"A Sanctuary in the City… Living Faith"

A Glorious Harmony of Old

The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer
Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13

We climbed in our Subaru, five of us grown to fit more snugly now than before. Off to get a tree, we put in a CD and heard our first strains of Christmas music for this year. Good ‘ol Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra … a favorite of Suzanne’s to arouse again loving memories of past seasons and encourage hope of such meaning and beauty ahead. Days later Gabriel would go back to college. Hours later Ailih would go back to work. And so Suzanne to a symphony performance. Soccer games. Sermons. Busy expectations encroaching. Absence. Separation. So as we heard Bing dreaming of “a White Christmas, just like he used to know” we tried to cherish that moment, less frequent for us now, of family togetherness in joy and playfulness and a glimpse of peace.

We found the perfect tree—with a gap here, an exuberant branch sticking out there, the top actually several different shoots on which our angel could choose to alight. Up it went eventually in our living room, top miraculously inches from the ceiling, bottom plenty open for the gifts soon to come. Now sometimes I read quietly on the couch at night, waiting for someone to come home, or working on a sermon, a soft radiance amid ornaments of memory illuminating my heart in the dim living room. And I hope to see her soon; to finish the sermon. And so I hope that after the day’s news, a way forward for our city or nation will be found; loved ones will get better. Or at least in that luminous moment of lingering love, I try to trust that beyond fear and uncertainty, through cracked panes of broken relationships, failures, and insecurities, despite my inability to see it, God envisions a world of abundance where now life can seem absent. The holy song of hope will never be lost and silent forever.

Friends, we cannot live without hope. It makes all the difference in how we observe our world, and how willingly, charitably we get to know and understand one another. It makes all the difference in situations we face, vitality we feel, choices we make. Different persons in similar circumstances—whether business success and honors achieved, or suffering amid such horrors as the Syrian war or concentration camps—different persons with similar challenges, abilities and opportunities will live in diverse even opposite ways, depending on whether there is hope or not.

How can we live with hope? As we long to welcome Jesus in this Advent season, how do we hear and give our hearts to that glorious old song of God’s love, and continue it in our time? How can we persevere in living faith something like the world’s oldest man? Born in Poland in 1903 … an Orthodox Jew, he survived Auschwitz though his wife and two children didn’t escape the Nazi shadow of death. 81 pounds upon release he remarried and built a new family. His daughter now explains, he never once said, “It’s too hard. I’m done. I want to die. Never.” We should not minimize other people’s struggles or presume to judge those who in their own place and circumstance seek another kind of mercy. Still, isn’t such determination inspiring? With deep hope, like strains of favorite Christmas songs echoing in our hearts, we can live and join the song.

That’s the purpose of Isaiah’s poetry. He lives amid religious corruption in their country and political discord among other nations. There’s conflict, suspicion, and conspiracy. People knew viciousness of predators and prey in violence and brutality they faced, fear and wary uncertainty they felt, prejudice and exploitation accepted as normal. Of course, Paul and earliest followers of Jesus forged faith in a similar crucible of Roman culture. And so do we rightly look for our own personal and cultural struggles in pages of scripture. For we begin to catch the tune of grace, we begin to hear real good news, friends, when we get that the Bible isn’t a storybook or operations manual of perfect bliss. Our faith isn’t a promise that we’ll be protected from anything bad ever happening. Quite the opposite, we’ll have our share of experiences when life seems cut off like a tree stump. When a car accident occurs, the diagnosis is cancer, major surgery looms, a stroke strikes, an aneurysm lurks just waiting to burst. When we lose a job or sense a relationship slipping away in problems and pain that didn’t just arise overnight. When it seems the poor are judged with condemnation, more than the righteousness of Holy Mercy. When the meek are treated with derision, more than the equity of compassion. When too many decisions and directions seem to lack a spirit of wisdom, understanding, reverence for God’s ways.

Yes, Isaiah and Paul assume there will be bad news. Yet Isaiah envisions good news of reconciliation and restoration; of community life shared by erstwhile enemies; out of experience so lifeless, a new shoot of hope for abundance. His poetry seems lyrical. If it was set to music how might we imagine the melody—classical, jazz, Hamilton-style hip-hop? There will be bad news and yet, Paul affirms that whatever was written like Isaiah in former days gives us instruction for how to live, and encouragement to hope. At the heart of his encouragement, people would have heard his quotes as a “name that tune” greatest hits playlist from scripture, including a new arrangement of Isaiah’s ballade for peace.

“May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing,” Paul writes, “so that we might abound in hope …” Now what’s crucial to catching Paul’s tune is the emphasis on community. As he tried to get ancient Romans to welcome Christ among them, a primary challenge centered on relations between Jews and non-Jews. They could have been lions and lambs to each other. A fundamental hope of Jesus’ gospel, for Paul, is that God’s love is open and available to all. May the God of hope fill us—the word really means complete us, make us whole and well-rounded. And central to Paul’s whole theological vision of Christian life is that we complete one another. Each of us needs others, in varying ways and extents, for our lives to be fulfilled, complete. So welcome and live in harmony with one another, he urges. It is hope not only for unity among different peoples in community … rather shared hope becomes the very unity they seek.

If you ask me, we felt something of that harmonious spirit during our Advent / Christmas decoration here yesterday morning. There was much laughter and good cheer amid more serious tasks like exactly how to balance the greenery and how far it can hang without becoming a crown for leaders in these chairs. At times, when I saw clustered groups of six or seven it brought to mind potential jokes like: “How many Presbyterians does it take to put on a bow, or hang a wreath, or construct a tree?” With our good complement of artists and engineers leading the rest of us happy volunteers, even an attorney high up on the ladder, we can share a job well done!

