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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When the King Comes, God is With Us

Good morning. So 10 days until Christmas! Who’s excited? I know that realization might inspire a variety of reactions this morning. I'm going to guess that for all of the kids that is awesome news. I'm going to guess for some of the rest of you it’s a mix of excitement and anticipation, seeing friends and family, celebrating traditions; and dread. Maybe it's because like me, you still have presents to get, or because this is the first Christmas without a loved one, or because you're not sure what Christmas will look like this year, or because you know what Christmas will look like this year and it's not good. I think that mix of emotions, that mix of reactions is a pretty good representation of what Advent is like. Excited anticipation mixed with a little worry, fear and uncertainty.
Today we're continuing this sermon series on what happens when the king comes. We've talked about when the king come there's light and peace and today we're going to talk about how when the king comes, God is with us, Immanuel. We've been reading from Isaiah these past weeks, and as we know Isaiah was a prophet who was telling God's people what God had to say. We've talked about what Isaiah said about the king that was to come and the vision of how things would be when the king came. And today's text talks about a sign that will show that the king is coming. 
This week understanding the background of what was going on with the characters in the text is really important. We’ve talked about the not-so-good situation that the Israelites were in, but Isaiah's prophecy about this king to come happens while there is a war threatening the kingdom of Judah. The king at that time was King Ahaz, and he is trying to figure out what he should do to save his kingdom. They are not a military powerhouse, they don't have strong allies, they don’t have favors to call in, the odds are against them and Ahaz is worried that they're going to be completely wiped out if they don't get this right. He's getting pressure to join alliances, but he realizes that he and his country will basically be a pawn. There really isn't a clear solution, just a sense of impending doom. So in today's text King Ahaz talking to Isaiah and Isaiah tells him not to worry or fear, easier said than done right? So then Isaiah tells him that he's supposed to ask God for a sign. Now Ahaz tells Isaiah that he doesn't want to test God, honestly it probably seems like a trap since testing God was not something that you were supposed to do. But Ahaz isn't really that pious, he's actually scared of what God might tell him or what the sign might be. I imagine that his situation must have been so overwhelming that he was pretty much paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. There didn't seem to be any good way out of the situation so asking God for a sign might just be more than he could handle at that point. So Isaiah figures this out and tells him "fine, you won't ask God for a sign? God's going to give you a sign anyway, whether you like it or not." And here's the sign: a young woman will have a baby and name him Immanuel and this child will be the sign that things will get better for the Israelites. Probably not what Ahaz was expecting, and you know what, it doesn't really help his situation at that point!
I wonder what we do and what we should do when we're faced with overwhelming situations in our lives. I've thought a lot this week about what we do when things aren't going well in our lives. This past week we've experienced an unexpected death in our congregation, mourned the death of Nelson Mandela, suffered another school shooting while remembered the anniversary of the Newtown shootings, and all that on top of the anticipation, excitement, stress and anxiety of the holidays and everything else going on in our lives. I don't know what else you have going on in your life, but this can be a pretty overwhelming time.  
I imagine that's a little bit what like King Ahaz felt, just plain overwhelmed, so weighed down by the circumstances in our lives that we can't imagine what to do next. One morning this week I was watching the news and I saw a segment about the Newtown shootings and they had the father of one of the little girls who was killed write a letter to himself. 

