Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dreaming God Is with Us

A sermon for the Sunday after Christmas at Presbury United Methodist Church.

Today we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Next week, we'll read the first part of this chapter for Epiphany, in which we celebrate the visit of the magi. But I didn't want us to forget the second part of the story, so we're reading it today. It is a very dark part of the Christmas story, a part we don't often care to remember, but also one that has deep resonances in our own violent time. Hear now these words:

Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23 (NRSV)
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Sermon: Dreaming God is With Us1
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for all the ways you speak to us and try to get our attention--- from the beauty of nature to the nagging of loved ones, from the words of scripture to even dreams. Speak to us again this morning through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Help us pay attention to you again this day and every day. Amen.

I have not been able to get Joseph out of my head this week. This is strange for me--- when I think of the Christmas story I want to talk about how awesome Mary is. I don't really think much about Joseph. But from now into the spring, we will be focusing on the Gospel of Matthew, and Matthew focuses more on Joseph in the Christmas story than he does on Mary. Now, no offense to the dads here in our congregation today, but you don't really do much when it comes to giving birth, which is perhaps why the Gospel of Luke doesn't mention Joseph much. But in Matthew's gospel, Joseph is active in one small but very interesting way. Joseph dreams.

Dreaming is a common activity in scripture, and when we think of dreaming in the bible, we are more likely to turn to another Joseph, the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That Joseph got in trouble for his dreams at first. He dreamed of his older brothers bowing down to him, and then, instead of keeping such dreams to himself he went about telling people. His brothers are livid. I have described them in the past as classic bullies. They are obviously hurting, but instead of trying to break out of the cycle of hurt, they choose to hurt someone else instead. Joseph. They throw him into a pit, speak of killing him, but then decide to sell him into slavery. Afterward, they soak Joseph's fancy coat in blood and go to their father, allowing him to believe his beloved son was dead. This is a horrible, heart-wrenching story. And poor Joseph, as though his life wasn't bad enough, he tries to live as ethically as he can as a slave and still finds himself wrongly imprisoned! That's when his dreaming comes back into the story. When in prison, God gives him gifts to interpret dreams, and he eventually makes it all the way up to Pharaoh because of this gift, even becoming rising from the status of a slave and a prisoner to second-in-command over Egypt.

But here's the thing about Joseph—- he does not lose sight of God. When Pharaoh asks him to interpret his dream, Joseph replies that the interpretation is not his own but God's; however, the text itself never says, “And God spoke through Joseph” or “And God gave Joseph the gift of dream interpretation” or anything like that. Rather Joseph, despite all he goes through, is able to interpret drams and dream himself because he does not shut himself away from God. He pays attention to the situation around him and listens for God.

Which is what I think Joseph in the Christmas story does as well. You see, why else would Joseph have paid any attention to dreams if he was not naturally opening himself up to God? But he not only heeded God in one dream, but in two: first as a young man preparing to quietly divorce Mary, he changed his path and took Mary as his wife because of a dream; then, God told him to move far away to Egypt in a dream, and he did as he was asked. He listened, not to the clamor and chaos of the world around him, but through it, to find that God was with him, as his ancestor of the same name did before him.

Now, when we read this scripture from Matthew this morning, I'm sure that your first thought was not, “Wow, what a great listener Joseph was to pay attention to the warnings in his dreams.” Your first thought was probably, “Wait a minute, I thought this Christmas story was supposed to be warm and fuzzy--- I didn't remember that part about the babies dying!” This verse is discordant with the picture of the happy family in the stable receiving extravagant gifts from the wise me: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. I don't want to gloss over the horror in this story by talking about dreaming. Just a few weeks ago, my friend in San Francisco preached on this scripture and spoke about Ferguson and the violence in the hands of the powerful in our own nation. She said, “There are too many weeping Rachels, not only across America, but in this very room. And not only in America, but in Gaza, in Nigeria, in Ukraine.” And she said, there are too many Herods as well: “Herod killed the babies of Bethlehem because he was afraid, afraid of Jesus’ power. So he killed innocent ones to keep himself feeling safe. When we refuse to hear the truth of the lived experiences of others, we become Herods, exercising power [and control] over others as a way to keep ourselves safe.”2 And of course then it becomes a vicious cycle in which police officers are killed, breeding more fear, which breeds even more violence...Herod's world and our world are hurting, broken places in need of a new dream.

