Promise of Presence - Sermon from December 29, 2013

If you would like to see a video of the sermon, please click here.

There they sit in eager anticipation at 6:00 in the morning.  They sit impatiently waiting to see what surprises may be just down the stairs.  They wait quietly for what seems like an eternity.  At 6:00 I'm the morning. 
At 6:05 the youngest cannot take it any longer.  She shouts, “Can we come down yet?”  
“No, not yet,” comes the adult voice from the living room.  
Curses…more waiting.  
At 6:08, 6:12, and 6:15, the scene repeats itself each time with the exact same result.  More waiting.  The children eventually work their way down two or three steps and wait again.  This time, there is nothing quiet about their waiting.  Now they are in full excited breathy “whispering” which can be heard throughout the entire house about what they might expect to see under the tree.  
“Kids, it’s still not time,” now it’s mom’s voice ringing from just downstairs.  “You are going to have to wait.”
How can she not know?  How could she say such a thing?  Why doesn’t she seem to understand?  Waiting is SO hard.  Can’t she just let them come down?

This small familiar vignette and your knowing laughter (smiles) betray your understanding of the situation.  We all would agree with the kids at the top of the stairs, waiting is SO hard.  We seem to be hardwired against it.  When we are waiting, that for which we await can seem so far out of reach.  

Having just come through our own season of waiting we are all too familiar with how difficult it can be. 
And this year, it seemed to be such a long wait.   

Advent - four weeks filled with anticipation and messages of the coming of hope, peace, joy and love.  Four weeks of unrealistic expectations and impossible wish lists.  Four weeks filled with parties and celebrations.  Four long weeks.
Advent was such a long wait.  

Add to that all of the seasonal hype that began as early as late September when the trees, ribbons, bows, and lights began appearing in the stores and malls around town.  The build-up to the Christmas season seemed to be at a record level and feverish pitch.  
It was such a long wait.    

Throughout those long weeks, we waited; our patience, tried; our hope, tested; our faith, challenged; our world, cold.  But there was something yet to come that held us captive.  There was the hint of a promise in the air.  So we decorated our sanctuary and our homes.  We hung the greens and lit the trees.  We went to parties and sang the carols.  Our waiting was pregnant with anticipation and dreams of how the world would be.
And we waited.

Then finally on that fateful night, in the middle of this past week, we gathered to witness that for which we had all been waiting.  
We celebrated.  
We sang praises.  
We lit candles.  
We remembered why we had been waiting.  
And at that moment, it all seemed to be worth it.  

Yet, here we are on the other side of the anticipated promise.  Here we are today surrounded by empty boxes and loads of shiny crumpled up wrapping paper.  Here we find ourselves with mounting bills and minds full of worry and uncertainty as we lean into yet another new year.  Here we are with mixed emotions and conflicted feelings.  
Here we are wondering where the hope, peace, joy, and love of the promise has already gone.  
Here we are left questioning if anything has really changed at all.

And we are confused.  Was all of the waiting in vain?  We had been faithful.  We had tried our best to do everything right.  We had made the proper preparations.  We had made sure that all was ready.  Like an expectant mother, we waited knowing the one to be born would change things.  We had our ideas of what this would look like, of what our lives would be after the arrival, but we really had no way of knowing until we got here.  
But look around us and the world seems to be in the same place it was before all of the waiting began.  We look inside and feel the same fears and worries dominating our psyche.  Yes, it seems as though very little has changed.    

And if we are honest, we can admit that we are filled with more than a little disappointment.  We are disappointed not because the promise wasn't fulfilled, but because our expectations of what our world, our selves, would be like because of the promise have been left wanting.  For some, this disappointment is nothing new.  This is the way it always seems to go.  For others, the feelings of discontent are something unfamiliar.
It just isn't what we had imagined.  It feels...empty, hopeless, void of peace.

Our Second Reading this morning finds a people struggling with similar feelings of disillusionment and disappointment.  This reading comes to us from the book of Isaiah.  In Isaiah, there are three distinct movements.  Each one representing a different time period in Israel's history.  

The first movement tells of the pre-exile time period when the enemies of Israel were rattling their sabers threatening war and devastation.

The second movement speaks of the time when Israel was in exile, taken into captivity by neighboring nations.

The third movement, the section from which our reading comes this morning, speaks from what is called the post-exilic period when the nation returned to her land.  The people of Israel found the land and their lives to be less than what they had expected upon their return.  Today's passage comes from a song of lament - a poem expressing grief or sorrow for the way things were.  The people had thought that things would be different upon their return to their promised land.  They were confident that there would be new hope and promise when they arrived home.  They had waited so patiently.  However, what they found when they returned left them feeling empty, hopeless, void of peace.  The land that they had imagined would be full of joy and more than they could ever desire was only found to be a land of disappointment.  When they returned they found that their land was destroyed.  It was a shell of what it once was.  The temple had been raised.  All that they had envisioned as a joyful return was met only with disappointment.  Into the reality of their current circumstance and into the heart of their lament for the situation in which they found themselves, the prophet spoke these words, 
"I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
   the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
   and the great favour to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
   according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 
For he said, ‘Surely they are my people,
   children who will not deal falsely’;
and he became their saviour 
   in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
   but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
   he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old."

