There are eight shopping days until Christmas. Eight days!
Does that strike you with fear? Did I just increase anyone’s blood pressure or make your heart race a little bit faster?
If so, welcome to advent.
Advent is a time of preparation and expectation. We might normally thinking about waiting for something as a passive activity, that we are sitting and waiting for Christ to be born among us again. Or, that this time of the year should be about peace on earth and then we get disappointed when we don’t find any peace in our lives. But if you think about the Christmas stories, about all of the characters in the manger scene, they all had some unexpected fear and interruption happen to them.
Mary was planning her wedding and all of the joy that would come as her family and community came together for her day. Then an angel shows up and calls her blessed and her life is changed. She responds with fear and asks, how can this be? Mary’s heart raced.
Joseph too would have been imagining life with his new family. Perhaps he dreamed about the children he and Mary would have, only to be told that Mary is pregnant with a child that isn’t his. The angel tells him that instead of being a biological father he will be the adopted father of a boy he will name Jesus, the one who came to save people from their sins. Joseph’s heart raced.
Shepherds were quietly watching their flocks by night, like a million uneventful nights before, when the sky lit up and the sound of a chorus of angels startled them. The first words the angels said to them were “do not be afraid”. But from my experience when someone says, do not be afraid, there is something to be afraid about. Whenever someone looks at you and says “I have something to tell you, don’t freak out” internally I freak out. The shepherds’ hearts raced.
Wise men were doing just fine sitting in Persian palaces and advising kings. They lived comfortable lives and then they saw a star. They knew the star was significant, that it meant the coming of a king, and they were compelled to follow it and to bring gifts and worship the newborn king. When they saw the star, their hearts raced.
So if we find ourselves eight days out from Christmas and we have a little anxiety, we are not alone. There are gifts that need to be bought, meals that need to be cooked, cards that need to be written, and less than 200 hours to get it all done.
And six days from now, this sanctuary will become a winter wonderland as it will be transformed in to the Christmas Shop. We do a lot of remarkable things here at the Church for All People, but there is something special about the Christmas Shop and the energy that comes with it. It is really miraculous. But the amount of work to get from here to Saturday is incredible and exhausting and I am sure it makes Dessarre’s heart race.
And yet, it is for this reason that Jesus was born.
I know that eight days out from Christmas this scripture may not be what you expected to hear. It is not the familiar stories of the call of Mary or Joseph that are often preached on this Sunday. But I thought it was worth backing up a bit and exploring the question why did Jesus come, why was Jesus born? We spend a lot of time and energy celebrating the birth of Jesus, as we should, but what is it really all about?
Much of our understanding of Jesus not only comes from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but how we understand Jesus, and how Jesus first followers understood him, comes from the book of Isaiah.
The book of Isaiah is either directly quoted from, or referred to, nearly 100 times in the New Testament.
Matthew, Chapter 1, says “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”. This is a direct word for word quote from Isaiah 7:14.
Listen to these words from Isaiah, Chapter 9:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
For the people of Isaiah’s day, these words were the hope of a messiah to come. For us, this is who we understand Jesus to be.
When Jesus began his ministry he preached in his home church and directly quoted from Isaiah 61 when he said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And when John the Baptist sent his followers to Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’
If you go back and look at verses 5 and 6 of this morning’s scripture, you can see this a direct attribute back to Isaiah 35. When John’s followers say are you the one, Jesus says, yes, I am the one because I am fulfilling the vision given by Isaiah.
What is this vision? Why did Jesus come as Emmanuel, God with us? What is it all about?
From what we hear in Isaiah 35, Jesus came to restore creation. He came so that the desert, dry, barren places of life would blossom.
Jesus came so that the weak would be made strong, the fearful would be comforted, the blind would see, the lame would walk, the speechless would sing with joy.
We could look at these things metaphorically and talk about those who are spiritually weak receiving strength. In some cases, that might be true. But I think there is also a literal meaning to this. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The proof Jesus offers to John’s followers is the physical healing he provided. In his earthly ministry Jesus was very concerned with healing the human body. It is why we at the Church for All People have a fresh market and exercise programs and cooking classes and urban zen. Our bodies matter. Jesus came so that we would have life. Not only in life eternal, but that we would have the life we were created and meant to have now.
Having an abundant life is not only a matter of diet and exercise, it is also finding peace within our souls.
Isaiah 35:4 says: Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
That phrase fearful heart comes from a Hebrew term, nimharê lēb, which is literally translated as “ones whose hearts are racing”.
Our hearts don’t only race because we are eight days from Christmas and there is so much to do. Our hearts race when we find ourselves in unexpected and anxiety creating situations.
When we sit in a doctor’s office awaiting a diagnosis, our hearts race.
When a bill marked “late notice” comes in the mail, our hearts race.
When we find ourselves in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place, our hearts race.
This week Mark Slaughter shared with me a story about his dog, Hooper. Mark had a truck with a cab in it where Hooper used to ride. Now, Mark has a new truck that doesn’t have a cab so Hooper sits in the front. But Hooper is not a fan of the front seat. It creates anxiety in him. When Mark is driving down the road Hooper’s breath picks up, his tongue wags, his eyes get big, he is one whose heart is racing.
But how many times are we like Hooper? We find ourselves in a place that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable and all those same instincts kick in.
And yet it is for people like us and situations like this that Jesus came in to the world. Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came offering us peace in the midst of our anxiety.
I can imagine how Mark comforts Hooper and touches him and reassures him that all will be well, in the same way God reassures us that we are never alone and the Risen Christ is with us always, to the very end of the age.
Many of the things that trouble us and cause our hearts to race are not only the things that happen within our own body, mind, and spirit, but also the situations of the world we live in.
We live in a country where 40 percent of the food we produce ends up in landfills and 20 percent of kids go hungry. That makes my heart race.
We live in a world where people we know and care about deeply are homeless, but there are more vacant houses than there are homeless people. That makes my heart race.
We live in a world where women earn about three-quarters of what men make for the same work. I saw a story this week that said women will not reach pay equity with men until they year 2,059; African American women won’t get there until 2,119, and Hispanic women 2,224. That will make your heart race.
In contrast to the broken world we live in, Isaiah gives us a vision of a restored creation where waters shall break forth in the wilderness, the redeemed will walk down a holy highway, the ransomed will return with joy and gladness.
As I read these words, I can hear the voice of Dr Martin Luther King quoting from the prophet Amos, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
What Isaiah and Amos and King are envisioning here is justice. Jesus not only came that we would have life individually in our body, mind, soul, and spirit, but that justice would reign
Isaiah, Chapter 40, forsees a day when
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together.
Jesus came to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, so that we would live in to the life we were created to have, to still our racing hearts.
Eight days from now, we will exchange gifts with those who we love. As we tear open the paper our hearts will race, in a good way. We might open a box and inside it find clothes or toys or books or electronics. Those are all good things.
But in Isaiah we hear that the gifts God offers to us in Jesus Christ are strength, courage, hope, joy, and peace. May you prepare to receive these gifts so that we might fully be all that God has created us to be, so that we might be a part of God’s work of justice, and so that as we share those gifts, every heart will be stilled and together we can rejoice in gladness.