… It’s the story of the wisemen traveling to Bethlehem to see, take in, and pay homage to the newborn King…Jesus Christ. King Herod had previously heard the news and he sends these three priestly men…the wisemen…to gather information about this great occurrence.

In my earlier life, I dabbled in the field of acting.  When it came to a particular scene, we would often (the actors and director) break it down.  We would try and discover what the motivation was for saying or acting in a particular way.  I presume this is exactly what Rev Jen does, or any other minister or church leader does as well.  So… let’s break it down… for you and for ME.  

OKAY, so we have 4 people in this scripture along with Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  We have King Herod, we have 3 wisemen, and of course, Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  So lets look at King Herod.  King Herod is an interesting historical figure.  Let me give you the CRIB notes on his life; Herod was given his throne by the Roman Empire to be the King of Judea.  He is credited with many massive  building structures  and aqueduct systems, BUT, he was perceived as a tyrant and one who was always protecting himself by eliminating his real and imagined competition for his beloved throne. The three wisemen?  Well, they happen to have been traveling through Jerusalem, not by coincidence, but by understanding the calculations of the stars and believing that a new king was to be born.  They first went to Jerusalem and then onto Bethlehem to seek out this new king. 

So here’s the story: 

The wisemen are sent by King Herod on this journey to Bethlehem because of their ability to read the stars and because of their gift in interpreting dreams and understanding prophecy.  These men are obviously special.  Before today (albeit this week) I never gave too much thought to this story of the wisemen.  I always just thought that these characters, these wisemen, these Magi, were guys that happened to see a star in the sky; and this star was so bright and so different and so special, that they followed it and found the baby Jesus.  It’s one of those bible stories that ALL of US are familiar with.  We know that the wisemen brought gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, but is that really the importance of this story?    

After delving a little deeper… I believe NOT. 

I’m going to put this in terms that every New Jerseyian or fan of MOB movies should understand.  The way I see it… Herod is a brat, sure.  He is King!  If he lived in this day and age, he might be the MOB BOSS.  He’s got 10 wives and many children and he’s pretty ruthless.  He’s so evil…in fact… it’s believed that he had one of his wives and 3 of his eldest sons killed, possibly out of jealousy or fear that they might try to seize power.  So the scripture goes on to say that King Herod sends the wisemen to Bethlehem to search out this new king and bring back word about him.  Yea, RIGHT!  Herod wants to pay his respects to the newborn King…I don’t believe it and neither do many bible scholars  (of whom I do not claim to be one).

Herod, the MOB Boss, sends his wise GUYS to do a little this …do a little that .. and scope out the cich…the situation… Yeah, Herod wants his thugs (in this case highly spiritually-in-tune individuals) to rat out Jesus’ location, so Herod can come in and get rid of this threat to his kingdom.  I am sure he wants to kill Jesus before he can fulfill his destiny.  If we were to continue reading in Matthew, in verses 12-18, we would find that the wisemen and Joseph are given a warning, presumably about Herod, in a dream, and so they alter their journey.

Unfortunately for Herod, he sends the wrong guys.  They turn out to be not so loyal to him, a sin in the MOB world.  After finding Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, they are SO TAKEN with awe and speculation that this child is indeed the savior that was prophesied about, that after leaving Bethlehem they take a different road, a safer journey, back to their own country. Joseph, Mary and Jesus also fled to Egypt for their safety.

Herod the thug… the liar…the scoundrel, never gets to inflict his evil on Jesus.  And the wisemen?  Well, they are remembered as quiet heroes …and it’s one time the wise men came a callin’…BUT  they did not get their man… 

May it be so… Amen 

Weekly Words of Wisdom 12-23-20

Sermon 12-20-20             The Rev Jen Van Zandt

Luke 1:46-51 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Difficult But, Not Impossible

With Christmas only five days away, I am sure we have a lot of the same thoughts and we share experiences knowing that this year will be like no other.  As we get closer and closer to Christmas, the remaining days of Advent get harder as we come to deal with the reality that we may not be able to be with friends or family or both.  Some of us may have to be completely isolated not only from one another but perhaps fully alone on this day   So many of our regular experiences and traditions, activities and events have all been cancelled, or, as I like to think, have been put on hold; the parties we either attended or hosted, had to be cancelled, the concerts that we love to go to (including just hearing the Messiah sung), and all the special traditions.  Maybe your tradition is going to the City to see the tree, or the office holiday party you looked forward to so you can give a gag gift to the person you don’t like working with, or maybe you’re not able to go into the country to chop down your own Christmas tree, or maybe you have to cancel Christmas luncheons, grab bags and Secret Santa.  All of these things have been curtailed or cancelled and, unfortunately right now, the list is endless.   All these things have been stripped away from us, at least for the time being.  I was joking with a friend this week that Covid has even ruined snow days! 

