Dropping the Ball

a sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas [Year B]

Luke 2:22-40


Tonight it is estimated that even though it will be 11 degrees (not counting the wind chill) more than 1 million people will gather in and around Times Square in New York City to ring in the new year. The culminating event—at the stroke of midnight—involves watching a big ball drop. Statistics from past years suggest that around 1 billion people will watch that ball drop from around the world on their TV, and 100 million of those viewers will be in the United States.

The ball itself weighs 11,875 pounds. It is adorned with 2,688 handmade Waterford crystals and illuminated by 32,256 LED lights. It takes 55,000 watts of electricity to make it work. It is without a doubt the most watched and most anticipated New Year’s Eve celebration in the world. But others in other places have something festive to do, too. I remember going to Atlanta on New Year’s Eve once where they drop a big peach to ring in the new year. And in Raleigh, where I went to college, they drop a giant acorn, because it’s the City of Oaks. Just up the road in Fredericksburg I hear they drop a big pear. Is it the city of pears? And in the mountain town of Brasstown, North Carolina, they drop a live opossum. Don’t worry! He’s gently lowered in a cage and then released once it reaches the ground, becoming a hapless metaphor of the freedom and new beginning the new year tends to bring to some people. All this is sounds like a big deal. Lots of time and energy and electricity go into making these events big and yet it is estimated that almost a quarter of Americans will be asleep by the time the ball drops at midnight.


There is something alluring to at least three-quarters of us about the change from one year into another, about staying up and waiting, watching to experience this momentary event that ushers in a new time. Perhaps we’ve been waiting for a new beginning, a new excuse to start something or to change something in our lives. We make resolutions. We think, “This could be the year!”

When the young Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for his presentation and her purification, they meet a man and a woman who’ve been waiting not just one night but their whole lives to see a new era ushered in. The man is named Simeon and the woman is Anna. To our knowledge they aren’t related to each other, but they’ve both spent considerable time in the temple waiting for the ball to drop, so to speak, for the redemption of Israel. They are both very faithful people, sure that God will honor his promises to his people and send the Messiah that the prophets had long foretold. The Messiah was the anointed one that God would send forth to rule in righteousness and peace over Israel and over the world.

It sounds like Simeon may have gone to the temple many times looking for the right family with the right son. We’re told that Anna, on the other hand, spent day and night in the temple, as if she never left. Each day there would have been a new batch of babies for them to look at, since Jewish law stipulated that forty days after a first son’s birth the parents were supposed to bring him to the temple for a dedication and for Mary’s purification after childbirth. Also according to custom, Mary and Joseph would have made a sacrifice. Theirs is of two turtledoves rather than the traditional lamb and turtledove, which was probably a concession made for their economic status. There were new tax brackets that year, perhaps. Everything was being re-adjusted.

Simeon the God-Receiver (Alexey Yevgorov, 1830s-40s)

Regardless, in the hustle and bustle of the scene that was the temple, there stand Simeon and Anna as representatives for all of God’s people. They are representative because they have this visible hope and expectation for God to deliver on his promises. They are representative because they are patient and persistent. They listen to the prodding of God’s Spirit and do what it tells them. They are faithful and devout, and they never give up. And…they are aged. In their lives are collected a great many experiences and deep wisdom about faith.

And as Simeon sees Mary walk in with Jesus, he scurries over to her and takes the baby in his arms. It may sound somewhat dramatic and odd for a random stranger to take a baby from his or her mother in public but my guess is that it was not altogether strange back then. I know that even now when we take our toddler son to the grocery store people are drawn to him like a magnet. They get up all in his face and “goochy-goochy-goo.”

When I was serving my first parish I occasionally took Laura or Clare with me on visits to the homebound. Those visits were some of the best because of the reaction that a young child brings to an older person is magical. So many of our elders live very isolated lives, and the presence of a young person is rare. I remember this one couple had a big Rottweiler and I brought Laura over and that animal turned into another big baby. They were both wiggling all over the place and the couple I was visiting just didn’t know what to do with themselves. Typically it was all smiles when I would do this, but sometimes I’d see the glimmer of tears. I suspect that for many older people a baby brings back memories of their own children or nieces and nephews. It takes them back, causes a brief reunion with some happy earlier times in their life, and it is touching to watch. I was watching this, to some degree, after Betty Wise’s funeral reception yesterday as her children all crowded around our black and white picture from the dedication in 1962, finding themselves bundled up as little kids on the lawn of the church with their parents and family members.

