Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent Sermon--Days After a California Shooting

photo by le vent le cri / flickr

Little Michael was four years old. And he loved books. And every night his Mother or Father would have to come in and read him a story before he went to sleep . He had one favorite book. And every night he would want to read this particular book. And so one of his parents would begin. Page after page. He just about knew it by heart. And some nights his Mother or Daddy would be tired and try to skip a page or two. “No. no” Michael would say, “You skipped two pages go back.” Michael loved that story. Some days he would take his special book, put it on the floor and stand on it. He thought if he closed his eyes, scrunched down just a little…that he would go into that story. That he could be part of the book. One day his Mother came in and he was standing on the book. Just standing there crying. And   Mother said, “What’s wrong?” “I’m trying to get into the book. I want to be part of the story.”

And for two thousand years now on our better days—we, like Michael, open this book and are trying to get into the story. Hoping that the Bible becomes our book.  And this story somehow becomes our story.

Isaiah may be my favorite book in the Bible. It tells the story of one of the defining times in the
photo by Brian Smithson / flickr
history of Israel. They called it exile. It is found in Isaiah 40-55. That terrible, terrible time in Israel’s history when their country was invaded and they were taken captive by the Babylonians. All the sharp and talented ones were dragged 700 miles from home. They lived there against their will for 50 years. You can well imagine how they felt. Far from home. Homesick. Missing relatives and place and freedom. Missing their little garden. Despair and depression ran through their villages like a plague. Wanting to go home. Their children began to take on Babylonian customs. Older ones wanted to marry these foreigners. It was an awful, awful time. And the Psalmist captured their feelings when he wrote: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?” And this was the context in which Isaiah spoke. He too was a captive and God used him to help his people in a hard time. 

Isaiah turned them away from their troubles, their despair and all their grumbling. He turned them toward God. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”(28-29) Embedded in those wonderful promises we find hope and faith and I think love, too. Look up, my friends, he said, look up. Beyond all the hard, hard things of our lives. Let us Fix our eyes on God. This is where we must hang on faith.

Verses 30-31 Isaiah spoke to his people and to their present condition. It, too was a word of faith and a word of promise. And like little Michael—I wonder if we could not stand on this book—like the old gospel song goes, “Standing on the Promises.” Making this story our story.  I don’t know a better word for the time in which we live. Listen: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

If we can put these words down beside our lives, our church and where we are right now. If we can these words down beside our country and the whole world—I wonder what it would mean? I think it would mean that if we can find the faith that these others have found in their hard times. And Christmas will take on a power and energy that can help us for all the days that follow. 

Exile seems to be as good a definition of where we are as anything I know. Like Israel—everything
photo by thierry hermann / flickr
around us seems to have changed. Everything. We moved back here after being gone for some 20 years. And I felt like Rip Van Winkle. I’d see somebody I haven’t seen in a long time—and I would whisper to my wife, “They look old.” And they are whispering to their wives, “He sure does look old.”  Change. Up and down College Avenue the school has bull dozers going in every direction. Why the Clemson House is coming down. Change. And the kids don’t talk any more. All they do is text. Changes everywhere. We have a black President. We have two women running for President. And we turn on the TV and hear about ISIS. And the politicians scaring the daylights out of us. We’ve been at war for 15 years and there seems to be no end.  We worry about the world we are hurling our children and grandchildren into.  We hear this terrible news from France…and Colorado and now California. The politicians seem to be all beating the fear drum. Fear, folks, is no way to run a campaign or a country—for that dog will come back to bite us. Scared people make terrible decisions. Change. When I was in Birmingham my friend Dale left the church he served and moved on. Nine months laster, on Easter Sunday—a member came to church and looked around and said, ”Where’s Dale? Where is Dale?” Dale had been gone for nine months. Change. We want it to be like it used to be. Exile is a proper word for where we are. The whole terrain of our lives has shifted and changed and some days we just don’t know.

And we come to church and it’s Christmas—and we bring with us all the troubled things that those exiles brought long ago. Wondering, wondering about the present and the future. And we open the old book and listen…much like Michael. Hoping the story will become our story.  

