Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Coming into the Light


Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:8-20

When you came into the church this evening, you left behind the cold and the darkness of the streets, and you entered the warmth and light of this sanctuary. Upon entering you found friends and family gathered, and you shared Christmas Greetings with one another. In doing this, you experienced God’s light shining onto your life.

Then, as the service started, you began singing the songs of the season, you shared in a Christmas prayer, and you heard scriptures read that declared the good news that God is present in our midst. Yes God has come to us in a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. And, again, you felt God’s light shining onto your life. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what has happened to you this day, God’s light has touched your life.

I know that it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season. You get tired and maybe a bit cranky. There’s the traffic and the crowds. Then there’s the weather. It’s one thing to dream about a white Christmas, and it’s another to drive in it. Beyond the typical distractions, this year we’ve entered the season with the dark cloud of the economy hanging over us. With all that’s going on, it’s not easy to feel joyous.

The darkness might be pushing in on our lives, but tonight we’ve come to worship the source of light and love. We’ve come to bear witness to the one who brings light into our darkness, and as we do this, we begin to see the cloud lift and the darkness dissipate.

Luke’s version of the Christmas story, tells of angels appearing in the night to shepherds out in their fields. They bring them all the glory of heaven, and with it a message of great joy. For in the little town of Bethlehem, the light has begun to shine.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Yes, in a manger in that little town of Bethlehem, lies the savior, Christ the Lord. Through him the light shines in the darkness, and the world will never be the same.

The Angels’ message echoes one proclaimed centuries earlier by the Prophet Isaiah, who told the people walking in darkness that they would see a great light, and when they saw the light, they would rejoice and give thanks. For on that day, an heir to the throne of David would arise and put an end to war and break the "rod of oppression." Yes, there would be justice and peace when the Prince Peace appeared in their midst.

Although the New Testament doesn’t make use of this passage from Isaiah, down through the centuries the church has looked to it for a word of hope. Indeed, George Friedrich Handel found inspiration in these words as he penned The Messiah. And thus, we sing:
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

The shepherds, so Luke tells us, followed the angel’s song to a manger, where a baby lay wrapped in swaddling clothes. They went looking for the one who would bring light into their darkness, and there in that manger they found the Light of the World. Yes, in him there would be found peace on earth and good will to all.

Tonight we have come out of the darkness and into the light to hear these words of hope and peace. We come to give thanks to the Prince of Peace and draw sustenance from his presence as we sing and pray together.

In a few moments we will come to the Lord’s Table, and partake of the emblems that represent to us the body and blood of our savior, the one we call prince of peace. After we take the bread and the cup we will then take candles and encircle the sanctuary. We will send around the sanctuary the light that begins at the table and then ends at the table. In these lights we will find the symbol of God’s presence. When the sanctuary darkens, the light from these candles will bear witness to this truth – God is with us, even in our darkest hour. When we leave this place, we will carry with us this message into the darkness of the night.

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Healing Presence

Isaiah 61:1-11

The day that we’ve been anticipating is at the door step. There are just a few more shopping days and a bit more time for the parties, before Christmas arrives. It’s so close you can taste it and smell it. But, it’s not quite here yet. You may be shaking the boxes and feeling the packages, but it’s not time to open them just yet.

The time for waiting is still with us. I know it’s not easy, but I think that it will be worth the wait. Remember how Jesus told the gathered disciples to wait for the coming of the Spirit. The disciples were probably wondering: Why wait? Why not get going now? The answer: There are still things to do before the Spirit can come in its fullness. What was true for them, is true for us.

As we wait for the time of revealing, we again listen to the words of Isaiah. These words, as we’ve already discovered, were spoken to people living in exile. The exiles were waiting expectantly, hoping against hope, that their day of freedom would come soon.

As we hear these words, what message do they bring to us? What do they tell us about the promised one, whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Eve? Listen to these words that Jesus would centuries later pick up and read in the synagogue at Capernaum:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . . .


When Jesus finished reading this very same passage that we’ve read today, he said to the congregation: “This is my mission. This is what God has called me to do with my life. God is calling me and empowering me to bring healing and wholeness to a broken world” (Lk 4:16ff).


1. MAKING THINGS RIGHT IN THE WORLD

With these words, Jesus defined his own mission in life. The question is, how do we hear these words? What do they tell us about how we should live in the world? If we’re called to participate in the mission of God, then how might this passage help define that mission?

The promise held out to us is this: God will restore to health a broken and fractured world. Yes, according to the prophet, God will bring good news to the oppressed, the broken hearted, the captives, and the imprisoned. And the news that comes to us is this: While Jesus took the first shift, he has passed on the mantle to us. We are his body, and as his body we carry with us this mantle of hope.

When you’re a child, Christmas is often about receiving gifts. We like to ask for big things: bikes, computers, and I-Pods. No socks or underwear will do. But as we grow older and more mature, we discover that Christmas is also about giving. Better to give than to receive, say the Scriptures. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in an appropriately titled book, To Heal a Fractured World, says that the ones who are happy among us, are the ones in whom “the desire to give is stronger than the desire to have.” *

As we journey through Advent, we bring our offerings of money, of talent, and of time, into the presence of God, and we dedicate them to the healing of our world. We bring clothing and gifts for Head Start, food and money for Troy People Concerned, along with our special offerings for Disciple outreach. Throughout the year we’re called on to look outward and discern what God would have us do in response to the needs of the community and the world. It might not seem like much, but when we give, we know that God is present in the gift, bringing healing to those who are brokenhearted and hurting. Such gifts as these light the fires of the Christmas spirit in the hearts of those touched by God’s love.

2. MAKING THINGS RIGHT IN US AS PERSONS: BODY, SOUL, AND SPIRIT

While, it’s better to give than to receive, there are times and places, when we stand in need of healing and wholeness. We’ve been called on by God to look outward, and attend to the needs of others, but there’s also a time and place to look within and discover the holes in our lives: A health problem or a broken relationship, loneliness or financial difficulties. It doesn’t matter what it is, when we’re broken we seek to be made whole.

Not only individuals experience brokenness. It also happens to congregations, and to communities. And so Paul prays: May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23). To be sound of body and spirit is to be made whole, and the message of Christmas is that Jesus came into the world to make us whole. He touched the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the mentally unstable, and he brought wholeness to their lives. That’s what it means to sanctify someone. By touching them, he made them holy.

Now Jesus didn't heal everyone who was physically, mentally, or spiritually broken, and the world is not yet free from disease, hunger, or violence. So, what kind of healing can we expect?

I once heard a good definition of healing, one that might be useful to us: “Curing is bringing back to normal; healing is bringing back to balance.” Healing can take place even as we find the strength to endure, the ability to overcome, and a sense of purpose so we can move on with life.

Grief doesn’t go away easily, but when we walk in the presence of God we find hope. A dark family secret may haunt us, but as we walk with Jesus, we find the strength and ability to put that secret behind us. Cancer eats at our body, and nothing can stop its spread, but still we find a reason to live until tomorrow. It isn’t easy and the pain doesn’t always go away – but in the presence of God we find balance for our lives. When this happens, we become fit for service in the kingdom of God. Yes, healing is for a purpose!


3. HEALING LEADS TO PRAISE

Now, as we wait for God’s healing presence to be revealed to us in the one who is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, we stand ready to walk in a new direction. We stand ready to minister to our community, so that its brokenness might be healed.

But even as we look out into the world, hoping to discern God’s mission for our lives, we also look inward. And, as we look inward, we begin to see that God is at work mending our lives, freeing us from guilt, from worry, and from fear. It’s not that we get to evade difficult times, but in Jesus there is strength and there is peace. Therefore, with all the company of heaven we get to celebrate. And that’s what we’ve been preparing for and waiting for.

