Provisions for the Journey – what a wonderful theme the Stewardship Team chose for St Luke’s first annual pledge campaign in many years. Borrowing an image from the radio station KPLU, which recently became KNKX, St. Luke’s is a 125-year-old start-up! We’re definitely on a journey filled with challenges, opportunities, excitement and anxiety.
Today as we celebrate the gathering-in of the provisions we need for this journey, it’s appropriate that we are in Advent, the season of both endings and beginnings, of remembering the past and moving towards a new future. With the Advent characters of John the Baptizer, Mary the young peasant girl, Joseph the carpenter and the great prophet Isaiah we look for light and hope in the midst of days that are often dark and troubled. We search for the path forward when it doesn’t always appear clear or we’re not sure which direction we should be heading.
This is often how it is when you start off in a new direction in life. Maybe you’ve made a move to a new place and you’re learning to find your way around when the streets and the people are unfamiliar. Or maybe you’re in the same city but your living situation has changed. Sometimes the new path forward begins with a pregnancy or adoption.
Other times a death brings you to a fork in the road and unfamiliar territory. The ending or beginning of a job, a change in your health, a new relationship or the collapse of an old one; all these events can result in a change of direction, a new course, an unfamiliar path.
Internal changes can be just as powerful as external ones in determining direction. A spiritual awakening at any age can upend everything you had planned. A faith crisis might cause you to question everything you had accepted previously. New insights, new questions, fresh eyes open new paths and uncharted territory.
Advent, the coming of Jesus, even the promise of the coming of Jesus changes lives. In the time of the prophets, it is this vision of God’s peaceable kingdom that gives hope and resilience to a people who were threatened and overwhelmed by violence, death, destruction and wickedness.
That vision, that promise and prophecy of the coming Christ, is like a shining star providing guidance and direction through the centuries. It orients God’s people to the hope of peace and the end of violence and destruction. It motivates us to wait and watch and work for its fulfillment. It drove John the baptizer into the wilderness with a radical willingness to leave nearly everything behind in order to be ready to embrace the coming of God’s promise.
Often that’s when our journey starts, when we choose to or have to leave behind most of what we’ve relied on or held onto. John’s message of repentance is one of letting go and re-orientation. It’s like the preparation for a big move when you hold a huge rummage sale, donate to Goodwill and post stuff on Craig’s list. It’s the changing of patterns and behaviors that keep you from moving in the direction you need to go. It’s getting help for your drinking, letting go of the bitterness of a broken relationship, practicing generosity in the midst of anxiety over money. It may mean abandoning beliefs and ways of thinking that no longer fit with the vision of God’s kingdom.
This letting go and re-orientation sometimes needs to happens around our relationship to money. It’s easy to spend our energy trying to get more and worrying about what we don’t have. We get trapped into comparing our possessions and lifestyle to others. Instead of being free to give and receive openly, we find ourselves holding tighter.
Repentance around money begins when we start to let go, even just a little – when we practice generosity and thankfulness. For me and many others, it’s like packing for a trip and realizing there is too much to fit into the suitcase. I can either try to get a bigger bag or give up some of what I think I need. Giving as a practice, giving as a spiritual discipline, is a type of repentance that leads to freedom.
Like most people I started with a tiny percentage. When I realized that I had grown to pledge 10% of my income, there was even more freedom for indulging a “generous impulse.” The more I give and grow in trust, the more I recognize how much I have been given. Often we’re encouraged to give because we have been given so much. I find that the more I give, the more I realize I am receiving.
Repentance happens when we come to the end of our road, when we’re forced to choose a new way, when we abandon the path that no longer leads to life. Repentance often puts us in a wilderness place first before we are able to take steps towards the promised future. Repentance may put us on our knees before we are given the strength to rise to our feet and begin anew. Repentance is the message of John but it is a message of preparation, not a destination in itself. Repentance prepares the way for the promised Christ to enter in. Repentance is never the goal or the end but rather the beginning to a wild journey with God’s Spirit. It begins in the wilderness, but the journey leads towards the land of promise.
Last week I went for a hike in what once was beautiful wilderness but then became a place of destruction. In the early 20th century, most of the forest around Hood Canal was clear cut. Trees over 200 years old were cut down, leaving tall stumps and cleared land. For many years I imagine the land was bleak with little that was green and growing. A few big fir trees were left in hope that they might seed a new forest, but other species grew in faster.
As I walked the trails I was thinking about this sermon. I was also thinking about last week’s sermon from Phyllis, reminding me to get out where the green things are! I came around a bend in the trail and in front of me was a huge Douglas Fir stump, nearly 10 feet high. The tree must have been old and gigantic. For over 100 years that stump stood there. It was dead, useless, truncated, a sad reminder of what used to be. It was present during those barren years after the land had been cleared. It was present as new and different species began to grow up around it. It was a lifeless reminder of a once great old growth forest.
But recently something changed. After over a century, right out of the center of the stump, a new shoot was growing. It was probably 15 feet high and 6 inches around. New life. New hope. New beginning. There was a sign nearby saying “nurse tree” but I kept hearing the words of Isaiah in my head, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”
New growth emerges from the dead stump. Flowers bloom in the desert, and springs well up in the wilderness. Life comes out from the tomb of death and darkest despair. The promised Christ has come, is coming and will come again and again to breathe the Spirit into us and to restore hope.
God is the one who provides for our journey. God gives us everything we need for the way ahead. Look around. Here is light for the darkness. Here is food for the hungry, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Here are companions on the way, surprising company for the trip. Here are the prophets who point to the truth. Here are the saints and disciples whose lives encourage and inspire us. Here are the waters of baptism in which we are reborn to new life and renewed for service. Here are the words and stories to guide us. And here is the Word, the root of Jesse, the promised One, the hope of Israel and the good news to Gentiles.
Where will the journey take you? Where will it take St. Luke’s? Only God knows. But God has already provided all we need for the way ahead. Yes, we will have to let go of what hurts us and others. There will be times of wilderness and wandering, there will be challenges and dangers. But we are to hold fast to the promise of God, the promise that has come to us in Christ and will come again and again.
The benediction or blessing for Morning and Evening prayer comes from the passage in Romans that we heard for today. It is especially appropriate for this season of Advent, this time of waiting and longing and preparing for the journey ahead.
“’The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Advent 2, Year A December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-19 St. Luke’s, Ballard
Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12 Britt Olson