In the heart of their disappointment, in the reality of their current circumstances, Isaiah spoke a word reminding the people of the faithfulness of God's mercy and the abundance of God's steadfast love.  The prophet did so by recounting the past reminding his hearers and now his readers of the ways in which God has been faithful.  Such a move not only encouraged one to examine the communal narrative, but also the story of their individual lives within that narrative.  In the pain and sorrow of present circumstance, it is so easy to lose sight of the ways in which we have experienced God's "chesed", loving-kindness or compassion.

Rabbi Nadia Siritsky, of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation just down the road from Second Presbyterian Church, said of this passage, "This passage from Isaiah is usually read just before Rosh Hashanah, our new year. We tend to read it, during a period of time following the mourning for the destruction of the Temple (Tisha B’av) and it is meant to bring us comfort and hope, that despite the trauma of our history, we should still hope and trust in G!d’s saving grace and redemption. The featured attribute of G!d’s chesed, or compassion, is meant to not only comfort us, but to encourage us to act in compassionate ways too."  

Author, theologian, and pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, "The prophet rescues his listeners from the prison of the present...the way things are is not the way they have always been...the people may imagine that there may be more such times in the future.  While their present distress is not to be denied, it is not the whole of their lives.  The God of their present is also the God of their past and of their future" (Feasting on the Word, 151).

In our first reading, the author of the Gospel of Matthew strikes a similar chord by retelling the history of the people through the genealogy of Jesus.  Each name written was a story.  Some were names that would have been easier to forget. They represented stories too painful to recall.  Others were names to be celebrated. These brought to mind tales too glorious to overlook.  All of names bore witness to a God who was faithful throughout victory and trial, through the lives of saints and scoundrels alike.  The God who was faithful is the God who is faithful and will continue to be so.  Jesus was the promise of the presence dressed in flesh and bone.  The God of faithfulness and mercy as Immanuel, God with us.   

God’s faithfulness, compassion, and steadfast love do not diminish the reality of our struggles nor does God’s presence somehow airlift us out of hardship.  The reality of our lives is difficult to deny.  It would be a false promise to believe that all struggles would somehow cease.  Sometimes living itself is a struggle.  And we find ourselves with no song to sing but the song of lament.  Paul Hanson wrote, "In the act of lament and supplication, troubles do not vanish, but human vision is lifted above human helplessness to" the divine (Hanson 240). 

In the midst of our song of lament there is a voice that speaks a message of hope.  If we quiet ourselves to hear within the storm we may hear the same message Isaiah spoke to the nation of Israel long ago.  We may hear the song Matthew sings through the wonderful litany of names that gives evidence to the faithfulness of God in spite of the mess that is sometimes made.  

The promise of the God of Presence is exactly that, Presence.  Presence in the midst of struggle.  Presence within the fight.  Presence in the journey.  

This is a faith "in the midst of" real life.  A person of faith lives such a life in the midst of a world filled with evidence to the contrary.  This is the beauty of a life of faith. This is the boldness of the Christian witness.  The call is not to be unrealistic Pollyanna’s with our head in the clouds as our feet trudge through the muck of life.  The call is to be people of presence even in the midst of evidence to the contrary.  

In his commentary on Isaiah 63, Gary Charles asks this poignant and provocative question,  "What if even when the world is harsh and ugly and severe, the people of God awoke each day to utter and then live this prayer: 'I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us'?"

People who live this way are people who live into the promise of the presence.  These are people who understand that the compassion, loving kindness of God calls us to live lives that are a response to such a steadfast love.  This is evidenced in the life of the high school student who gives her spring break and part of her summer to travel on her own to Haiti to share God's compassionate love with those in need. It is the college student who starts a Building Tomorrow chapter on her campus to tirelessly raise money to build schools in Africa. It's the post college young man who gives two years of his life to teach in some of the most difficult school districts in North Carolina. It is evidenced in the life of the middle aged woman who spends countless hours knitting prayer shawls for those recovering from surgery or long hospital stays. The tender loving kindness, the chesed, of God is evidenced in the way in which the widower spends time with others who are dealing with loss. It is found in the countless quiet ways each and every day that each one you faithfully respond to God's loving kindness. 

This is our task as people of the promise. To live as if in a not yet world. These are the examples of gods chesed.

In the midst of our lament there is a song of hope. This is the Promise of Presence not only to us, but to the entire world.  

And that, my friends, is what makes all the waiting worthwhile. Amen. 


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