cross-generational interaction is priceless

That’s not what happens with Simeon and Anna. They do not replay the past. They are excited about the future. In their understanding, guided by the Spirit, the ball has finally dropped, God has sent the one they’d hoped for, and the world can step into a fresh new beginning. I can’t help but see Simeon and Jesus today somewhat like Father Time and baby new year as depicted in New Year’s Day cartoons. Simeon stands as the bent and wizened old man who is walking out, leaving things behind, ready to die, and Jesus, in his diaper and little else represents all the hope of something new. He and Anna are ready to depart in peace, ready to praise, because, as Simeon says,  his eyes have seen salvation. Just to see Jesus and behold him, as a baby, is enough for Simeon. It’s enough to know that God has sent the son, born of a woman. It’s enough to know that the light is now shining, as small as that flame may be. Simeon may not live to see how bright that flame will grow, but he knows it has finally been lit.

I do not know what about Jesus and Mary and Joseph tips Simeon and Anna off (other than the Holy Spirit) but one thing is for sure: when Simeon hands the baby back to his parents Simeon becomes the first person to understand what that salvation entails. First of all, he knows that it is for all people. Jesus is not just born for Mary and Joseph, and not just for the people of Israel, not just for people who go to church all the time, not just for people who understand theology. Jesus is God’s love wrapped up for us and given to people everywhere. No one needs to wait any more—not one second more—to find out what God’s grace is like. In fact, Jesus was truly the last thing on which the universe was waiting. Now that he has come no more balls really need to drop. Jesus has blessed every year the same…into the future…into eternity. God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, in 2018 just as it was in 2017.

rembrandt simeon in the temple
Simeon in the Temple (Rembrandt)

The other main thing that Simeon understands about Jesus is that his birth is directly connected to his death. When God’s Son is born among us, then it means, by definition, that God’s Son will die among us. You can’t have one without the other, which is perhaps why Simeon and Anna can be so joyful and be prepared to die even when they’ve only seen him as a baby. They are wise and can tell the cross is in his future. When Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her own soul too, and that her son is destined for the falling and rising of many, he understands that Jesus will suffer, that his life will have consequence for us all. In the cross we see exactly what Simeon is talking about: that Jesus comes both to deliver us from evil and to confront it and defeat the evil in us. He comes to end our slavery, as Paul says, to make us all children and heirs to God.

There is no telling what kinds of events the new year will bring, but one thing we already know is that Jesus will be there. He is Alpha and Omega–the source and the ending—and so 2018 is already in the bag for him. I suspect some of us will watch the ball drop tonight and anticipate good things in the next twelve months. We think “This will be the year!” and we have our resolutions ready. If so, then we praise God like Simeon and Anna. Jesus stands ready for us.


Some of us will watch with mixed emotions, fearful of what might be around the corner, resentful of how our resolutions always turn out (or don’t). If so, then we can still praise God like Simeon and Anna as we remember he is victorious over sin and death, forgiving of our own failed resolve. I’ve been around this congregation long enough to learn there are people worshiping with us in this room right now who we will lose in 2018. We will be sad, but because Christ has come, because salvation has been revealed, we may rest assured they will be dismissed in peace.

And still others of you snoozers, you 22-percenters who will fall asleep before midnight before the fun starts, before the champagne is uncorked, before the possum and the peach and the pear even start to fall…as for you folks…well, you might be onto something!




Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Before Bethlehem, Nazareth. Before Gloria, Magnificat.

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 1:46b-55


Tonight—we all know it—the focus is going to be on the baby, the child that is born to save. But this morning the focus is on the mother.

And when we think about where that baby will be we know that tonight the spotlight will shine “away in the manger,” that feed trough for livestock that will hold that baby. But today we find the spotlight shining on a womb. We will remember the first place that Son of God will ever be held is inside the body of a young woman.

Tonight, tonight we’ll be taken to Bethlehem. We know it well. The hopes and fears of all the years are met there. It’s the city of David, a small little place, and we go there because Joseph is descended from the house and lineage of David. And in Bethlehem we’ll be out in the back of some inn there, an inn that didn’t have any room. But this morning we are still in Nazareth of Galilee, an even smaller town, even farther away from Jerusalem. And though we’re not given any details about where in Nazareth we are, there’s a good chance it is in the bedroom or the humble living quarters of this young woman. A private space where strangers do not visit. A great many artists who have painted this scene in Nazareth even depict the young woman on her bed, legs dangling off the edge, the sheets all strewn about as if she’s been interrupted during a nap. No room in the inn, but room there in her bed.

