Monday, December 24, 2007

Emmanuel -- God is With Us

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

The wait is over. If you’re not finished with your Christmas shopping, it’s too late. By the time we’re finished singing the last carol, the stores will all be closed. In fact, even Starbucks will be closed. And so it’s time to put aside the hustle and bustle of a season that starts earlier every year.

Now that the day is here and the children are eagerly eyeing the presents under the tree, hoping that their every wish will be fulfilled, it’s time to stop and consider the true meaning of Christmas. It’s the kind of question Charlie Brown was asking. He didn’t find it in the pageant or in hunting for Christmas trees. Finally in desperation he cried out, begging for someone to give him an answer that made sense. It is at this point that
Linus steps out and tells the story of the First Christmas from the perspective of St. Luke.
We have come here tonight because, like Charlie Brown, we need to hear that Christmas is more than food, aluminum trees, and bright lights.


Both of the Bible’s Christmas stories speak of light shining in the darkness. During our journey through Advent we may have felt this darkness pressing in on us, and yet we’ve also heard promises each week about this light that will disperse the darkness and bring hope of a new beginning to our lives.

Yesterday we sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and in the second verse we sang:

"O Come, thou Day-Spring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here,
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and deaths deep shadows put to flight."

The question is: Where will this light come from? Where should we be looking?
Isaiah and Matthew tell us to look for a child whose name will be called Emmanuel, which means "God With Us." This child, who is called Emmanuel, is the light that will "disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and deaths deep shadows put to flight."

Now Matthew and Isaiah seem to have different things in mind. One speaks of a child to be born in the 8th Century B.C.E. whose birth will bring hope to the people of Judah – perhaps an heir to the throne. Matthew takes this passage from Isaiah and speaks to his own day. In both cases, however, the writers address the eternal longing we have to be in the presence of God. In this little child, Matthew says to us, God is present, and by receiving this child into our lives we will experience oneness with God.


Too often we get caught up in the how of this passage and miss the point. If we focus on the science of whether a virgin can have a child, then we have lost sight of the mystery that is God.

Theologians speak of the incarnation – the idea that God is so completely present in a human being that when we see this child we can say – there is God. When we see him, we can know God intimately. Now theologians have been arguing about how this happens for the past 2000 years, but ultimately it is something we must receive as a mystery of God.

One way of doing this is to see the incarnation in sacramental terms. Pope John Paul II described it this way. Jesus is the "Sacrament of the Invisible God -- a sacrament that indicates presence. God is with us. God, infinitely perfect, is not only with man, but he Himself became a man in Jesus Christ."1 The invitation of Christmas is to see in Jesus – from the beginning of his life to the end, the visible sacramental presence of the invisible God. When we look at his life and listen to his words, then God is revealed to us. And that is what Christmas is all about – the unveiling of the invisible God.

Matthew doesn't tell us anything about stables or shepherds. That’s in Luke. But what Matthew does is remind us about how scandalous this birth really was. Joseph was on the verge of putting his wife away, since they were not yet married and she was pregnant. This isn't the way you would expect God to be revealed. Even if God didn't choose to make a grand entrance, you would at least expect it come off without a scandal.

But that’s the point – for God to be revealed to us is a scandal – what some people call a scandal of particularity. It could have been different, but it has happened in this way. But whatever the case, when God is present, unsettling things happen. As William Willimon points out, "when God is with us, God is not with us in placid, nondisruptive ways. God's intrusions among us cause consternation and difficulty."2 And such is the case of this birth. It has caused great consternation.