 I imagine that none of us would know how we could make it through such a tragedy, until we have to go through it. I can only imagine that it's probably the most overwhelming thing in a person’s life, and I imagine that we would all be asking some of these same questions.
Sometimes these situations, whether they are a death, a betrayal, abuse or tragedy, are so overwhelming that we are scared to ask God for a sign too, too scared to ask God those questions that we have. We worry that we might be scared and even more overwhelmed by the way God might respond. I tried to list this week all the bad things that can happen in our lives for which we wish we could ask God for a sign or an answer. Everything from disappointment to illness to abuse to war. There's a lot of times where we just want to ask why? Why God? Why would you let this happen? How are we going to make it through this? How we will survive? And as I thought about all those things that happen in our lives, as I thought about all of questions we have for God, all of the times we wish that God would just explain to us what the heck is going on, I began to think more and more about God's sign, God's answer to Ahaz's overwhelming predicament. 
God's sign to Ahaz is a little confusing, a little vague and it probably didn't make immediate sense. How is this baby who's not even born yet going to solve the very real immediate problem that Judah was going through? God doesn't give Ahaz a secret weapon to defeat those who were threatening them. God didn't take away the threat or the tumultuous situation, no David and Goliath this time. God didn't even explain to him how it was all going to work out in the end. God said, I'm giving you Immanuel; I will be with you. The answer to all your questions, the fix for all this is my presence. 
Now we jump ahead to Matthew and see that he interprets this text to make a connection to Jesus. Matthew wrote his gospel specifically to Jews, so they would have been familiar with this text from Isaiah and been able to make this connection too. The writer believed and we do too, that we can better understand Isaiah because we now know who he was talking about and we can see how Jesus fulfilled his prophecy. Now you'll notice Mary didn't name her baby Immanuel, but that doesn’t negate Isaiah’s prophecy, the name Immanuel has a deeper, more profound meaning, especially when we connect it to Jesus. It isn't his given name, or the name he was called or went by, but it is who he is. Because Immanuel, whether you spell it with an I or an E, means God with us. We believe that in the truest sense that Jesus was and is God with us, Immanuel. Now we don't know for sure if Ahaz "got it" or if any of this made sense for him, but God's sign to him is a sign to us too.
I wouldn't doubt that sometimes we wonder, especially during Advent, how this baby who's not even born yet going to solve our very real and immediate problems? How the heck is Jesus going to solve my problems? And the truth, much like in Ahaz's case, is that God is not necessarily going to solve your problems. The answer to your problems is not always going to be clean-cut and easy to swallow. The more funerals I do, the more tragedy and injustice that I witness, the more convinced I am, that I will never have the answers, I will never be able to give families an explanation of why their loved one died, and any attempt at that will never be satisfying. I won't be able to explain why injustice and evil and poverty are allowed to exist and I know now if I try it will never be true or satisfying. I know that we want answers, I know we want to be able to explain and fully understand why life is the way it is, but we can't. We want to be able to navigate the ups and downs and questions and heartaches of life, but the more we try, I think the more unsatisfied we are. God knows that. I think that God knows and God gives us the same answer he gave King Ahaz: Immanuel, God is with us. While all of our attempts at answering the tough questions of life aren't satisfying, God's presence is. While we crave understanding and explanation, a little deeper is the desire to just feel God's presence. God's presence doesn't necessarily solve the problem or take away the hurt or pain or grief, but it somehow satisfies. It brings that peace that passes understanding that we talked about last week, and somehow it's enough.
So what is the thing right now in your life? What are you looking for a sign for? What question have you been trying to answer? And what if God's answer is just Immanuel? That God is with you? My prayer for you all this week is that whether you're going through something right now or not, you will in the future, that through all the questions and doubts that God's presence will be the overwhelming answer, that even though it won't make sense, that God's presence will be enough, will be satisfying your longing. And isn’t that what Advent’s about, isn’t that what we’re waiting for? When the king comes, God is with us. God's response to the way this world is, the pain and heartache and sin is simply God's presence. No quick fixes, no once and for all miracles, no detailed plans for fixing it all, but Immanuel, God with us. Amen. 

Pastor Jen Hibben 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

When the King Comes, There is Peace

So welcome to the second week of Advent. Today you saw that we lit the candle of peace; last week's candle represented hope and this week we focus on thepeace that Christ brings. You know the journey of Advent is meant to be a time for us to anticipate and to wait for the coming of Jesus, to anticipate the changes that he made and continues to make in our lives and in the world. This waiting, of course, is not unique to us. We see in the reading from Isaiah today that the Israelites were waiting too, waiting for a kingdom that was better than the one that they had, waiting for a king that was better and greater than any king they had before. Our waiting in Advent helps connect us to the waiting of the Israelites, the waiting for the Messiah, the waiting for the kingdom of God. Last week Dr. Daniel talked about how when the king comes there is light. He gave us an idea of how life would be different for us when we live in the light of God that’s ushered in by Jesus. We can imagine what it's like to live in darkness, some of us probably know what it feels like, and some of us probably feel like we're living in darkness right now. So we can imagine the need, the deep desire to live in the light, to have the light of God illuminating our lives. 