Adam Pomeroy
“Annunciation” (Adam Pomeroy)

Tonight we’ll hear a song. We’ll even sing the song! It goes, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.” Tonight’s song is a loud song, made up of hundreds of voices, and it fills the whole night sky. Angels from heaven sing it, and it’s so powerful that is sends some shepherds to Bethlehem to see that baby who is in the manger. But this morning we hear a song, too—and sing it—and it’s a powerful song, maybe filled with more power than any other song in the Bible. But it’s sung by one voice—that woman—and only one other person hears it. It starts “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And it goes from there to talk about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty and the poor being filled with good things.

The reality is that before we can really hold the baby we have to behold the mother. Before we can gaze upon the manger, we have to take stock of the womb. Before we can settle down in Bethlehem with the shepherds and the inn and the people crowding around for the census we have to stop by that simple bedroom in Nazareth. And before we sing “Glory to God in the highest,” we need to hear, “He has looked upon his lowly servant.” Before there is the birth there is the annunciation. Before the gift comes the asking. God does not just plop his Son from out of nowhere into the hay, although God certainly could have. God approaches a young, unmarried woman in a backwater town and says, “I’m going to need your help.”

There’s a short little poem called “After Annunciation,” by Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, that goes,

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.

Of course, the point is we can imagine that if Mary had been thinking purely rationally—or selfishly—at this moment then we might not have the parts about the manger and the angels. If Mary had only focused on what this might have all entailed for her in the moment (and for the next nine months, perhaps), then she may not have responded, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.” The Greek, Roman and other ancient cultures of that time had plenty of stories about gods that would come down from the heavens and take advantage and even assault women for their own purposes. Here we have a God who sends an angel to approach a woman peaceably and in an unassuming manner. Even though the way Gabriel announces the conception makes it sound like it is a done deal, Mary gets the final word. The fulfillment of it all hangs on her response.

When we tell the story of Jesus Christ, God with us, God among us, it is important to remember that it is Mary’s faith and courage that paves the way for it all to unfold. As Father James Martin points out in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Mary doesn’t ask her father for permission or Joseph for his input. “A young woman living in a patriarchal time makes a decision about the coming king.”

“The Annunciation” (Fra Angelico, 1437)

To some degree, all decisions to take part in God’s coming kingdom require courage and faith. Our calls to follow and bear Christ in the world do well to follow Mary’s example. We let faith—wonder, mystery—enter into the equation. We prepare ourselves to understand that God does not work principally through the great and the strong, but through the humble and meek, that he looks upon the lowly. We think less selflessly about it all and where God’s call might take us.

I think this is one reason Mary sings that all generations will call her blessed. She’s says this not just because she was the one person who carried the Eternal God in her flesh. All generations will also be blessed by her example of responding to God’s call to bear Christ. When I think of Mary being blessed I think of all those who are currently in the call process who are considering a new congregation to serve. I think of those who, in the secret chambers of their heart, contemplating going to seminary. But I also think of each person who has ever pondered a role or a moment where they might, like Mary, carry Christ into a situation. There are moments all the time, each and every day, where God might approach us and say, “I’m going to need your help.”

Before we get the Jesus in the manger we have the person who brings him there. And before we have the song of the angels, we have that song of Mary’s. This past week I met with a group of senior men in the congregation and for devotions I was a bit unprepared. I knew I was going to have us look at Mary’s song and discuss it, but I was worried that it might be a little too obscure or abstract. I find that most of the time I’m better at presenting things like Jesus’ parables or stories about people doing things, not songs with deep meaning. I thought I really needed to find an angle to get the conversation going and I didn’t have time to come up with one.

However, I found that as soon as I read it to them, they had thoughts and questions of their own. When Mary talks about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty these men brought up current events about world dictators and the intricacies of nuclear disarmament talks. We talked about principles of good leadership and how humility is an important ingredient to political stability. And we all agreed we really did want to live in a world that looks like what Mary sings about. We long for a time when the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly are lifted up. We shared that we are all drawn to a God, like Mary is, who actually acts in the world, who brings about change for all. Mary taught me a lesson this past week at the men’s lunch group. She’s still singing.