So, friends, in this time when we wait for Christmas to come and we expect and pray for miracles, not only in our lives but truly that this insidious disease is quickly eradicated, there are two gifts that are free—timeand being ‘with’ (each other, ourselves and God).  Now some of you might be ‘done’ being with your spouse, since it’s been nine months.   Or you’ve really had it with your kids or your grandkids with home/remote schooling, because you just can’t keep them taped to their chairs any longer.  And I’m sure a lot of us may not feel like this is particularly good news.  But let’s try to look at it through a different lens.  

If we look at this timeas an opportunity, it actually may be a gift!  Most of us who are not organized or like to put things off or…. like to overdo for Christmas…. by now are at a frantic pace of last-minute shopping, last minute baking, last minute wrapping.  Maybe you’re just starting to do your Christmas shopping.  My father didn’t start his Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve!    

Back to time.  Time gives us a place to ponder.  A place to ponder what life is like; what life will be like again.  Time gives us the ability to ponder what actually mattersto us.  Time gives us the gift to ponder the good things that have happened in our lives.  It gives us the gift to ponder how much we miss being together in a community of faith. It gives us the gift to ponder who else may need to hear good news as theystruggle in their livesdealing with Covid, infection fears, grief of loved ones lost as well as all the on-going, non-Covid illness and diagnoses.  It gives us a chance, an invitation to ponder all of these things that are truly gifts from God.

One of the folks that is a regular participant in our Wisdom Wednesdays is not working right now and so what he has decided to do is pick up the phone and call old friends that he has lost touch with.  And, by and large people are thrilledto hear from him! He said the responses are wonderful and surprising:  “Oh my goodness, it’s so nice to hear from you. Sorry we haven’t been in touch.” I did the same thing with a friend that literally I have not seen or talked to in a year and a half, for no particular reason, but we just lost touch. The reconnect was truly a gift and even more uplifting than I even though! That’s one simple gift that we can give one another.  

So let’s ponder even further.  Let’s look at Mary.  I read a commentary by a wonderful Lukan scholar out of Fuller Seminary, Joel Green who writes, “Mary, actually, really doesn’t need God’s intervention. She’s engaged.  She’s about to be married.  She’s about to start her new life.  Everything for her looks extremely hopeful.  But the rest of the world, especially Israel, [and all of us], we do need an intervention, once again”.  I think we are in dire need of an intervention; into the ways and habits and things we’re thinking about; the things that we are dwelling on and obsessing about; and especially the places where we’ve given up hope.  

A lot of us have pandemic fatigue at this point.  We really don’t want to keep wearing the masks. We really want to go back to our favorite restaurants.  We really want to be with our family across the miles or down the street. But friends, we can’t.  But…while we WAIT, In Advent (which means ‘waiting’) this is an opportunity for us to ponder even more what God’s intervention did and does for us in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, God gives us hope in a physical person that we can look at, that the disciples and many others, could see and touch.  Jesus may not be physically with us, but through his Spirit he is deeply embedded in our physical hearts.  This embeddedness of God’s intervention through the coming of Christ often gets lost because usually we are busy (read: frantically) baking cookies, writing out Christmas cards, getting last minute presents, shopping and making all the feast favorites and trying to get our house ready for company. I talked to somebody else a few weeks ago who said, “You know, I’m going to miss being with my whole family including my grandchildren; but you know what? maybe it is just time for us to be quiet.” 

Mary pondered what God offered her.  She didn’t run; she didn’t say no.  She became God’s partner in changing the world.  Once the angel had visited her and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary.  You will do something most supreme.”  Instead of her saying, “Let me go home and think about it.”  She immediately said, “Yes.  Let it be with me according to your word, Lord God.”  So the Magnificat not only is an expression of her faithfulness and privilege and joy, it can be an expression for all of us.  

How often does our soul really magnifythe Lord? I know it’s difficult these days, friends, but our souls can magnify God’s love for others if we let it.  Let our spirit rejoice in God, our Savior. 