And today I want to talk about peace; about how the Israelites waited for a king to come, a king who would bring peace and wonder about how we too are waiting for peace in our own lives...

You know we're fortunate to live in a country and a time that is not characterized by war, or foreign occupation, political, social or religiousoppression. Truthfully those things exist here and some experience them more so than others, but we cannot deny that we enjoy lives of comfort and freedom and relative peace especially compared with our brothers and sisters around the world. The people of Israel were not so fortunate in the time of the prophet Isaiah.Although they were God's chosen people they had experienced war, oppression, maltreatment and discrimination and exile. Their situation was pretty bad and they were desperate for change, but they were stuck waiting. And as we see in the scripture for today, Isaiah gives them a vision of what things will be like when change comes, when the King comes. He describes a king that is better than they can imagine. They thought that King David was awesome, but this king is going to be way better than that, the perfect king. And at this point the Israelites are pretty desperate for a good king, a king that will restore them to glory, or at the least justmake things better. I imagine that when Isaiah describes this king, the Israelites areon the edge of their seats with desperationalmost salivating, if you can salivateover something that you're not going to eat. This king Isaiah describes is wise and understanding, strong, righteous, filled with the spirit, fears the Lord, judges with equity and a preference for the poor and oppressed and that destroys evil. Just what they need. But what Isaiah says in the reading for today is that this great kingdoesn't come alone, the king brings with him a kingdom, a kingdom of peace. Where the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling, the leopard and the kid, babies and dangerous snakes all co-exist without the fear; /where natural enemies rest and play together. /The king does not just bring himself, he brings a kingdom of peace. 

Obviously in Isaiah's time the Israelites didn't know about Jesus per se, they didn't know who this king would be. We as Christians can look back at this scripture and say that there is a clear connection to Jesus and that Jesus is in fact this king and does in fact bring the kingdom of God to earth and with that, peace. Now we talked a few weeks ago about the fact that the kingdom of God is alreadyhere, but not fully here yet, that we still have a ways to go to make the whole world look like the kingdom of God. So much like the Israelites, I wonder what peace looks like for us. Like the stereotypical Miss Americas of the world, we can hope and pray and dream about world peace, but what does that look like? What would it mean for there to be real peace and how does Jesus bring that to our lives? 

I think one way is that the king brings peace to our hearts. I’m convinced that we have to experience God's peace in our own lives in order to understand better what peace really is. Jesus talks about a peace that passes understanding, and I think that if you've experienced God's peace, you know what that means, but you probably can’t describe it either. Those of you who have lost loved ones, butsomehow feel a sense of God's presence and peace; those of you who have lost jobs, but somehow didn't fear the future; those of you who have experienced pain, and hurt and anger, but somehow didn't become bitter, somehow were able to forgive; it doesn’t seem possible, but it is. You all know that peace that passes understanding. This is not a peace that we can manufacture for ourselves, Jesus said it is not peace in the way that the world knows or experiences peace. There are plenty of people who are searching desperately for this kind of peace and look to drugs or alcohol or gambling or sex or food or fill in the blank. They’ll tell you that they don’t find a peace that passes understanding. It’s only when God enters our lives, our space, our hearts and minds, that there's peace; /a peace that’s not dependent on circumstances. And that experience of peace allows us to make it through things we didn't think we could, and that experience of peace inspires us to help others have that experience too, and that experience of peace gives us a glimpse into the kingdom that we can share with the world. When the king comes there is peace in our hearts. 

