December 10, 2023 Sermon

    12.13.23 | Sermons by Jennifer Parks-Snyder

    Advent-ually God Interrupts (Isa 40:1-5; Luke 1:5-23) by Pastor Jenn - December 10, 2023

    A recent online study was conducted from Nov. 14–16, 2023, among 2,061 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, asking if their levels of stress increased or not with the holidays.
    89% said their stress levels definitely increase during the holidays and the main concerns:
    • Spending too much or not having enough money to spend: 58%
    • Finding the right gifts: 40%
    • Missing family or loved ones: 38%
    • Having too much to do: 32%
    • Feeling pressure to make the holidays special: 30%
    • Experiencing or anticipating family conflict: 22%
    • Feeling left out or excluded: 20%
    • Traveling: 19%
    While stress appears to be common at this time of year, 43% said that the stress of the holidays interferes with their ability to enjoy them and 36% said the holidays feel like a competition1 Do we think this is what God intended when giving us Jesus? Do we think God wants to interrupt our lives in a way that can be detrimental or too much?
    As we are working through this Advent series, we began with Adventually God shows up, recognizing that promise is fulfilled when we become Jesus to others, like with our After School Program.
    This week we look at how Adventually God interrupts our thoughts, our assumptions, our lives.
    Now I do want to clarify between disrupt and interrupt. Disrupt is when something is interfered with or otherwise broken, pulled apart, and will not be the same as before. Interrupt is when something is stopped, and then restarted without damage. Today we look at how God interrupts, not disrupts. And sometimes those interruptions are revealed through prophecies.
    Now in our faith tradition a prophecy is when the word of God is spoken under divine mandate and inspiration. It does not always mean the foretelling of future events, although many prophecies do speak of the future and what will be, but more importantly a prophecy calls the people to receive the word of God for the here and now. Receive those words and they will guide your way to the presence of the Lord. This morning you heard 2 prophecies given at 2 different times. The first you heard was from Isaiah 40.
    Last week, we heard Isaiah call to God to tear open the heavens and be with God’s people, this during a time of war and suffering. This week, we hear through Isaiah, God’s plan of restoration, interrupting their pain by reversing it to comfort, leading them from abandonment to reunion, and insecurity to assurance.
    40 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
    Notice that in this passage God is addressing their pain and sorrow, acknowledging their suffering, speaking to their heart in order to interrupt those challenges with God’s presence.
    It is the same with the second passage when we meet Zechariah whose name means “God has remembered”. He was as the text says, a priest and he and his wife Elizabeth had been praying for a child, but as the text says…... 7 they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. Yet, God interrupts their lives, and sends an angel to convey a prophecy about their child, : “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
    2.  Then the angel goes on to clarify how this child will be filled with the Holy Spirit, so he is anointed by God, “even before he is born” the text says. And being blessed that way, the angel proclaims: 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, —to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Recognize those words? Just as in Isaiah, where God promises to comfort the people and prepare them for Godself, here the angel shares the same, saying this will be done through John the Baptist, born to an elderly sterile couple. Some 500 years after Isaiah, God interrupts again, to set the barren to produce, and the elderly bear the young.
    So here we are, 2023 years later, and the question we can ponder this week is what our opening advent liturgy encourages us to do, watch for the light, and see how that light of God is interrupting our lives? Breaking in and changing things, even reversing things, with the promise of the coming of the Lord. Because that’s what the season is to bring, not stress, but the opposite of stress, it’s to bring calmness and heavenly peace. And it’s not supposed to be a time when we spend money we don’t have on buying gifts to show our love and appreciation, as much as it is a time to receive, receiving the Lord in our hearts and lives, to guide our way, to share our love and appreciation with others, even beyond those on our Christmas list.
    On December 24,1865 Phillips Brooks, an Episcopalian pastor was on vacation in the Holy Land. He took this break because he was a pastor in Philadelphia during the Civil War and that took its toll on his congregation, his city, his nation, and his soul. He was also the man who the gave the sermon at President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. He needed this get away as he found himself having a difficult time preaching to the people what they needed and wanted to hear the most- assurance and comfort. He couldn’t preach it because he couldn’t find a way to it either. So he took this trip and on that particular Christmas Eve he borrowed a horse and rode into Bethlehem. As he did, he felt the sheer joy of what it meant for God to give God-self to us in Jesus. His soul was filled with the goodness of the Lord.
    But when Brooks returned to his congregation and tried to tell the people about his experience in Bethlehem, he simply struggled. That is until 3 years later in December 1868 when the words came to him a poem that he wrote:
    O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight
    And as the poem continues you sense the importance and focus is not on Bethlehem, as much as how the gift of the everlasting Light is given.
    How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. And then Brooks ends with a plea on our behalf, to have that child of Bethlehem interrupt our lives and be with us.
    O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray Cast out our sin and enter in, be born to us today We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel
    The next day that song was put to music by Brooks’ organist Lew Redner, and on Christmas 1868 it was given to his congregation, to his city, his reconstructing nation, and the world.
    Eventually Brooks moved to serve Trinity Church in Boston, and went on to become the Episcopalian bishop of Massachusetts. In his honor a statue was created at Trinity Church in 1910. It is there in a garden setting, that you will see this statue of Brooks standing behind a pulpit with his right hand raised up. Moreover, standing immediately behind this powerful preacher is a second figure, Brooks’ Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose right hand reaches forward and rests gently in affirmation on the right shoulder of the speaker.
    Phillips Brooks personally knew the Gift of Bethlehem. He knew Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus, who stood, beside him. And Brooks, shared that gift with all those around him in his sermons, his poems, this hymn, prepared the way for the Lord.
    Today God invites us to do the same. To open ourselves to God’s interruptions and receive a Word of encouragement, to experience a holy moment, so that while the world may be stressing over what this season may bring, may you and I do as the prophets have done before, prepare the way for the Lord, Who is our Light, our Savior, the One who stands with us.
    Let’s pray: God, your world stands in need of you: for your coming, your peace, your transformation. On this second Sunday of advent, we pray for the nations to know your truth and your light and for peace to occur. We pray for the poor, the hungry, the civilians caught in crossfires. We pray for those who are spiritually hungry and poor in spirit, as well as those with mental and emotional challenges that torment them, in need of assistance. We pray for those who face Christmas alone, or with sickness, or homelessness, or destitute. And we pray for those who care and assist those we have named before you. Lord, we thank you for the prophets of Scripture who prepared the way for you to come and help, heal, and save people. And we thank you for the prophets in our time who guide us to you. May we be open to doing the same that in the name of Jesus, your light can shine in any and all darkness, so that all hopes and fears can be met in the Christ child born in Bethlehem, born for this world. We ask this as we pray the words he taught us, Our Father… (sins)