Just imagine if we didn’t havea Savior.  Just imagine if we didn’t have a place that we know our loved ones go into eternity as will we, someday.  Just imagine if there wasn’t someone who could cleanse us from all the awful, thoughtless, mean things that we have done and said throughout our lives. Just imagine if Mary looked on her lowly state as a handicap to worshipping God and bearing God’s gift to the world and staing her blessings?

While I’m certainly not asking you to be Mary, I am asking us all to learn from her faithfulness; focusing NOT on the deficits and challenges but on the blessings. I know I haven’t been as grateful and thoughtful as I could be, because I’m distracted by many things. We all are.  What if we just paid attention to the mercy that God gives for those who need mercy, who need love, who need support?.  Maybe you and me are in need of that too. By the way, not only this congregation and this town, but  the whole worldneeds mercy.  We need to remember the God who show us the strength of His arm to protect us. We need to remember that God to continues to scatter the proud.  We need to remember that God will bring the powerful down from their thrones., to lift up the lowly, even the lowliness of our own hearts.  We need God to fill the hungry with good things.  

If you’ve ever driven by this church on a Wednesday or Saturday, the line is literally out the door into the street of people who need food from the Loaves & Fishes food pantry.  They also need the smiles and connection knowing that they are not alone. And that this won’t last.  

God helped his servant Israel and he wants to help and redeem all of God’s descendants through Abraham — that includes us.  I challenge each of us for the next five days to take at least one of these expressions in the Magnificat and keep saying it over, and over, and over again.  Because the more we focus on God’s text, and God’s love, and God’s grace, the more our worries and our anxieties get right-sized.  The more we focus on God’s mighty acts in Christ, the more we can trust that we will get through this.  It may not be easy, but it won’t be eternal.  

My friends, there is an invitation for us to truly be not only be aware of what God through Mary did, but to truly be in partnership with God, like Mary did so that we share the joy, the love, the peace and the hope. So I’m going to charge you all to find someone–not only the children and youth–but for all of us to find someone unexpected who needs a lift, who needs a phone call, a silly card, an email.  

I got the most hilarious Jackie Lawson card.  (The person who sent it I think sent it to a number of people.) But this one had to do with a hand bell rehearsal and it was mice practicing hand bells, but their notes were ‘off’ a little.  It really cracked me up.  I thought, you know what? sometimes we don’t need the heaviness and intensity—we already have enough of that.  We need humor.  We need to know that we are loved and cared for even as imperfect as we are.  And so, friends, take this time of quiet and ponder, ponder all these things in your heart. Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 12-16-20

Sermon 12-13-20  – The Rev Jen Van Zandt 

Matthew 1:18-23

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

“Reactions and Responses”

As we inch…. or maybe even fly towards Christmas, going deeper into Advent, this story has taken on a new meaning, particularly given the fact that we are back to remote worship.  In fact, in Morris County we are now in the red zone.  Unfortunately, as of this morning, COVID infections in Boonton alone, are 444.  Now more than ever we need a story of hope.  We need to know that God is with us.   We need to know that God is going to bring good out of bad. It is so very hard to believe this; because, as Amir said this morning, this disease is truly unfathomable. 

So today I want to talk a little bit about how we reactand how we respondto things.    When we are in an unbalanced place, we tend to be highly reactive.  Sometimes we are sharp with our spouse or children or neighbors or friends.  Sometimes we say or do things that really, when we look back at, was probably not the best idea.  And we also make commitments, some of which we can’t even follow through on, but we don’t really think about when we are in ‘reactive’ mode.  Especially at Christmas time, we think that we can accomplish more than we can.  And this year is no different, although things are being scaled back.  We certainly have some challenges in how we might learn to respondinstead of just react.

In the story of Joseph in the book of Matthew, the minute Joseph learns that Mary is with child, he immediately reacts. He decides the right thing to do, to avoid his own disgrace, embarrassment and shame (as hers) was to dismiss her quietly.  This is in line with his Judaism, is in line with the Torah.  Deuteronomy dictates that Mary and he potentially could have been stoned to death for adultery.  Joseph is both reactive but also responding to this news. 

This morning I was thinking again about what their conversation must have been like, when Joseph went to visit Mary at her father’s house and Mary shares the news.  I wonder what his reaction was.  He was just coming by to say ‘hi’; checking in on things, discussing perhaps wedding plans or breaking bread together and he gets this news that is truly incomprehensible, inconceivable.  (No pun intended.)