I want to tell you this morning two stories that relate to the background of our lives and our time. And I want to tie both of these to the faith-words of our text.

photo from Lake Mead Public Affairs / flickr
 The first story comes from a Pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, John Claypool. He and his wife woke up one morning to every parent’s nightmare. Their little eight-year-old girl was very sick and they took her to the Doctor. The Doctor ran all sorts of tests and then called in the parents. He told them that their daughter had advanced leukemia. There was no cure. The doctor told them that they would do all they could do but they needed to know, short of a miracle she would not make it. They went home and tried to make it through the next few days. The church gave him a month off. After he came back to the pulpit he preached three sermons on his little girl. The first sermon he preached his first Sunday back in the pulpit. He preached another sermon nine months later when she relapsed. 18 months after her diagnosis she died her room in her own bed one cold silent morning. and Dr. Claypool preached a third sermon on his loss. The sermons became a book, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler. And over a million copies have been sold. In those sermons he talked about what he had learned in the darkness. His own terrible exile. And what he said was that he found his own story in the book. He was learning that there are days when we soar like eagles. There are other days when we run and we are not even weary. And then he said but what he had experienced with his daughter was that there were some days when it took your strength just to try to walk. And even that was hard. 
photo by Atilla Kefeli

It doesn’t matter what our condition is. The Israelites, years and years before the Exile searched for a Promised Land to call home. And the book of Exodus looked back and wrote of those days: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Deut. 19.4) So there are days when they soared and in their despair they needed to remember that. There were other days, Isaiah said when they ran and they were not even weary. It seemed like they could do anything. And yet there were other days when they were given just enough strength not to faint. Just enough to go through whatever it is they had to go through. Dr. Claypool said he and his wife in that hard, hard time foundjust enough strength not to faint. 

photo by Michael (a.k.a. moik) McC
That’s faith, too. Not just on the days you soar and run—but on even the hardest days in your life we really can stand on the promises. God is there and he is leading us even then. Dr. Claypool went on and served several churches with distinction. He told this story over and over and people all over were blessed by his words. He wrote a multitude of books and his last church was St. Luke’s Church in Birmingham. 

What does this have to do with the promises in the book? Or you or me? Everything. God is a God for all seasons. Even in the darkness God is there. And will lead this country and church through these hard days. And he will lead you through whatever you face. Twice in our Scripture we have the word: strength. God promised: I will give you the strength you need.  T
photo by Denish C / flickr
his word strength comes from the root-word, rope or twine. God takes the strands of our lives, weak though they may be and he weaves them together into a strength that holds us fast. That is quite a promise.

Strange footnote to this story. On the staff of that same church where Dr. Claypool served in Louisville was his Minister of Education. This Minister also had a nine-year old daughter and her name, too was Laura. His little girl played with the Pastor’s daughter and they were good friends. Not long after Dr. Claypool’s daughter died this other little girl, Laura was diagnosed with leukemia too. Weeks later she was gone and that family, too faced the terrible task of trying to pick up the pieces and move on. And the church was grieving so terribly for these two losses.  Later that year the father of this second little girl wrote a poem about his family’s trying ordeal. 

Was the grass really ever green
Were the sounds of birds really clearly heard
And did we picnic in the park just six short months ago
Here in mid-winter they seem so far away
The naked trees, the leaden skies seem always to have been
And seem out ahead for all time
Were things really ever green
And will spring come back again?

Yes, the spring will return
The gray, dull days of cold will pass
The routine now imprisoning us will be broken up
A new excitement will be awakened by new possibilities
The despair that now engulfs us will subside
A word of hope will come to us
Our presumption that all is lost will be replaced 
    by a renewed expectancy.
Future will become a possibility again
The crush of demand will not dominate us forever
Out of liberation we will learn to choose
And in our choices to be secure.

The sadness now weighing upon us will be lifted
Joy will speak her acknowledgment of grief and
   will sound her call to us
The cause of sadness will not have vanished
But joy will come in spite of it
We will laugh again
We will sing and dance
We will celebrate the life now given to us.

The conflicts now engaging our energy will be
   Worked through
No wind will sweep them from us
We will go through them
   and we will survive 
Redemption will come of our transactions
Relationships will be rescued and restored
And where breaks are too deep to be one,
Healing will come in time, though apart
The tension tearing at our being will be resolved
We will not be destroyed.

Were things really ever green
And will the spring come back again
Yes, yes as sure as e’re it were here
Yes, yes as sure as God is
The spring will return
And it will be green again.”*
photo by Doug / flickr

Friends, there are days when we soar like the eagles…
There are days when we run and it looks like we could run forever…
And then there are dull-grey days when we wonder if we have even enough strength to stumble along and not to faint.

Who would have ever, ever believed it? We do foolish things this Christmas like lighting candles. We sing, “Comfort ye…comfort ye…” We decorate our church and our homes. In a time of exile—our exile—we stand on the promises.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”( Isaiah 40.28-31)

Maybe little Michael was right after all. We really can enter the story. Even in a time of exile. Especially in a time of exile.

photo by Denis Collette / flickr

*G. Temp Sparkman, quoted in Roger Lovette's, A Faith of our Own (Philadelphia, The Pilgrim Press, 1976) p. 125-127

(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC, 2nd Sunday in Advent, 12-6-15)

--Roger Lovette /

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