And why must this revelation of God happen? The answer of scripture is simple – we have lost our way and we need someone to lead us back to God. For whatever reason, it is our belief that God has chosen this way – through a child – to point us back in the right direction. I think songwriter and poet Michael Card, gets it right:

He is no longer the calm and benevolent observer in the sky, the kindly old caricature with the beard. His image becomes that of Jesus, who wept and laughed, who fasted and feasted, and who above all, was fully present to those he loved. He was there with them. He is here with us.3

This is the message of Christmas: Emmanuel is here and God is with us. And as Matthew writes in the conclusion of his gospel, even in his departure Jesus – Emmanuel – will always be with us. That is a worthy thought for a Christmas Eve – God will never leave us nor forsake us, even as we experience the difficulties of life. Yes, God has visited us and we’ll never be alone again.

1. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 7.
2. William Willimon, "Unto Us a Child," in Pulpit Resource, 26 (Oct., Nov., Dec. 1998): 47.
3. Michael Card, "Immanuel," in Calvin Miller, ed. The Book of Jesus, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 242.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Vision of Restoration

Isaiah 11:1-11

If you wander through a grove of Redwoods, you’ll likely run across the stump of an ancient tree giving birth to a new generation of trees. That forest giant may have died, but new life is emerging from it. In much the same way Isaiah envisions a shoot emerging from the stump of Jesse. Jesse, of course, was David’s father. Isaiah is saying that David’s kingdom might be threatened with extinction, but despite the dire news of the day, things will get better. Not only will they get better, but a golden age of peace is on the horizon. The people’s hopes and dreams will be restored by God.

As Christians we see in Isaiah’s vision a promise of the Messiah, God’s anointed one who will restore Creation to its proper order. It may seem like a utopian dream that doesn’t line up with what we know about nature – but that’s not the point. The seasons of Advent and Christmas focus not on what is, but what shall be. It is as
Bobby Kennedy said:

"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were and ask why not."

That is a good question to ask at this time of year – why not dream of things that never were and "ask why not."

The dreams of things not yet are filling our minds. After all, the beckoning call of Christmas is reaching a fever pitch. The stores are staying open longer in the hopes that you and I will deposit some of our money in their coffers. The Christmas songs are everywhere. In fact, many of you are waiting to sing the carols and wonder why we’re still singing Advent songs.

Waiting is difficult, but it can also be a good thing. We call it delayed gratification and it keeps us focused on the most important things in life. Of course, Advent is a season of waiting. The message of Advent is simple: we await the Spirit-endowed king, who is anointed by God to proclaim the good news of freedom and healing to the poor, the lame, the blind, and the captive (Isaiah 61; Luke 4). This Spirit-Endowed King – unlike so many of today’s leaders – will rule with wisdom and understanding, counsel, and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. When the day of the Lord comes, Isaiah promises, Judah’s fortunes – our fortunes -- will be restored. And if, as we believe, Jesus is this Spirit-endowed King then we must realize that the mission of this king isn’t the restoration of a nation to its past glory, but is instead the restoration of humanity to its proper relationship with God. When that happens, the creation will experience justice and mercy and peace.
But there’s a step that has to be taken before we get to this future. We have to deal with the past. No one wants to deal with the past, but unless we do – it will stick to us. That’s why when I recently submitted my papers to the national office, I had to authorize a background check. They don’t send out ministerial profiles to churches these days unless they make sure they’ve looked for all the skeletons in our closets. You’ll be glad to know that I passed!

And so Isaiah’s vision begins with judgment. The king holds court and holds the people accountable for their past. To get an idea of what Isaiah has in mind, think back to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was led by Bishop Desmond Tutu. That commission allowed South Africa to make a peaceful transition from white minority rule to black majority rule. To move forward Bishop Tutu knew that the nation had to deal with its past, and the same is true for us. We may not enjoy standing before the judge, but it’s a necessary step toward wholeness.
And this judge weighs the evidence according to the rules of righteousness and equity. This isn’t blind justice, instead it’s justice decided on by an arbiter who, as Gerhard Von Rad wrote, "cares particularly for those whose legal standing is weak."1 God is, after all, the one with a "preferential option for the poor."

