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Sermon for 8 December 2013

FIRST READING Isaiah 11:1–10

1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will 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. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

PSALM Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19

1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the king’s son; 2 that he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice; 3 that the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, and the hills, in righteousness. 4 Let him defend the needy among the people, rescue the poor, and crush the oppressor. 5 May he live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another.
6 Let him come down like rain upon the mown field, like showers that water the earth. 7 In his time may the righteous flourish; and let there be an abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more. 18 Blessed are you, LORD God, the God of Israel; you alone do wondrous deeds! 19 And blessed be your glorious name forever, and may all the earth be filled with your glory. Amen. Amen.

SECOND READING Romans 15:4–13

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;
10 and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
11 and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;
12 and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

GOSPEL Matthew 3:1–12

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

In a radio interview, Nazi concentration camp survivor Gerta Weissman recalled an episode one spring when she and her fellow inmates stood for roll call, for hours on end, nearly collapsing with hunger and fatigue. She said, “We noticed in the corner of this bleak, horrid, gray place, that the concrete had broken in a corner and a flower had poked its head through it. Each morning you would see thousands of feet shuffle to avoid stepping on that flower . . .” It’s no surprise they were careful to not step on that tiny blossoming plant because, in that flower, poking its head through the concrete, the women in the concentration camp found hope and beauty. Isaiah the prophet I think could identify with these women because I believe he knew what they felt.
The year was 700 B.C. The southern tribes of Judah had been fighting for some four decades against the Assyrians and occasionally against the Egyptians. After nearly a generation of wars and skirmishes, their will to resist their enemies was nearly depleted. They were living through what could be called the first holocaust of the Jews. It occurred between 740 and 700 B.C. Dr. Bill Self describes this awful time like this: “Five times during these 40 years, did the vastly superior Assyrian army stampede through the hill country of Israel working terror and destruction wherever it went. With no regard for anyone’s culture, with no regard for anyone’s religion, with no regard for anyone else’s life, they came like a scorpion plague, devouring everything and everyone in their path. Over and over and over, the people of . . . Judah had been ravaged. The horrid sounds of war were ever familiar. The cries of pain seldom ceased. Who could plant a field and have any hope that it would survive to the harvest? Who could bear a child with a confidence that it would reach maturity? It was a horrible forty years, those years in which Isaiah lived.” But Isaiah refused to give in to the despair of his time. He kept his hope in God.
And under the leadership of the Holy Spirit Isaiah was able to write, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord and He will delight in the fear of the Lord. “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth . . .”
Isaiah was prophesying about the coming Messiah. All around him things appeared desolate and without promise. The reign of Israel’s greatest king, King David, the son of Jesse was a distant memory. He compares it to a stump that’s left in the forest after a great tree has been cut down. But, Isaiah says, like Gerta Weissman’s flower poking its head through concrete, on this stump of Jesse a shoot will appear, and a new tree will emerge bearing much fruit.
When that day comes, he continues, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” This prophesy is one of the great statements of hope in all literature.
And at this time of the year when we celebrate the birth of that shoot from the stump of David, Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah, Savior, and King, these words are as precious to our ears as they were to the people of Isaiah’s time. Hope is based on our faith in God. There is no other foundation for hope in this world. Economic systems fail. Governments rise and fall. It’s only God’s truth that marches on through the ages.
In the book, When God Is Taken Captive, James DeLoach puts it this way: “I am not a connoisseur of great art, but from time to time a painting or picture will really speak a clear, strong message to me. Some time ago I saw a picture of an old burned-out mountain shack. All that remained was the chimney . . . the charred debris of what had been that family’s sole possession. In front of this destroyed home stood an old grandfather-looking man dressed only in his long handles with a small boy clutching a pair of patched overalls. It was evident that the child was crying. Beneath the picture were the words which the artist felt the old man was speaking to the boy. They were simple words, yet they presented a profound theology and philosophy of life. Those words were [these], ‘Hush child, God ain’t dead!’” And that’s what keeps hope alive even in the darkest times.
“A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on,” wrote Carl Sandburg. And it’s true. A baby is a sign of hope. During this season of the year, the symbol of that hope is a babe in a manger. All the world is heartened by that babe. Children, I think, understand hope far better than we do. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross tells of visiting a children’s barracks in one of the German death camps after the Second World War.
In those horrific camps she had expected to see symbols of fear and incredible cruelty. Yet the walls of those children’s barracks were covered with drawings of butterflies, a universal symbol of joy and hope. But from where does such hope derive? It can only come from our hope in God. How else could Isaiah write of time when, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together and a little child will lead them . . .”? There was no scientific evidence that such a faith would be rewarded. There was no philosophical optimism that could justify it. It was only faith in a righteous and omnipotent God. But not everyone shares in that hope do they? Indeed some have even lost their hope and there’s nothing sadder than when hope dies.
Resignation is the most potent sign of loss of faith in God. The atheist isn’t nearly as dead in their faith, as is the person who has simply given up trying. That’s a great temptation at this time of year, in a society like our own. Episcopal bishop William Willimon tells about a man in a depressed region of Appalachia, a coal miner out of work for months, who years ago caught his children on the back porch thumbing through a Sears Roebuck catalog, wishing for things he could never provide for them. This poor man flew into a rage, switched their legs, tore the catalog to bits, and then sat down in his yard and wept. Without our hope in God, there’s little we have to look forward to, when life seems to come crashing down around us.