Before we rush to Bethlehem and join the angels, we need to stop in Nazareth and spend time with Mary. The gift of Christ is not just something that glows within the cockles of our own hearts, assuring us alone of eternal life and the merits of giving, as if Jesus came just to make you and me better people on the inside. Mary tells us more than anyone what God’s kingdom is going to be like. The powerful and the proud have their days numbered. But the kingdom of God will have no end. It is both Mary and the manger that will point us to Golgotha where we see even more vividly that nothing is impossible with God. We see that God loves to present himself to us in surprisingly humble ways, that God offers himself up over and over again to this risky world and asks us to join us in bearing him in all our vulnerability, with all our faith. So that when God approaches us in Nazareth…or Bethlehem…or here at Epiphany and says, “I’m going to need your help,” we can respond “Here we are! Let it be with us according to your word.”

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Key player

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1:1-8


At home we have a set of those matryoshka dolls that make up a nativity scene, and our 20-month-old has discovered they nest almost as perfectly in his hands as they do within each other. He can twist the smaller dolls open and fit them back together, one-by-one. That’s the genius of matryoshka dolls. They’re like a puzzle and a figurine at the same time. It’s really cute because he’ll walk around the house and show you who Joseph is, who he calls “Doh,” and which one is Mary, and which one is the baby.

Unfortunately sometime this week the bottom of Mary went missing, and it has thrown our house into upheaval. We have turned the place up and down and I know it sounds funny and maybe borderline sacrilegious, but we can’t find Mary’s bottom. No matter how we say it when we’re looking for it, it sounds weird: the bottom of Mary. Mary’s lower half. The rest of Mary.

Whatever the case, we’ve discovered that’s the downfall of the matryoshka system. Each figurine has two different components to keep up with and when even one of those is missing, the whole set doesn’t fit together like it’s designed to. Mary is kind of a key player in the Christmas story, if you know what I mean. You have to have Mary for it to fit together and make sense. Thus the upheaval. We’re still searching.

You could say the same for John the Baptist, even though I’ve never actually seen a nativity set containing a little John the Baptist. But here he is, every Advent, on about the second week, right when we’re ready to sing Christmas carols, shouting at us with his camel hair and locusts. If you glance through our hymnal, John is referenced or directly mentioned in about half of the hymns in the Advent section. John the Baptist is and has always been a key player of our celebrations and devotions at this time of year because John is the precursor to Jesus. John is crucial not just because, as Jesus’ cousin, his own birth was miraculous and timed just before Jesus’, but because in every story of Jesus that we have, John comes along announcing Jesus.


All of the early Christians and people of faith and even Jesus himself saw John the Baptist—or John the baptizer, as Mark calls him this morning— as the bridge between the prophets of Israel’s past and the present ways God’s kingdom was breaking into their midst through Jesus. He is Jesus’ same age, but his preaching is taken from Isaiah and some of the other ancient prophets. John’s role seems to be primarily to get the world ready to receive Jesus, to wake us up, to prepare the way for the Lord. He shakes things up, gets people talking and coming out into the wilderness at the River Jordan to begin again. Since preparing to receive Jesus does not just mean replaying his birth story over and over, perhaps playing with the little dolls and marveling at how they fit snugly together, John the baptizer becomes the perfect person to help us do what is necessary to make room for Christ in our lives now.

There are many ways that process of preparation takes shape, and as I spent a while at church yesterday morning, I realized that many of you are excellent models of this. It was fascinating to walk among you as you were all involved in essentially some form of preparation. Before I even parked my car, for example, I noticed that a couple of men were trying to remove several rather large tree branches that had fallen under the weight of snow into the driveway. They had already loaded one branch into the back of a pickup truck and were hitching another larger branch to the back so they could haul it out of the way.


John the baptizer might tell us that an essential part of preparing the way of the Lord in your life and in the world is removing things that are in the way. Now, I know sometimes it’s hard to decide what’s actually in the way, but sometimes it’s obvious, and it’s surprising how long we’re just content to let it stay there. Often it remains until something out of the ordinary happens to us and it comes crashing down.  Preparing for Jesus involves cutting back and hauling away things that weigh us down in our walk of faith, places in our lives that aren’t productive anymore. Perhaps it’s the unnecessary dependency on a relationship or a habit we’ve developed. Maybe it’s moving overgrown routines around so we can experience life a little differently.

