and Fears of All the Years
sermon based on
Randy L Quinn
often said that the most exciting part of my ministry is when I see the
look of surprise or delight that comes with those moments when people
learn something new or get an insight that seems to answer a lingering
question. My primary reward as a pastor is being a witness to
those “aha!” moments in the lives of people.
I had one of those moments myself this
week. It wasn’t an earth-shattering moment, but it was a new insight
for me, an answer to a lingering question, a moment when I sat up in my
chair and said aloud, “Aha!”
You may have figured it out years ago,
and maybe it’s an answer to a question you haven’t asked yet, but I want
to begin today by sharing my “new” insight.
I just finished reading a book about the
history of Christmas celebrations. The book provides insights into the
way Christmas has been celebrated over the past two millennia by
referring to and directly quoting sources from various times and places.
What seems to be consistent throughout
the history of the church is a sort of nostalgia that looks back to
previous celebrations, as if they were somehow better, somehow more
pure, somehow more appropriate than the current celebration.
matter if I’m talking about people here reminiscing about the Christmas
Or the stories
from the 1830’s wishing Christmas was more like it was in the 1780’s,
Or the tales
told in the Middle Ages referring back to the days of the
There is a longing for the past
celebrations that seems to under gird all of Christian history.
That was not the “aha” moment for me.
I’ve known that. I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard it before in other
settings. There is a tendency in western society to reflect on the
“good old days” that I think has always been present – even though we
know the “good old days” are no better than the present.
What was new was the realization that
most Biblical celebrations focus on the better days of the future.
celebrations have told the story of the Exodus for over 4,000 years, but
they always include a sense of hope for tomorrow, for the coming year,
in anticipation of the next liberation.
At the Last
Supper, Jesus said, “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the
vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my
Father’s kingdom” (Mt 26:29). He was looking to the great Passover
celebration of the future as much as he was the past.
My new awareness this week was that we
tend to look at the past wistfully rather than seeing in the past a sign
of hope for the future.
In our text for today, Isaiah is
speaking words of hope to a people in Exile. All they had known had
been taken away. Their primary symbols of society were gone. The
temple was destroyed. Their King had been taken away in shackles.
Their cities were in shambles. The people themselves had been taken to
a foreign land.
In many ways, their situation was worse
than the situation in America following September 11. Not just one
building in one city, but an entire nation had been destroyed.
And in the midst of their despair,
Isaiah offers a word of hope. Not by wishfully looking to the past, but
by seeing in the past hope for tomorrow. “The glory of the Lord will
be revealed,” he says (v 5). The great king of their past, King David,
could not compare with the King that God will bring. The sense of peace
that was present during David’s reign served only as an appetizer for
the real thing that was just over the horizon.
The past may provide clues, but hope
lies in the future.
We, on the other hand, look at America
before September 11 and wish we could go back.
We look at the commercialized
celebrations of Christmas and wish we could reclaim a simpler life.
And while we’re wistfully looking at the
past, Isaiah is pointing to the future. Isaiah says with confidence
that God will come and bring something better than we have EVER known
Like I said, that may not be
earth-shattering, but it was a startling realization to me and a
pertinent reminder to all of us that the best is yet to come. Advent is
not intended to be a season in which we nostalgically look back. It is
an invitation to look to the future with a sense of hope.
One of the Peanuts cartoons this week
posited the question about life’s peaks and valleys. Charlie Brown’s
little sister Sally said, “Life is full of ups and downs. But what if
I’ve already reached the highest point in my life?”
According to Isaiah, the answer is
simple. You’re asking the wrong question. The highest point in your
life, the highest point in any life, is in the future, not in the past!
That, my friends, is the essence of
hope. It’s the firm assurance that God is in charge of the future, an
assurance based on our belief that God has been with us in the past.
And the future God has in store for us is filled with good things.
Shortly after the Civil War, an American
pastor – who later became a bishop – made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land
and actually spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. The din of war was
behind him, and it looked peaceful. He envisioned a peaceful night in
history, not unlike that one, in which the Christ child was born. Two
years later, Phillips Brooks wrote a poem about his own experiences, and
had it put to music.
In a few minutes we’ll sing his ‘poem,’
the familiar Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
His hymn has significantly influenced
our understanding of the Christmas story. But I’m not sure his hymn is
an accurate portrayal of history.
His vision of Bethlehem came from
looking to the past – and it probably wasn’t as idyllic as he thought.
He forgot about the crowds in the city that night. There were so many
people in fact, that there was no room in the inn. He forgot that these
people had not gathered to celebrate the birth of a baby. They had not
even come for a religious festival. They came and were probably
commiserating about the pain of taxation.
I dare say the first Christmas was
anything but still. Quite grumbling, perhaps, but not the pristine
stillness Brooks envisioned.
What was certainly true, however, was
that no one noticed the birth of a baby in a manger stall. The people
were too busy with other activities and affairs.
The crowds were too busy placing their
hope in the future, in their anticipation of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s
promises to notice how God was working in the present to answer all
their hopes and fears.
And what was true then is true today.
Whether we are talking about peace in
Afghanistan or an answer to the plague of AIDS,
Whether we are living in fear of anthrax
or live in a home where the terror of abuse reigns,
Whether we are facing our own mortality
or pondering the effects of pollution on our planet,
Our hope lies in the baby born in Bethlehem who still comes to us today.
♫. . . where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
The hope that Isaiah proclaims to a
people in bondage is a word that still brings comfort today. But the
hope lies in the future, not in the past.
Let’s stop looking for a nostalgic
Christmas celebration from the past and begin looking for signs that God
is already at work in our midst, looking toward the day when all the
hopes and fears we have may be met.