The result is that things get properly sorted out, kind of like the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13). Kathleen Norris says that this parable frightened her has a child, largely because her grandmother used this parable to convince her that God’s judgment is terrifying. In time, however, she found the parable liberating, because it freed her from the "disease of perfectionism."
I began to see God's fire, like a good parent's righteous anger, as something that can flare up, challenge, and even change us, but that does not destroy the essence of who we are. The thought of all my weeds burning off so that only the wheat remains came to seem a good thing.2
Yes, God holds us accountable and what’s not of God is burned off as dross – but we survive. Having faced God's righteous judgment, we are ready to enjoy true fellowship with God.

When Isaiah brought this vision to Judah, his nation was facing destruction and its leaders – even the best of them – fell short of God’s standards. Despite the omens of destruction, Isaiah offers a word of hope to his people. That was then, but what message does this passage have for us living centuries later?

I believe this vision says at least two things to us. We’ve already talked about one – God’s righteous judgment will save us. The other message has to do with the promise of a restored Eden. In the Genesis story, God creates the earth and it’s good. Everything and everyone gets along just fine. And in this vision, natural predators sit and eat grass with their normal prey – just like it was, Isaiah says, in the beginning. In his vision the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, dwell together in peace under the leadership of a child.
What the prophet is doing is offering a vision of universal peace. It’s something we’ve never seen, but it’s also something we can work toward, led of course by a child. That child is the one born on Christmas Day.

The Advent season of preparation is coming to a close, leaving with us a vision of God’s cosmic plans. Although God is concerned about each of us as individuals, God is also concerned about the healing of the cosmos itself. As the old 1960s song puts it: "He's got the Whole World in his Hands." That is the message of Advent and the message of Christmas. Darkness may be enveloping us, but a light is shining in the darkness bringing hope of restoration to all.
1. Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology (NY: Harper and Row, 1965), 2:169.
2. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, (NY: Riverhead Books, 1998), 317.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
December 23, 2007
4th Sunday of Advent

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Isaiah 35:1-10

The Mitchell Report was released on Thursday. It told us what we already knew, there are problems in Baseball. It also told us that Barry Bonds isn’t the only one implicated in the scandal. Yes, Baseball, America’s sport, is broken. We also learned this week that the CIA destroyed tapes that showed agents using waterboarding to get information. Waterboarding is considered torture by the Geneva Conventions. There were bombings in a number of nations and shootings at a church in Colorado.

It would seem that we live in a broken world. As psychiatrist Paul Tournier pointed out many years ago: "Its ills are innumerable; it writhes in pain."1 In the words of Frederick Buechner:

The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up hope.2

Life it seems fragmented and unpredictable, and as a result we often become reactors to the world rather than actors in the world.

Of course you don’t need me telling you this. You already know that this is true – whether it’s our bodies, our souls, our communities, or our nation, things seem to be a bit broken. As we face life's difficulties and complexities, we wonder if there’s any hope of wholeness. In answer Isaiah offers us a vison of a desert in bloom, a desert that becomes like the forests of Lebanon and the fertile plain of Sharon, and where the glory and majesty of God are visible to all. This is a vison of wholeness.

When Katrina struck, people asked: "Where is God?" They asked the same question when the tsunami hit Indonesia, and when the recent fires hit our region. This question arises when we feel a sense of absence and need reassurance that help is on the way. As we begin to falter, we hear these words to Isaiah:

Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God."

Something of Isaiah’s vision can be seen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In C.S. Lewis’ story, Narnia has fallen under a spell that keeps it in constant state of winter. But not only is there constant winter, there is no Christmas either. All of this changes when four children, the promised kings and queens of Narnia, enter the land, and by their very presence call forth Aslan. When Aslan enters the land not only is the spell of winter broken, but Christmas returns as well. Aslan brings to the land the promise of Spring and with it the promise of a new age.

The Advent message rings out: prepare the way, for God is coming. Look around and see that the desert is blooming, and with it comes the healing presence of God. The odds may still seem great, but if we’re willing to take hold of it, we can enjoy the wholeness of God.


