Isaiah 64.1-9(10-12) * [text at bottom of post]
First Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Twentieth century poet, Langston Hughes, wrote his poem, "Dreams" , in 1922. It was one of his earliest works and one of his best remembered.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Hughes’ images are incredibly poignant for us as we enter Advent in this pandemic ridden, politically and racially divisive year. How do we hold on to our national dreams of health and peace and cooperation and justice and abundance and equality for all this Advent? Our faith dreams of building God’s realm here and now on earth? How do we dream Hope?
The ancient people of God, the Israelites of the 6th century B.C.E., were wondering the same thing when they heard the prophet cry out to God in lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” They, too, were wondering if they could dream hope and they were trying hard to hold on the “awesome deeds” of God they had experienced with surprise and joy in the past. Why was God not acting like God way back in the day when they were delivered from slavery in Egypt? Or even not so far back in the day when they were led out of exile in Babylon and back to Jerusalem to rebuild their lives in the promised land and to rebuild the temple of the Most High? Instead of flowing springs in the desert and straight highways of policy following God’s law, instead of an oasis of plenty, they had returned from exile ready to rebuild only to find strife and hardship. There were polemical factions among the differing tribes; they were short on cooperation. Physically rebuilding the temple along with new infrastructures for simply living together was much more difficult than they had ever imagined. They felt abandoned by the God whom the prophet had promised would restore their fortunes and renew their abundance. Perhaps, they didn’t have a pandemic, but they knew well the unrest of extreme civil discord at a time they needed to work together to survive.
The book of Isaiah spans three centuries of the Israelites’ relationship with God. The original 8th century prophet, Isaiah, prophesied to the rulers and people of Judah when the Babylonian empire was encroaching upon them, eventually conquering Jerusalem. Much of the population was captured and taken into exile in Babylon where they learned to make their lives and honor their God in a foreign land. In the late 7th and into the 6th century B.C.E., a new prophet arose in the midst of exile writing in the name and fashion of Isaiah. These first two prophets gave the people the wondrous and inspiring poetry and prose of hope that we often hear this time of year: “the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light,” “you shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace, the trees shall clap their hands,” “the lion shall lie down with the lamb…and a little child shall lead them.” Now we hear from the prophet who is with the people after the return from exile…. things are looking very bleak….and the prophet speaking in the tradition of Isaiah loudly laments…”Where are you, God? Come down to us! You forgot us and so now we have sinned…. we are fractured as a people, hanging on by a thread… you have hidden from us and so even our best efforts are like filthy rags…we are undone!”
How many times in this past year could any of us, each of us, have lifted up the sentiments of this lament to God? For goodness sake – literally ¬– Where are you, God?!? For God’s sake – literally – show yourself! Fix us, deliver us, restore us to your presence. As the poet warned us early in this sermon, without our dreams, without hope, life is like a broken-winged bird, crippled and dying. Life is barren, about to be snuffed out in the frozen depths of our deep disconnection with you, Holy One. The ancient prophet’s cry in this 64th chapter of Isaiah moves us from anger and despair, which we know all too well in our times, to broken-hearted sobbing sorrow and lament which we also know in these times of pandemic and racial violence.
If it feels excruciating and you are wondering what kind of introduction to Advent is this? – you are getting it. You see, it turns out that authentic lament with all its anger and confession and sorrow is psychologically good for us and good for our souls. Bottling up all our feelings in stoic silence does not solve any issue. It alienates us from others and its bad for our blood pressure. The structure of lament is an appropriate practice for expression. Spiritually, lament breaks open our hearts before God. And when our hearts are broken as they have been in this year, broken open, our eyes and our ears can open as well. It turns out that the prophet does not leave us despairing in the dirt, fading away like dead leaves, but in acknowledging our brokenness before God, the prophet points us paradoxically to God who is with us in our vulnerability and pain.