We have waited in anticipation of the unveiling of God’s presence in the world. When that day comes, we will break forth in songs of praise, singing:

My whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has clothed me with the robe of righteousness, . . .

On this final Sunday of Advent, just days before Christmas, we bear witness to the coming of the one we call Emmanuel, “God with us.” It is he who will bring us the garments of salvation. It is he who will bring healing to our world. And we, yes we, get to join in the celebration. As that old camp song puts it: “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” I believe that this spark is lit, just as the four candles of Advent have been lit, and before long that fire will take off. So let’s break out in songs of praise, because a fractured world is about to be made whole!


*Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, (Shocken Books, 2005), 20-21


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
4th Sunday of Advent
December 21, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Comforting News

Isaiah 40:1-11


To be blunt, this Advent/Christmas season isn’t all that joyous for many of our neighbors. Indeed some of you are wondering what the new year will bring. Will you have a job? Will your retirement benefits be there? Our region stands at the center of America’s economic downturn. There is great suffering in our midst. I wish I could say that everything is going to be okay, that the jobs will be there come January. But I can’t.

Things look bad! And as the President-Elect just said, things may get worse before they get better. That’s not the kind of news that we want to hear just before Christmas, but that’s what they’re saying. We live in a time of great uncertainty.

I. An Anchor in a Changing World

I know that Advent seems to get in the way of the Christmas Spirit, but it’s at times like this that the words of Isaiah, words that we often read only at Advent, speak most clearly to our hearts. This morning we’ve been invited to look at our ever-changing and uncertain world through the eyes of this ancient prophet, whose identity is unknown to us. But the words are both beautiful and powerful. These words are spoken to people without a home and seemingly without a future. All they knew of their homeland was stories that had been passed down to them, stories about a homeland destroyed and a Temple in flames. It is to this people that the prophet speaks a word of comfort. The promise is simple. God will be your anchor in difficult times. You have heard that religion is a crutch. That may well be, but when we are without hope then life loses its purpose and society crumbles.

These words that we’ve read together this morning may be familiar to many of you. George Friedrich Handel looked at these words and found in them the promise of his Messiah. He saw in these words the promise of redemption and a word of comfort and of hope. That hope ultimately rests, he believed, in the glory of the Lord, that will be revealed, and that the people will see it together. For in that day, the Lord will reign over all. The shepherd will gather up the sheep in his arms and carry them when they can walk no more.

And when you’re about to lose hope, consider this: even though the "grass withers and the flowers fade,” God’s word of promise remains the same, ever steadfast in the midst of unrelenting storms. Indeed, life may pass us by with ever quickening speed, but God is there, walking, even running, with us.

II. Signs of God’s Constancy

Where can we put our trust? Who will be there when we need them? I love my country, but I have been frustrated as I’ve watched our leaders dither and dicker about the fate of America’s auto makers. I don’t know what Jesus would have us do? I can’t claim God’s mantle on any particular solution. But I do know that there is great pain and great confusion our midst. Many feel abandoned and without hope. For some of you this is your story. You are living it directly. We would love to see this time pass us by quickly and that the damage done to our lives would be minimal.

So, while I don’t have a solution to our economic problems, I do see in this passage, which we’re considering this third Sunday in Advent, a word of promise. I hear the promise that the Lord is coming. I hear the prophet say to us, make the pathway clear in the desert so that God can come to us. Yes, put away the things that keep you from experiencing the fullness of God’s blessings.

Yet, as we get things ready, as we prepare the way, what we discover is that God is already there in our midst. Trouble may come, but God is never far from us. Our problem is that we’re not always looking for God. But, when we open our spiritual eyes, we begin to see that God is in our midst. And in this there is hope and there is strength. Where is this comforting divine presence to be found? The answer is looking back at you. It is that neighbor who is standing with you and walking with you. It’s the pat on the back and the quiet word of encouragement. It’s the new door that opens when the old one closes. It is that restful spot in the midst of life’s turbulence. The winds blow, but standing together we discover that they lack the strength to break our lives.

