Sunday, November 30, 2008

Finding Hope

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a time of preparation and anticipation as we approach Christmas. Pastor Shannon welcomed us warmly saying, "I'm delighted that you're here today..." After commenting that he has eaten nothing but Thanksgiving food since Thursday, he reminded us that Advent means "coming" and that we are celebrating God breaking into human history to comfort and save us. It is God saying, "I am coming to you to show you how much I love you."

Several announcements were made including an invitation from Pastor Shannon and his family to visit with them after church next Sunday. This traditional Open House is one way in which Brad and Brooke say "Thanks" to each of us for our support and kindnesses throughout the year. The Shannons live at 5637 Bergstrom Junction Road, about a mile north of Twig off Highway 53.

Darlene stood and invited us to the church next Saturday at 6:30 to "Get Mugged." Bring an appetizer to share and a wrapped mug filled with goodies to exchange as well as a favorite game.

Instead of normal Sunday School, the weeks leading up to Christmas will be ADVENTure Sunday School with hymn singing and other adventures. Join us at 9:00 a.m.

The annual Christmas program will be in two weeks, on Sunday the 14th with a pot luck meal.

Pam Johnson is seeking helpers to deliver the gifts for the children of two families we are providing gifts for as part of the Angel Tree program. The program helps provide Christmas gifts for children with a parent in prison. This year we are giving giving presents to a one year old boy and a five year old girl. Call Pam for any additional details. Her number is in the directory.

Two youth from our church lit the first Advent candle and Darlene proceeded to usher us into a time of worship.

Being the first Sunday of Advent, it was appropriate for Pearl and Ruth Anne to share a skit about the true meaning of Christmas. Two youth brought a Christmas wish list of presents they would like this year, which turned out to be a scroll the length of the sanctuary. Citing passages from Matthew and Luke, Pearl and Ruth Anne showed how God was thinking of us when He gave Himself to the world. Christmas is about giving, not getting. It's also what being a follower of Christ is about, actually.

After the offering, Pastor read passages from Isaiah 40:1-2 and Matthew 13:24-37. This was followed by a powerful, uplifting rendition of the great hymn In Christ Alone. Before singing, she recited the wonderful passage from Jeremiah that includes these words: "Blessed is the man whose confidence is in the Lord." All that was sung and shared made an uplifting intro to today's message.

Finding Hope

Today is the gateway into the Advent season. Brad began by reminding us that the first Advent was a remarkable event in history in which the supernatural invaded the natural order. God became man, revealing His glory in and through the unique Son of God.

As we celebrate Advent we see a world with great suffering all around us. Despite blood in the streets of Mumbai, economic collapse and tremendous pain around the world, God gives hope. And He will surely come again to bring us a future home with no more tears.

Brad's heart was bursting with a desire to convey to us the authentic thrill of this Advent season. "Words are inadequate," he said. But there is music that can help, and he introduced the first of his themes by noting that after the message we would be singing that great Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

The opening words to this memorable hymn are a plea of longing. "O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear." What powerful words.

The passage in Isaiah which forms the foundation of today's message initially conveys a sense of urgency. "Comfort My people, says your God." But beneath the urgency is a deeper undertone of consolation. This is our God, who provides us with a peace that passes understanding.

Pastor Brad told of an old pastor who confided in him once that if he had it all to do over again, he would have struck the note of "comfort" more often.

God's comfort is not sentimental mush. Jesus said, "Come unto me and I will give you rest." Many similar passages can be, and were, cited. The true comfort of Jesus is a bracing event. He promised His disciples that when He was gone, the Holy Spirit would remain as Comforter. This was a promise to all of us, a promise that God will stand by us in our hour of need.

Here in Isaiah Jesus speaks tenderly to Jerusalem. Israel needed comfort because of her past. Her leaders had failed and betrayed her. Her people were taken captive and sent into exile. Her history was one of shame. Her lament was well captured by these words from Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion... for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." How can we sing the Lord's songs while in a foreign land?

The message of comfort, Brad said, is needed today more than ever. Wars and the pathetic wreckage of broken lives has left us groping for hope.

And like the compassion a father has for his children's pain, so God has compassion on us.

When we speak of God comforting a wayward, blundering, unhappy world, it might feel a bit remote. This message of comfort is, however, for individuals... what Advent is to me.

Cynics see a world of drab mediocrity and compromise. But in truth, they are blind to the fortitude and gallantry exhibited everywhere, every day. This world is populated by troubled spirits burdened by many cares, yet not complaining. We see anxious parents, young people struggling with temptation, workers being threatened by layoffs, individual struggling with conflicts no one can understand except the one going through it, loneliness, disabilities, memories that bring shame and regret... and yet, behold the courage, and the graciousness with which so many comport themselves.

Have you ever wished you could comfort one person in need rather than have all the knowledge in the world?

Jesus Himself saw much anguish... lepers, blind, confused, lost... and He had compassion on them all. And here is the greatest thing: when you see this compassionate Jesus, you are seeing God.

You mustn't carry you burden alone any longer. God is with you, and in you.

Most significantly, there is one comfort we need more than any other, even more than the calming of our fears and soothing of sorrows. He alone can bring forgiveness for sins, our greatest need. As the passage in Isaiah proclaims, "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, ...that her iniquity is forgiven."

THIS is the authentic thrill of advent. To hear the God of all creation say the past is done, finished, and you are welcome here.

It is on this level that God's greatest work is done. O come, Emmanuel.

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