Isaiah, whom the Baptizer quotes, says that every valley will be lifted up and the mountains made low, the rough places made plain. This is serious earth-moving here that God calls us to do: dismantling the obstacles to faith active in love that prevent the world from perceiving Christ’s presence among us. It’s work out in the world. It gets us sweaty and dirty sometimes, causes discomfort. But in the end it is rewarding.

As I actually came into the church building, I happened upon the HHOPE pantry volunteers who were setting up their tables and bags of food for their distribution day. Our HHOPE ministry has a very well-rehearsed and well-run system for greeting guests, getting them registered, and giving them their food. Their system actually begins the night before when a group of volunteers meets to divide food into bags and set them out for easy access. Then on Saturday morning more tables are set up with additional items and people stand ready to receive whoever comes. There are youth here, adults, sometimes even younger children: they all have a role to play and a job to do.

HHOPE Pantry volunteers, ready to serve

John the baptizer might tell us that part of preparing to receive the good news of Jesus involves serving. It involves putting ourselves at the foot of our neighbor in need. When we do that, when we make ourselves available to the brokenness of the world, we see more clearly the brokenness that Jesus comes to address. Serving helps us place our self-centeredness to the side, which is an important and life-giving thing to do in this individualistic and narcissistic era.

We realize we can be an important part of the comfort that God announces to his people through the prophet Isaiah. At one point Isaiah even says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” Literally feeding those in our community and receiving them in our church building is a reminder of the kind of Savior John the baptizer announces and prepares the world to receive. How can you make feeding other people—serving them, carrying them in your bosom—a part of your journey of faith, not just at Advent time but throughout the year?

I left the HHOPE volunteers and came upon Ms. Cheryl, our Faith Formation Director. She was in the hall, going through our old costumes closet and trying to get props and clothing ready for the children’s Christmas program today. She had the behind-the-scenes task of matching what we had to what was needed There are types of preparing like that which are more hidden, less glamourous, but just as important. They involve taking stock of what’s in one’s life, reflecting on its usefulness and bringing it to the front.


This is an essential part of repentance, which is the core of John’s preaching. To repent doesn’t just mean saying sorry. It is more like a change of mind, or a turning around, seeing things for what they really are, going in a new direction. The new life that Jesus brings will take deeper root and wash over us more fully when we’ve taken the time to turn around and face it, to stand ready to receive it. Just like Cheryl had to stand there and go through the costumes and props and creatively think about how they could be used, part of preparing for Jesus means consciously thinking about which parts of my life can be pressed into service for Christ’s kingdom. Are there gifts or talents, certain stories you’ve pushed to the back of the storage closet that can actually be brought out to let God’s light shine on it? This can prepare the way for Christ to enter your life and someone else’s.

The final place I came to yesterday was the sanctuary where Kevin, Alice, Donna, and Scott were all helping the children prepare for their Christmas program today. I didn’t want to stay too long and distract them from what they were doing, but as you can imagine, they were running through their lines, singing the songs, and learning the moves and stage directions. They were working hard because they want to get things right for the final show. They want to tell the story well. The prophet Isaiah says that part of preparing is announcing good tidings. “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem…do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” What the kids taught me yesterday is that a vital part of preparing for Jesus is knowing the story. Part of making things ready for Christ means refreshing ourselves with Scripture, God’s story…learning how it goes, that it is good news that Jesus comes to us.

rehearsing for “The King and Me”

That, in fact, is how Mark begins his whole account of Jesus. “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is good news that he comes to remove the sin that gets in the way. It is good news that he comes to feed us and serve us like a shepherd cares for the sheep. It is good news that our God comes and gives us chances to turn around, to repent, and have a new direction.

And so we prepare by telling and re-telling the story, rehearsing our lines of witness, to remember that we are heralds of good tidings. We remember that in a world that often likes to imagine God as vengeful and angry we know one who speaks “Comfort, comfort O my people.” We tell of this more powerful one who comes after John so we can remind ourselves of just what this power looks like. When this God carries us in his bosom, he carries us on the cross,  in his very body. Our Savior comes not to bear arms, but to bear all our burdens, all our fears, all the ways we don’t feel we fit together inside by handing over his life.