III. OUR VOICE, GOD’S VOICE

We live in a community that needs to hear God’s comforting word. A number is on my mind this morning. That number is 37. According to the statistics I’ve read, about 37% of the people that live in about a seven-mile radius of this church have no religious involvement. Now, that’s about normal for America, but it’s a growing number. It’s not that people don’t believe. They just feel disconnected. They want to hear a voice from God, but they don’t think that church is going to be the place to hear it. Many of them find the voices coming from the churches to be angry, confusing, and inhospitable. They hear voices of exclusion, of wrath, of anger, even hatred. They hear that if you don’t believe just the right way, you’ll be left behind.

But is that the voice that is crying out in the wilderness? Is that the voice that is emerging from this place? I hope that the voice that the world hears from this place, is one that is open, loving, gracious, inclusive, welcoming, and yes, comforting. My sense is that there are untold numbers of people who are waiting to hear a comforting word. They want to hear the news proclaimed by the Prophet: “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.” Why is it that this voice is not heard? Could it be that we have hid our light under a bushel – to quote Jesus?

Today we continue walking through Advent toward the day of revelation, the day when we will see the glory of the Lord revealed in a child lying in a manger. Yes, at that time, we will see God bending down to pick up the lambs and carry them to fragrant pastures. In this there is a comforting word, and that word is this: God is with us. As you listen for God’s voice crying out in the wilderness, offering this word of comfort, remember – God’s voice is our voice.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Third Sunday of Advent
December 14, 2008

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Out of Exile

Isaiah 64:1-9

Pearl Harbor, Katrina, 9-11, Mumbai, Ike, the economic devastation that has hit this state, nation, and world; these are images that have seared our thoughts and memories. When we face catastrophic events such as these, it’s difficult to know how to respond.

Thinking back to Katrina, do you remember watching New Orleans evacuate? Or, more recently, we watched as Galveston and then Houston evacuated in the face of Ike? At least in the case of Katrina, the ones who were left behind were the ones least able to care for themselves. But even those who escaped experienced a sense of exile. And to live in exile is to live with a sense of rootlessness and insecurity. Nature isn’t the only force that pushes people into exile. There are refugee camps around the world, from Darfur to the Palestinian Territories, and beyond. To live in exile is to lose control of one’s life. It is a time when the future is dark, cloudy, and foreboding. In such a situation, it is common to ask: Where is God in all of this?

2500 years ago a group of exiles asked that very question. This group of exiles had watched as the Babylonian invaders swept in and carted off people and treasure, while leaving the nation devastated and the Temple in ruins.

The prophet who spoke these words we’ve heard this morning, speaks to this situation. He speaks to people who want answers, people who want to go home, who want to see God act on their behalf. As they wonder why God has not yet acted, they begin to look inward and ask: what have we done to deserve this? But even as they ask that question, they beg for mercy – don’t be angry anymore. Don’t remember our iniquity forever.

I. Advent’s Call to Reflection

Today is December 7th, a date that Franklin Roosevelt said would live in infamy. It’s a day to remember war, and pray that war would be no more. That memory continues to color this day, even though many of us weren’t alive in 1941. At the same time, this is the month of December, a month of joyous holidays.

The economy may be bad, but it’s still a time for parties and carols – whether it’s Jingle Bells or O Holy Night. Even the sanctuary is all decked out in Christmas glory. All that’s left to add is the baby Jesus. Yes, this is a season of good tidings and great joy.

And yet, there is reason to pause and reflect upon our lives, where we’ve been and we’re we hope to go. Christmas is in the air, but this is only the second Sunday of Advent. We may be ready to move on, but we must continue to wait for the Spirit to move.

