November 29, 2009
It is Christmas Eve. The sanctuary is dimly lit, with most of the light radiating from the Advent wreath placed front and center. For the first time since the beginning of the Advent season, all five candles are lit – one candle for each of the four Sundays and a central candle, taller than the rest, to signal the long-awaited birth of Jesus Christ.
A hush falls over the expectant congregation as the lay reader takes her place and opens the large pulpit Bible to Isaiah 9:6. She pauses for a moment and looks out at the upturned faces in the pews. “Hear the word of the Lord,” she urges them with quiet confidence and then begins to read:
Authority rests upon his shoulders; And he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
“This is the word of the Lord,” she concludes, and the congregation responds with one voice, “Thanks be to God!”
“Thanks be to God!” Ann’s voice is one of many in that dimly lit sanctuary on Christmas Eve, and she voices her affirmation with enthusiasm as she remembers reading that verse in her senior high Sunday school class the previous week. Now, though, it somehow seems different. Maybe it was just hearing it read so close to Christmas, but for the first time she is struck by how incredible it is that these words had been written centuries before Jesus’ birth. How did the prophet Isaiah know? It is just like a miracle. In fact, she wonders which is the greater miracle – the birth itself, or the fact that a man predicted his coming years before? Either way, it makes her even more certain that the Bible is, indeed, the “word of the Lord.”“Thanks be to God,” Jim affirms, even as his mind races with all the information that's been poured into his head during the last few weeks of his Old Testament class at the seminary. And at the moment he was thinking about how odd it was hearing this scripture read on Christmas Eve – because it wasn't Jesus he and his classmates had been studying about in the passage. It was King Hezekiah, King of Israel, born during the time of the prophet Isaiah, born to bring hope to a nation suffering under God's impending judgment. His professor had suggested to them that Isaiah was actually writing here about Hezekiah, a contemporary of the prophet, rather than a man who wouldn't walk the earth for hundreds of years. The arguments for understanding it this way are pretty convincing, he has to admit, but he still isn't sure he's ready to give up the idea that it might be about Jesus as well. Is it possible that it could be about both?
“Thanks be to God!” Marie can hardly speak it, but it isn't because she doesn't feel thankful. Far from it. Instead, her heart is so full of emotion and her throat so choked with tears that she can't get anything out. She is holding the reason for her unbridled joy in her very arms. She and her husband had come to the service that night with their newborn son. It is their first time out in public since the baby came a week earlier. They had arrived late, of course, not used to the production that is packing for a newborn. When they finally made their way into the sanctuary, the only seats left were all the way at the front. She had been a little embarrassed about making such an entrance. But now, as she looks into the wide, bright eyes of their firstborn son, she sees with delight that they are reflecting the light of the Christ candle in the Advent wreath. And when the woman read, “For a child has been born for us, a son give to us….” Marie almost started to cry. “Thanks be to God!” She had said those words a hundred times in the past week, but she never meant them more than she did now! (Adapted from Hallelujah: The Bible and Handel's Messiah, a Kerygma Bible study written by Carol Betchel)The Good News. That's what those three people heard that night as scripture was read in their Christmas Eve service. They heard the Good News, and it meant different things to them. To one it meant wonder and awe, to another it meant the convergence of two histories, and to another it meant the joy of new life. The Good News came into their lives and spoke deeply to them; and it does the same for us. The Good News enters our hearts and minds and changes us forever; calling us to communion with one another, and filling us with good things.
The Good News has been spoken time and time again, down through the generations. For Isaiah, it came to a people in crisis, struggling for their survival. The enemies of Israel were closing in on them, having already vanquished their cousins to the north. Impending destruction loomed. And not only that, but their king was a weak ruler who did not follow in the ways of the Lord. All hope was lost – until a future king named Hezekiah was born; and he would become a great leader for the people. This is the Good News of the Lord: Thanks be to God!The Good News came to a group of random shepherds out in the countryside one night, the sky lit in full from the glow of the moon and a rather strange star. It came to them in the voice of an angel who appeared before them; a messenger telling them of a baby's birth. It filled them with good things and compelled them to leave their flocks and make their way to the city of David. The Good News was sung to them as a “multitude of heavenly hosts” proclaimed:
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!