John Jewell tells about a young woman named Virginia, she was 19 years old and pregnant when she went to live with her 15th set of foster parents. “Her case file read like a textbook example of neglect, abuse and bureaucratic failure. She sat silently in a chair, hands neatly clasped, staring into her lap. The foster parents, whose three children were in school, had been apprised of Virginia’s story and promised that this placement would be ‘temporary.’
Temporary seemed to be the story of Virginia’s life. “Finally, the foster mother said, ‘Are you frightened, Virginia?’ “‘Kinda,’ she replied without looking up. I’ve been in lots of homes.’ “‘Well,’ the sympathetic woman tried to reassure the bewildered young mother-to-be, ‘Let’s hope this time turns out for the best.’ “Virginia’s reply is one of those statements that sticks to your soul,” says John Jewell. “It was flat, without change of tone and without Virginia even looking up. ‘Hurts too much to hope,’” she said.
I hope none of us ever get to that point when it hurts too much to hope. I suspect, though, that there may be one or two here who know what she was talking about. It’s common knowledge in the medical community that the holidays bring about a sharp increase in cases of depression, primarily due to people’s unmet expectations for the season. There is no deeper depression than that experienced by the person who cannot hope. It’s for these reasons that we need to share the fact that hope is what Christmas is all about.
That’s why these words from Isaiah thrill our hearts when we read them during the Advent season. In the midst of a holocaust, in the midst of societal despair and devastation, Isaiah, led by God’s Spirit, dared to envision a day when God’s reign would be over all. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit . . .” He was describing hundreds of years in advance, the coming of Jesus. A Messiah will come and righteousness shall rein triumphant.
Arthur Gordon, in his book A Touch of Wonder, tells about a man he met who had been a skydiver until, on his nineteenth jump, his parachute failed to open fully and his emergency chute wrapped itself around the partially collapsed main chute. He slammed into a dry lake bed at sixty miles an hour. Doctors thought this broken remnant of a man would never leave his hospital bed. They told him so, and he sank into black despair. But in the hospital he had frequent visits from another patient, a man whose spinal cord had been severed in an automobile accident. This man would never walk, would never, in fact, move a finger again. But he was always cheerful. “I certainly don’t recommend my situation to anyone,” he would say. “And yet I can read, I can listen to music, I can talk to people . . . .”
“And yet,” writes Arthur Gordon, “those two words (“and yet”) shift the focus from what’s been lost, to what remains and to what may still be gained. Those words gave such hope and determination to the skydiver that he came through his ordeal and today walks without so much as a limp.” In a world of pain and defeat, in a world where might often makes right, and the worst, often crowds out the best, The Bethlehem babe is God’s “And yet . . .”
Cruel Herod was on the throne of Judea, the deified Augustus Caesar was still extending the might of the Roman Empire, when Mary and Joseph make their slow arduous journey to Bethlehem. Yet Herod and Caesar are now but curiosities in dusty books while the babe that Mary bore, reigns in the highest heaven. And one day His kingdom will be made manifest when as Isaiah says, “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” That, my friends, is what Christmas is all about.
So enjoy the lights, the music, the food, the gifts, the love of family and friends, but never lose sight of the hope of Christmas. For there will come a time when we, too, will be going through our own time of travail, and we will need to lift our eyes from our sorrow to our Savior, from our misery to a manger wherein lies our salvation.
There’s a wondrous poem found in many places on the Internet. Maybe you’ve seen it. It does a wonderful job of reminding us of that truth. It’s titled, “Do You Still Have Hope?” I’m going to shorten it just a bit, but listen to its message: If you can look at the sunset and smile, then you still have hope . . . If you can find beauty in the colors of a small flower . . . If you can find pleasure in the movement of a butterfly . . . If the smile of a child can still warm your heart, then you still have hope . . . If you can see the good in other people . . . If the rain breaking on a roof top can still lull you to sleep, If the sight of a rainbow still makes you stop and stare in wonder . . . If the soft fur of a favored pet still feels pleasant under your fingertips, then you still have hope . . . If you meet new people with a trace of excitement and optimism . . . If you give people the benefit of a doubt . . . If you still offer your hand in friendship to others that have touched your life, then you still have hope . . .
If receiving an unexpected card or letter still brings a pleasant surprise . . . If the suffering of others still fills you with pain and frustration . . . If you refuse to let a friendship die, or accept that it must end, then you still have hope . . . If you look forward to a time or place of quiet and reflection . . . If you still buy the ornaments, put up the Christmas tree or cook the turkey . . . If you still watch love stories or want the endings to be happy, then you still have hope . . . If you can look to the past and smile . . . If, when faced with the bad, when told everything is futile, you can still look up and end the conversation with the phrase . . . “yeah . . . BUT . . .” then you still have hope . . .
Hope is such a marvelous thing. It bends, it twists, it sometimes hides, but rarely does it break . . . It sustains us when nothing else can . . . It gives us reason to continue and courage to move ahead, when we tell ourselves we’d rather give in . . . Hope puts a smile on our face when the heart cannot manage . . . Hope puts our feet on the path when our eyes cannot see it . . . Hope moves us to act when our souls are confused of the direction . . . Hope is a wonderful thing, something to be cherished and nurtured, and something that will refresh us in return . . . And it can be found in each of us, and it can bring light into the darkest of places . . . Never lose hope . . .
Hope is based on our faith in God. God is a loving God who watches over His children. Hope is a flower breaking through a slab of concrete. Hope is a shoot coming up “from the stump of Jesse . . .” Nothing is sadder than when hope dies. If we quit trusting God, then where will we turn? Hope is what Christmas is all about. This Advent and Christmas season, let us turn our eyes once again to the Babe who was born in Bethlehem of Judea, the One foretold by Isaiah in the midst of the ruins of his time. As children of God, we know that’s where God is, and because we know this, hope never dies.

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