Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I love the way Martin Copenhaver talks about Advent: “This is a season,” he says, “in which we are acutely aware of time.
“Most of us mark time more intentionally [this time of year.] We may mark the days by opening little windows of an Advent calendar or mark the weeks by lighting the candles of an Advent wreath. And if we were ever to lose track of where we are in the month, there are the commercials that relentlessly remind us how many shopping days there are until Christmas.
“We [also] have different perceptions of the pace of time in this season. When we are young, December seems to stretch beyond all reason, almost to the dimensions of eternity. When we are young, Advent is a marathon. When we are older, it becomes a sprint. So much to do. So little time.
Even “our sense of the nature of time is shaped by this season. The repeated patterns and rituals associated with Advent and Christmas can make time seem cyclical. We do the same things year after year. This is what we always eat on Christmas Eve. These are the dishes we always use. This is the grace we always say. This is the story we always tell.” I invite you to think for a minute of your own traditions this time of year. In our family there are the particular cookies we bake and decorate, the special ornaments we hang on the tree, the children’s Christmas picture books we always put out in the living room, so that even a sophisticated teenager or young adult can enjoy paging through them once or twice during the season as she sits by the tree. All put into place to ensure some sameness, some stability in our Christmas celebrations from year to year.
There are traditions we repeat here at church each year in Advent too. The lighting of candles on our Advent wreath. Our Advent luncheon. And a favorite for many of us, the children’s Christmas pageant, which we just enjoyed again last Sunday. A friend of Copenhaver’s told the story of “a new family in her church whose child had only one year of experience in church school. So when it came time to rehearse the Christmas pageant his second year, the boy was aghast: ‘Do you mean to tell me that we’re going to do exactly the same story we did last year?’ Yes, that’s what we do. Every year. Exactly the same.” Well, maybe not exactly. The script changes just a bit from year to year. And our children take turns, of course, playing the parts of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, and the animals. But there are delightful elements we can count on. Like the tiniest sheep wandering off in the wrong direction up front, and the older kids stepping in to shepherd their younger friends. We love the sameness of it, as much as any differences from year to year. We love seeing each new group of children step into roles we remember others playing last year, and for some of us, remember others playing five and ten and twenty years ago, too. In fact, as I watched the pageant last week, I thought – we really should create a bulletin board display here at church next year, inviting everyone to bring in pictures of themselves, their family members, other congregations of which they’ve been a part, in Christmas pageant costumes over the years. Create a collage of dozens of Marys and Josephs, shepherds and angels. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Still, “time is not entirely cyclical, is it? [even around Advent and Christmas] Many things repeat, but something is always different. There’s a new person at the table. Or someone is missing… Or someone is not able to play the role she once did. Or the players may be the same, but the relationships have changed. Or time has simply taken its toll… So it’s never the same. Not exactly. I think that is the biggest reason why we are so drawn to nostalgia in this season,” continues Copenhaver. “Because things [do] change.”
There are also situations in which things really must change. It’s important to keep in mind at this time of year that the good old days weren’t equally good to everyone. For some, finding joy in Christmases present and future absolutely necessitates stepping away from the past, freeing oneself from bad memories and painful associations.
But ‘what we [all] long for, I think, is not merely a Christmas from our past, or even some idealized version of it. Instead, I think what we long for is a gathering up of our past, present, and future into a harmony that is not achieved in [our lifetimes]. What we desire is not merely to be with those we love, but to be united with them in a way that is not possible even when they are present. What we yearn for is not something we have fully seen, not even something we can completely imagine, because what we yearn for is God… When we read Isaiah’s improbable picture of the Peaceable Kingdom that is yet to be, where the wolf lives harmoniously with the lamb, and the lion becomes a vegan, we can only conclude that the good old days, as good as they may have been, are nothing compared to what God has in store for us.”
“The culture at large tries to drench this season in nostalgia. There is no surprise in that… Nostalgia sells things. [So] for us to lean toward the future in this season, with the help of [someone like] Isaiah, is a truly counter cultural act. [For] Isaiah and the other prophets, and Jesus himself, declare that time is going somewhere…Isaiah wants to make sure we understand that we are not being led back into some ideal past that is now gone… Time leans forward to something we have yet to experience. There is a story told through time, and we haven’t heard it all before, and we have yet to reach the full climax of the story.”
I’ve long been intrigued by two verses just a few chapters apart in Isaiah. One says “remember the former things of old.” (Isaiah 46:9) The other says “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I [that’s God] am about to do a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18)
What might be the word from the Lord for us today, in such seemingly contradictory words? Perhaps: Remember the good old days. Celebrate them, enjoy recreating them even, if it adds to the joy of this season. Just don’t get stuck there. Don’t close yourself off to other possibilities, for God is always and everywhere about to do something new. God’s future is awfully bright, and we’re going to miss it if we don’t turn around and face forward now and then.
What sort of future is it? Well, among other things it’s the future described in Isaiah chapter 11. “A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Isaiah 11:1) There’s a lot of history packed into that verse. The history of King David (Jesse’s his dad), and David’s royal household and his descendants – one of them Joseph, the man Jesus called dad. There’s a lot packed in here. But for all its being historically “rooted,” Isaiah 11 has an incredibly contemporary edge. Listen -- “A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.” (Isaiah 11:1-2) This text offers us a unique challenge during our own Advent waiting. Because, in Christine Yoder’s words, “it calls us to watch for the Spirit dancing over tree stumps. It summons us to be ready for the power of God to work something new when we see no possibilities. It reminds us that what we may deem lifeless, God uses as fertile ground for new life.”