That's why we are talking about dreams this morning--- not to avoid the horror of the story but to remind us that in our own stories of horror we need to pay attention. We need to listen. For God is already with us, speaking to us and guiding our steps if only we would open our hearts to realize it!

To return to the dreams of technicolor dreamcoat Joseph, his openness to God's work in his life is what made him able to ultimately forgive his brothers, rather than continuing the cycle of violence and retribution. Joseph's story is a story of hope that we may become the people God calls us to be, a people who make God's dreams for a redeemed and renewed world come to life. Theologically, dreaming is about vision: a vision of that redeemed, restored world.3 That is God's dream. But God's dream gets so mixed up in our own hopes and fears that we lose sight of it and are lost to violence and power struggles. And we are not able to get out of the struggle because we won't look to God, who is beside us all the time coaxing us to do good.

But both Josephs did. Dreamcoat Joseph forgave his brothers for their betrayal and violence. Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, took Mary as his wife despite his own fears and uncertainties, and despite the societal expectations. Joseph, despite his own confusion and sense of powerlessness, took flight in the middle of the night and went to Egypt, far from anywhere he knew. He had seen that vision of a redeemed and restored world, and he trusted God to guide him to it.

Of course, I don't want you to go home and take a nap so you can figure out what God is saying to you. You have to cultivate a listening heart within yourself--- you can't just expect every dream you have to be direct from God. For instance, recently, I had a weird dream about how I really wanted to eat potato chips but I kept checking the ingredients on the bags and every single one had lard in it. I don't think God gave me that dream, as though trying to tell me that lard is important to my salvation or something. But if we can cultivate listening hearts within ourselves, then even in the small things we may hear echoes of God.

My prayer is that in this new year we may make a resolution not just to lose weight or eat more vegetables or stop cursing, but a resolution to listen more for God. Let us pay attention to God's dreams, whether we see that dream reflected in our own dreams, or in the words of great prophets and leaders, or in the kindness of a stranger. Bishop Desmond Tutu in his children's book called God's Dream that I have read to the kids during worship before says this about God's Dream: “God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring. God dreams that we reach out and hold one another's hands and play one another's games and laugh with one another's hearts.”4 Maybe we resolve this new year to reach out and hold one another's hands. What do you think God dreams about? What does God dream for us in this new year--- for us and our families, for our church, for our world?

Remember: God is with us--- that is what Christmas is all about. So let us open our hearts to God. 
1I knew I wanted to talk about dreams this Sunday, but this sermon didn't really take shape until after reading this blog post: Adam Phillips, “Dreaming of God With Us,” Advent Reflections, Sojourners, 22 December 2014,
2Karen Oliveto shared her sermon with me over a direct message on twitter. Fangirl moment! These are quoted from that sermon. Karen Oliveto, “To Comfort Rachel,” 25 November 2014. Also found here:
3Rolf Jacobson writes, “In terms of theological content, 'those who dream' are prophets--those who receive visions from God (see Joel 2:28-29). The meaning, then, is that the divinely wrought restoration includes the re-opening of the lines of communication between God and people. In terms of the emotional content, 'those who receive visions' often experience and express ecstatic joy--like David dancing beside ark as it was brought into Jerusalem. The picture, then, is of spontaneous and uncontainable joy: 'our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.'” Commentary on Psalm 126, Working Preacher, 14 December 2008,
4Desmond Tutu, God's Dream (2010)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hopes and Dreams

Again, so many drafts in the queue, but it seems sermons are the only things to get finished. Here is the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve at Presbury United Methodist Church. The focus is on Matthew as we will be looking at the Gospel of Matthew through the spring. And it is not a part of the story I think about often.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, on this holy night, we ask that you are not silent,
but that you dream with us again as you did with Joseph. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts bring the Christmas story to life for us, so we might better live your dream this day and always. Amen.