“8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father [our Maker]; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
The ancient stories of God’s past deliverance of God’s people proclaimed by prophets are not sentimental, smothering nostalgia nor are they a delusional panacea denying the pain of the present. They are beacons of light drawn from the collective memories of God’s people as a source of hope. God’s prophets are not fortune-telling predictors of the future events. They are witnesses to God’s presence in the world and in our lives, God, who is vulnerable and nurturing and suffering with us. God who tends and shapes God’s people – ALL of God’s people, not just a special set of followers of particular religious tenants – all of the people, all of humanity, all of creation, intimately shaped in love by God’s creating Spirit, as a potter shapes clay to make useful vessels.
The prophet knew that when God seems hidden, people are lonely and hurting. And this is when we act out in fear, sinning against one another. The prophet also knew that God is always hiding in plain sight in the pain of our very lives and situations. God is not a coy, disguised superhero… Clark Kent, the humble bumbling reporter, one minute and Superman saving the world the next minute. The character of God is “divine determination relating to the world “through the vulnerable path of noncoercive love and suffering service rather than domination and force.” 
This determined loving, suffering character of God is why we can dream hope even in the worst of times. We have Love Divine with us, within us, among us, binding us together even in conflict and seeming de-construction of all that we hold dear. This is the God of the Advent call, “O come, O come, Emmanuel – God with us!”
Perhaps you saw the artwork for this week from our Advent devotional booklet in the Plymouth Thursday Overview and Saturday Evening emails. Its titled, “Tear Open the Heavens” and painted by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, a founding partner of Sanctified Art, the group who wrote our devotional. Look at it with me for just a moment…. What do you see? I see weeping….spilling over love, an overflowing pottery pitcher, mountains, trees, wise eyes, divine presence, the colors of love, the actions of love.
We can dream hope because God is dreaming with us as we weep and laugh and work together with God. As we sometimes rage against the pain and darkness – with God. As we sometimes hide from one another and from God. Yet God, Divine Love, is always dreaming hope and dreaming love through us, through our lives. Therefore, we can hold fast to our dreams because God is holding fast to us even when we are not watching. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” we say. And God says, “I have. I am with you. I never left.” Amen.
Holy One, we come before you this morning with hopes for dreaming hope, for building hope, for being hope in our corners of your world. We long to get our hands dirty with the work of hope as we raise money for homelessness prevention, as we support the immigrants in our community, as we learn together with our children and youth about the active hope of Advent, as we support one another in these difficult times – even if distanced. As our thoughts and preparations turn toward the Christmas season, keep us ever-mindful of gratitude for our blessings, ever-giving from those same gifts for you have given them to us for sharing. Bless all those who struggle with illness of any kind, those who wait for much needed surgery or procedures because the hospitals are full of Covid 19 patients who need the frontline care. Bless the caregivers of all kinds, whether in a facility or at home. Bless the children and youth and young adults as they go back to remote school. Bless those who mourn the loss of a loved one. Bless our country in this time of transition. May we all turn toward much needed healing of racial and political divides. Bless us all as we seek to participate in your hope for your creation. Hear us now as we say the prayer Jesus taught us to say, “Our Father, who art….
 Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective”, Isaiah 64.1-9, First Sunday in Advent, Year B, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2008, 6.)
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
* Isaiah 64.1-9[10-12]
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.
6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
(10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. 12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?)
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Micah 5. 2-4; Isaiah 35.1-10
Zephaniah 3.14-18; Luke 1.26-38 (scroll to bottom for texts)
Advent Service of Lessons and Carols
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
I listened to these ancient texts this week in tandem with hearing the news of the week: the continued debate of impeachment hearings in Congress, the naming of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, climate change activist, as Time magazine’s Person of the Year and the bullying response of the President to that news, the memory of the Sandy Hook school shooting on its 7th anniversary yesterday, December 14th, and the knowledge that families are still separated at our southern border and children are kept in cages. This is heartbreaking, fear-producing stuff.