It’s never easy to wait, and reflection is difficult. Those exiles, they didn’t want to wait any longer. They were ready to leave. In Acts 1, Jesus told the gathered disciples to wait for the Spirit. I expect that they would have rather just gotten on their way. Why wait? We have things to do. But the word that comes to us, as we begin this new liturgical year with Advent is this: Wait and reflect on where God is at work in your life.

In a sense, this is our time of exile. It’s a time when we have lost control of our lives and our destinies. We cry out, with the exiles, asking that God would act boldly on our behalf.

II. The Obstacles to Faith

Christmas is all about faith. It takes faith to believe that God will act on our behalf. It takes faith to believe that God will set aside our trespasses, even as we set aside the trespasses of those who have offended us. Indeed, it takes faith to believe that God would come to us and dwell with us in the person of a child born in an insignificant corner of the world. And yet it’s in this story that we find our reason for hope revealed.

Christmas is about faith, but that faith doesn’t come without obstacles and challenges. Of course, it’s easy to believe when things are going well, but what if you find yourself living in exile? When it comes to faith there are many barriers and challenges that keep us from fully embracing God’s call on our lives.

It could be a severe illness or a chronic one; the death of a loved one or maybe it’s an intellectual challenge. It could be the hypocrisy that we see in our neighbors or in ourselves. It could be a broken relationship or simply the devastation that nature can wreak on earth. Maybe it’s guilt, whether deserved or not, that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Perhaps you’re thinking: I’m just too tired to believe anything anymore. I don’t know what the barriers are to your faith. But, we all face them – whether we’re new to this journey or we’ve been on it for years.

As difficult as these challenges may be, they can have a positive side. Consider Israel – in many ways their sense of peoplehood, their sense of national identity, indeed their understanding of God, was forged during the exile. Much of the Old Testament emerged during or shortly after this period. Some of the greatest passages in Scripture, such as the later chapters of Isaiah, were written at about this time in Israel’s history. Exile may have been distressing and dispiriting, but for the nation as a whole, it was an opportunity to draw closer to God.

III. The Cry of Faith

What then should we do? How should we live in this time of exile? How do we keep moving forward? It’s easy to stop and complain. We could cry out: You’re ignoring us God! In fact, it’s like you never knew us! (Is. 63:19). Or we could request that God act on our behalf.

Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, and make the mountains shudder at your presence – As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot boil – To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! (Is. 64:1ff – Message)
Yes, Lord, make them shake in their boots. Go get them! Show them you mean business.
Of course, if we’re going to ask God to act on our behalf, perhaps we should look inside and see if there is anything we should confess. As the prophet puts it: “We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease stained rags.” Now, we Disciples aren’t much for confession. We’ve always tried to keep things positive. But there is a time and a place for confession, to put things right. If we’re going to ask for rescue, then it’s appropriate to acknowledge our own responsibility for the predicament we’re in. Indeed, it’s likely that when we look inward, we’ll find a few skeletons in our closets. But the good news is that when we repent and ask for forgiveness, God is faithful to forgive.


IV. Submission to God

As we contemplate our future, this time after exile, having cried out to God for rescue and made our confession, the final step is to submit ourselves to God’s leadership.

Isaiah invites us to share in this prayer to God, even as we await for the one who is coming:

“You are our Father. We’re the clay, and you’re our potter.”

We’re yours because you have made us. We’re your handiwork, which means that we have a purpose in life. Because you are a God who loves, we know that you love us. In the Christmas Spirit that is upon us, we say: Because you are our Creator, we know that you have gifted us for service. Indeed, on the horizon is a new day for us.

Yes, it’s time to get ready to leave exile and join our Savior in the work of redemption. We have a job to do. It will take time and energy, but with this calling comes a sense of new birth and new opportunity. What was is no more. There is only what is to come. That’s the message of the day. Prepare yourselves for the day of God’s coming. On that day God will act with boldness. It’s just a little bit longer, and then the day will come – Can you wait with me?


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Advent
December 7, 2008