That’s the reason why John the baptizer is so central, such a key player, why the matryoshka doll of the whole Jesus story isn’t complete without him. He helps us bridge an important understanding: that is, the way we prepare is for the Lord. It is his road and he comes on it, not us. But the preparing does something for us, too. From the top of the high mountains to the bottom of the low valleys, it does something for us, all in God’s grace. Or, you might say: right from the top all the way to the bottom…even if you can’t find it.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Time loop

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37


Last weekend, after we returned from a trip to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, Melinda and I looked at the family calendar and quickly realized that if we wanted to do any Christmas decorating we were going to have to do it right then. We weren’t really ready to do any Christmas preparations. Emotionally we just weren’t there yet. We wanted to wait a bit longer. Also it was 70 degrees and sunny. I was more prepared to go to Lowe’s and get stuff ready in the garden.

Nevertheless, on Saturday and Sunday I found myself traipsing up to the attic and bringing down our boxes and bins and laying everything out on the family room floor. And that’s when it hit me: Nothing I do in the course of a year makes me feel more caught in a time loop than decorating for Christmas. Forget Groundhog Day! The real re-run holiday is Christmas. As I dragged the first box down I was sure I had just packed it and put it back up in the attic yesterday. When I was pulling out the cardboard that we lay beneath our trainset I knew exactly which two pieces we needed because it felt like I had just slipped them back in their storage place that morning.

Laying out the decorations. Last year’s photo of the same thing is almost identical

Do you get that feeling this time of year, or is it just me—like the rest of the year didn’t really happen? And if it did, it suddenly collapses into the span of a few seconds once you start trying to wedge the Christmas tree into its stand? I think that’s especially true if you’ve lived in the same place for several years and you don’t move anything around. To some degree, this aspect of Christmastime is comforting to many of us. We like these traditions, we like these rituals and handling the artifacts of our families. They have an anchoring effect. I think it is engineered, in part, to impart a sense of timelessness, that things may change, but these aspects of our lives won’t ever be any different.

However, if the truth be told, that’s not really where we need to be. We don’t really need to be drawn back into a loop of the same-old, same-old, however soothing and reassuring it may be. We don’t really need to find comfort in hauling out the old boxes of memories and the rerun of our cherished moments. We don’t really need the sense of timelessness amidst a changing world. I know that can come off as kind of harsh and insensitive, and even a bit hypocritical since even here in the church we even prepare this time of year to run through our own list of rituals and time-honored customs.

When we take a good, hard look at the world around us, when we take stock of our own lives and our own brokenness, we find the best place to look for hope and comfort is not the attic, or the shopping mall, or the traditions that warm our hearts. The best place to look is outside of ourselves and our own endeavors—from outside of our world. The fact of the matter is we shouldn’t want everything to be the same as last year or the year before. We want things to be different. And I’m not talking about small incremental, quaint change. It needs to be dramatic, sweeping, unmistakable. What we and the whole world needs is for God’s power to return in a way we can understand once and for all.

If the truth be told, it’s the words of the prophet Isaiah that give us the best outlook not just for this time of year, but for any time. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” he cries. We can see him with his arms open in an act of pleading and apology: “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil!” This is not “let’s get out the garland and tinsel and make things look pretty.” This is wholesale rearrangement of everything—action that has swift, clear results.

Russian Orthodox icon of the prophet Isaiah

As it happens, these are the feelings, the perspective of the people of God a few thousand years ago after they returned from exile in Babylon. They had had high hopes for what going back to live in their old Promised Land home would be like. They’ve been there several years, gone through the rituals several times. They’ve gone up into the attic and lugged down the boxes, lit whatever candles of their Israelite traditions that are supposed to make things OK.

But things are not OK.  None of their own efforts have really helped bring about the righteousness they’ve longed for. In fact, they’re own attempts at right relationships have become like “dirty rags,” Isaiah says. Enough of their own lackluster attempts at tax reforms and health care legislation and addressing the opioid crisis! Enough of their own half-baked platforms and diplomacies and strategies for governing themselves. Enough of the inability for men and women to treat each other and their bodies with respect.

And so they find themselves looking beyond their immediate control, looking to the heavens for a time when God will somehow break in and straighten everything out. The prophet Isaiah helps them realize that what they’re really waiting for is not a re-run of the best parts of the past. What we all need is for God to tear open the heavens and come down here among us. It’s like that song by singer-songwriter John Mayer from about ten years ago: “So we keep waiting for the world to change.”