I've been thinking a lot about Joseph lately. About how he must have felt heavy as he went to bed that night, not Christmas night, but that night months earlier. His mind must have felt like honey, sticky and slow. And his heart must have gotten harder and harder in his chest. He had to make a decision. He could no longer ignore the talk of the town around him, or ignore Mary's growing belly. His parents, of whom we know absolutely nothing about, but who we still can imagine were upset. His betrothed, which in his culture meant the same as wife does today even though they were not yet living together, was pregnant. And the baby was not his. He must have felt so alone, cut off from his community, so far from God. This was not the way his life was supposed to turn out. He had a plan. A loose plan, certainly--- but still a general idea of what his life was supposed to be like. And a wife pregnant with a baby not his own was nowhere close to the plan he had in mind.

You may have been in a similar situation in your life. Maybe not because of an unplanned pregnancy, but because of similar news that changed everything so completely it could never be undone. Maybe you were on track for a promotion in your dream job, and then the company went under. Maybe you were married for one year or forty years and one day told that it just wasn't working anymore. Maybe your child's wide-open future suddenly closed when they got into trouble. Maybe your retirement plans to travel came crashing around you with the cancer diagnosis. You know the sick feeling that comes with complete lack of control; you know those moments, days, years even, of shock that cloud your mind as you try to make sense of how a few moments can change the plan you had for your life. You know how Joseph felt.

Yet when we read this story, we applaud Joseph, pat him on the back for being such a swell guy; though, if we put ourselves in his shoes, we may have found it difficult to practice this compassionate righteousness. We don’t like to think about Joseph feeling betrayed or alone. We don't like to think he felt the same way we do when we lose control or when our carefully laid plans are completely destroyed. We too often choose to believe that God chose Mary and Joseph because they were perfect, good people. To us, they have these halos around their heads all the time, and they never raise their voices in anger or think mean thoughts. But read the story again. The Gospel of Matthew introduces Joseph's dream of the angel saying, But just when he had resolved to do this. Resolved. To me that symbolizes agony, difficulty. The description shows me a picture of a young man alone in him homes with that sinking feeling in the pit of him stomach as he tries to figure out what happens next.

Joseph in our story does not have to be a stoic, flat character, obedient to God to the point of having no personality. When we label Joseph in that way, it lets us off the hook. When we deny Joseph or Mary or even baby Jesus emotion, we take ourselves out of the great drama of the people of faith. Like so many of our ancestors in faith, Joseph was broken and hurting when God revealed the good news to him. Joseph was like us when God revealed the good news to him. Don't you think God can be revealing the good news to us today too?

God spoke to Joseph in a dream. Into that vulnerable space in which coincidentally we have no control, God entered and spoke good news.God is with us, the messenger declared. Even, or maybe especially, when our lives are crumbling around us, God is with us, the messenger insists. Emmanuel. And God will lure the good from the place where we only see ruins. God will save us--- that is what the name Jesus means!

God did not chose to put on flesh and dwell among us by way of young people who had their stuff together. God put on flesh and was rocked to sleep by people who were scared, hurting, confused, and so out-of-control. And God is dwelling among those same people--- us--- today. God is offering those same people--- us--- salvation in God's presence.

Of course, I believe this to be true, but I don't think that Joseph woke up from his dream feeling much better than he did before he fell asleep. I think he was still scared and still feeling a little sick. But, after he dreamed, he was infused with a hope. A hope that his fear was not the last word. A hope that God's calling on his life was a better dream than Joseph could ever plan for himself. His decision to do as the angel commanded was him reaching not for control but for hope.

Our world is in desperate need of a little hope today. Our drive for power and control has gotten us into a mess not just individually but as a society. We are locked into cycles of retribution and anger. We are trapped by fear and loss. But God has dreamed a different world for us. This Christmas, let us place ourselves in Mary and Joseph's story, remembering that God came not to the perfect but to the broken. Let us step out of the trap and turn to one another with compassion, trusting that God is in our midst. Let us live as though we really believe God is with us and that God will save and in fact is already saving us.