After the synagogue shooting this past April in Poway, CA, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, titled his column, “An Era Defined by Fear; the emotional tone underneath the political conflicts.” Brooks writes that fear pervades our society. That is really no news to any of us. But he lays it out so succinctly that we recognize it, especially as it is in stark contrast to the celebration of this season. Brooks tells us that politicians use fear to rise to power setting one group or tribe of people against another. Fear comes from our own personal traumas and experiences in childhood and beyond. Fear is exploited by the media to grab headlines. Fear grips our minds, making us numb and unable to hear good news. Fear makes us angry and acting out of anger produces more fear. Fear paralyze sour ability to take practical action, to get stuff done for the good of ourselves, our families, our communities and our world. Fear paralyzes our ability to share abundance, to be generous.
Did you hear the word of God proclaimed by our prophets today, Micah, Isaiah, Zephaniah and the gospel writer, Luke? Each of these powerful writers was addressing a community in their time that was beset by fear. Fear of oppression and persecution, fear of failure, fear of even surviving. We are not the first generation to live in the midst of great fear. Isaiah says to the people through all that revitalizing imagery of the barren wilderness coming alive, “Be strong, do not fear! God will come to save you.” Zephaniah tells the people, “you shall fear disaster no more! Rejoice and exult. Do not fear, do not let your hands grow weak...God is in your midst.” The angel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.” Micah promises One who is coming as a shepherd to lead and protect the people. “They shall live secure; [for] this One is of peace. “
These words are also for us in our era of fear. They are not “pie-in-the-sky by and by” words. They hold Truth that grounds us. Truth we can know through our faith, through trusting in God’s presence even in the midst of extreme adversity when there seems to be no hope on the horizon, through putting our faith into action day after day. At the end of his column, Brooks writes, “Fear comes in the night. But eventually you have to wake up in the morning, get out of bed and get stuff done.”
My friends, for us that “stuff” is reading and remembering the promises of we have heard in our texts today. That “stuff” is praying with these promises in our hearts and minds. That “stuff” is our daily acts of kindness to combat the pervasiveness of fear. That “stuff” is working for justice, caring for our families, coming to worship, celebrating this Advent season of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love that prepares us to receive at Christmas and beyond, to receive again and again and again the Holy One who came to show us how to be human by being God with us.
Does it seem impossible some days to keep on keeping on in the face of the fear and anger in our age? Yes, it does. But remember, the angel says, “With God nothing will be impossible.” And that, my friends, is a promise of pure joy that sustains us through happiness and sadness.
Fear not! God is in the midst of you! God is with us! With God nothing will be impossible....barren wildernesses bloom, miraculous births abound, people are united in love rather than hate. God comes in human form, the baby of a poor, migrant woman grows up to show us all how to live in the transforming ways of God! Be joyful and rejoice! Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019. All rights reserved.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Isaiah 11.1-10 & Matthew 3.1-12
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Repent! That is the key message we hear from John the Baptizer. That would certainly make him popular at a church potluck or an upscale cocktail party, wouldn’t it? I’ve sometimes thought it would be really awkward to have Jesus at Thanksgiving dinner with all of our celebratory excess, but he doesn’t hold a candle to his cousin, John.
Many of the paintings and frescoes I’ve seen of John portray him as something of a wild man, looking disheveled and unkempt. One of the very early frescoes labels him in Latin: Ioannis Precursor, literally the forerunner of Jesus. The funny thing for me is that I find those images appealing, because they are often so human in their portrayal. John looks like he bears the sadness of the human condition on his face. His expression seems to acknowledge that humanity is in need of a radical turn-around, and the best way he knows how to do that is to be provocative and to offer a baptism for the repentance of sins, and it is a cleansing ritual not unknown in Judaism.
In last week’s sermon, I claimed that John was just the precursor and that Jesus was the one really doing a new thing, not by baptizing with water, but with fire and the Holy Spirit. The idea is that Jesus’ baptism will be transforming us, refining us, not just cleansing us…that it will instill in us a new sense of God’s presence, what Dom Crossan calls a different kind of heart transplant – not of the pumping organ in your chest, but a radical transplant of the spirit within you…that your old spirit is done and gone and that Christ’s spirit is implanted into you.