Sometimes, in fact more often than not, we are not remotely aware that God is already active in our lives.  That same power of the Holy Spirit is active in this story just as the power of the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, especially when we get taken by surprise.  God’s activity is not just for Mary and Joseph, but for all of creation which is why God brings forth his son in the form of Christ to us to save us from our sins.  But I think it also calls us to thinking about how we reactand respondto God’s activity. 

This week you got a letter in your inbox or in your mail box or both about the Stewardship campaign for 2021.   And, yes indeed, it is later than usual for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I wanted to make sure that we had a message that was both thoughtful and caring; affirming of all of the stewardship the church has given faithfully this year. We also acknowledge that we are headed and unknown vision of foreign territory as we look into 2021.  We don’t know how much longer we will have to worship remotely or do fellowship remotely or Wisdom Wednesdays remotely or prerecord and do music remotely (which is such a key component of our worship services). But important to all these things, is funding all those efforts.

A couple of weeks ago I went for a walk with a friend.  It was unbelievably windy that day and unfortunately I was rather underdressed.  I thought I had enough layers on, but the wind was just cutting right through me.  And so I said to my friend, “Let’s cut the walk short; let’s cut across the lawn and head back to our cars.”  And as we did, I found something.  It was this… It’s a ten dollar bill.  I was ecstatic that I found a ten dollar bill!  I reached out immediately and grabbed it.  I looked around and there was no one else in sight and I thought WOW this is a wonderful gift.  And I said to my friend, “Let’s go get a cup of coffee with this.  Let’s get a really nice caramel macchiato latte at Starbucks or something.”  He said, “No, no, no, why don’t you hold on to it.” And I did.  I still have it.  And as I looked at this on the back side, and you all know this, it says, “In God we trust.”   But sometimes when we are called to days that are difficult for us, sometimes we shrink away from it; sometimes we hold on to things more than we should. Sometimes we are not faithful in our giving of our hearts or of ourselves or treasures and talents.

So let’s just take that ten dollar bill for a second.  If I break it down into singles and I give away one dollar which is a tithe, 10%,  I still have $9 left.  It seems like this is such a small portion giving back to God for all the goodness that God gives to us.  Now, it is simple math that shows if we give 10% of $100 or we give 10% of $1,000 or the money is obviously huge if we give 10% of $100,000.  Some people in this church I know still tithe. Some of you give even more than 10%.  Some of you are giving a balance between 10% of your income, 10% of your time as well as your many talents.  The call, my friends, is to actually listen to where God is inviting us and respond, even though we don’t know what 2021 looks like. Like Joseph who knew he needed to care for Mary and their future child, we still need to care for the mission and ministry of this church.  

God has blessed us richly this year and we expect to end the year on a positive note from your generosity as well as the funds that are invested as part of our endowment.  But friends, we want to continue to do good things here and there are many improvements we need to make to the Sanctuary to make it even more technologically helpful, as we worship separately together.  There are things that need to be taken care of –the steeple has repairs to be done as well other property repairs and/upgrades. We continue need to care for the staff and the mission and ministry of this church.  So while the vision of the future is a little unclear for us, and some of us might be running out of patience and struggling because they have been unable to be in the Sanctuary since literally March, the invitation is still clear: to respond to God’s invitation which is to trust and be part of God’s activity in the future.  

When we look back at this text, Joseph did the right thing too but only because The Holy Spirit was present to him and gave him the hope and the trust that he couldn’t muster on his own.  Sometimes we have to do the right thing even when we can’t muster the trust on our own.  But that’s God’s invitation to us as Christians; as believers and as members of this congregation.  I don’t know what God has in store for this church, but I know that we’ve done so many wonderful things and we have the opportunity to do even more in the years and even in the weeks and months to come.  So I encourage you to pay attention to God’s invitation, especially that gentle nudging to do the right thing and continue to step up on your pledges, begin a pledge, or maybe even just make a small increase.  We know that God will continue to provide for us in our own lives, in our own homes, in our own family.  In this text, as well as the Isaiah text, the Prophet tells the virgin that she will bear a son and they shall name him Immanuel which means: God [is] with us.  