We will do that together tonight as we take communion, further living into God's salvation story and tasting the hope God offers us. Then we will light candles, experiencing God's presence within each of us, small and flickering all alone, but beautiful and powerful together. Let us experience not just the brokenness Joseph felt but also the hope.

L: When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel commanded. God is waking us up, now, today. How many of us are still asleep, trapped in nightmares that obscure the dream God has for us? Or how many of us are still asleep, too comfortable in our own dreams to pay attention to the life God calls us to? We have forgotten God's commandments, wrapped up in the sleep. Let us respond as Joseph did, turning our hearts to God:
P: Light of the World, shine into the shadowed places of our souls tonight. Where we are confused or violent, bring us peace. Where we are fearful or worried, grant us strength. Where we are grieving and lost, comfort us. Where we are hateful or apathetic, shake us up. Wake us with your transforming love.
L: Do not be afraid. God came to dwell among us to show us how beloved we are.
P: We are awoken and set free from the bondage of sin and evil by that great love. For nothing is impossible with God!

You are invited to turn to those sitting near you and offer signs of peace.

L: Emmanuel means God-With-Us.
P: God is with us indeed.
L: Open your hearts to this Emmanuel
P: and be not sent away empty, but rather filled with good things.
L: For in the beginning of creation, God shared a dream with us, a dream of goodness and abundance. God breathed into us, inspiring us. But we took God's dream and turned it into a nightmare in which brother killed brother, kings became tyrants, and violence seemed more natural than breathing.
     Yet God adapted the dream, teaching brothers to forgive and women to resist evil, painting rainbows and opening the sea. God crafted laws as a way to bring the dream to life, and sent prophets to point us back toward love and justice. And then God offered us inspiration by taking on flesh and dwelling among us.
P: Glory to our God who is full of grace and truth!
L: Mary believed in the fulfillment of the dream God shared with her, as Joseph did. Mary proclaimed that dream when she spoke of bringing the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. This is what God did in Jesus: he lifted up the sick by healing them, the marginalized by loving them, and dreamed again goodness and abundance for all of creation.
      Even when we abandoned this dream too, Emmanuel would not leave us. Before he was taken away by those who create nightmares, he gathered us around a table. He broke bread with us and blessed it, saying:
P: This is my body, given for you. In its brokenness, may you be restored to wholeness.
L: When we had eaten, Jesus took the cup, again gave thanks, and said:
P: This is my lifeblood, poured out to bring healing to our world.
L: When we eat and drink and receive Jesus, we dream with God, proclaiming a mystery together:
P: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
L: Let us pray:
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Share your dream with us again as we come together on this sacred night. From your fullness may each of us here receive grace upon grace. May we in receiving through bread and cup, wake up and go forth from this place living this dream with our brothers and sisters. May we be light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome.
P: Amen.

The bread of life.
The cup that saves us, and sets us free.


The table is set and all are invited. In the United Methodist Church, we practice an open table. This means you don't have to be a member, you don't have to be baptized, you don't have to take classes, you don't even have to be in a good mood. You are invited to come and know that no matter who you are and where you are on your journey, you are a beloved child of God and God's grace is sufficient.

We will be taking communion by intinction, meaning I will give you a piece of bread and you can dip it in the cup. There will be a gluten free option available, so let the servers know if you would like that option. Now, let us come to the table to eat and seek that grace upon grace that God offers us.

Let us pray:
Light of the World, we give you thanks for this mystery, for how your Word became and becomes flesh to live among us. We give you thanks for the grace upon grace we have received from you. Now we ask that as we light candles and sing, your grace will grow within us, overflowing to touch those around us. For each of us here will hold a flickering candle; seemingly insignificant one by one, yet magnificent when held together. Let your light pour out of this place, that all may know how your light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Amen.

1Communion Liturgy based on Matthew by Shannon Sullivan, 2014.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Where is Our Comfort?