And when we have God's peace in our hearts, we can have peace in our relationships. When the king comes into our relationships there is peace. You know the holidays can be a really difficult time of year for people who have broken relationships; this is the time of year that a lot of us feel that desperation for peace in our relationships. With parents or siblings, or children, or friends, coworkers andneighbors and especially with God. Those broken relationships, the strain of those broken relationships robs us of peace. One of the main problems for the Israelites was their broken relationship with God. They believed that once they had a new king, the king God had chosen, that there would be peace. But God knew better, God knew that they just didn't need a new ruler, they needed a healed relationship with God. So God sent Godself in the person of Jesus not only to bring peace in the ways they understood peace, but to bring peace to their relationship with God. God sent Godself to fix the relationship. When we talk about the king bringing peace to our relationships, first and foremost that's our relationship with God. But once we have peace in our relationship with God, God can bring that peace to our relationships with others. Part of the peaceful kingdom that Isaiah describes is the change in relationships between natural enemies; wolves and lambs, lions and calves, babies and poisonous snakes. Their relationships, usually ones of predator and prey are made peaceful; fear, violence, intimidation, tension are gone. If you think of those broken relationships in your life, isn't that what you want too?Freedom from the fear and tension, the feelings of hostility and anger? The opposites of peace. When we give God permission to work in our hearts and in our relationships we can have that peace. I'm not saying that relationships will be instantly restored, but I do believe that God will make a way for there to be peace.Because when the king comes, when the king enters our relationships, there is peace. 

And when the king comes there is peace for the world. Like I said, this might seem like a lofty aspiration, a pie in the sky goal, it might seem impossible, but it is part of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the king we're talking about today, the kingdom that Isaiah describes. I know that it's hard to imagine how we as individuals, as a church, as a community can be a part of world peace, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be trying. We don't have to start with a country across the world, when we talk about peace on earth, we mean everywhere and that includes West Des Moines, Iowa. What can we do as a church in our community, our state, our country, our continent and in all the world to bring a little more of God's peace? The United Methodist Church has been working tirelessly on a campaign called Imagine No Malaria. The goal is to eradicate the disease by providing mosquito nets, a simple and effective defense against the disease. I try to imagine the fear, the tension, the anxiety that might go with laying down to bed every night and wondering if tonight I’ll get bitten by a Malaria-carrying mosquito. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but I can imagine the relief, the peace that would go with that threat being eliminated. You heard earlier that we’re raising money to help provide adequate housing both here in Des Moines and in El Salvador through Habitat for Humanity. Can you imagine the fear and unrest of not always knowingwhere you’re going to sleep at night? Of wondering if your children will have asafe place to sleep at night? Can you imagine living in a house that at any time could be destroyed by the elements? That’s made of whatever you could find? Now imagine the sheer relief, the sense of peace you would feel to suddenly be given safe, functional, comfortable housing? That’s a huge sense of peace, and those ARE things that we can participate in. I think that we get mixed up easily thinking that world peace only has to do with a lack of military violence. I definitely think that’s part of it, but it’s not all of it and it’s not the only thing we need to be aware of or working on. World peace looks people not having to live in fear, fear of abuse, violence, starvation, oppression, discrimination, deportation and the list goes on. As followers of Jesus, and subjects of this king, citizens of the kingdom of God, we have a role to play in peace. We are to be a part of bringing more and more of the kingdom to earth; and when the king comes there is peace in the world.

I’m not sure where you fit into this today, yesterday and tomorrow might be different too. Do you need peace in your own heart? we probably all do; do we need peace in our relationships? you bet; do we need peace in the world? Without a doubt. God calls us to ALL of these things, not just one, but today my prayer is that God has pointed one out to you, that God has said to you, “you know what that’s like don’t you?” That God has said to you “doesn’t that sound good?” And for all of you who have heard God today, and for those of you who will hear it tomorrow, or the next day or the next, I want you to know this: /The king is coming, / the king is coming and when the king comes, there’s peace,/ there really is peace. Amen.

Pastor Jen Hibben