Listen to Isaiah’s promise of hope:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Is. 35:5-6).

This is the promise of shalom – the peace of God. This word shalom has a number of meanings, including wholeness and healing. In an earlier passage in Isaiah, the Messiah is called the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). The messianic reign, the prophet tells us, will bring healing and wholeness to our lives.

This promised wholeness could have a physical manifestation, but it can also be spiritual. Even a person with physical disabilities can experience wholeness, even if that wholeness does not yet include his or her body. Buechner tells of his grandmother, who, no matter what the circumstance, "seemed always remarkably and invincibly herself."

Even when her life was shattered by the deaths of people she loved and by other kinds of loss or failure, she remained so serene and intact that it was if she lived out of some deep center within herself that was beyond reach of circumstance.3

When we are at peace with our selves, we usually are at peace with our world. That is when we find wholeness.


When we talk about salvation, we usually think about getting right with God. That’s part of it, but there’s more. Salvation means becoming a whole person. It is what St. Augustine meant when he talked about a void in our lives that only God could fill. Or John Calvin’s idea that within us resides the spark of divinity. Whatever the physical nature of our lives, there is also a spiritual dimension as well. And ultimately wholeness is a spiritual thing.

This salvation doesn’t happen instantaneously. It is, instead, a lifelong journey. It begins with a decision to walk along the path set before us by God – Isaiah’s "new highway" that God’s people are invited to travel on. This is the pilgrim’s road, a road once threatened by enemies, but now made clear and safe. As we come marching into Zion, we may sing songs of everlasting joy and gladness will fill our hearts.

This is the road John the Baptist proclaimed when he cried out Prepare the Way of the Lord. While there seem to be dangers lurking along the road, the way is set before us and the promise of wholeness – of salvation stands before us. This is the message of Advent: the road is set before us. Wholeness is possible even in a broken world. And this wholeness comes to us in the person of Jesus.
As Frederick Buechner writes:

It is in Jesus, of course, and in the people whose lives have been deeply touched by Jesus, and in ourselves at those moments when we also are deeply touched by him, that we see another way of being human in the world, which is the way of wholeness. When we glimpse that wholeness in others, we recognized it immediately for what it is, and the reason we recognize it, I believe, is that no matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us.4

We long for home, and Isaiah says, the road is set. Start the journey and God will walk with you. As we take this journey we will find wholeness in body, mind, and spirit. It won’t happen over night, but it will come. That is the promise.

1. Paul Tournier, The Whole Person in a Broken World," (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 1.
2. Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home, (SF: Harper-Collins, 1996), 109.
3. Buechner, Longing for Home, 106.
4. Buechner, Longing for Home, 109-10.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Advent 3
December 16, 2007

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Vision of Peace

Isaiah 2:1-5

John Lennon imagined a world without religion or nations, but one with peace.
Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do.
Nothing to Kill or die for, and no Religion too.
Imagine all the people living life in peace . . .

Then in the chorus he sings:

You may say I'm, a dreamer But I'm not the only One.
I Hope someday you'll join us and the world will be as one.

Imagine for a moment a world at peace. What might that be like? What will it take? Will it take the end of nations and religions as we know them today?

It’s unfortunate that John Lennon is on the mark. Nationalism and religion have often contributed to the hatred and the violence that make a mess of our world. And just to be clear, it’s not just Islam that’s at fault. Every religion, including ours, contributes to this problem.
When we think of peace, we tend to think globally. But it’s not just a global issue, it’s also very local and very personal. Wherever conflict and anger and hatred are present, peace is threatened. If you listen to talk radio or watch the cable news networks, you’ll see on display a growing lack of civility tainting our public conversations and the political process. Unfortunately that same lack of civility is present in our churches and in our homes. We seem to be people set on edge. So, it’s no wonder that violence is on the rise. We simply find it difficult to get along.