A sermon for Advent at Presbury United Methodist Church.

A Reading from the Prophets: Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, the noise of the world so often drowns out the truth of your word.
In this Advent season, we are supposed to be preparing our hearts for you,
yet we find ourselves running ragged to prepare for the less important parts of the holiday season--- getting the house decorated, buying those gifts on the list, sending out Christmas cards, cooking...Still our hearts this morning.
Let your word of life break through the noise of the world in the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Amen.

Words of comfort are not ones we expect to hear in either the world today or in Advent. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, we read in Isaiah. It may be a message we need to hear, certainly. But it is not always one we believe, particularly when uttered in contexts of court, even a heavenly one.1 Where is this comfort you promised, God? How can those of us who can't breathe in a still-racist country, reeling from two non-indictments in just ten days find comfort? Comfort, O comfort my people, God speaks tenderly from heaven while people chant angrily in the streets. And comfort is not only unbelievable in the nation's racial climate right now, but it is unbelievable on many different levels. Where is the comfort for those of us with family in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, afraid to pick up the phone because it may be bad news? Where is the comfort for those of us facing holidays for the first time or even the twentieth time without loved ones? Where is the comfort for those of us who see the post-holiday lay-offs looming but have not yet found another job?

The Israelites hearing these words may have heard them as we do, recognizing the hope but unable to believe it. They were living in a time of exile, where many of the elite had been carted off to Babylon, leaving the people in ruin. Now, you should note that the book of the prophet Isaiah is a composite book, written by different people in different times.2 It is not all about Isaiah, who receives the hot coal on his lips and says, Here I am, Lord, send me. And the first 39 chapters of this book, attributed to that prophet Isaiah, are not necessarily comforting. They speak to a world like ours, heavily laden with injustice and oppression not at the hands of foreign powers like Assyria or ISIS but at the Israelite's and our own hands. First Isaiah, as the first through thirty-ninth chapters are often referred to by scholars, speaks a poetic and powerful word of judgment, and indictment from God that it appears will not be echoed by human courts.3

When Israel's crooked kings are overthrown, it seems too late for Israel. The people are torn apart, untold numbers perishing in violence and war-and-occupation-induced poverty; the elite are scattered, exiled. Second Isaiah, written by an anonymous prophet in the late sixth century BCE, emerges from the desolation and fear in a kind of “healing, life-giving song”4 beginning with these verses from Isaiah 40 that we read together this morning. Comfort, God insists, not because the either the Israelites (or we) have finally understood how to learn to do good, as they are instructed in the first chapter of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:17), and ought now be rewarded. Comfort, God insists, because God has heard our cries and felt our suffering. Comfort because ours is a God of grace.

Grace is a word we United Methodist should love, but it is one we don't always understand. Sin is easier to talk about, even when we don't understand that either. This is especially true when we speak of the Second Coming of Christ, for which we are supposed to be preparing our hearts during this Advent season. When we think of the Second Coming, we think of violence and strife, of desolation and doom. We think of a world so seeped in sin that most cannot escape from it and God chooses to destroy it rather that redeem it. We think of despair. There is no comfort in this vision, no transforming of the earth itself5 to bring the wandering and exiled home as gently and gloriously as only God can.

Yet John the Baptist, the one who proclaimed Christ's coming in each of the four Gospels--- his words come from not the words of the rupture between humans and God that we find in First Isaiah, but from this chapter of comfort, from God's insistence on grace in spite of everything.6 Now, John the Baptist is not one we usually think of when we think of comfort. The man wore camel hair and ate locusts, for goodness' sake! Whenever I think of John the Baptist, I think of an internet meme (that I mention every Advent) that goes around seminarians and bible nerds that depicts a hairy caveman-type guy with the caption: Merry Christmas you brood of vipers! Now Repent! Does not sound much like John the Baptist is speaking tenderly to us. His are the words we expect to hear in a world as messed up as ours. He names our sin and the sin of the world and calls us to face it head on. And we need to do so. We need to repent. But we also need to hear words of comfort and grace.