As we go deeper into Advent, I also encourage us to pay attention to the fact that God’s activity in the Christ child points even beyond the places in which we are struggling to have hope, struggling to trust God’s presence and activity; struggling even to remain patient.  But Mary and Joseph did do that and it changed the world forever. Imagine just a small portion of that as we move forward and make our contributions to the future ministry and the mission of this church.  I pray that you will find comfort in this message and in this text. Let the angels of God visit you this Christmas so you can hear the words tings out: Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid for God is with us.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 12-9-20

Sermon 12-6-20     The Rev Jen Van Zandt

Isaiah 40:1-8

“Peace in the Midst”

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

So… besides a comfy blanket and comfortable clothes, shoes and warmth, what are the things that give you comfort?   Is it knowing your kids and grandchildren and friends and family are safe and COVID-free?  Is it getting the good news about your tests that you were very concerned about; or getting the news from your financial adviser that you have a healthy projection for your retirement; that all will be well; or is it getting the deep, rich, palpable support from friends and family during a heartbreak?  Hopefully, the word of the Lord–prayed, sung, spoken, read–gives you comfort.

As a refresher, Isaiah 40 is a text that is being written to the Israelites while they are in exile.  And while it is true that they are free to live and work, farm and eat and live by the wadi (which are streams in valleys during the rainy season), and have children and worship, they are still in a foreign land.  They don’t speak the language.  They don’t respond to King Hezekiah.  They are away from their temple, from their homeland, from Jerusalem. And certainly we have a lot in common with the Israelites, because we, too, are still in exile.  But as God, through Isaiah, begins to proclaim comfort for Israel and for us, the comfort is way beyond the things we think of, both large and small.   It is not just comfort as in peace; this is comfort as in solace. It’s a major shift and intervention that has the power to create a new life with new possibilities; a message that we all need to hear again right now.  

So how do we get from this place of feeling in exile to a place of true comfort?   Well, the answer lies in the text. The first “comfort” mentioned won’t be created by our own actions, but by God and by God’s heavenly host.  Surely, the angels, who are God’s staff, are just waiting for instructions from God.  When God says, “O comfort ‘my people’”, God is telling the angels to get out there and pronounceand announcethe good news.  God is talking to His messengers—they are waiting to be dispatched to send this hopeful message to the Israelites and all of creation. 

The “O comfort” that God speaks of is that of God seeing Israel (and us) in a place of desperation.  A place of perhaps even bitterness and certainly fear.  It is such a desolate place, that God wants nothing more than to be with us, in solidarity, to bring a better future, a better life filled, not with fear and anxiety, but with true well-being in and through.  This is a God who is saying to us, “I am with you–completely. I am in full solidarity.  I see your suffering and it will not last.”

We go to verse 3 and it says, “Cry out.”  The cry out doesn’t mean, “cry” as in weep or scream or yell as an endless lament. It is actually a proclamation that through God’s messengers the wilderness is going to be, not a scary place, but a place that God is going to convert. 

I thought I knew what wilderness meant.  But I decided to look it up in an on-line dictionary.   ‘Wilderness’ can be “nature in unfettered land”.  The old English definition defines wilderness as “land only inhabited by wild animals.  It is uncultivated; uninhabited; an inhospitable region”.  It can also be “a neglected or abandoned area of land or garden or even a town”.  The definition goes on to say: “when one is in the wilderness, it is certainly a position of disfavor”.

Here’s the good news. God is going to take the wilderness and create something new–something that will truly make all the valleys lifted up, all the unnavigable places manageable and take the mountains down. God will literally create a highway from Babylon (which is in the north all the way back to Jerusalem in the south) through the desert, which normally is a treacherous trek. God is going to make a highway of ease so the Israelites may be delivered and again find comfort and peace.  

You might think this is a very strange passage because we are in Advent and want to hear the great stories; in Luke the story of Mary and Elizabeth; in Matthew the story from Joseph’s point of view–but this story is one that we need to hear as well.  Portions of verses 3, 4 and 5 are actually re-quoted in all four Gospels, about John the Baptist, who starts to create a way, a path, to get ready for Christ to come.  

This is not a story about the Israelites that is so far removed from us that it doesn’t matter. It is about us getting the way paved for us that doesn’t quite seem possible right now.   As I often say, God is creating a way right now, where there seems to be none.  John the Baptist is also inviting us to start preparing   It is more than putting up the Christmas decorations and figuring out how much we can do or won’t be able to do this Christmas.  This is John saying “there is something coming that you’re just not going to believe!”  It’s going to be something that is unexpected, that doesn’t come from our labor or effort.   It comes from God, because God sees our heartache.  God sees our worries.  God sees our struggles and wants to make those rough places easier to manage.  John is proclaiming good news, friends, for those who are dislocated and alienated and lost.  Unfortunately, that is us, too.  The future arrival of the Christ child in this season of hope and peace and joy is rooted in God and God alone.  So, whether you get out the Christmas decorations or you pull them out with joy, there is still an anticipation of the peace coming, when all the franticness is over, when we can ponder what Christ really does for us.  