To cultivate the spirit of the season, I brought a Bluetooth speaker and Christmas music on my phone. Then even better, Karl Schrock arrived to practice for WMU concerts here today. And I think we heard the beautiful hopeful harmonies of God’s love in the kinds of things we discussed while decorating. Plans for the holidays. Stories of life experience, lessons learned, ways to give. Like volunteering to work with children in school, some of whom now have a first ever home beyond foster care. Or the party being thrown in their own home just before New Year’s for a young adult with Down’s Syndrome who grew up as dear family friends, and who just wants to dance before she begins intensive cancer treatment. I trust it’s true—that what we say and do leaves behind for others to see and feel inspired by, something of Divine presence. Maybe these wreaths and garland might convey something of the unending steadfast love of God in which our lives entwine. Maybe these trees and lights could remind us of the gifts of hope we have to offer each of us and all together like light in the darkness that cannot be overcome.

You see, friends, the true objective for hope and intention of faith is not merely personal accomplishment, pleasure, peace alone. Rather to be filled with the Spirit’s presence and power so that together we will glorify God. We will bring light to darkness, song to lonely silence, grace amid ugliness, new life where now there only seems limitation and death.

How can we live with hope? Hope is not lottery ticket luck. Hope is not just optimistic attitude adjustments, mental flights of fancy from difficulties we face, wishing them away with a mirage of prosperity gospel or simple denial. Hope is more trust in and response to the Holy One as our source of life, even where it seems impossible, like Jesus’ birth in what may well have been a cave for animals, and new birth from the cave where his dead body lay. Beyond just the prospect that you and I have a future, hope is confidence that continuity with the best of our past we share will continue—life in relationship with others grounded in and guided by Holy Love. In hope we know who we are, who we have been for better and worse, and ultimately and in every moment that we are held in the tender mercy of God. Our lives and world are seen through divine eyes which envision goodness and potential more than our failures, accepting our insecurities and imperfections as much as our successful accomplishments. Hope names reality as it is, and imagines new possibility despite all evidence to the contrary—lions and lambs, calves and leopards, kids and bear. Not because we humans can accomplish it all with our own cunning and creativity like little children playing with rattlesnakes. Rather God works through us as God became incarnate in Jesus for whom we hold out Advent hope.

Now we know, this steadfast hope doesn’t happen automatically. It needs to be nurtured. More than a last resort when our best planning and effort have failed, hope is our first step in preparation toward practical action. That’s why we come here together amid the lingering chords of former generations. Beyond holiday adornment, we hang together in a spirit of living faith that endures. Beyond times when it seems life as we know it might be cut off like a stump, a new shoot of hope comes out from our family tree of faith in Christ, perfected in God’s grace … with a gap here, an exuberant branch over there, many different shoots of service on which holy angels can be seen to alight. While seeking that perfect tree and decorating it among us, hope is the glorious old music we play composed from the vast harmonic scale of Divine steadfast love. Past prophetic visions we see in our own new vistas. Past moving melodies we arrange in our own new harmonies as we play instruments of our time and place. Friends, here’s the good news we can trust. Experiences and promises of Isaiah, Paul and all who’ve ever longed for Emmanuel and the Peaceful Kingdom will be true again for us—in our lives and relationships and community. Like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, maybe Angel Blue last night and WMU choirs today, the Pentatonix and other pop stars crooning familiar carols, we too can carry the tune!

Our God of hope fills us with gifts the holy melody of grace and peace, and calls us to be instruments abounding in hope as Isaiah envisions, for all peoples to hear. Among many ways we serve together, finally, three brief expressions and pursuits of that hope. First, the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee (APNC) began meeting this past week. With high hopes for someone soon to come among us and lead us in the way of Christ. We’ve begun with a good spirit recognizing many different gifts and perspectives around the table. And we trust through it all, the Spirit of the visioning process we’ve shared in recent months will continue on until we celebrate the hope of someone else to hang together with us.

Second, this past week, all the fruits of our efforts to welcome among us the Syrian refugee family have begun to be harvested. If you’ve not seen their new home, their sanctuary, it’s filled now—kitchen cupboards with plates and glasses and utensils, hallway cabinets with towels and linens, shower curtains hung in the bathroom, beds up and waiting, and one person among us captured a beautiful picture of an empty rocking chair framed by French doors onto a deck, an expression of the welcome we offer for a family to come and find life anew after so much uncertainty and the threat of death. We hope they will be with us on Tuesday or Wednesday this week.

And finally, in a few moments, we will dedicate our hand bells. As we prepare for Christ to come among us, we offer them as gifts for the glory of God. In a way, they ring and sing as an echo of the holy harmony of love in all the other hopeful efforts we share among these sanctuary trees and decorations. Someday soon maybe there will be gifts however great or small beneath our family trees. Someday soon there will be many, many gifts for other families in our community, because as Pat Stromsta explained, all the cards on the giving trees for children and families upstairs were taken on the very first day. Someday soon our new Syrian friends will arrive and receive the gifts of clothing, towels, shower curtains, beds, kitchen cupboards full, and furniture. Someday soon, in months ahead, a new pastor will arrive to serve among us and help us find the Christ for whom we wait and long to follow. Beyond momentary highs of making ourselves feel good, it’s really all about harmonizing our lives and our world with God’s vision and purposes for all creatures and creation. Maybe something like the gifts of these bells for our congregation—gifts of financial support to purchase them and physical effort to play them. Just maybe others will hear the first strains of real Christmas music for the ears of their open hearts, true good news to nurture hope and courage. Dear friends, trust that God’s holy song of hope in Christ will come again to us, and will never be lost or silent forever.

It came upon the midnight clear that glorious harmony of old …
And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing
Then join the whole world giving back that song which angels sing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

From “Century News” in Christian Century (November 9. 2016), p. 19.
Edmund Hamilton Sears, from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).