Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Romans 5: 1-5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
There’s a big part of me that hates Christmas. I hate shopping, anyway; and I pretty reliably leave things to the last minute. That makes it much harder to find joy in choosing the right gifts for people, because the choosing and the shopping happen under pressure in stores full of people.
Christmas shopping brings out a whole range of feelings in me, many of them unpleasant. First, there’s worry about not knowing what to get, and combined with that all kinds of worries about forgetting someone, spending too little, spending too much.
Then I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I didn’t plan ahead so the gifts I chose aren’t as thoughtful as I want them to be. I feel stretched financially and then I feel guilty about that because I know I have it easier than most people. I alternate between feeling like I should be a more generous gift giver and wishing the people in my life didn’t exchange presents at all because many of us feel similar stresses about the whole thing.
Shopping brings me face to face with the enormous amount of stuff we as a society want, buy, sell, give and return. I think a big part of our consumption, frustration, stress and depression has to do with a constant barrage of messages that things are the way to happiness. We feel overwhelmed by the things our TV’s and our children tell us we should buy. There is never enough time or money or energy for us to feel caught up in a world that’s always asking for more.
Regardless of the source of our stress, we have a deep fear that something big is at stake in the shopping and celebration that surrounds Christmas. Too many things depend on us and too many things are out of our control. We are scared that no matter what we do it won’t be enough. We shop, and plan and run, to fend off the hopelessness we feel threatening to overwhelm us.
Isaiah had never been to Walmart or Target, but he knew a lot about communities trying to establish security through their own efforts at any cost. He saw Judah plan and fight and oppress the poor because they thought wealth showed God’s blessings and that, as God’s chosen, they would not be defeated. Then after exile, the people felt lost and hopeless. The land and God’s promise went together, so they couldn’t imagine how to rebuild after the fall of the Holy City. Desperation, despair and hopelessness set in and they didn’t know how to seek God again.
Like Judah adrift after exile, we spend our money for things that aren’t nourishing and our labor for things that don’t satisfy us in the deep sense. We buy and buy (or wish we could buy) because at some level we think consumption is our only way to satisfy our desires. If we get the right gift, maybe we’ll be loved. If we don’t we risk our loved ones’ happiness. Maybe the longing we feel can be satisfied with the latest things advertised on TV.
But things don’t give us value and, ultimately, they don’t make us happy. Love, community, peace, faith: these things make us happy. God’s love gives us value.
Isaiah shows us what really nurtures and satisfies us. The image is of God welcoming everyone to clear springs of water, refreshing and pure. Beyond the water, God also offers rich wine and milk to drink. Not only are people’s basic physical needs met, God offers a celebration with only the best food and drink.
God wants to nourish us: body and soul. God wants to satisfy us, not only giving us what we need, but what we deeply want. And God doesn’t just want to satisfy the chosen few, the people of Israel or the church or the successful; God wants to renew the world in peace and joy. To a people drowning in fear and stumbling in the darkness, Isaiah brings a word of hope.
My ways are not your ways, God says. As high as heaven is above earth, so are my ways than your ways. Our attempts to secure meaning through hard work or shopping or cooking might not be getting us anywhere, but God’s word accomplishes its purpose. It doesn’t return empty, but instead it nourishes the ground and brings forth a harvest of joy and peace.
I spent the last two days feeling pretty trapped in Christmas stress. Even some of the ministries I love made me feel stressed instead of joyful. I love dropping off the Christmas baskets, and I finally got the gifts wrapped for my two Christmas angels and was excited to drop them off. When we got there the youngest child in the house was the granddaughter, so she wasn’t on my list and I didn’t have anything for her. I walked out of the kitchen feeling like a failure and I had disappointed a little girl.
I wasn’t even looking forward to the living nativity. The weather was lousy and I kept feeling like things weren’t going quite right. But then I got excited because everyone was pitched in. Karen, Karen, Tedd and Mike took care of hospitality; Sally and Al lent a portable stereo; Karen, Lea, Donna and Kelly got everyone dressed and a cast of actors from twelve to seventies (along with a loud donkey and other animals) brought the story of Christ’s birth to life. It was just what I needed, and from the grateful shouts and honks I wasn’t the only one. God’s word became flesh in Jesus, and for the twenty somethingith year Laurelton brought that story to life for the community.