This is the Good News of the Lord: Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God. We repeat that mantra every Sunday after scripture is read in our worship. But do we really understand what it is we are truly thankful for? Do we really take time to ponder this “Good News?” We know that “Advent” means “coming,” and that a very special baby is close to arriving in our midst. But along with that, what else is coming into our lives; what other things lead us “haul out the holly” and schedule our seasonal get-togethers and rack up significant credit card bills that catch up to us in January?What is this Good News – I mean, besides the obvious? It's a question worth asking, isn't it? Because we are a people in desperate need of good news in our world. When we scan the newspapers and read about job losses and kidnapped children, we need some good news! When our community suffers the death of beloved members in the span of just a few weeks, we need some good news! When life's responsibilities burden us to the point where we wonder why we do the things we do, we need some good news! And when the needs of the lonely, the hungry, the homeless and the broken overwhelm us, we need some good news!
Advent comes every year, like clockwork, and reminds us that the Good News we so desperately seek is found in a most amazing place – in the birth of a child; whether it's an Israelite king recognized by a prophet or a young Nazarene Jew born to a carpenter and teenage girl. And this child is so special that he deserves not one name but many: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The joy of Advent is found when we celebrate this miracle in our midst. The challenge of Advent comes when we try to hold onto the miraculous, the outstanding, the divine as our nosed is pressed to the glass; as our foot pushes the pedal to the metal. It is hard to live into the nuances of Luke's angel and Isaiah's prophecy when we're head-first in overdrive. It is hard to properly start the Advent journey when we've long been out of the gate.But if we take the time to look – to really look – we see Wonderful and Mighty and Everlasting come to life, right before our eyes in the man this young child would become. We see “Wonderful Counselor” at the well, talking to a maligned Samaritan woman. He knows more about her than she knows about herself, and his words fill her with such conviction and joy that she goes into the city and spreads the word about this man. Wonderful Counselor indeed!
We see “Mighty God” at the place of mourning, where many – including Jesus himself – have gathered in their sorrow. And even he – he whose birth was the occasion of a legion of angels – even he is not immune to the grief of losing a friend. Jesus goes to the tomb and cries, “Lazarus, come out.” And when the dead man emerges with his hands and feet still bound by the grave cloths, everyone knows: Mighty God indeed!We see “Everlasting Father” as the disciples are gathered around the table for a time of meal and fellowship, as Philip speaks up and says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus looks at him, his eyes full of love and disbelief at the same time, and says, “Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Everlasting Father indeed!
And we see “Prince of Peace” throughout his life, as countless people mistaken Jesus' intentions, assuming he is positioning himself to lead a military revolt to drive the Romans out of Jerusalem and return the land to Jewish control. But Jesus would forever frustrate those misguided assumptions, basing his rule on truth, justice and righteousness; advocating the turning of cheeks and calling peacemakers blessed. Prince of Peace indeed!Friends, this is why we begin our season with scriptures that remind us of angels' Good News and births that inject hope into the hopeless. This is why we light these candles and prepare for a season that will come and go too quickly for our tastes. This is why we both speak and hear those responsive words “Thanks be to God!” with a well-deep of meaning – because you and I have come face to face with the Wonderful, Mighty, Everlasting, Peaceful God. We know this is Good News not because of anything we've done for him, but for what he has done for us. Not because he is fashioned by our own desires and needs, but because he's been hand-picked by a God who loved us enough to have him born into our very presence.
And so we gather together with Anns and Jims and Maries of the world; we gather with those sitting next to us in the pews; we gather with Christians in this community and in this country and all over the world. On this first Sunday of Advent we celebrate the good news of the Wonderful, Mighty, Everlasting God who was born to us. And we say those four words in response – not because we must, but because we may; not because we've heard them before but because they've never sounded better. We say those words together: Thanks Be To God!Thanks be to God indeed! AMEN.