Lyrics by John Mayer (“Waiting on the World to Change,” 2006)

Jesus actually borrows this kind of imagery when he speaks to his own disciples about how they’re to live once he is crucified and risen. They’ll be waiting for the world to change, living in anticipation and expectation for God’s power, not just replaying the best parts of the past. Jesus talks about himself in the language ancient Israel had used to describe the end of all time. They will look to the heavens and see the Son of Man descending from the clouds, this great deliverer who will establish his reign of righteousness on earth.

All this confusing talk of the four winds and the elect and the clouds is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. It is the best way Jesus can explain at that time that true redemption is not going to be something they themselves can drum up. God alone, through the compassion and mercy of Jesus, can bring this about.

When I think of the “Son of Man coming in clouds,” I think of how every week I probably see no fewer than five sunrises or sunsets on social media. As modern as we are now, there is still apparently few things as awe-inspiring and other-worldly to us as clouds arranged dramatically across the sky. People are captivated sunsets and sunrises. I am one of them! I posted one this morning before church started and it already has twenty likes. True and complete deliverance will get worked out when Jesus returns, and it will be from God’s realm once more breaking into ours, and this imagery is something even Jesus’s audience found captivating.

sunrise on the first Sunday of Advent from the top of Monument Avenue, RVA

The good news for us is that Jesus says he is at the gates. It’s not much longer now. In the ancient world, and for much of human history, people who lived in cities new they were protected by large walls that surrounded them. Depending on the size of the city, there were several gates in that wall leading in and out of the city which were typically kept closed. When a coming delegation or army would approach, the gates would be closed. However, if they knew what was good for them, they would go ahead and prepare for those gates to be opened. Even though the delegation wasn’t actually inside the city—and in many cases couldn’t even be seen as they encamped outside—the residents of the city had to begin living as if the gates were open and the advancing army was already among them. They needed their life together to match what it eventually would be.

St. Stephen’s Gate, Old City Jerusalem

Jesus says that’s how his followers are to live as they await his final arrival. Know that he is near, at the very gates. Begin living now, inside your city, as if Jesus, in all his power and glory, is right outside the gates. Keep awake, stay alert, put your faith into action.

As some of you know, one of our members lost her brother in a tragic, sudden death two days before Thanksgiving. He had been living in another state far away, and so she and her parents had to travel quite a distance in order to take care of his final affairs and arrange, if possible, a memorial service for him. Unfortunately, they did not know anyone out there and our member’s brother did not have a church home. Through some contacts here in Virginia, the family was able to set something up at a Lutheran Church in that city.

Everything, as you might imagine, was very last-minute, and as it turns out, one major complication was that the women’s group at that church had already set up the entire sanctuary for their annual Christmas tea. Hosting this memorial service for a group of out-of-town, mourning family members who was quite literally at their gates of their church was not on their agenda. It meant all the decorations had to come down and all the tables get put up before they were supposed to. But they did it without complaining and gladly, as if it were on their agenda. Because they were waiting, ready. Ready to put faith into action. In the matter of a few hours, the church was prepared for the memorial service and they welcomed these strangers at their gates in with open arms. A member of the church choir offered to sing a solo for the service, and the assistant to the bishop of that synod even showed up to lend support to the grieving family and to help lend vocal support to the hymn-singing.

We cry out for God to stir up his power and we have faith he is at the gates. We live now in the world as if he is already among us at the end of time, full of grace and truth. We lend support to the singing, keep alert, we move tables, we feed the hungry, we wrap the presents, and if we have to, we put up the decorations, and we take them down.

But we know it is only for a brief spell. Our tea time, all our traditions, will abruptly come to an end. And those who have come to know this King, who may have been baptized—we are no better than anyone else, but we do know we really have no fear of him as he stands at the gates, like a sun just before it peeks over the horizon.

We have no fear because he is the one who first came for us on the cross, who has already laid down his life for us, who sought us out in our brokenness, in our waywardness, and gave us mercy. He is the one, above all else, who brings us comfort, who doesn’t just make things OK but who makes all things awesome, makes all things new—who promises to hold us in his potter’s hands today, this year, and until the last time loop has come to an end.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.