So again I come to that question: where is that comfort? For the ancient Israelites, living under occupation and exile even though times were changing, where was that comfort? For us, living with the weight of the sinful nature of the system of so-called justice in this country as well as just all the personal struggles we have, where is the comfort?

Our comfort comes in believing that unbelievable promise God has made and keeps making to us: that no matter how mired in sin we get ourselves both individually and collectively, God loves us so much that God will save us. God will change the world, and invites us to work alongside God, to make way for God's redemption. Preparing the way of the Lord is about repentance, yes, but it is also about letting God's promise of grace soften our hearts.

For me, I start to believe the promise when I see stories not only about people speaking out against the violence in our nation, calling us all to repentance, but also in stories about grace. Some of the pictures I have seen since Ferguson have been of children holding “free hugs” signs at protests of police brutality. It is a powerful witness, even pointed because it slashes through stereotypes of black criminality by showing child-like innocence. And in one of the most viral pictures, one of those children is hugging a police officer. Devonte Hart held up a “free hugs” sign at a police barricade and was crying, so finally one of the police officers went over to him and had a conversation about what Devonte was crying about. The cameras didn't catch the conversation and the apology for the fear Devonte lived in that the police officer gave, but one caught the hug when the police officer took Devonte up on his sign's offer. That was a moment of grace, a police officer comforting a young boy, and a young boy courageously reaching out in love when in our world it seems so much easier to hate. The police officer still wore riot gear, and in interviews since does not seem to speak too deeply about the systemic racism in this country, but that conversation he and Devonte had was a way of preparing the way of the Lord too.7

The comfort may be brief, but it gives us a grace-full glimpse into the redeemed world God has in mind for us. Jesus' ministry was heralded with words that follow the cry for comfort from Isaiah 40: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Preparing the way of the Lord involves repentance as John the Baptist preaches, but it also involves nurturing the comforting presence of God, touching all with grace.

Later in these verses we read this morning, we see God admit that the pervasive nature of grace does not mean that sin is no more. Hear these words from Isaiah: A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field...The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. We are grass. We wither and fade. The injustices we have created and that we endure now will one day wither and fade. But God's word of love will stand forever.

God's word of love will stand in spite of the continued violence of racism we live under in this country. And God's word of love will stand in spite of our addictions to that which kills us. God's word of love will stand in spite of grief and bad parenting and hurtful conversations and our general anxieties. As unbelievable as it is, this is the good news we proclaim as Christians this Advent season. Let us get up to a high mountain, as we read in Isaiah, and herald these good tidings of great joy; let us lift up our voices with strength--- lift them up, without fear. Let us say to this broken, hurting, sinful and sinned-against world in word and in action: “Here is our God!” Here in love and grace, here in hope and comfort, here is our God. Amen. 
1The chapter opens with God addressing a kind of heavenly council. See Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, eds. Leander E. Keck, et. al (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2011), 334.
2See, for instance, Benjamin D. Sommer, “Isaiah: Introduction,” The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 780-784.
3For this comparison between First and Second Isaiah's content, I looked to George W. Stroup, “Theological Perspective: Isaiah 40:1-11,” Second Sunday of Advent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 26-30; and Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11,” 7 December 2008, Working Preacher,
4Kathleen M. O'Connor, Exegetical Perspective on Isaiah 40:1-11, Second Sunday of Advent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 27.
5“This unnamed heavenly voice calls for a radical transformation of earthly topography in prelude to a mind-blowing revelation of the glory of the Lord (cf. Exodus 24:16; Ezekiel 43:5) to all people. Not just Judah and Jerusalem, but all people 'as one' are to see it.” Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11,”
6See, for instance, Billy D. Strayhorn, A Voice in the Wilderness: Isaiah 40:1-11, Sermon Options: December 7, 2014, Ministry Matters, 18 October 2014,

7For story, see Lilly Workneh, “Photo Of Young Boy Hugging Officer At Ferguson Rally Goes Viral And Becomes 'Icon Of Hope,'” 30 November 2014, The Huffington Post, accessed 6 December 2014,