And then in Isaiah chapter 40. An ancient prophet, an ancient people living in a war-torn world, are told to proclaim together that peace is on the way. The words ring with such relevance that they need little interpretation even in a setting as different from theirs as our own. “Comfort, comfort my people,” we hear the Lord saying to the world we know. Better days are on the way. For captives. For soldiers and those caught in the crossfire. For all who sit in darkness. For all who bow beneath oppression’s load.
“Comfort, O comfort you my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1) “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)“For the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. . . A child has been born for us, a son given to us. . . He will establish and uphold his kingdom with justice and righteousness forevermore.” (Isaiah 9)
How is it that old, old words from a long-dead prophet manage to give voice to our own dreams? How is it that messages intended for folks living in historical contexts radically different from our own point us ahead to our deepest hopes for the future?
Could it really be that the same Spirit of God that inspired these words a few thousand years ago is alive and well? Hovering over the chaotic waters of our world? Dancing over tree stumps? How about the stumps of bombed-out buildings? The stumps of broken hearts? “The power of God, ready to work something new when we see no possibilities.” Could it be that same eternal Spirit who now whispers in our ears promises of peace?
There’s nothing wrong with being tugged by memories and leaning toward the past in this season. So long as we don’t remain there. Whether we find ourselves full of joyful or painful associations at this time of year, it’s important that we don’t get stuck, but instead remain open to the incredible possibilities that God’s future still holds for us. As we listen to favorite Bible passages on Christmas Eve, and light our candles and sing our favorite carols, maybe we can’t help but call to mind Christmases past… But “with [at least] part of our beings, and with the help of the likes of Isaiah and Jesus himself, let’s [also] lean forward in anticipation of what we have not yet seen and can only begin to imagine. The good old days, as good as they were or as good as we may remember them to be, are nothing compared to what God has in store for us.” And this too is the story of Christmas. It’s about time. God’s time.
Thanks be to God!
 Martin Copenhaver, “It’s About Time (Isaiah 40:1-11)” in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2013, p. 12.
 Copenhaver, p. 13.
 Copenhaver, p. 15.
 Copenhaver, p. 15.
 Yoder, 20.
 Copenhaver, p. 15.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’ve been thinking about good old Johnny Carson this week. His show always opened the same way: Ed McMahon would say, “Welcome to the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” then list all of the special guests, and then he’d offer his trademark “Heeere’s Johnny!” When Johnny retired, someone asked him about the secret of his success in show business, and Johnny said something like, “I was lucky enough to get introduced by the great Ed McMahon.”
He was serious. A good introduction is everything. “Good introductions have the difficult task of getting an audience excited about the speaker who is to come, warming them up, getting them to trust the speaker, and doing it all in just a few minutes, and in a way that does not call attention to the maker of the introduction.”
Bad introductions take too much time and take the focus off the main speaker. One speaker, after an introduction that felt like it was never-ending, said, “Forgive me for interrupting your overly gracious introduction of my speech with my speech…”
I’ve got all this on my mind because today’s Gospel reading is about John the Baptist – the one who prepares the way for Jesus. John introduces his listeners to Jesus and gets us ready to meet him. Advent generally doesn’t allow us to get to Christmas without first hearing John the Baptist’s introduction.
And let’s face it, John the Baptist is not your normal guy introducing the main speaker. He doesn’t make the audience comfortable; he yells at them and calls them a bunch of snakes! Makes you wonder why anyone stuck around for the main act.
But here’s the thing. The message John preaches may not be easy news, but it is good news. He’s saying we’re sinful people who need help. That we can’t save ourselves. And if we’re honest, we know he’s right. We know our world is really messed up, and that we don’t have our own acts together either. John helps us confront the truth – that change is desperately needed. The good news is that, with God’s help, we can change.
That searching, that longing for change, is part of what Advent is all about. “Advent is a season of yearning. In Advent, the hymns we sing are somewhat restrained. They speak of desire, of waiting, of expectation. [After all,] The Advent prophets [were originally speaking] to a people in exile, a people” in the wilderness, longing for home. (Willimon, 43)
We may never have experienced exile, exactly, but we know longing. In a world at war, the longing for peace. In a nation divided by tremendous racial tension and economic inequality, the longing for justice and understanding and compassion. Or even in our own individual lives: those in chaos longing for calm; those facing illness or injury longing for healing; those in grief longing for comfort.
John the Baptist’s voice is the one “crying out in the wilderness.” In order really to hear John’s cry, we may need, in a sense, to notice the ways in which we are in a wilderness place. For as William Willimon says, “In order to see the fragile light of Christmas, one has first got to become accustomed to the dark.”
It’s not easy waiting around in the dark. In fact, it’s sometimes quite scary. There’s a story of a family who had just endured a devastating hurricane. For three days, their power had been out. It was hot, humid, and miserable during the day. But it was really frightening at night. There’d been a lot of looting in the area. Robberies had taken place because there was no electricity, no way to call the police, no streetlights.
So, when, in all that darkness, there was a pounding at the front door one night, it’s no wonder this family was filled with fear. Was this a robber? Was it a looter trying to find out if the house was empty? There was no way to call anyone for help.
The knocking continued. They finally peered out the window and tried to make out the figures on the front porch. “Hey,” a voice called out. “We’ve got a big bag of ice for you, some fresh water, too!”
It turned out it was their next door neighbors, their friends who had come to bring them some wonderful gifts…
As we peer out into darkness, it makes all the difference in the world whose face we see. Friend or foe?
The promise of Advent is that no matter how deep the darkness, no matter how challenging the wait, when we look over the storm-filled horizon, it is the face of Jesus, our greatest friend, that awaits us. And that makes all the difference. (Pulpit Resource, Dec. 2003, 40)
For the light of Christ shines in the darkness. Keep looking, keep longing, and you will see the face of Jesus. Amen.