This party, this parade, this super-event that God is promising Israel through the wilderness is something that God is also promising for us.  So what do we do to get ready?  Well, we begin by decorating and planning and making our lists, and as I said, probably lamenting that some things may not be possible this year.  There may also be some things we don’t have to do and that might even be a relief! We can also prepare for the comfort that is promised by God to bring us out of this place into a new world filled with possibilities and promise and peace. 

I used to work with a client many, many years ago. He and his wife were not able to have children and so they were able to adopt children, two little girls, from China.  I don’t want to mention their names, because these girls are now grown.  But when they went to pick up one of the girls in the orphanage, they had tied her to her crib with ropes.  She had rope burns on her thighs, because she was tied down in the orphanage.  Who knows what her life would have been like; how the scars would have been (physically and emotionally) had she never got picked up and taken from that orphanage.  But she was. She is probably in her mid-20’s now. The last I knew she was playing violin, almost as good as Henry, and had gone to good schools.  She didn’t know what her future was going to be like; but God intervened and rescued her from a place that was loveless, full of trauma and anxiety withno human contact or touch.  

So while we can’t hug one another right now, while we can’t be together as much as we like right now, while we can’t celebrate as much as we like right now, it doesn’t mean that Christ is not on the way.  So take that good news, find some peace, the peace that passes all human understanding, in the child of Christ.  Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 12-2-20

Sermon 11-29-20 – The Rev Jen Van Zandt

Isaiah 42:1-7

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

So how did it actually get to be Advent? It seems as though this year has both dragged on at a snail’s pace, with time standing still, imprisoned by daily and hourly heart-wrenching headlines, endless zoom calls, and bad news from relatives and friends. At the same time…time has flown by, as we have worked harder than ever at our jobs, harder than ever at staying sane in our homes, trying to create clever and creative ways to combat boredom and isolation, trying to carve out enough space under one roof while everyone is on zoom calls at the same time, with one router and modem, learning how to deal with disappointment after disappointment, and push back against all that threatens our lives, our families, our community, our future, and even our own faith.  Yes friends, we are still in exile.  And we are in deep need of some light in the growing, literal and figurative darkness.  

I have a number of friends who shared with me the noticing of the shortness of days.  So, in spite of all that I just mentioned there is some good news…

First of all, we are only 23 days away from winter solstice which is the shortest day of the year. I look forward to that every year! I have a friend whose father was on the faculty of a small college in North Carolina.

One of his colleagues actually did the astrological assessment, and somehow the shortest day is actually Dec 8th but we will just use the solstice date instead. Because, as I said last week, if it were light on Christmas eve, we wouldn’t see our Christmas tree glow and glisten. We wouldn’t see the candles. We wouldn’t enjoy the fire so much. So…the darkness has a purpose.

More importantly we are only 27 days away from a light that will dispel all of the darkness; The Christ Child.

The servant who is described so beautifully and poetically in Isaiah 42, is a concrete example of God’s powerful and trustworthy resolve, to break us free from exile and darkness and fear.  The servant is the one who does and will do God’s bidding, bring about justice, offer words of hope, create a vision for a new thing that we cannot yet perceive.  The servant is also equipped by the ruach, the wind, the spirit, the breath to bring newness and hope and justice for all.  Especially those who are weak, fragile and in jeopardy, which on any given day, are not only the faces that we see on the television and on the internet but also, I think, you and me.

I don’t imagine I am alone in saying or even quietly thinking, on many days, “Geez, I am not sure how much more of this I can take”. And yet here we are.  The fact of the matter is – life is challenging enough without the restrictions, and the threats put on us and the entire world, by COVID. Further, we still have a really fuzzy picture of a future with some normalcy and a larger sense of hope.  So what are we to do between now and then?  … between now and the coming of the light?  

Well, some of us like to keep busy, to pass the time and think about the negative things to eschew anxiety. So for those of you who like to keep busy.. I want to invite you to slow down, to ponder this servant, to ponder God’s intentions for the world because of the servant.  