And it would take something incredibly radical to disrupt the food chain Isaiah describes: Let’s face it, if you ever watched Wild Kingdom or Sir David Attenborough on TV, you know that the natural order means that wolves are meant to eat lambs, and that leopards are meant to eat goats, and that lions are meant to eat calves. It is nature, red it tooth and claw. All of us understand that the natural order is less likely to change than human behavior. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we have the ability to choose our responses and our behaviors. But that is a tall order.
So, what about disrupting our assumptions? Don’t most of us assume that self-interest is normal and ethical? Don’t we assume that the “invisible hand of the market” is and should control our economy? Don’t we assume that “the poor will always be with us?” and that even though we tried to end homelessness in Fort Collins by 2020, it was something of a pipe dream? (I was told as much by an older Presbyterian clergyperson back when I was on the Leadership Team of Homeward 2020.) Every year for the past 15 years, I have seen our teens sleep out to raise funds and awareness to prevent homelessness, and I’ve slept out with them three or four years…and I’m still waiting for one of my colleagues to do the same! What if one of the young people who participates gets the idea that maybe things don’t have to be the way they are? What if one of them threw everything they’ve got into dreaming up a new way to work on the root causes of homelessness and came up with a solution? With all due respect to the focus on STEM in our educational system, our ethical and social structures need more emphasis, because science and technology are clearly out-pacing economics, social relations, theology, politics, arts, and literature, and as a people, we’re suffering from it.
What if parents like me did less to encourage our kids to play competitive sports and get the highest grades and spent more time inculcating the kind of values our faith espouses? What if we stopped trying so hard to make them “successful” and focused on compassion instead? What kind of world might be created if we allow ourselves to be baptized with fire and with the Holy Spirit?
Nobody is going to force you to change, to repent, to engage in deep inner transformation. And the reason is simple: nobody can do that for you. Transformation is an “inside job.” And it’s right in the middle of Plymouth’s mission statement of worshiping God and making the kingdom visible by inviting people into our faith, transforming ourselves deeply, and then sending us out into the world. All of us need to work on becoming better citizens of God’s realm, and that will require some realignment of our priorities and it will require some sacrifice of the things relatively affluent Americans love most: recreation, time, privilege, and money. A few weeks ago, I saw a meme on Facebook that said, “Sometimes being a good Christian means being a bad Roman.”
And what we stand to gain is what Americans talk least about — you know…the Mr. Rogers values — loving relationships with others, being spiritually and emotionally grounded, relying on neighbors, having a sense of security that does not depend on a stock portfolio, gated communities, or carrying a firearm. And most of all, it means being connected to the presence of God.
Being baptized with water? That’s easy. Not so much with fire and the Holy Spirit.
Imagine if you heard this prophecy:
“The business magnate will support the homeless man.
The Democrat shall embrace the Republican as a sister or brother.
The gun manufacturer will build tools with the smithy.
The Russian oligarch and the Andean farmer will work as one.
The refugee and the white supremacist will be at home with one another. And a little child shall lead them.”
What would you add to that list of unlikely, but desirable, events? What enemies do you wish would become lovers? What circumstances would you love to transform? God knows there is so much to be done…and there is a place to start.
In 1780, John Adams (who considered studying for the Congregational ministry at Harvard before he opted for law) wrote to his wife Abigail from Paris: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, Navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary and Porcelaine.” That is what Adams envisioned as transformation and progress, and he risked his life for it.
Though you and I know that we cannot change the world overnight, with God’s help we have a place to start: with prayer. The first step is to open ourselves up the transformative power of God…to pray, to talk about, to work for a world that Jesus would recognize as God’s realm. And doing so, we must avoid falling into the traps of despair or hopelessness or lacking trust in God’s presence in the world. We have to keep the faith…just as the Hebrew people did when they were in captive exile in Babylon.
You and I have the amazing privilege of getting to pray for and to work for the kind of nation and the kind of world that God would be proud of, and it starts in here. It is a nation, it is a world, that is full of pain, but those may be the birth pangs of coming into a new way of being. You and I are called to be the agents of transformation in ourselves and in God’s world, so in this Advent season of active waiting, let us keep the faith.
There is a voice in the wilderness calling, so keep awake, listen deeply, and pray fervently, because the kingdom of God is at hand.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.