As the evening went on and the cold and rain started to make me wish for 8:30, a young woman I’d never seen before started taking pictures from the sidewalk. I thanked her for coming and she said, “This is so beautiful. I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this. I’ve wanted to see a living nativity for years and I’ve never managed to go to one. This year my husband surprised me and brought me here. I’ve got tears in my eyes.” Truly, God’s word never returns empty, but it accomplishes God’s loving purpose.
Advent and Christmas is about hope in the darkness of despair. It’s about seeing a peaceful kingdom, even though the world around us is still full of violence. It’s about a vision of bread and wine, milk and food for everyone with no one worried about how they are going to pay for it. It’s about a dark night in a strange city with no room at the inn somehow becoming the entry for God to come into the world as a baby.
There’s a lot of confusion about hope, especially when we talk about the biblical hope for God’s peaceful kingdom. Hoping for God’s kingdom isn’t wishful thinking. It’s not ignoring or escaping from reality. It’s not putting on a cheerful face and pretending things are better than they are. It’s also not the false wisdom of the jaded cynic who says things are the way they are and nothing is going to change.
Hope is keeping our eyes on God’s vision of wholeness, peace and community and moving towards it. It’s also seeing clearly the problems of the world and the dangers that surround us. One theologian says it something like this, “Wishing is like drifting in a gondola; hoping is steering a ship through a gale.”
Thinking about hope like steering a ship helps us see the difference between short term and long term. We hope for the kingdom of God; that’s the far shore we trust we’re heading towards, the goal of our journey. Between that shore and us there are lots of waves, sharp rocks, and sand bars. In the big picture, we steer towards the far shore, but the moments and days of our journey are more about avoiding dangerous obstacles and sometimes seeking shelter for a few days.
The kingdom of God gives us our general course; the details of the current world in all its joys and sorrows determine what route we take to our destination. The journey takes courage, creativity, clarity and flexibility. Sometimes we think we’re going to go right around an obstacle, but the wind leads us left instead. Sometimes we need to shift course suddenly to avoid a rock. No matter what route and deviations we need to make, we keep a sense of the goal in mind all the time, and that destination shapes how we get there.
We can’t simply wish ourselves across the ocean, there’s a lot of work to be done. Just imagining a world at peace won’t create a peaceful world; there are all kinds of steps from relationship building to policy to collaboration, to prayer that have to take shape along the way. If we’re going to travel successfully, we need to be clear and honest about the challenges.
Paul’s words fit right in. He writes: "We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
When we suffer and hold on to our love and faith we learn how to endure. As we learn to endure faithfully, our character: our courage, our integrity are strengthened. As our character gets stronger we see how faithful God is through it all, so our sense of hope grows. If God walks faithfully with us through divorce and death and financial struggle, we learn that a joyful kingdom for everyone can be real too. If God can bring this community of different people with all our scars and quirks and baggage together, we have reason to hope for a world where people come from east and west and north and south to sit together in the kingdom of God.
We’ve all been let down and hurt. So has God. The people God created in love have been hurting each other from the beginning. The special people God called by name and freed from slavery kept turning away from God and oppressing the poor, even though every part of their law reminded them that God loves the poor. Through prosperity, prophesy, exile and return, God’s heart broke to see his beloved children suffer and sin.
God had been burned over and over again, but God doesn’t give up on us. So God sent the son in human flesh, as a vulnerable baby to scared but faithful parents. Jesus knew fear and sorrow. He knew poverty and rejection. He knew suffering and death. All for us; all for love. In Jesus we see God’s kingdom: a kingdom of welcome, righteousness and love. We see where this crazy story is going and we know the powers of the world do not like it, but they can’t stop it. So come to the waters, come to the stable, seek the Lord, hope for the kingdom and steer through the storm. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Thanks be to God.