There are others of you who get ground to a halt in times like this, and when you do, and you sit waiting for things to get better, I want to invite you to pick up, and ponder, and read about this servant, and God’s intentions for you because of this servant.  

And for those of you who like to get things done and feel good about ticking things off your list, I want to invite you to ponder this servant, and God’s intentions for you because of this servant.  

Bible scholars will widely debate who this servant is, but a lot of them agree that it can be a number of applications throughout the church year.  Isaiah was written about the Israelites when they were still in Babylon in exile and so this was a prophet saying a servant was going tocome and restore them back to their Jerusalem, back to their temple.

Obviously, as we commence Advent, we want to think of the servant as God Incarnate; the Christ Child.  There’s another application, a change, and really a charge for us all, in Isaiah 42.  I want you to think about this in the first person, I want you to think about this as if it is you. Let me show you what I mean.

Here is my servant who God upholds, God’s chosen in whom my soul delights.  God has put his spirit upon me.  I will bring forth justiceto the nations. I will not cry, or lift up myvoice or make it heard in the street. A bruised reed Iwill not break, A dimly burning wick I will not quenchI will faithfullybring forth justice, I will not grow faint or be crushed until I have established peace and justice on the earth.”

My friends, this is something we can repeat and say over and over again, because God calls us as the faithful to bring justice and peace and love to those who are vulnerable and weak and afraid.  It sounds a little strange to say “I will not cry or lift up my voice or make it heard in the street” and what this is saying is that “I won’t preach this, I will actually livethis”.  I will live it so much that others will feel calmer in my presence. I will live this so much that people will be willing to share more of their own heartbreak, their own frustrations, their own fears, their own regrets. 

Friends, this is the way we can be part of bringing the light to the world.  We are the city on the hill.  We are a beacon of hope for others but we can’t do that if we don’t allow God to bring a hope inside our hearts as well

So, I charge us all to keep pondering Isaiah 42 and bring the peace and the light.  A light that can dispel all kinds and ALL darkness forever more.  May it be so, Amen.

Bring Light To The Darkness

Dear Saints,

Well, here we are in Advent. How did that happen???

The paces of our lives are moving in the weirdest rhythm ever; both more slowly as we hold back on regular activities, events, travel, family gatherings and school(!), and speeding up as we eagerly await increasingly hopeful news of vaccines and dream of future freedom. Call me crazy, but I think Advent is coming at the ‘perfect’ time.

As I write this, we are still in November, barely.

I have a number of wall calendars in my home, each with a different theme. The one on my study is of New England coastal scenes. It’s my favorite. But…some of the monthly photos don’t always match with my mood for the month. So…sometimes I tear off the new month’s picture and re-use the last month’s photo, which I may have liked better. The problem is…these calendars are stapled in the middle of the 12 months, literally. So sometimes I have to add little tape to keep the new month connected with last month’s photo. (Go ahead and judge, we all have weird little habits!)

So… November’s calendar was the lucky recipient of October’s (re-used) photo, which was of the Marblehead harbor, where I lived for a year after college. Ahhh the good old days. But in recent days and weeks with changing temps and opening/closing windows, the calendar portion started slipping. I never got around to taping it. Yesterday ‘November’ was hanging on by a thread. How about you?

For those of you who are handling this year really well, just taking it in stride, stop reading. For the rest of you, stay with me. The beauty of Advent arriving (which is an oxymoron since advent means waiting) is that it gives us an opportunity to…turn our attention to something new, something hopeful and something that is a reminder of God’s unconditional and unending love.

The arrival of the Christ-Child is the concrete reminder of Immanuel, God-with-us. It is the also the most beautiful invitation to ‘turn the page’ and see what God has in store for us in spite of our weird habits, our need for control and our wanting to hold on to a past that seemed so much easier and bright, in retrospect, of course.

This Advent and Christmas will be like no other, but it doesn’t mean it won’t have its own special gifts and blessings unless we keep lamenting about what is not possible and/or try to keep repeating what has already been done. IS 42 says,” I am doing a new thing, do you not perceive it?”

I invite us all to be open to seeing the new visions that God has for us this December in Advent. I invite us all to bring light in the darkness to those who cannot see it or who have lost their way. I invite you all to remember that even though we will not be able to worship together that doesn’t mean our community is adrift. Just mending nets so we can make more ‘fishers of [people]’ when we reconvene.

By the way, the photo for December is a light house on top of a hill in the snow.

Seeking the newness of this Advent with you,

Rev Jen