The church exists within this world and is affected by it. Perhaps that’s why growing numbers of young people are fleeing "organized religion." Doug Coupland wrote a book entitled, Life after God. In that book he writes that people under thirty-five look forward to a life that is "charmed but without politics or religion." It’s a "life after God," a "life of earthly salvation on the edge of heaven." He goes on to write:
Perhaps this is the finest thing to which we may aspire, the life of peace, the blurring between
dream life and real life-- and yet I find myself speaking these words with a sense of doubt.

From there he goes on to say that there’s a trade off in achieving this golden life. The price is the "inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God."1
Isaiah speaks to our sense of disillusionment and offers us a word of hope by giving us a vision of peace. He insists that God and nationalism don’t go together. Instead of claiming God for ourselves and our nation, Isaiah declares that God is the God of all nations.
As we come to pray this morning, we come not to worship a God that’s bound by national borders or politics, but instead we worship a God who promises to bring peace to all peoples. It’s tempting to wrap God up in red, white, and blue and to see ourselves as God’s chosen people, but if we do that, we’ve misunderstood the gospel.

Instead of proclaiming the god-of-the-nation and invoking God in the name of national security or national pride, Isaiah looks out and sees the nations coming to God. They’re coming because they seek peace. Although Isaiah makes Mount Zion the focal point of God's work, he doesn’t do this for nationalist reasons. Zion simply symbolizes God's desire to bring creation together in peace. This vision says nothing about Judah's nationalist aspirations, because it has nothing to do with them. In Isaiah's vision the focus is on God's reign over all nations, not just the Jewish people.


As the people in Isaiah's vision stream toward the Mountain of the Lord, they come seeking instruction and judgment from the Lord. Isaiah calls out:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." (Isa. 2:3).
Isaiah catches the sense of the people – things aren’t working and we need a new vision for the future. Perhaps we can go to God and find that vision. Although the Torah speaks to the issues and needs of Israel, it also speaks more broadly to our human need for peace, order, and reconciliation. Torah, Isaiah says to us, is the way to peace.

Knowledge of the ways of God will set us free from our bondage to petty myths that divide and separate us. These are the stereotypes that keep us from talking to each other. Isaiah envisions us coming to God because we know that God will decide fairly and justly.

Peace has never been easy to achieve. If it was, we’d already be at peace. The fall of the Soviet Union didn’t bring peace, it just changed the focus of our attention. Rather than focusing on a "nuclear deterrence" we’re now more concerned about terrorism. And terrorism is rooted in extremism, and there are plenty of extremists out there, representing just about every ideology and religion. And what extremists do best is wreck the process of making peace, often by way of bombings and assassinations.

Isaiah understands the situation well, and so he envisions a time when the tools of war will be turned to the service of all humanity. The sword will become the plow and spears pruning hooks. What was once used to kill will now be used to sustain life.

Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a similar vision in his 1963 speech in Washington DC. On that day he proclaimed:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed -- we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

He dreamed that his four little children would "one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." He envisioned a day when freedom would ring from every part of the nation, and he called on us all -- black, white, Jews, Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics -- to speed up that day by joining hands and singing the words of the old spiritual "Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, we are free at last." Dr. King didn’t live to see this dream fulfilled. In fact, we still dream this dream so many years later. But the good news is that the dream continues to speak to our hearts.

As we enter the Advent season, let us carry with us the vision of peace. John the Baptist came into Judea preparing the way for the Messiah. The message of the messiah is one of peace, and no message resonates more during the Christmas season than the one the Angels brought to the shepherds: "On earth Peace among those whom God favors" (Lk 2:14). Let us commit ourselves to the cause of this peace by singing "Down by the Riverside." (p. 673). And as we sing, may we choose to "study war no more" and turn the tools of destruction into the tools of life.
1 Doug Coupland, Life after God, (New York: Pocket Books, 1994), 273. Note that Coupland wrote this in 1994, so those under 35 then are those under 48. If you round that up, it's people under 50.

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Advent 1
December 2, 2007